Belinda Cooper: Barack Obama, the Berlin Wall, and the Elusive Quest for Unity

By Belinda Cooper

Since Barack Obama’s victory on November 4, I’ve been musing about the parallels between this amazing moment and another world-altering event I was privileged to witness in November almost two decades ago—the demise of the Berlin Wall. Then, too, a barrier that had seemed insurmountable fell. Then, too, the desire for unity helped propel momentous change. For Germans, though, ambushed by their own differences, unity has proved elusive. Their experience may be a cautionary tale for Americans working to bridge our own particular divides.

I lived in West Berlin in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and had been making regular forays across the Wall to East Berlin, helping dissidents and getting to know their society. After sharing in their struggles, in a small way, for two years, I watched East and West Germans party together and experienced the joy and disbelief, the exhilaration and sense of limitless possibility that accompanied the unexpected end to decades of German separation.

Last month, I watched a similar outpouring of emotion as Barack Obama was elected our first black president. Once again, I saw people dancing together in the streets, yearning to transcend longstanding divisions. It was, once again, a moment full of hope. But I was also reminded that change does not happen overnight, and that overcoming legacies of distance and distrust—as Germany’s experience shows—is an ongoing and difficult process.

Germany’s euphoria didn’t last long; unification, long proclaimed a goal in the abstract, proved much more difficult to achieve in reality. True, East Germans were freed from an oppressive dictatorship, and in many ways their lives vastly improved. But they also soon found that they didn’t have nearly as much in common with their West German compatriots as they’d thought, and that they were not as welcome in the new union as they’d hoped. Initial protestations of good will gave way to discord as both sides realized how much they had grown apart culturally in four decades of separation. East Germans, the Cold War’s “losers” and the poorer cousins in the match, had little control over the changes that engulfed them. By the time they had rallied and begun to insist that their concerns, and their strengths, be taken into account, much of their former country had been dismantled or transformed along West German lines.

Like less-powerful groups everywhere, East Germans learned to work the system in which they found themselves, and they soon quietly infiltrated the German public sphere. Sixteen years after the Wall fell, Angela Merkel, a woman raised in East Germany, was chosen Germany’s chancellor. Like Barack Obama, she has had to assert herself as an outsider within a sometimes unfriendly majority environment. Like him, she takes a pragmatic approach to governing, which contrasts with the often more ideological style of her western German colleagues. While she hardly approaches Obama’s popularity and charisma, her election, as an East German and a woman, also broke significant barriers.

Yet the fact that external barriers had fallen didn’t mean the internal ones—what Germans came to call the “walls in people’s heads”—could be easily overcome. Germans, who are only now beginning to deal with different races and cultures within their society, were unprepared two decades ago to cope with the reality of conflicting West and East German values and experiences. The classic mechanisms of prejudice that took hold seemed strangely familiar to an American, even though East Germans were ethnically German and often indistinguishable to outsiders. West Germans projected all sorts of negative qualities onto East Germans. East Germans were looked down upon and treated like second-class citizens. Even today, eastern and western Germans perceive themselves as different, and inequalities—and resulting resentments—remain.

In contrast to Germans, Americans have been only too aware of the internal walls that keep us apart, especially those based on race and ethnicity. We have struggled to overcome legacies of discrimination. Yet here, too, inequality and prejudice persist. Despite the fall of legal barriers, blacks and whites very often continue to live in separate worlds. And we are often less aware of distinctions based on class and culture.

Certainly, though, we are farther along on the journey than Germany was in 1989. For us, Barack Obama’s victory is as much a culmination as a beginning, and the hope that he can bring the United States together may rest on a more realistic basis than the diffuse hopes Germans brought to German unification. Still, we cannot forget that political progress, even accompanied by the best of intentions, cannot bring people together on its own. The divisions have not disappeared. There is still work to be done if we are to overcome the “walls in our heads.”

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Belinda Cooper, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and co-founder of its Citizenship and Security Program, is an adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. Cooper, the editor of War Crimes: The Legacy of Nuremberg, teaches and lectures on human rights, international law, and the “war on terror.”

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