Sunday, November 1, 2009

What Were You Doing When the Berlin Wall Fell?

What were you doing when the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago and Germany zoomed toward reunification?

I saw that question asked (in slightly more boring wording) somewhere on the internet yesterday. But as Germany celebrates the momentous events of two decades ago and fetes the three big world leaders who made it happen -- West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, American President George "I'm not my son" Bush, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev -- it does bring back memories of where I was, what I was doing, and even why newspapers are such a wonderful thing.

I was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the time. I was also an editor of the independent daily student newspaper, the Badger Herald. A group of my fellow editors and friends from the Herald headed over to the main student union on campus (the one in a beautiful old building on the lake) for breakfast, and we each brough a different paper from somewhere else in the country. The scrambled eggs, bacon, and English muffins were delicious. And there we sat, at a big round table, eating breakfast and trading facts and comments we gleaned from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Journal, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wisconsin State Journal, and probably a few other papers. Considering the high level of un-checked flotsam and jetsam that passes for breaking news and information on the internet, I don't think we'd have been better informed if the web had been in wide popularity back then.

Perhaps the best part of that memory is that I was with other people who understood what an exciting time in history that was. Everyone knew something big happened, that the world in which we'd grown up was changing significantly and -- thank god -- for the better. No one thought it was insignificant; nobody preferred to chat about whatever the Britnet Spears of the day was. We talked Cold War and the end of communism and people being handed copies of Der Spiegel (or was it Stern?) as they crossed the border into West Berlin and whether the Soviet Union itself would fall in our lifetimes.

It was a great time to realize that sometimes huge, life-changing events happen that are beyond our control but that are nonetheless good. And having a stack of that morning's daily papers gave us the fuel for wonder and argument and astonishment. A great time.

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