November 9, 1989, the night the Berlin Wall was breached, I spent the evening with an incredibly interesting woman from Finland. I had met her at a book signing of my impossibly difficult attempt to explain why pollution was a function of design and that the only effective solutions for our over-polluted world would come from the efforts of environmentally responsible designers. She had a job in radio with a voice to match but assured me that she wanted to ask questions for the book review she was writing for a newspaper.
The book signing was in February but we were still an item nine months later. I was hopelessly smitten because not only did she have those physical characteristic that make Nordic women world famous—icy-blue eyes, true ash-blond hair, high cheekbones, and those impossibly-toned legs from a life-time of commuting by bicycle and cross-country skis—but she was also a walking advertisement for Finland's justly admired educational system. She spoke five languages, was astonishingly well-read, and had that remarkable Finnish ability to summarize complex arguments into a few profound and insightful sentences. (The Finns don't like to talk any more than they absolutely have to so coming to the point is a well-practiced cultural skill.)
When I met her, I had just spent almost 8 years researching, writing, and revising my thoughts on elegant technology. I emerged from this extended self-inflicted solitude into the sunlight to be met by someone who had not only read my book but had decided it was a work of historical genius. She offered those opinions in the dulcet tones of a professional radio personality. Her book review occupied two full newspaper pages. And that wouldn't have turned your head?
November found us hanging out in central Florida (long story) so the fall of the Berlin Wall came as a complete surprise (we were distracted). I was so excited I immediately went out to buy a bottle of champagne. On the way to the cash register, I said to myself—events like this are rare, why not buy two bottles?
And so the evening was set—sufficient champagne and interesting live TV. The pictures were mostly of very happy and deliriously drunk young Germans dancing on the wall that had divided their country, while simultaneously proving that hand-held hammers were no match for hardened concrete. And while I worried that the partying kids would hurt themselves, I also concluded that I had never been that happy about anything, ever. I found the sheer joy incredibly infectious.
I had managed to visit DDR (East Germany) for only one day in 1970. The experience was very grim. Just crossing the border at Checkpoint Charlie took an hour and a half—time mostly spent looking at amount of civil engineering that had been employed in order to stop the movement of humans. While I waited, I wondered at least a couple of dozen times whether I really wanted to get inside that wall.
But then I was in. The streets were mostly empty of both traffic and people. There were occasional piles of rubble to remind us that in 1945, Berlin had been one of history's most intense battlefields. It's easy to understand that recovery from such a battle would require serious time and effort...but 25 years? If there were WW II rubble piles in West Berlin, I certainly had not seen them.
And then I saw it. A Trabant. This ugly contraption was supposed to be DDR's "people's car" and it sported such features as a smoky-smelly 2-stroke engine, the build quality of a junior-high shop project, and performance you could measure with an hour-glass. And did I mention UGLY? I was utterly stunned. Less than three weeks earlier, I had spent three hours on an industrial tour of the Porsche works at Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen where they were constructing the world-famous 911s. The distance in industrial sophistication between the 911 and the Trabant could be measured in light-years. I wondered how on earth Germans! could build something so stupid.
Soon, I discovered that the Trabi had been manufactured in Zwickau. This city has a long history in automobile manufacturing beginning with the Horch factory in 1904 followed by Audi in 1909. Digging deeper, I discovered why the ugliness of Trabant was so personally disgusting. It's a long story but I'll try to make it short and sweet.
When I was only four years old, my father moved the family to a small town in Southwest Minnesota. It was largely populated by a tiny Protestant sect called Mennonites. These people had settled the area in the late 1870s and although they had emigrated from Russia, they were German speakers. They had gone to Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great in the 1760s who needed expert farmers. She had promised them that they could keep their language, schools, and religious practices which included their pacifism. In 1874, the new Czar, Alexander II, reneged on those promises and started drafting Mennonite young men, closing their German-speaking schools, and confiscating their German Bibles. The last outrage included the invasion of German homes looking for those now-outlawed Bibles and arresting the heads of the household if any were found. Time to get out of Dodge. Most fled to North America and settled in places such as Kansas, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Saskatchewan. They brought with them their excellent farming practices, their beliefs, and hard Red Wheat.
