Laurence McFalls – False Memory Syndrome and the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Laurence McFalls, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies, Université de Montréal

False Memory Syndrome and the Fall of the Wall: After twenty years memories of the dramatic events in 1989 have increasingly become projections by today’s political actors and commentators. Laurence McFalls describes how our recollection of the fall of the Wall is shaped by a host of competing and, at times, misleading interpretations. Framing it in terms of a false memory syndrome he suggests that the current festivities for the 20th anniversary tend to miss the essence of what happened in October and November 1989.

4 thoughts on “Laurence McFalls – False Memory Syndrome and the Fall of the Berlin Wall”

  1. Willi Goetschel, University of Toronto: Not False but Screen Memories

    The very way in which the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall had become a national and international event poses some questions. But to speak of false memories seems to miss the deeper problematic that stands behind the staging twenty years later of historical events. It is the very nature of historical events that they themselves are always a construction after the event. Both Simmel and Freud speak of “Nachträglichkeit,” of the fact that history is always constructed after the fact. It is left to the media to make its audience believe to witnessing historical events, but what they witness, if anything at all, is of course what Derrida would call media-thetricalization.
    Laurence McFalls rightly poses the question of the function of 9 November for German post-“reunification” national memory. And I could not agree more that besides the two sides of the wall there is what they both so to speak contain in-between. One of the aspects that took a curious back seat last year in terms of media presence was the Kristallnacht. Did it retire at the age of 70? Surely, speechwriters made sure that its ominous reference – itself of course an insidious euphemism for what then happened – did make an appearance, however brief, in some of the signal addresses. But compared to the previous years, 2009 seemed to commemorate 1989 more than 1938. It remains to be seen whether this was just an incidental moment or whether 1989 will increasingly replace 1938.
    But this is in a way just the symptom of a larger concern. The real issue has been from 1990 onwards the question of picking the right date. McFalls’ comments highlight that 9 November is just as good a date as could have been 9 October or some other fall 1989 date. And anyway what happened to 3 October 1990, the day of the so-called re-unification? Is the celebration of 9 November a sign of the inability to celebrate? Just because the term “re-unification” has been rejected by many and the term “Beitritt” or “joining” of the East has been suggested as more accurate does not mean that the date should be moved backwards 11 months or so. That “Beitritt” would be less euphemistic and more correct than “Wiedervereinigung” – a term that nevertheless registers the more problematic nature of the historical consequences in a way that “Beitritt” would only eclipse – is one of those symptoms that highlight the over-determined intensity of the dynamics of the cathexis that informs the debate around what can only be described as new national complex.
    And so the question remains: why pick 9 November, when there would be other dates that suggest themselves just if not more strongly, and moreover given the fact that the 9 November is already inscribed in the national memory as the day of the burning of Jewish synagogues, shops, apartments and so on? The coincidence is curious enough to suggest that it might be more appropriate to describe the situation in terms of what Freud called screen memory rather than simply false memory.

  2. Christian Leuprecht, Royal Military College of Canada : Lessons Post-1989 Berlin: Visions for the Future

    I grew up in Germany — the Federal Republic, that is – and emigrated to Canada only a year before the Wall fell. I remember distinctly this event, however incredulous it seems to a teenager who had grown up an hour’s drive from the border. “What might happen if the Red Army were to invade?” I had often wondered. German emergency planners had figured that it would take the Red Army three days to reach the Rhine and another four to reach the Channel. NATO planners had agreed on the Rhine as the first line of defence. All of a sudden, the threat had vanished. The impervious “anti-fascist predictive barrier” as the leadership of the Democratic Republic had referred to the Berlin Wall, had been brought down, not by force but by the people.
    The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the crest the third wave of democratization which Samuel Huntington dates back to 1974. It would sweep not only Eastern and Central Europe but parts of Central and South East Asia as well. The West’s grand strategy had apparently paid off: In Francis Fukuyama’s words, Marx’s “last man” had reached “the End of History”. Lest we forget that Fukuyama’s widely misunderstood piece first appeared in The National Interest in the summer of 1989 — that is, before the Wall came down – was poignantly dotted by a question mark: “The End of History?” Soon his Harvard colleague Huntington would run roughshod over Fukuyama’s thesis with his famous 1993 piece in Foreign Affairs portending The Clash of Civilizations. Instead of taking it for granted, democracy had to be defended. As a student of both history and strategy, Huntington had read Polybius. He knew of the epic struggle between East and West. He knew how close the Romans had come to being overrun by Hannibal’s plundering Cathagans. And he knew that freedom was at its greatest peril when people failed to recognize the looming threat. Huntington sought to alert us to that threat. Fareed Zakaria would spell it out in Foreign Affairs four years later: “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” The freedoms accorded by democracy were being threatened and usurped by those who would use them to install illiberal regimes in elections that were neither free nor fair. While constitutional liberalism seems to have brought us democracy, the converse does not obtain.
    The divided Germany used to be a premier ideological battleground between competing worldviews. As the most populous country and largest economy in Europe, from Afghanistan to the Congo Germany has since found itself thrust into the middle of the epic struggle for freedom in a way no one could have fathomed in 1989. Germans celebrate 1989 as the end of an era and the harbinger of a golden age of democracy and freedom. Twenty years hence, Germany is struggling with a rather rude awakening on an international stage that thrust upon it obligations which few Germans are keen to realize. Instead of the answer that Germans might like to attribute to it, the Fall of the Berlin Wall has turned out the second coming of a plethora of “Questions from a Reading Worker”. Quoting from Berthold Brecht’s famous poem:
    The young Alexander conquered India.
    Was he alone?
    Caesar beat the Gauls.
    Did he not have even a cook with him?
    Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
    Was he the only one to weep?
    Frederick the Second won the Seven Year’s War.
    Who else won it?

