30 years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, political historians fear intangible barriers are moving the world back in time
By Joe Piasecki and Christina Campodonico
Nov. 9, 1989, was a big day in the history of freedom. The peaceful dismantling of the Berlin Wall, which for 28 years had sealed off West Berlin from Soviet satellite East Germany, signaled an end to the Cold War and — at least in the United States — optimism about the triumph of Western democratic values.
Thirty years later, Americans do not live in such optimistic times.
“Surveillance is in the news. Walls are in the news. The Cold War is back in a big way,” says Justin Jampol, founder and executive director of the Cold War-focused Wende Museum in Culver City. “Good for business; bad for the world.”
From a geopolitical standpoint, local experts say one drastic difference from 1989 is the United States’ dwindling appetite for exerting a dominant role in global affairs.
Shahin Berenji, a UCLA political science lecturer whose expertise includes Cold War diplomacy, speaks at length about U.S. engagement being a stabilizing force that enabled Europe to embrace German reunification as Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the Soviet Union’s grip.
“The idea that American engagement can be a force for preventing conflict from breaking out in distinct regions is something that often gets lost today — not just in the news but amongst some policymakers, especially the administration today,” Berenji says.
The Trump administration’s “America First” rhetoric, he said, signals a policy of disengagement to a level not seen since Eisenhower, who floated the idea of arming American allies with nuclear weapons to eliminate the need for an American presence overseas.
Loyola Marymount University political science professor Michael A. Genovese, director of LMU’s Institute for Leadership Studies and president of its global policy institute, served as a crisis management consultant for the Pentagon during the administration of George H. W. Bush, who was president during the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
The lesson of the Cold War is that “cooperation and common purpose were a strength magnifier,” says Genovese: “Today, we have abandoned global leadership in favor of an “America First” approach. In the face of vexing challenges from a rising China, a reemerging Russia and the threat of global terrorism, we have decided to ‘go it alone’ in an every-nation-for-itself approach which sees international politics as a zero-sum game where either we (alone) win or lose. … In short, we did not learn the lesson of the Cold War.”
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Wende Museum installed 10 wall segments (weighing a combined 26 tons) at 5900 Wilshire Boulevard, which has since become a setting for demonstrations against Chinese censorship and U.S. immigration crackdowns. The 2009 event also included a temporary “Wall Across Wilshire,” which attendees tore down as a symbol of breaking down socioeconomic and other figurative walls in our lives.
Jampol, who on Sunday (Nov. 10) debuts a six-part Travel Channel historical mystery series titled “Lost Secrets,” believes the Berlin Wall equivalents of 2019 persist largely in people’s minds.
“I think the comparable wall is a German expression ‘mauer im kopf,’ which means ‘the wall in the head.’ And after the Berlin Wall as a physical entity came down, Germans started to use this expression to relay the division that was standing in between them that wasn’t physical but invisible. And ultimately, the invisible walls are much more insidious ones because you can’t knock them down with a crane or with a hammer.”