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30 years after Berlin Wall, we need fewer — not more — barriers

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Most people alive in the world today do not remember where they were when the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989. They were either not born yet or too young.

I was in the 8th grade and, fortunately, my parents believed that the best way to learn history is to live it. We got on a plane from JFK Airport, flew to Frankfurt, rented a compact car, and drove to Berlin.

Arriving at the symbolic Brandenburg Gate on a chilly morning (it used to actually be cold back then), we stood at Pariser Platz (in what used to be East Berlin, in a country called East Germany), borrowed a hammer and chisel for five Deutschmarks (the currency Germany used to have before the Euro), and joined fellow revelers of all ages hacking away at the Wall. After days exploring both East and West Berlin (which used to be more different from each other than anyone can imagine today), we eventually made it home, and each of my classmates got a special piece of history in a Ziploc bag.

Freshmen entering college this fall were born the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They remember neither the momentous events of Nov. 9, 1989, nor had any grasp of the global financial crisis or the “Arab Spring” as those events unfolded. Their political consciousness began with the Brexit referendum and the election of the Donald Trump. Geopolitically, they have entered history midstream. There is no siren wake-up call such as the “Sputnik moment,” or sense of victorious relief such as post-Cold War triumphalism. For today’s youth, history — like life — seems to be just one damned thing after another.

As difficult as it is for Baby Boomers to convey the depths of emotions that the Vietnam War etched into their memories, it has been futile to explain the meaning of 1989 to Millennials and Generation Z. Whether lecturing at universities or at my children’s school, I show pictures and videos to bring to life the profound historical transition represented by the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But this generation lives in the moment, spending far more time on SnapChat, vaping or promoting climate activism to give much of a nod to recent global history.

An unexpected irony has thus emerged. Today, Berlin counts as more or less the world’s undisputed coolest city, but young people don’t even know how it came to be the top place on every backpacker’s bucket list. This iconic status was by no means guaranteed in the early 1990s.

Back then, the city was still in transition into its status as united Germany’s capital. It took high-stakes American diplomacy with European allies to unravel Soviet military and political influence, deft reassurances to heal the wounds of a once-occupied East German society cut off from its Western compatriots, and trillions of dollars worth of solidarity payments to resurrect the foundations of social and economic equality. Throughout the 1990s when I lived in Germany, first as a high school student and again during college study abroad, West Germans still received subsidies to encourage them to live in poor, un-sexy Berlin.

In the past ten years, however, Berlin has become such a staple on the traveler’s circuit, from teenagers to start-up hustlers, this new generation can learn the meaning of Berlin in Berlin itself. They can ride Segways along where the Wall used to stand, even wearing augmented reality headsets to relive the city divided. Like Germany itself, Berlin has become stronger by not letting any visitor ignore its history.

To everyone’s surprise, Berlin has become continental Europe’s foremost melting pot. Two decades ago, the city’s population didn’t match its size; indeed, its population was larger under the Nazis nearly a century ago. Along the vacant Communist-designed boulevards of East Berlin, few if any residents spoke English. Today, English has become a de facto language in numerous trendy neighborhoods, and Turkish and Arabic in others as migrants and refugees have poured in from the Middle East. All over the city, Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese students and entrepreneurs are ubiquitous. Open and progressive, Berlin also is one of the only cities in Europe with a positive birth rate, an antidote to an entire civilization experiencing demographic decline.

Reflecting on the past three decades, Berlin should hold genuine significance for all generations across the globe. It is not only a symbol of a once-divided city becoming a national capital and regional power broker, but also a multicultural milieu home to a dizzying array of nationalities. Berlin reminds that the path to Western renewal lies not through building more walls to the rest of the world but, rather, embracing it.

In recent years it has become fashionable to talk about a populist wave of nationalism sweeping the world, lumping Trump and Brexit together with Eastern European xenophobes and elected Asian strongmen. But far more fundamental trends point in the opposite direction.

Nearly 300 million people now live outside their country of birth — more than ever in history; more than 1 billion people cross borders as tourists, students or business travelers each year, and the foreign-born population of all major cities in the world is rising, from Los Angeles and Toronto, London and Dubai, to Tokyo and Sydney. Every single one of these cities — like Berlin — serves as a template for a future we have, in fact, already arrived at: The more that cultures and peoples intermingle, the more we see how alike we are.

As we celebrate three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, let us therefore hold up Berlin not just as a case study of history but a model for the future. As President John F. Kennedy boldly declared standing in front of the Wall in 1963, “Lass sie nach Berlin kommen!” (“Let them come to Berlin!”) It might be the only way for millennials and successor generations to appreciate how much global society has advanced in the past 30 years — and why we should protect it from those who want to build more walls.

Parag Khanna is a former fellow at the Brookings Institution and at New America, a think tank focused on national security, technology and other public policy issues. A former senior geopolitical adviser to U.S. Special Operations Forces, he is the author of “The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century” (2019).

Tags Berlin Berlin Wall Brandenburg Gate Cold War in popular culture Donald Trump East Germany Eastern Bloc

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