Even though my father was a Swedish-Lutheran pastor, he joined the local Ministerial Association and was almost immediately elected its leader. He got on famously with the Mennonites and soon enrolled us children in their local Christian Day School. I attended K-6. We were taught in English but roughly 1/4 of my classmates spoke German at home and many of the rest used some German grammar in their English. My mother, who spoke Swedish at home until she was ten, found their Germanized English quite amusing. Even so, my parents kept sending us to the Mennonite school because they were such strict pacifists—no pledge of allegiance, no war-like hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers, no playground war games, etc. My grandfathers were quite different men but both had refused to cooperate with the draft when USA had entered WW I. Turns out, the Swedes have a strong anti-war tradition too. These descendants of Vikings stopped going to war in 1814 and have not gone since.
As I grew older, I learned a great deal about the traditions of the German speakers in a preserved form. The Mennonites I got to know were not opposed to modern technology as long as it was useful—they had telephones, and tractors, and cars. My father struck up a long-lasting friendship with a Mennonite evangelist who had an airplane—a Cessna 195. One neighbor had a ham radio he built himself that he used to communicate with a missionary brother in Brazil. The preserved-in-amber forms of Mennonite / German culture came in three basic flavors—their love of music, their memory of when their religious practices had led to real physical harm, and their incredible work habits.
Music was taken very seriously. At my school, we produced a Christmas concert / play that was very popular in the town. We literally started rehearsal on the first day of school. The high school choir was so good that a few years after the director left town for a bigger school, he was named National Teacher of the Year for all of USA. My sister took pipe organ lessons from a man who gave her a teacher-student genealogy that went back to J.S.Bach. The community organized concerts of Handel's Messiah. And the Mennonite churches could sing hymns with gusto and musicality. Several could sing the Doxology in 6-part harmony A Capella (four-part at link). But my favorite memory came during small performances our grade school sang in German each Christmas at the local retirement home. My first year, we sang Silent Night (Stille Nacht) and the old folks smiled and nodded because now they were assured the we children could properly communicate with God when we got to heaven. The next year we sang Stille, Stille, Stille, the Austrian lullaby to the Christ child. The reaction was stunningly different. By the time we finished, there wasn't a dry eye in the room. I was quite upset and when I got home, I asked my mother if we had done something wrong. She speculated that they were happy. I said they didn't look happy. Then she reminded me that sometimes people weep when music is beautiful. Good enough for me. I would go on to learn much serious music sung in German—the Brahms Requiem, Bach's St Matthew's Passion, Beethoven's Ode to Joy, and a concert version of Wagner's Tannhäuser. Like most schools in USA Midwest, the teaching of German was banished in 1917 so this was as close as I got to learning the language.
Their tales of religious persecution were not for the faint of heart. One fall morning when I was in sixth grade, an old man came to our classroom and asked to speak. Our teacher was not sure what was happening but decided to give him a forum. He proceeds to tell us what it was like when the Tsar's thugs decided to barge into their tidy little home. They smashed almost everything in sight. His mother fainted from the trauma. They grabbed his father and then began to beat him savagely. The "point" of this violence was to find their German Bible. Like a good pacifist, he offered no resistance—but also gave no clue where the Bible was hidden. Eventually the thugs found the Bible, arrested the father, and hauled him off to jail. The story ended when the old man admonished us to memorize as many Bible verses as possible because "they will never find them if you have them hidden in your heart (Psalm 119:11). Not long after, one of the kids in my class showed up with a version of Foxe's Book of Martyrs—the sordid tales of the lovely ways Protestants were murdered during the Counter-Reformation. I only made it through about 40 pages. It made the old man's terrifying story seem like a day in an amusement park.
