Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in SRQ Magazine.com’s Saturday Perspectives Edition on Nov. 9, 2019.
By Donal O’Shea
On Nov. 9, 1989, 30 years ago today, the Berlin Wall came down.
Few of my generation can forget President Ronald Reagan’s standing before the wall in 1987 and exhorting his counterpart in the Soviet Union to destroy the 12-foot-high concrete barrier that divided East and West Germany geographically and ideologically: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
No one thought it would happen in their lifetime.
Two dozen years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had decried the wall that East Germany had erected in Berlin in 1961 to prevent its citizens from emigrating to the west. Updating the proudest boast “civic romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen]” of 1,000 years earlier, he assured a crowd of 450,000 West Germans gathered on the square in Berlin that now bears his name: “Ich bin ein Berliner! [I am a Berliner!]”
For today’s generation of college students, Germany has always been one country and the Berlin Wall is a largely forgotten relic of the Cold War that ended before they were born.
Not so at New College.
In September, art professor Ryan Buyssens helped students and faculty construct an 8-by-12-foot replica of the Berlin Wall with wooden planks and drywall in Koski Plaza at the center of campus. The chief architect, German professor Lauren Hansen, had the students in her course on the Berlin Wall gather weekly to spray-paint the wall with graphics and messages emblematic of the Cold War era. Students Noah Opalsky and Jay Stewart, with coaching from theatre professor Diego Villada, re-enacted the famous speeches of Reagan and Kennedy in front of the wall earlier this fall.
This past Monday, Nov. 4, students Emma Sunderman and Anna Lynn Winfrey re-enacted in English and German, respectively, East German author Christa Wolf’s complex, almost melancholic speech on Nov. 4, 1989, to 500,000 East Germans gathered in Alexanderplatz, a public square on the other side of the wall in East Berlin.
Yesterday, the students disassembled the wall.
It, too, has become a memory.
But it is one that enabled students to discover for themselves resonances between the slogans and images of the Cold War, and those of today. We are all children of the past and cannot reliably move to a better future without understanding the ideological, economic and religious disputes that continue to divide countries, cultures and people.
— Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.