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Since fall of Berlin Wall, heady optimism has given way to more realistic expectations

In this Aug. 10, 2009 file picture a tourist stands next to crosses commemorating people who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall in Berlin near the Reichstag. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)
In this Aug. 10, 2009 file picture a tourist stands next to crosses commemorating people who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall in Berlin near the Reichstag. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Jeremi Suri wrote, it was a great time to be young. The unification of Berlin meant the end of the Cold War was finally in sight, fizzling any immediate threat of war and sending markets the world over into a dizzying upward spiral. With their fears allayed and their prosperity apparently assured, American idealists were galvanized to make the world a better place.

Many more walls have fallen in the quarter century since. Democracy has spread across Eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East, and the United States in particular has made tremendous progress toward racial and gender equality. But today, idealism isn’t in vogue, and no longer is it easy being young. The global economy did not grow as exponentially as it was expected to after the Cold War, and youth unemployment has become a flashpoint across the entire world. When the fall of the Soviet Union did not spell the end of ideological conflict, the developed world took a dangerous turn toward restricting civil liberties in the name of security. And with each market crash or terrorist attack or failed revolution, the idealists of the recent past became more and more jaded.

It’s easy to see why. Today’s world is far more deeply interconnected than that of the late 1980s. Access to information has become more universal, and new and diverse perspectives are constantly rising to the forefront of public discourse. Americans have seen how tearing down oppressive systems led to anarchy and sectarianism in the Balkans and in Egypt and in Syria. Simply put, a lot of young people today are too informed and their futures too uncertain for directionless idealism.

That being said, 1989 still has value to us today — and not just in the form of a Taylor Swift album. While we should remember that not every barrier falls as smoothly as the Berlin Wall, the ensuing collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe demonstrates that peaceful protests with clear agendas provide the most conducive path toward societal change.

Most notably, today marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution, in which Czechoslovakia disassembled its communist government and dissolved into two sovereign states. The protests were multiethnic, inspired by high school students in the Slovak capital of Bratislava and catalyzed by Czech literary icon Vaclav Havel. Their demands were explicit and their methods civil. After just six weeks, the Czechoslovak government had planned its first election in half a century, and the country split peacefully in 1993.

Tearing down walls creates open spaces, both physically and culturally. Only when those open spaces become safe forums for tolerance and pluralism, as they did during the Velvet Revolution or the recent Tunisian Revolution, can protest beget progress and revolt breed responsibility. When they don’t, extremists rise up to fill the vacuum, often causing more harm than the repressive systems ever could.

Given how definitive the end of the Cold War must have felt for the idealistic activists of Suri’s generation, it makes sense that they thought that all could turn out well after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the ensuing two-and-a-half decades reminded the world that change is rarely so simple. We haven’t become afraid of tearing down walls. We’ve just realized that some are better left standing.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut.


Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

Newspapers, television and social media were filled this weekend with stories about the Berlin Wall. In case you were not paying attention, it came down 25 years ago, on Nov. 9, 1989. Thousands of young men and women, trapped in the East German police state, decided on that cool evening that they would no longer tolerate their collective imprisonment by a repressive regime. They pushed their way into the more prosperous and freer West Berlin, and they demanded rights and opportunities long denied. After decades of restriction, this movement was possible because the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, made it clear that he would not use force, as Moscow had in the past, to prevent popular change. Other foreign leaders, including Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, contributed to the atmosphere of peace and cooperation that encouraged people to take history into their own hands. 

And they did, with enormous courage and speed. In a little more than two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany were reunited, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia held free elections, and the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 separate states. The global struggle between communism and capitalism ended with the collapse of the former. The persistent terror of thermonuclear war eased as the countries with the largest nuclear arsenals no longer threatened to launch these horrible weapons against one another. The Cold War era of fear and conflict opened into a period of great hope and newfound cooperation between a new Russia, a new European Union and a revitalized United States. 

It was a great time to be young. I remember it very well. When I entered high school in 1986 the Soviet Union was still the “evil empire.” When I graduated in 1990 the world was freer and safer than ever before. As we started college, my fellow students and I felt like we could do anything. The possibilities seemed endless. If citizens in East Germany could tear down the Berlin Wall, then we surely could do something big. After all, we had educational opportunities foreign citizens could only dream about, and we had access to resources they could not even imagine. 

Our privilege in a time of great change inspired a deep sense of obligation. As children of the end of the Cold War, we felt a mission to make the world a better place, to show that we could make the promises of the moment real. Many of my classmates did just that. They created Google, they invented life-saving medical procedures, they founded new human rights organizations, they became respected judges and some even wrote books and taught talented students. Our career paths included comfortable compensation but also awareness that there was something more. Watching the fall of the Berlin Wall at a formative moment in our lives, we were all idealists and true believers. 

