Monday, November 09, 2009

Twenty Years Ago

In 1984 I was on a study abroad program in Yugoslavia. One night we met up with some German students and sampled a great deal of the local malt beverage and got talking about politics. I (clumsily) brought up the idea of reunification and they shrugged it off. A pipe dream, they said. Maybe in our lifetimes, but there's no sign of even a glimmer of possibility.

Five years later, and twenty years ago today, the Berlin Wall came down, and the dominoes fell in reverse. Having visited Czechoslovakia, I confidently predicted to my friends that whatever happened elsewhere in the Warsaw Pact, Czechoslovakia would remain stubbornly communist. Then the Velvet Revolution happened. (I related this story to an international law prof who told me he said the same thing. Took a little of the sting out.)

Today I teach young men and women who have never lived in a world with a Communist bloc. Perhaps one reason political adversaries are so careless with charges of communism is that it's been so long since we've seen the real thing.

A dance club we frequented back in Yugoslavia played David Bowie's "Heroes" pretty much every night. It is to this day one of my favorite pop culture indictments of Soviet totalitarianism. The song is about lovers trysting by the Berlin Wall, but Bowies singing transcends the specific narrative to capture the universal yearning for freedom.


grandpaboy said...

I was lucky enough to see West Berlin and the Wall in the summer of '89 as a high school exchange student. My teachers swore that the Wall would not come down in their lifetimes. It's amazing how peacefully Europe has changed in the last 20 years. Even after reunification, I remember news mags here asking if we had to fear Germany.

Dave P. said...

Sweet post, Pho. When the wall came down, I was 23 and just a year out of college. I had just returned from my first trip to San Francisco -- heady stuff for a working class kid from Northern Kentucky -- and was about to begin dating Amy. The world already seemed so full of excitement and possibility, and then the political changes a half a world away just added to it.

Daniel Jack Williamson said...

Having descended from Czech and Slovak immigrants, I'm puzzled why you predicted Czechoslovakia would retain communism after the fall of the Iron Curtain. History of the region clearly showed a penchant for commerce. Care to elaborate?

Scott Piepho said...


It wasn't about the people so much as about the government. The Czechoslovak state was among the most brutal and effective at quashing dissent and the memory of Prague Spring still lingered. Being there seemed much closer to being in the Soviet Union than, say, Hungary did. I didn't think the people would retain Communism, I thought Communism would retain them.

Daniel Jack Williamson said...

Thanks for the elaboration, Pho.

ヤフカテ said...

That's the percious memory those years.