By Jason Segedy
February 21, 2014
Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972
The Berlin Wall, as viewed from West Berlin, March 1987. I shot this from an observation platform.
Meine Reise nach Berlin
In 1987, when I was 14 years old, I went to Germany. It was a journey full of personal firsts.
It was the first time that I had ever been outside of North America.
It was the first time that I had ever been on an airplane - a 24 hour, multiple-layover odyssey, courtesy of Pan-Am and TWA, which took us from Cleveland, to New York, to London, to Frankfurt, to Berlin.
And it was the first (and only) time that I had been behind the Iron Curtain.
Twenty-seven years ago, this March, I crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and visited Soviet-occupied East Berlin. Twenty-six years before that, in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed. The wall separated the totalitarian east from the democratic west. It separated friends and colleagues from one another, divided families, and served as a major flashpoint in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The “wall” was actually two walls, separated by hundreds of feet. The empty area between the two walls was flanked by coils of barbed wire, patrolled by dogs, and guarded by snipers in towers. You would be unlikely to make it more than halfway across before you were killed – as several hundred people were, trying to do just that.
It was easy to see what the West Berliners thought of the wall – every square inch was covered with (mostly political) graffiti. The side that faced East Berlin, however, was virgin concrete, unsullied by graffiti. It bore mute testimony to the voiceless East Berliners that had been silenced by their own government, the German “Democratic” Republic (a.k.a. East Germany).
When we crossed into East Berlin, it was like crossing from a color world into a black and white one. West Berlin was like New York, with a little bit of Las Vegas thrown in for good measure.
East Berlin was like…I was going to say “Detroit”, but that’s not nice…and not really true, either.
Crossing over into East Berlin, you could actually feel the oppression. Some areas of the city were still bombed out from World War II, and piles of rotting lumber sat unused at vacant construction sites, where it looked like nothing had happened for decades. There were far fewer people on the streets, and far fewer shops and stores. It was primarily a city full of drab blocks of apartments, with a few communist monuments thrown in for good measure.
Yours truly, in front of the Berlin Wall, 1987
In the west, people smiled, and would make eye contact with you. The place was lousy with advertisements, neon signs, and street level kiosks selling cigarettes, snacks, newspapers, and lots of pornography. Late-model Volkswagens, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benzes filled the streets, and edgy electronic music emanated from the ubiquitous discotheques, seemingly located on every block.
In the east, no one really made eye contact. The streets were largely silent, and looked empty by comparison. There were few pedestrians, and even fewer cars. The cars that we saw were these little two-cylinder numbers that looked like you could kick them apart. It looked depressed, and felt depressing. It was a place without hope.
When we returned to the west, Russian soldiers spent about 45 minutes searching us and our bus on the way back, to make sure that we were not smuggling anyone or anything back across the border.
My Dad was there with me. He had always wanted to be stationed in Germany when he was in the Army, but the only overseas gig that they offered him was Vietnam.
I wish that I could go back and do that trip over again. Although I was pretty mature and well-behaved (for a 14 year old), there are so many more things that I would have noticed and appreciated as an adult.
On the other hand, seeing the Cold War up-close-and-personal, as a 14 year old, offers a valuable perspective, too. Growing up, I honestly believed that there was a decent chance that I would be vaporized by a Soviet ICBM. Like a lot of other kids in the 1980s, I put my odds at surviving until adulthood at around 50/50.
I became an adult in 1990. The Cold War ended the very next year. Who knew?
Here in the present-day, it is all-too-easy to forget that I went to bed every night knowing that a global thermonuclear war was a horrifyingly real possibility. Millions of people in Berlin were forcibly separated by a wall that served as a constant reminder of the atomic sword of Damocles that hung over the heads of an additional billion people, like myself, living throughout North America, Europe, and the U.S.S.R.
Even harder to grasp is the fact that just 42 years before my visit, that very city, Berlin, served as the capital of the most technologically advanced, rational, scientific, and so-called “civilized” nation on earth – a nation that convinced tens of millions of its own highly-educated, rational, thoroughly modern citizens that murdering six million Jews in cold blood was “progress”, and was the right thing to do.