Easily the most interesting part of having Mennonite neighbors was that all adults, of both sexes, were graceful with tools. The men could build complex buildings and maintain high-powered machinery while the women had no trouble with looms and sewing machines. My most revealing moment came one day as I watched a neighbor finishing up the trim of the house he was building. "Supervising" construction projects was my favorite childhood activity and I had learned the fine art of getting as close as possible without getting in the way. My neighbor was about to install a minor piece of base molding in a closet when he discovered he had cut it about 1/2" too short. Since no one ever invented a board stretcher, this was one of those time consuming and costly mistakes. As he stood there fuming, I suggested that this was probably one of those times when he could just cut a patch or fill the gap with caulk. "Who would know?" I asked. He replied, "God would know." I suggested that God had a whole universe to run so maybe he would pass on a small piece of closet trim. He replied somewhat sternly, "But I would know." It was my first lesson in what Thorstein Veblen called "The Instinct of Workmanship."
And yes, this all has to do with my reaction on seeing that smelly, ugly Trabant. The Protestant Reformation was made up on the fly. When Luther was declared an outlaw (which meant that anyone could kill him if he got within range) he was taken into custody and hidden in the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach. He spent his time translating the New Testament from the Greek into German. When he got done, the news arrived that some of his "followers" had decided to upgrade his newfound belief set. The new zealots came from Zwickau where they had caused enough trouble so they had been banished to Wittenberg. They called themselves the Zwickau Prophets. Their "improvements" on Luther were essentially three: 1) they objected to infant baptism, 2) they believed that guidance from the Holy Spirit was as good as lessons learned from studying the Bible, and 3) they believed in the equality of man.
Infant Baptism was a minor annoyance. After all, there is no such practice in the Bible so Luther could not create much of a fuss over that issue. Luther's Reformation had already reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two and Baptism was one of them. He kept it mostly to keep parishioners happy. His insistence on the primacy of Bible study was far more intense. Luther was a scholar and wanted his followers to be literate. Besides, he had just translated the New Testament at considerable effort and risk to his life. But asking them to buy their own Bibles, catechisms, and hymnals was a financial burden that those who sought guidance from the Holy Spirit could avoid. Even today, the Protestants in poorer areas of the world are usually some variation of the charismatics (the label given to those who believe in the primacy of the Holy Spirit.) The teachings concerning the equality of man was a major trigger for the Peasant's Revolt led mostly by Thomas Müntzer. Luther wanted his followers to be solid and orderly citizens and encouraged the ruling classes to put down the Revolt. This turned into a bloody affair that killed between 100,000 and 300,000 and troubled Luther for the rest of his life. These events led to the formation of the Anabaptists. Mennonites are Anabaptists.
What this meant for our family was that on occasion, we were quizzed about Luther's hostility to the Anabaptists. At first, my father, who genuinely liked his Mennonite neighbors, would sputter some form of apology. But eventually, he would point out that their precious German Bibles were often the translations of Luther. "that was a long time ago—can't we all just get along?" As for me, I had enough problems trying to fit into a school run by Mennonites. It was one of the major reasons I absolutely hated school as a child.
The Fall of the Wall was oddly exciting and interesting for me. Why, you might wonder, would I even care. Why in 1970, when all the cool kids of my age cohort traveling though Europe that summer chose to visit places like Rome and Paris, I wanted to see Berlin and Stuttgart.
- Berlin—that's easy. I had read a big fat book on the history of the Berlin Airlift and had become convinced it was the epicenter of the Cold War that defined and frightened my youth.
- Stuttgart was chosen because it was such a perfect example of Wirtshaftswunder (German economic miracle)—the rise from absolute destruction to world-class enterprises like Porsche.
Our little "celebration" soon produced multiple examples of different intellectual approaches to this obvious historic event. I was the autodidact. What I knew about Berlin and DDR was a combination of my personal history and the curiosity this stimulated for readings related to this history. Example. My father had a fellow divine who would sputter in rage that the USA had traded both Thuringia and Saxony for a corner of Berlin in 1945. So now the heart of Luther's Reformation was going to be in the hands of murderous atheists who were probably going to plunder the area of its objects of history and terrify the citizens into total disbelief.
