Before I went away to graduate school, my experience of Europe was largely of Central Europe. Dresden was the first European city that I ever saw, and it would be some years before I saw Florence, and understood why Dresden was nicknamed “Florence on the Elbe.”
On my first trip to Europe, we landed in Dresden and went to pick up our rental car from Hertz. I was young and callow, and amused that we’d flown halfway around the world to rent a car from Hertz. (We could also have chosen Avis.) The woman processing our paperwork asked us what we planned on doing with the car. We told her that we were planning on driving around the former East Germany for a bit, then heading south to the Dolomite Alps. We would then double back around and return the car to the Hertz counter at the Munich airport. She nodded. It was fine to take the car into Italy and Austria, but we must never, ever, under any circumstances take the car to Eastern Europe, not even the Czech Republic. Even though Dresden was less than an hour’s drive from the border. “Your insurance does not cover it,” she said.
What if we were to purchase additional insurance?
If we wanted to see Eastern Europe, we would have to take a train across the border and rent a car there.
I remember laughing when she said this, startled — and amused — that liberalization—and capitalism—had, so thus far, failed to dissolve these hard lines between east and west. After all, we were sitting in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR, or Deutsche Demokratische Republik, confusingly also known by the German acronym, DDR). The Iron Curtain came down a lifetime ago, or so it seemed to me. But I was young and callow, and my understanding of Europe—and of Germany and the Iron Curtain, and Reunification—was largely theoretical.
It only took a few days in the former GDR for me to begin developing a new understanding of the situation, one that was different from the one that I developed from my pre-trip readings. One that perhaps even contradicted orthodox understandings of postwar German history.
Looking back, those were strange, freewheeling, liminal years. The summer before my trip to the former GDR, I went to China. Though ostensibly still a Communist country, it didn’t feel quite like one. It also didn’t feel quite unlike one, if by “Communist country” one meant “country ruled by an autocratic and authoritarian regime.” In terms of the economy, early 2000s China felt like the Wild West. But it was still a controlled environment. We worried about surveillance when we were there, not so much for ourselves as for our Chinese associates. There was no true freedom of speech or expression. One steamy afternoon, I watched the censors go through the Shanghai Biennale room by room, making their checklists. The next day, when the Biennale opened to the Chinese public, I found that certain works had vanished, leaving strange gaps in the galleries, while certain video works were simply left unplugged.
In the former GDR, it was the opposite. You could say whatever you want, but the economy was becoming increasingly divided–capitalism brought prosperity to a few, and disappointment to most. “After the intoxication of liberation comes the hangover,” Peter Pulzer wrote in 1992, three years after the Wall fell. But what if the hangover never ends? What if it took hold, metastasized, and transformed into something else?
At a conference hosted by a local university, I noticed that almost all of the high-paying, prestigious positions belonged to West Germans. The East German staff complained quietly to us about these opportunists from the West, all but calling them carpetbaggers. Actually I think one of them might have called his West German colleagues carpetbaggers. The ones with doctorates were the most embittered. Once upon a time, they had hopes of ascending the professoriate. After unification, they told us, all the top posts — and all the money — went to the newcomers, who had fancy degrees from Western universities, and networks of wealthy friends and allies in America.
I was not prepared for my first glimpses of life “on the other side.” My sense of that history stopped at 1989. The Wall fell. The East rejoined the West. Communist ended, and there would be Levi jeans and televisions for all.
I was slightly more prepared for my first trip to China. I had known Taiwan when it was still run by autocrats under martial law. I expected to be monitored, I expected the pervasive sense of the state–watchful, controlling, randomly punitive. I did not, however, expect the Gold Rush atmosphere. I landed in China at the very end of economic liberalization’s Wild West. There was still a sense that a Westerner could parachute into Shanghai or Shenzhen and make a fortune. There was an openness, almost chaotic, that would last for just a little while longer. By the time I returned for a second visit, in 2015, that openness had dissipated, fizzed out.
But in the early 2000s, China’s economic Wild West was the foil to East Germany’s sullen stagnation.
Dresden was tired, threadbare. Though we arrived in high summer, grey is the color that dominates my memories. Concrete grey, stone grey, asphalt grey. My memory transformed the Zwinger Palace, a baroque confection of soft yellow-beige sandstone, into something dour and grey. Almost twenty years had passed since reunification, and still the city had a provisional quality, as if it had just emerged from a long occupation.
East Germany reminded me, in important ways, of the Taiwan of my childhood. Martial law Taiwan, dogged by a perpetual lack. 1980s Taiwan had none of the plushness of 1980s America. It had a look and a mood that was hard to describe. I found it again in East Germany. (And, to my surprise, I would find it again and again in various parts of Europe. Spain, for example. Authoritarianism was the common thread.) Perhaps it had something to do with the baffling insistence on autarky–baffling, that is, to a child used to American plenitude. The towels were too thin, and they came in strange colors. There was, at least in my memory, only one automaker, and they manufactured just one model of sedan. East Germany, in the 2000s, didn’t feel quite so constrained, but the culture was still dogged by an overwhelming sense of lack.