Twenty-seven years after my visit, it is starting to hit home that my trip to Berlin actually is a “historical” event, just like World War II was when I visited. Time is a funny thing.
The Scourge of Fatalism
So what did the Berlin Wall teach me?
It goes back to that “Who knew?”
No one did, of course. Not, for sure, anyway.
We never know.
So why is it that we so often pretend like we do?
Fatalism might be the single biggest thing that holds us back as a culture. We forget that what we do here, in the present, controls what happens in the future.
Fatalism is to the 2010s, what irony was to the 1990s – a defense mechanism that we employ to avoid confronting the crushing reality of free human choice.
We cannot help seeing that only the degree of virtue which we now regard as impracticable can possibly save our race from disaster even on this planet…a consistent practice of virtue by the human race even for ten years would fill the earth from pole to pole with peace, plenty, health, merriment, and heartsease.
At times, we simply cannot bear the great and terrible responsibility implicit in the fact that what each of us chooses to do individually, and what all of us choose to do collectively, affects our world and our future in great and profound ways.
It is the collective sum of the untold billions of human choices, great and small, that each of us make each and every day, which (excepting what is truly beyond our control - accident, natural disaster, disease, and death) are directly responsible for every ounce of misery and suffering on this planet.
We have met the enemy and he is us.
On the other hand, we collectively have the power and the capacity to make our world into a virtual paradise.
But what can we really do? We are just individuals. What can any of us, even the most virtuous or noble among us, really change in the end? We are, each one of us, simply one of a billion of grains of sand on a desolate beach. How can we be expected to make a difference?
So, instead, we resort to fatalism. It makes the conundrum of free human choice a lot easier to deal with, and it assuages the feeling of helplessness that come with the recognition of our individuality and our dependence upon others.
It’s a cold comfort, that some may argue is better than nothing. But, the thing is, it doesn’t help us.
In fact, it makes our situation even worse. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
See, we know that the future is going to be such-and-such, so there’s really no point in trying to change it.
How about these:
We know that people of different races are just never going to get along. People are people.
We know that there is no way that we are going to be able to produce the energy that we need, and protect the environment at the same time. We’re powerless to change it.
We know that, no matter what we do, we are never going to be able to provide enough health care, food, or shelter for those that need it. So why bother trying?
We know that Americans love their cars and their big houses, and there is no point trying to promote alternatives to driving, or to urban sprawl. That’s just the way it is.
But, see, the thing is, we don’t really know any of these things. Take a look at history. Most of our prophecies about the future have been wrong. And most of the prophecies that were not, were of the self-fulfilling variety.
Some of the people in Warsaw, in May 1942, were undoubtedly just as sure as the Nazis were, that the German Reich would last for a thousand years.
By May 1945, the Reich was gone.
Some of the people in Berlin, in March 1987, were sure that the Cold War would never end, and that the Wall would never come down.
By November 1989, the Wall was gone.
Some of the people in Northeast Ohio, in 2014, are sure that we are destined to remain the “Rust Belt” from here to eternity.
My trip to Berlin in 1987 was a reminder to never give up hope, even when things seem dark.
History is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion. It is whatever we choose to make it.
There will be new Berlin Walls in the future, and there will also be new people to tear them down.
Fatalism is the logical conclusion of an age of philosophical naturalism (i.e. materialism) that believes that at bottom, we (our thoughts and our very consciousness) are no more than the sum of our biochemical and physical parts, and that our actions are (by the inescapable logic of naturalistic determinism) simply nothing more than the products of mindless and purposeless collisions of subatomic particles, and electrical impulses in our brains that simply give us the illusion of free will, consciousness, and self-hood itself.
There is no free will. No objective beauty. No objective truth. No purpose.
What you do ultimately makes no difference. All human plans, hopes, dreams, and loves will come to nothing in the end, when the sun goes supernova, the universe collapses in upon itself, all atomic particles cease their motion, and all matter (which is all there is, and which is all “we” are, anyway) reaches absolute zero.
Don’t believe it for a second. Reject it, and choose your future. What you choose to do today matters.
Live it out.