Slowly, however, the idealism from 1989 has faded throughout our society and the wider world. Maybe our expectations were too high, and we were bound to be disappointed. Maybe we overestimated ourselves and underestimated the corruption, sectarianism, violence and greed that remained present in a post-Cold War world. Maybe — and this one stings — we did not live up to our own moral commitments. Yes, I mean all of us who received a burst of opportunity in 1989. Have we been true to our ideals and aspirations?

I am afraid the answer might be a qualified yes, at best. Our generation, now in our early 40s, contributes more than any before to philanthropy, but we also spend more of our time working than our predecessors. Are we working longer hours to build a better world? Is there a correlation between time in the office and contributions to society? My fear is that the relationship might be inversely correlated. 

Despite the frequent criticisms we voice about our society today, we have mastered operating within the system rather than changing it. We are professionals, not revolutionaries; innovators, not reformers. Instead of tearing down walls, we seem to spend more of our time reinforcing them and building new ones. For evidence of this, look at our southern border, our prisons, our gated communities and our airports. We limit people’s movement for security and we separate populations for control. We are less free and open as a society today than we were 25 years ago, and we have accepted that and learned to live with it. 

The memory of 1989 should encourage us to question our present. The young men and women who brought down the Berlin Wall were tenacious in their pursuit of freedom and justice. They put their lives on the line for a dream of a better world, and they made it a reality. Isn’t it time we all did the same? There are plenty of good causes in need of attention. What our current world really needs is more citizens willing to tear down the walls rather than live comfortably within them. 

Suri is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

BERLIN — For nearly 30 years, the Berlin Wall was the hated symbol of the division of Europe, a gray, concrete mass that snaked through neighborhoods, separating families and friends. On Wednesday, it took hundreds of police to guarantee the safe removal of 15 feet of what’s left of the wall.

Construction crews, protected by about 250 police, hauled down part of the three-quarter of a mile strip of the wall before dawn to provide access to a planned luxury apartment complex overlooking the Spree River.

Even though most of the strip remains intact, the move angered many Berliners, who believe that developers are sacrificing history for profit.

BERLIN — A German lawmaker says Parliament is close to passing a law explicitly banning bestiality after animal rights groups and tabloid newspapers pushed for existing legislation to be clarified.

Max Lehmer, a lawmaker with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition, said Wednesday after a meeting of Parliament’s agriculture committee that the ban would make sex with animals punishable with a fine. A vote is expected in December.

Politicians took up the issue after it became clear a law banning cruelty to animals was not specific enough to prohibit the practice explicitly.

Berlin tabloid BZ started the debate in October, featuring a front-page photo of a man holding his dog with the headline “we call it sodomy, he calls it love.”

Top-selling Bild, from the same publisher, then took up the cause.

BERLIN — German lawmakers are expected to approve new powers for the eurozone bailout fund in a major step toward tackling the bloc’s sprawling sovereign debt crisis.

Passage in the lower house looks assured, thanks to support of opposition lawmakers.

Thursday’s vote has been hotly debated in Germany. The issue has highlighted tensions in Merkel’s center-right coalition, which has been strained by members who have balked at the cost of propping up the eurozone’s strugglers.

Germany is the biggest economy in the 17-country currency zone and has to pay up more than others in boosting the firepower of the bailout fund, the so-called European Financial Stability Facility.

Printed on September 30, 2011 as: German authorities allow bailout for debt-ridden eurozone nations

When it comes to dining on The Drag, there are lots of restaurants to choose from but little in the realm of inspired concepts. There are at least two or three frozen yogurt places, coffee shops, sandwich eateries, pizza joints and Mexican, Mediterranean or Asian upstarts apiece in the handful of blocks that make up the western border of campus. Verts, the new kid on the block, fits the bill while maintaining its unique identity.

The first of its kind in Austin, Verts is a cramped, minimalistic, Chipotle-style restaurant that serves up Berlin-inspired street food, doner kebaps — pronounced “doohner k-baps,” on both The Drag and in the Dobie Mall food court.

A close cousin to the gyro, doner kebaps were introduced in Europe by Turkish immigrants. The Berlin-style doner is a sliced pita stuffed with a combination of spiced lamb and beef roasted on a vertical spit and sliced to order, topped with a menagerie of vegetables and sauces for added flavor.