The countryside east of Dresden felt caught in a time warp. We wanted to see the famous Elbesandsteingebirge–sandstone mountains that crossed Eastern Saxony and Western Bohemia. The area was affectionately nicknamed “the Saxon Switzerland” in the nineteenth century. We drove through thick forest, only intermittently punctuated by houses and villages. The air felt hot and close. In one town, we stopped at an antiquarian bookstore, and I marvelled at how one could still buy all sorts of things–nineteenth-century photographs, antique cameras, Bohemian garnet brooches, old prints–for a pittance. Did they forget to update their prices? I whispered. Almost no one spoke English, and we were probably the only foreign tourists that passed through town that day.
In Munich, I saw what German prosperity looked like, a marked contrast to Dresden.
And the culture, too, was a contrast–cosmopolitan, bourgeois, blasé. In Munich, I encountered a society fraught with class divisions and economic inequality. Dresden, of course, was also unequal and hierarchical. But in Munich, there was a different quality to these things. Looking back–especially after a decade or so of living in New York, a place that drives its inhabitants to become connoisseurs of wealth–part of the difference must have been the greater divide between the upper and lower levels of Munich society. There was more wealth in Munich, and the rich people were simply a lot richer than the rich people who lived in Saxony. Even in Dresden, I don’t recall observing such sharp gradations of wealth, nor such extreme concentrations. Near our hotel in Munich, there was an elegant street lined with understated boutiques: handmade eyeglasses, custom suits and eveningwear, and, perhaps most special of all, a little storefront belonging to the jeweler Hemmerle.
In the East, there was less to go around, and consumerism was less developed. If there was a flatness to society, it was in part because the cream had been skimmed off, and everyone else lived on what was left.
On that first trip to Dresden, we had trouble even finding restaurants for dinners. Outside of Dresden, in the countryside, things were even more limited. International tourism was not yet a thing for most of Saxony, so people were still eager to chat with a dark-haired foreign girl who knew a smattering of German. This is how, in Wittenberg, the city of Luther, I learned the German word for “thunderstorm,” and heard an organ concert of Bach sonatas in the Stadtkirche where Luther himself once preached.
On my second trip, I found little of that openness. By that time, the East had already started a rightward drift. This was before the migrant crisis, but there was already a sense of embitterment in Dresden, a sense that this land was a land besieged. Capital had poured into Dresden from the west, and on that second trip I found that the Altstadt–the old sector of the city, once dense with medieval and Renaissance houses, leveled by the Allies during World War II–had been rebuilt with almost archaeological precision. Window boxes and little pots of flowers decorated the facades of these new-old houses. Dresden was once again–almost–Florence on the Elbe. Yet thrumming along beneath it all was a sense of discord, or disquiet. On my second night back in Dresden, I watched an apartment block burn down on the evening news. The apartments housed mostly Vietnamese Germans, immigrants brought to Saxony to work in the factories around Chemnitz. I watched in horror as Saxons (“native” or real Germans) gathered, not to help, but to watch the apartments go down in flames.
I kept a diary on that first trip, but I’ve long since lost it.
My memories are largely impressionistic. When I think back on the Saxon portion of that trip, of the time we spent in East Germany, I mostly remember three things: the impression of what an earlier generation of economists might have called “underdevelopment,” the aggrieved, defeated East German staff at the university that hosted our conference, and the way that artistic and cultural treasures were just a part of the donnée–ubiquitous, present, and somehow both transcendent and utterly prosaic. It was in Dresden that I came face to face with my first Van Eyck painting, a tiny jewelbox altarpiece that sat, alone, in a glass case. To view the altarpiece, I had to lift a piece of faded green velvet–or was it maroon?–and when I did, I let out an audible gasp. The patient guard, who kept his distance until then, couldn’t help remarking, “Schoen, ja?” To which I could only gasp back, ja, ja, sehr schoen. Too schoen. A person could drown in so much beauty, and yet these people manage to live with it, and continue to do ordinary things like brush their teeth and clock in at work.
I also remember being overcome by my own overwhelming sense of ignorance. All those books, all that coursework–in the end, they had been for nothing. Almost 2 decades have passed since 1989. I was very young and callow then, and sixteen years seemed enough for a lifetime. Those years were as opaque and blank to me as a new sheet of paper. I’d been dropped into a world where I couldn’t find my bearings. All I could do, I realized, was keep my eyes open. I looked and I looked, I tried to drink the world in through my eyes.
I am thinking of that trip to Dresden now, as Russian forces advance on Ukrainian soil, because it was the first time I struggled with my ignorance of the post-Soviet world. For me, the story was complete: it had ended in 1989, with Hollywood flair. For them, it continued, at times ordinary, at times not.
In any case, when I arrived and saw things for myself, I realized that history had not gone the way I imagined it would. When I looked at Dresden, when I looked at the former GDR, I was gripped by an overwhelming sense of bewilderment.