And what was a corner of Berlin worth, after all? So I read up on the Berlin Airlift. The USSR was certain that it would fail. They had watched as the Germans tried to supply their armies by air at Stalingrad and fail miserably. They had seen Leningrad suffer a million+ deaths because of a siege. And yet, as soon as USA discovered this was essentially an airplane problem, they settled in and solved it. New air traffic control. New weather forecasting. New blind landing radar. New maintenance methods. By the spring of 1949, the Airlift was even supplying special food for the Berlin Zoo. And better transport planes were on the way. I knew this stuff because I wanted to know it. I like to joke that my fascination for things related to flight came from being born in a hospital that was literally walking distance from Charles Lindbergh's boyhood home in Little Falls Minnesota.
My partner, being Finnish on the other hand, had a deep academic understanding of DDR, and the mothership USSR. She spoke both Russian and German fluently. She had an incredible understanding of the political structure of the Soviet satellite states. She knew what the USSR was capable of and what it took to remain independent in spite of a shared 1000 km border. Compared to what she knew, I was the village idiot. And yet, compared to what the USA's Deep State claimed to know about DDR and the USSR, I knew enough to debate the experts of the Warsaw Pact.
She asked me what I thought would really change when the Wall came down. I assured her that because Berlin was both the symbol and the focal point of the Cold War, the Cold War was now over. I think she rolled her eyes. I assured her that without their pointy-haired (Dilbertian) Marxist bosses, there would be no more Trabants and DDR could finally have their own Wirtschaftswunder. Peace and Prosperity—what more could you want? And I raised my glass in another champagne toast.
She shook her head slowly and sadly stated, "I believe it will not take very long for these celebrating volk from DDR to realize how much they miss of their old country." I'm sure I had a look of complete disbelief. So she continued, "The people of DDR may not have the riches or consumer choices of West Germany, but they have many things that are much more important. Everyone has a job. In spite of their perennial housing shortages, no one is homeless. In spite of the fact that people must stand in line to buy food, there is no malnutrition, hunger, or starvation. The women of DDR have more benefits and job security when they decide to have children than any other women on earth. And you know those world-class schools we have in Finland? A great many of our pedagogical theories came straight from DDR."
As she talked I came to understand that what was really bothering her was that this was the end of an era. I was not clear what her politics had been when she was a University Student in the 1970s but it was possible she had been a member of the Finnish Communist Party. She had even won a scholarship to study for a year in Leipzig DDR. Socialism was on a roll. Mao's little red book was outselling the Bible and Koran worldwide. The Vietcong were kicking American Neo-imperialist butt. The Social Democrats, a socialist interpretation of industrialization, had been running Scandinavia for nearly 50 years. They were the future! And now they weren't anymore.
The more she talked, the more morose she got. I was beginning to think that I should have only bought one bottle of champagne. Suddenly she brightened and smiled, "But I forget the greatest tragedy of them all. With the Berlin Wall down, where are the American politicians going to go to give their hopelessly embarrassing speeches about democracy?"
I exploded in laughter. It was easily the funniest political crack I had ever heard in my life. I was still laughing about it a week later. In fact, just recalling it tonight while I tell this story made me giggle. Whatever the term democracy ever meant in USA, there was certainly not much left after the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Giggling, we hauled the last of the champagne into the bedroom. When it came to sex, I was still the autodidact and she was still the product of a world-class education that included sex education starting in second grade. The streaks of a false dawn were beginning to creep along the eastern sky when we finally called it a night.
After 30 years, it is useful to look at how our Nov 9, 1989 predictions turned out. My predictions turned out especially badly. The Cold War has been revived and it is still as ugly as it was during my childhood. Worse, the promises of prosperity were buried under the neoliberal BS that had swept the West during the 1970s and 80s. I knew that Thatcherism / Reaganism had seriously altered the global economic landscape but I had assumed that the Germans would not fall for that idiocy. I forgot that the USA economists who supervised the rebuilding of Germany after WW II were trained in the notions of the New Deal—it was their ideas that had produced Wirtshaftswunder. By 1989, they had been replaced by the acolytes of the Chicago School of pirate capitalism. And their ideas produced the monstrosity called Treuhandanstalt.