In addition to the doner kebap, Verts offers two other variations of the same meat and veggies — either wrapped in a tortilla or served in a bowl, sans pita or tortilla. After telling the friendly employees behind the counter how you’d like your dish served, you then order which filling you’d like. Their menu offers a choice of beef, chicken, a combination of 90 percent beef and 10 percent lamb, and a vegetarian option.

Moving down the line, you can further customize your order with a salad of sorts to crown your meat selection. Opting for an eyeful of colors, a smattering of red peppers and tomatoes, violet cabbage, lettuce, crisp cucumbers, sweet yellow corn and Verts’ house sauce, a completed sandwich is a visual marvel.

As far as taste is concerned, the fresh vegetables’ mingling with the peppery meat and toasted pita is worth a mention.

However, a doner kebap is not something you can eat neatly. About halfway into the sandwich, the nearly too-thin pita cracks and becomes unstable, causing a doner avalanche onto the unsuspecting surface below. Take extra napkins with you when you order this, ladies and gentlemen. They’re next to the register.

The sandwich is sizeable and filling but not heavy. Verts doesn’t offer sides gratis with the meal. Instead, they have little fruit cups, carrot and celery cups, small bags of chips and chocolate-dipped strawberries, which are also served in a cup. But when your dine-in basket only contains a sandwich, it does leave a little to be desired, like a side of fries... maybe. Depending on your appetite, there may not be room for anything other than the doner anyway.

Verts’ atmosphere is, as mentioned before, minimalistic and modern, playing on a red, white, grey and black theme. The establishment, occupying the same lot that once was Hot Slice Pizza, is cramped, but the wooden wall seating helps accommodate the seemingly insatiable line of patrons that forms at Verts’ counter.

Verts, on this visit, had a disc jockey setting up in the back. An intriguing touch, though unusual.

Any way you slice it, Verts is a welcome addition to the UT restaurant culture and worth a visit or two. 

Printed on Monday, August 29, 2011 as: Berlin-inspired eatery creates sizeable, messy version of gyro.

Garrett Gilbert stepped back and calmly squinted toward the end zone.

The play is called “Berlin,” and the Longhorns run it at the end of every Thursday practice. It’s a desperation play that rarely works, even in practice.

“Only on video games,” said receiver James Kirkendoll.

But already leading Florida Atlantic 17-7 with one play left in the first half, Texas decided to give it a shot. With virtually no pass rush pressure, Gilbert had plenty of time to let his receivers
get downfield.

“It’s pretty much a play where everybody runs to the end zone, and he just puts it up there,” said receiver Malcolm Williams.

Standing 53 yards from a miracle but wearing none of his usual pressure, Gilbert reared back and hurled it deep. Time expired as the ball floated and floated in the air, making its way toward a pack of receivers and defenders waiting patiently in the anticipated landing zone.

“It felt like I was sitting there forever,” Williams said. “I kind of wanted to go get a hot dog.”

But instead, Williams stayed in the back of a pack of players, and full of faith, he simply put his hands up — didn’t jump, didn’t move. When the ball somehow stuck to his hands for the touchdown, Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium erupted in ecstatic disbelief. With the way this season has gone for the Longhorns, most people watching expected an interception or an incompletion on the Hail Mary play.

“In 38 years, that was the first time I’ve ever completed one,” said offensive coordinator Greg Davis. “That doesn’t happen very often, but Garrett threw a perfect ball, and Malcolm went on top of everybody and got it.”

Gilbert triumphantly pumped his fists in celebration, as if he were thinking, “Finally.” In his 10-month tenure as Texas’ quarterback, he hasn’t had many of those plays. Entering the game having thrown more than twice as many interceptions as touchdowns and dealing with receivers that have consistently dropped passes, Gilbert was in unfamiliar territory as he ran into the halftime locker room.

“I honestly couldn’t tell it was Malcolm that caught it,” Gilbert said. “But then I heard the crowd, and by that time, I was pretty excited and running down the sideline.”

Williams said if it were his decision, the catch would’ve easily made ESPN SportsCenter’s top 10 plays, preferably in the top five. The play didn’t get that kind of love, probably because of unranked Texas’ irrelevance on the national landscape. But regardless of how the Longhorns are perceived outside of their locker room, Saturday night’s 51-17 victory has the inside believing the season has finally turned around with one game to spare and bowl eligibility on the line. Texas head coach Mack Brown said the play epitomized the game, and the Longhorns are hoping that it will represent a strong finish to a miserable season.

They’re still in a 5-6 hole on the season, but Williams’ catch could go a long way for a team that finally has momentum.

“That was the point where we could finally say, ‘Let’s have fun,’” Williams said. “Things are finally starting to go our way. Everybody sees now that we’re having fun; we can come up with those plays. This was a big momentum for all of us.”