I am still in thrall to that bewilderment. It never left.
By now, we’ve grown familiar with the image of a young(er) Vladimir Putin burning papers in a Dresden boiler room, with the Berlin Wall falling in the background and Moscow ignoring his calls for back-up and protection.
Putin must have also felt, in addition to fear and other, darker emotions, a sense of bewilderment. History had not gone the way he thought it would. He didn’t like–and didn’t want–the future that took shape in front of him.
In response, he tunneled ever deeper into the past.
To say that the past holds the blueprints of the future is overly simplistic.
Faced with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Olaf Schotz–Angela Merkel’s successor as Chancellor of Germany–pronounced the moment a “zeitenwende,” a turn in time, a historical turning point. Schotz’s phrasing made me think of a ribbon twisting in the wind. At least, I hope he envisions time–or history–as a turning or twisting ribbon, and not a Mobius strip.
Towards the end of From Peoples into Nations, John Connelly recounts how Harald Jäger, “the ranking Stasi officer” at Bornholmerstrasse, one of the border crossings that punctuated the Berlin Wall, had to improvise on the spot after Günter Schabowski, spokesperson for the East German government, declared on television on November 9, 1989 that East Germans now had the right, effective immediately, to travel freely to the West. Facing a gathering crowd at Bornholmerstrasse, Jäger realized that he had “no orders from above of any kind.” What to do? Jäger decided to open the gates. As East Germans poured through the gates, “Jäger ducked out of sight to console a comrade who was crying quietly but uncontrollably. What had been the point of their work for the past quarter century?” (730, emphasis mine)
A zeitenwende can be an incandescent moment, aflame with ecstatic and overwhelming emotions that seem to dissolve the boundary between body and world. It can be sublime, or terrible. Behind the ecstasy lies the terror. They are moments that are bigger than us–ourselves, our quotidian lives, the familiar boundaries of our routines. All our givens, gone in a flash–and ourselves, groping blind, advancing in time.
How we respond to that blinding says a lot about who we are. Would we ride time’s arrow forward, believing in the possibility of progress? Or would we imagine stopping, or eliminating, time? No future, just endless, looping returns, back and back, to who we were. Before we shattered. Before we fell.
In an interview with the New York Times, the historian Timothy Snyder recounted his experience of the Maidan protests of 2014: “I can remember very vividly people on the Maidan telling me that when they went home and watch TV, or flipped on their computers, they were afraid. But when they were out there with other people, they weren’t. They felt good.” It was a moment marked by a politics of corporeality and collectivity, where the nation was constituted daily via collective action. To describe this moment in Ukrainian history, Snyder invoked the French historian Ernest Renan’s famous 1882 speech, What is a Nation? (Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?). A nation, Renan said, is a daily plebiscite. In the case of Ukraine, that plebiscite was carried out, in 2014, through demonstrations of physical togetherness and collective action. “One of my artist friends, Vasyl Cherepanyn, called this ‘corporeal politics,’” Snyder said, “Where the point was to show your support to other people by being there.” The war brought about something like the Maidan, but “on a larger scale,” a crucible where Ukrainian identity is being created in the moment, via action. Ukrainian identity and nationhood are being made, in the present tense, in a simple and direct way. As Snyder puts it, the Ukrainians know now – and will remember– their actions in this time of war this way: “We stayed, we did things, Ukraine is present in our lives now, and that’s a sign that it’s a nation.”
Years ago, as a teaching assistant for a course on Western Civilization at Princeton, I was surprised to discover that the works that spoke to my students were not conventionally heroic. When we covered the period of Early Christianity, I expected my students to thrill and delight in the accounts of Christian gladiators oiling themselves up before entering the Coliseum to face combat–and certain martyrdom. They thought those stories were fine, maybe a bit overly dramatic. Instead, they were drawn to accounts of early Christian gatherings, the house churches, the idea of living in community, the emphasis, in these writings, on transcendent and mystical love, the early Church’s lack of hierarchy and radical openness.
Another text that moved them deeply was the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants. They circled in outrage–and pity–around the statement, “It has been the custom hitherto for men to hold us as their own property.” To hold us as their own property. In no world could this situation be right. The Articles seemed to them entirely reasonable. It was, they agreed, proper and right for the peasants to wish to be released from serfdom, to desire to have some degree of freedom and self determination in their lives, to have the right to eat and live and not be dominated by feudal lords, and to have autonomy over one’s own body, mind, and soul. It seemed entirely unreasonable to have to go to war for these basic rights. They felt the beauty and sorrow of this moment, the war that forced the peasants together into one collective body, arrayed with their farm implements against a professional army armed with actual weapons. What did the peasants have, but their pitchforks and scythes, their rocks, their clods of dirt? Why did they march against the lords and their armies? What did they have on their side, but certain death?
Oh, my students answered, but they had something better than arms and armor. They had truth. They were right.