On a cold, starry night twenty years ago, thousands of Germans flooded the streets to dance and sing and cry—and to climb the wall that scarred the heart of a once-proud city for nearly thirty years. The hours in which the cement and barbed wire came tumbling down stand among the defining moments of the twentieth century, a triumph of hope and optimism over oppression and despair.
As the world watches the Germans celebrate the beginning of the reunification of their nation, it is also worth remembering another anniversary today. The night of November 9, 1938—51 years to the day before the fall of the Berlin Wall—also saw people flooding the streets of Germany with lights and shouting and songs. This was a celebration too, but of division, not unity; hatred, not peace; death, not life. Kristallnacht—the night of broken glass—was the beginning of the end for the thousands of German and Austrian Jews who would perish in the Holocaust. This legacy has shaped the psyche of a nation in the decades since the rise and fall of Nazism, leaving even the tortured history of the German Democratic Republic entwined with the aftermath of World War II.
Under the weight of a history in which so many suffered and died, the historical events of November 9 also illuminate the best of the human spirit, from the Germans who hid their Jewish neighbors to the mauerspechte—the so-called wall woodpeckers—who chipped away at the wall dividing them from their family, their neighbors, their countrymen. Much of the world has changed since the political and historical whirlwind that was the end of communist dictatorships in eastern Europe and Russia, but this struggle is one that has not ceased and that continues to this day. The chants of street demonstrations are no longer heard in German, but from the thousands who flooded public squares in Tehran demanding that their voices be heard to the Afghan villagers who refused to stop sending their daughters to school in the face of violence and intimidation, the world of 2009 is one in which the words of the wall—Wir sind das Volk—continue to echo. And whether we live in a place where human rights are a struggle or a guarantee, the graffiti of the wall should inspire us all.
Many small people who in many small places do many small things can alter the face of the world.
—Quote painted on the Berlin wall