Treuhand was set up just months after the fall of the Wall and well before German reunification became a reality. After a few false starts including the assassination of its first director a few weeks after its founding, they got down to the business of serious plunder The job of Treuhand was to privatize the public property of DDR. It was financed by the West German public with a "solidarity tax." The corruption was massive. Over 2.5 million in DDR lost their jobs. Very few enterprises were successfully privatized. Not surprisingly, the Trabant was no more.
When my partner had suggested that soon people would be longing for the old DDR, I thought it very unlikely. After all, if there were things worth saving, I had been taught, why would a country go to all that trouble to keep the inmates from escaping. They actually shot people. I am pretty certain that in the first 40 years of my life, NO ONE had ever suggested that Socialism had produced anyone who would willingly choose such a political organization.
And yet, nostalgia for DDR soon sprang up like mushrooms after a spring rain. The Germans even created a word to describe it—Ostalgie. This movement wasn't widespread and was often just a hobby for collectors but it produced some restaurants and shops. It also produced an utterly charming movie called Goodbye Lenin—which tells the tale of a devoted son who for medical reasons, tries to recreate DDR for his mother so she wouldn't die from the shock of DDR being gone forever. This movie was first released in 2003 and came to USA in May of 2004. I almost never go to movies but I had to see this one. It was subtitled but a group of German speakers sat just down the row from me and judging from their nearly continuous laughter meant that apparently, with the right background, this movie is hilarious. It was also a hit. Produced for a mere 4.8 million Eur, the movie would gross almost $80,000,000. I walked out muttering about my 1989 partner, "She was right, she was right." Because even though the movie was an exaggeration, it was also believable.
After that, I had to admit that I had lost the prediction battle in a blowout. Yes Trabant had been unmercifully buried but its more enlightened replacement has taken 30 years. Volkswagen has announced that its Zwickau factory will be their first that produces nothing but electric cars. Elon Musk just announced that Tesla's first European gigafactory will be built just southeast of Berlin. In other news, the former areas of DDR are still an economic mess.
On October 9, 2009, a concert was held in The St. Nicholas church in Leipzig. It was conducted by a very aged Kurt Masur to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the night when the rumblings from below spilled out into the streets. All day long in 1989, people had been worrying about the reaction from the authorities backed by the notorious secret police of DDR, the Stasi. The worries were not unfounded. In June of 1989, a young man protesting the government of China stood in front of a tank to give symbolic action to his grievances. He was driven over and killed on live TV. Rumors swept Leipzig that the hospitals were stocking up on blood.
The meeting of the dissatisfied of DDR had become a regular feature since September. The clergy of St. Nicholas provided a space for the would-be demonstrators on Mondays. The demonstration planned for Monday October 9th promised to be a doozy. The police certainly thought so and turned out 8000. All day, significant citizens like Masur of the Gewandhausorchester-Leipzig went on radio and called for calm. When the march began, over 70,000 had shown up (in a town of 500,000). The protests against the government of DDR had entered a completely new phase. One month later, the Berlin Wall had been breached and soon the DDR was no more.
My father's friend who bemoaned that USA had traded away Saxony for a corner of Berlin would never have believed it. He was sure that the occupation of USSR Marxists would have destroyed the Lutherans of Saxony. And statistically, he was right. Yet here was the Lutheran church being led by a pastor who was giving his complete support to a movement that would topple a government.
One of the selections for the 20th anniversary concert was Bach's double motet "Fürchte dich nicht" BWV 228 (Be not afraid). It was sung magnificently by the Thomanerchor Leipzig—the organization directed by Bach himself from 1723-50. Luther himself had faced down the Holy Roman Emperor at Worms. Lutherans almost never show great moral courage, but we have that tradition and on Nov 9, 1989, the Lutherans of Leipzig got a chance to prove it once more. And like good Lutherans, they got courage from singing.