Breaking Down Barriers: One Wall at a Time

Religion and Repast. The Colgate Jewish Union welcomed students and faculty to “Shabbat 101,” an evening dedicated to learning about the history and rituals involved in celebrating the Jewish Sabbath.

I am, if only by two years, a child of the eighties. So when I was born, Reagan was President, there was still a Soviet Union and, yes, there was the Berlin Wall. Today, none of these exist. And the world is a different, in many regards, better place. But is it the utopia that many envisioned at the dawn of the 1990’s? Is there really peace on Earth and unity amongst peoples, nations and ideologies?

As I walked across the quad on Monday evening, a group of students were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They had constructed a mock wall, were taking photos and cheering things I didn’t understand in German. Watching them, I could only imagine the fervor with which the Berliners tore down sections of the graffiti-covered cement. Or the way our parents probably sat enraptured in front of their television screens watching what they believed was an event that would change the world for good, forever.

And the consequences were positive. Germany reunified, democracies emerged throughout Eastern Europe and over the course of the next decade the welfare of millions of people rose. The majority of those people will still say they’re better off now. Just think, twenty years ago Prague was an exotic location to many Westerners, and now it is a major center of tourism and several Colgate students study abroad there each semester.

With such vast improvements in political, social and economic realms across half of a continent and with the fear of nuclear apocalypse gone, people were easily lulled into a sense that the battle was over and our work was done. Without getting too international relations theoretical on you, let me just highlight one of the most influential IR papers of the time: Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History,” in which he predicted that with the end of the Cold War, society had reached its apex in evolution and democracy had been crowned the winner, not to be seriously challenged by another ideology again.

But history hasn’t unfolded that way. We tore down a wall and an iron curtain, and more walls sprang up. We made better friends with Russia, and worse enemies in the Middle East. We secured nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe and they emerged in North Korea and Iran. We, the United States, became the sole military and economic superpower, only to find ourselves engulfed in foreign wars, and facing fierce economic competition from China. The achievement of tearing down the wall didn’t mean the world got to relax afterwards, only that its attention could shift to another problem.

In essence, isn’t all of life that way? We clear one obstacle and another one appears. There’s no one turning point after which everything in life will be different, better, worse, easier. There are few, if any, successes large enough in this life to allow you to coast the rest of the way through. The only thing that really creates change is constant action. 

As students progressing toward graduation, some more imminently than others, this point becomes particularly salient. A diploma is not a life-altering event. Just because we’ve worked hard and accomplished this goal doesn’t guarantee us a bright future. A mixture of challenges, hard work, disappointments, successes and pleasure lies ahead.

Even on this campus, where we have made so many advances, there are many walls waiting to be pulled down. As the Campus Climate Survey helped illustrate there are still walls holding us back from fellow students of other races, socio-economic status and sexual orientations. The fall of the Berlin Wall was symbolic of uniting people who had lived under different systems and had adopted different practices and beliefs. Isn’t it sad that 20 years later we’re not even united on the same college campus, let alone as a world?

Great! The Berlin Wall came down. But today many in Eastern Europe, especially the older generation, are nostalgic for Soviet ways. Our relations with Russia are again strained. We cannot carry on as if what happened on November 9, 1989 permanently fixed our problems.

Action is still needed today. As a nation, the US in the post-Cold War can’t sit around gloating that we came out on top. Unlike Fukuyama’s prediction, there are still challengers to democracy and freedom. There is a huge wall dividing the West from the Muslim world,  and if we don’t tear it down, it might just come crashing down on us.

There will always be plenty more walls left to tear down in our paths, and we have to keep at it. Winston Churchill once said about an Allied victory in North Africa during World War Two that “It was not the end, not even the beginning of the end. It was, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall was not the end, nor the beginning of the end. At whatever level you choose to look: globally, nationally, individually, we have made great successes, but great hurdles lie on the horizon and beyond.

Contact Deena Mueller at [email protected].