I have a memory of me sitting in front of the television in my pyjamas looking at footage on the evening news of the largest street party I had ever seen. There were fireworks; I remember a lot of red lights dancing down across a dark sky, and a massive number of elated people in front of this odd gate-like structure. I was too young to understand the significance of this event on the 9th of November 1989, but I do remember a weird mixture of excitement and anxiety radiating off my parents. I guess the anxiety stemmed from not knowing what was behind that wall coming down and how it might affect life in the Netherlands. But in general, a feeling of hope floated up.
I currently live on what was the other side of the wall only 27 years ago. Things have changed with such an incredible speed that some people could hardly keep up. I am fascinated with how this neighbourhood I now live in has changed during my lifetime. I have several photo books with collected work of life in Prenzlauer Berg roughly spanning 1969-1995. It always feels like the time frames have shifted; people home-delivering coal in 1970 when my family already had central heating. A horse and carriage on streets lined with Trabants in the year of my birth, which was the year my father traded in his Simca 1000 sports car for a more sensible model. I spent some time this morning looking at photographs of Bernd Heyden, and it is unsettling to see how much changed so fast while the small details remain the same. I recognise the buildings, the patterns of stone of the pavement, the street signs, but much else has changed during overzealous renovation of these old quarters. The speed things changed with was surely not perceived as positive by all, but the need for change and hope just pushed through. That feeling of hope floating up did not only result in a re-united Germany but also re-confirmed the ideals of a young united Europe. It makes more sense to solve our issues politically than to pull up walls or ride for war. And I always felt hopeful of this history being written in my lifetime.
Today in 2016, on the same day the wall came down in Berlin in 1989, a misogynist man who brags publicly about sexually assaulting women and is talking about building walls, is voted president of the United States. I cannot believe that someone in their right mind would put their trust in a person like that. But that also tells you something about me. About how I am apparently out of touch with just how anti-establishment and dissatisfied white people can be. Just like I also never thought a Brexit would really happen. Surely, the majority of British people would see value in a united Europe in which the needs and safety of its members are secured? Wasn’t that the biggest lesson we learned from two world wars? Certainly people wouldn’t be that stupid?
The only thing my shell-shocked brain can think of is that a ‘democracy’ that only allows you a choice between two extreme parties combined with non-independent media can create a toxic and insidious political climate. Exactly what Great Britain and the United States of America have in common. We have seen aggressive rhetoric pick up public fear and dissatisfaction in earlier times, paving the way for warmongering, but we haven’t learned.
Well, history is still being written in my lifetime, but I sure wish I could have held on to that feeling of hope a bit longer.