Obama and the Berlin Wall

03/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I made a new friend in January. Her name is Susan James and she's a writer based in Los Angeles. We met at a press luncheon at the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA), sponsored by the Berlin Tourist Board. This year marks the 20th anniversary of fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the moments in our recent history that prompted then President George Herbert Walker Bush to pronounce the beginning of "A New World Order."

The luncheon also marked the opening of an exhibition, Art of Two Germanys/ Cold War Cultures, which runs through April 19th of this year before traveling to Nuremberg. It's a fascinating exhibit showing how the art from the two Germanys reflected the social and economic systems that spawned them. Warning! There's a lot to digest, but it may offer interesting lessons for those of us emerging from our own divided social fabric.

Susan and I found ourselves sitting at the same table and I knew we were going to get along the moment she agreed to help me put on the cuff links that I had been carrying around in my pocket. When one of her friends approached the table, Susan simply looked at her and said "This is Lester and I'm helping him with his shirt." You may attribute such immediate familiarity to the afterglow of Obama mania, but I think Susan is just special.

Wine was poured, a few opening remarks made, and then "Bon Appetite." The real meat of the luncheon was to discuss the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down. Questions about the exhibit had been handled at an earlier press conference. This year in Berlin, there are a slew of events planned running up to the actual November 10th anniversary, and the tourist board was trying to sell the assembled writers on the idea of punching out a few stories.

The principal speaker was Burkhard Kieker, CEO of Berlin Tourism Marketing. Twenty years ago, Kieker was a young, idealistic reporter working for Die Zeit, one of Germany's leading weekly newspapers. It has an erudite staff that produces well-written theses on the news. Its co-publisher Marion Gräfin Dönhoff was something of a legend up until her death in 2002 at the age of 93. She was a founding staff member of the paper and it would be generous to say that Katherine Graham, Barbara Walters and Susan Sontag were, collectively, an approximation of her. She was a journalist who fought in the resistance against the National Socialists, and participated in the failed July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. After the war, she became one of Germany's leading journalists and intellectuals, and a staunch proponent of reunification.

Kieker's CEO, or executive editor of Die Zeit at the time was Teo Summer, who was both physically and intellectually imposing, and who had also served as a sometime adviser to the German government. It was from this milieu in 1989 that the young man went forth to check out rumors that something was happening on the other side of the wall. In the days ahead, he discovered that what many had considered impossible was about to happen. By midnight on November 9th, East Berliners started streaming across the wall. For those gathered at the luncheon, Kieker's words provided a personalized view of one of the greatest historical moments of the century. He emphasized that 20 years later, much needed to be done.

When he had finished, Susan turned to me and said, "Obama's election was like the fall of the Berlin Wall." I gulped down my last piece of steak and signaled the waiter to refill my wine glass.

"That's an interesting metaphor. How so?"

"I felt as though the entire country took a deep breath the night Obama was elected, like we had turned a corner. It was like the wall coming down; there had been a wall separating us as a people for so long. And we talked about freedom so long and now we were finally living it."

Given that she has three history degrees, including a Ph.D., I felt that she spoke with some authority.

Obama has called for caution in our expectations. Like Germany, America was imbued with euphoria after the inauguration. "It's going to take us a while," says James. "Everyone should get used to that and look at historical precedent like Germany."

James' observation is borne out in two perspectives: one is racial and the other is economic. The divide in America between the haves and the have nots has widened significantly. The current economic downturn has virtually wiped out the savings of a generation of Americans who have yet to reach retirement age. Stimulus notwithstanding, we'll be lucky if that damage can be repaired before the end of Obama's term in office. And while the racial divide suffered a serious blow with the election of Obama, we have, in the words of Robert Frost, "miles to go before we sleep."

In a reunited Germany, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the country is still years away from being whole again. And Germany doesn't have to carry the responsibility of being the leader of the free world. German documentary filmmaker John Amoateng Kantara, makes this observation:

"It's been twenty 20 years since the wall came down and it seems to many, that the economic demise of the East in the wake of unification, is followed by even more economic troubles, which lie ahead."

What lies ahead for Germany in the wake of the worldwide economic downturn is bleak. With the country's unemployment rate nearing 10 percent, if Wessies (the name for those residing in the west) are catching a cold, the Ossies have pneumonia.

"Mind you," Kantara continues, "not everything has been bad. There was a chance for close to two million upwardly mobile Ossies to migrate to what was formally West Germany, to find housing, a decent job and prosper.

"This rosy picture looks considerably bleaker, when watched from the perspective of those who were left behind in the east. Despite the over two trillion Euros which were spent in the East, you'll find only clusters of growth in the east. "

I was in Berlin when the wall came down. I arrived on the morning of the tenth of November to a city where thousands of Ossies, seemingly dressed in denim (a fabric and style associated with the west) walked along Kurfurtendamm, then the Madison Avenue of West Berlin. As if in a daze, they strolled past the shop windows behind which expensive leather goods, jewelry and shiny BMW's beamed prosperity back at them.

A couple of days later, Pat Cole, a Time Magazine staffer on sabbatical and I (working for Newsweek) crossed over Check Point Charlie to visit Leipzig. We ended up outside of the Stasi headquarters (the East German Secret Police) where a group of east Germans were holding a candle-light march in protest. They were singing "We shall Overcome."

"Join us," they called out to the two African-Americans in their midst. "We learned from you."

In retrospect, it seems, Obama's election signaled something to the entire world. Hopefully, American's return to wholeness begins with the signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law. We can only hope that it will be "the shot heard around the world" and that it marks the beginning, to paraphrase Bush Sr., of restoring some order to our world.