  3. Willem Maas, York University: History in Hindsight

    McFalls wisely reminds us that historical moments have multiple meanings. For me, it is important to place the fall of the Berlin Wall not just in a German or even a European but rather in a global context. Here’s a selective history:
    In 1988, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev begins economic restructuring (perestroika) and starts withdrawing from Afghanistan and reducing troops elsewhere. In Bratislava, Catholic dissidents push for religious freedoms, the latest of many anti-Communist protests across central and eastern Europe. In August, thousands of anti-government protesters are killed in Burma, Pakistani president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and the US ambassador to Pakistan are killed in a plane crash, and the Iran-Iraq war ends. In September, hundreds of thousands of people in Estonia demonstrate for independence; the Estonian Supreme Soviet declares sovereignty two months later. In Chile, Augusto Pinochet’s attempt to renew his mandate is defeated in a plebiscite. Thousands of South Korean students demonstrate against former president Chun Doo Hwan, who later apologizes for corruption. Benazir Bhutto is elected prime minister of Pakistan.
    1989 begins with the death of emperor Hirohito, who since 1926 had presided over the transformation of Japan from a rural country to an industrial giant: militarization and conflict against the ABCD powers, the Sino-Japanese and then Pacific wars culminating in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US occupation, then a postwar economic miracle. By Christmas, the Bank of Japan raises interest rates drastically, ending the bubble economy.
    Also in January, the Polish government legalizes the trade union Solidarity. In South Africa, P.W. Botha resigns his party’s leadership and the presidency and is eventually replaced by F.W. de Klerk, who starts negotiations to end apartheid. In February, following riots in Pakistan against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, Iranian leader Ruhollah Khomeini encourages Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers. Khomeini dies that June, a decade after the Iranian Revolution brought him to power. In March, the Exxon Valdez spills 240,000 barrels of oil off Alaska.
    In April, pro-democracy Chinese students begin protesting in Tiananmen Square. June 4 witnessed simultaneously the Tiananmen Square massacre in China and the overwhelming victory of the Solidarity candidates in Poland. Later that month, 250,000 people gather in Budapest for the reburial of former prime minister Imre Nagy, executed following the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution. In July, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is placed under house arrest. In August, the Pan-European Picnic is held on the Hungarian-Austrian border and Hungary removes border restrictions. Millions in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania demand independence, forming a human chain 600km long.
    In October, the Commonwealth issues the Langkawi Declaration, resolving immediate action to combat climate change, the depletion of the ozone layer, acid rain, marine pollution, land degradation and the extinction of animal and plant species.
    November 9 is the event now commemorated, or perhaps more accurately, now recognized as key. As McFalls notes: “today, when we look back at the Berlin Wall, people make up all kinds of stories.”
    Three days later, Brazil holds its first free presidential election since 1960. Five days after that, riot police break up a student demonstration in Prague, sparking the Velvet Revolution which culminates on December 29 with the election of Vaclav Havel as president of Czechoslovakia, four days after the execution of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauseşcu and his wife on Christmas day.
    Given this context, let’s take the insight one step further: history is interpreted in hindsight, and its meaning depends on one’s perspective. From a contemporary German viewpoint, the fall of the Berlin Wall matters a great deal. From other perspectives, however, it may be less important than other events: Perestroika and reductions in Soviet troops. The deaths of Hirohito or Khomeini. Solidarity’s election win. The reburial of Nagy. The Langkawi Declaration. Tiananmen Square.
    History is constantly being recast, and perception depends on location as well as on the selective construction of memory. For me, the political uses of history are fascinating. How do the viewpoints of history’s narrators influence its telling? Which events gain historical significance or symbolic meaning and why? In what ways are these events commemorated or subverted?

  4. Alexandra Hausstein, University of Toronto: Complex representations and the politics of remembrance

    The contributions of Laurence McFalls and Oliver Schmidtke pose an important question, which is the representation of the fall of the Berlin Wall in cultures of remembrance and the role that East Germans play in the constitution and politics of this collective memory.
    For example the dating of national historic events and their function as points of remembrance: November 9, 1989 is a date, as McFalls rightly argues, that relates to an event which was certainly truly symbolic but did not represent the revolutionary acts that happened on Monday demonstrations in many East German cities. So, the question is, why does the 9th of November get as much attention as THE event of change? First of all, it is a question of remembrance politics, and secondly a matter of medialization of events and who owns the means to represent and symbolize. Why does the remembrance of the fall of the Berlin Wall concentrate on heroically staged events and on something material (the wall)? Why do we not commemorate the 9th of October as the first mass revolutionary movement in Leipzig?
    First of all, it was a regional event; Monday demonstrations in other German cities were certainly slightly different. Having taken part myself in many of these demonstrations in Rostock, it would be difficult for me to single out one Monday as particularly important. Whereas the fall of the Berlin Wall contains the whole symbolism of the divided Germany, including the ambiguities that are related to the meaning of the Berlin Wall even 20 years after, from protection (“antifaschistischer Schutzwall”, this was not only propaganda), to exclusion, to distinction (“die Mauer in den Köpfen”) and finally division again (“die Mauer muss wieder her”). Even more difficult is to celebrate the 3rd of October, because the date does not connect to any affective event that inscribes into memory. The act of signing a common constitution is now celebrated officially, but people take this national holiday as an opportunity to enjoy private life, like it was the case in the GDR with the 7 October, which now ironically receives in some parts of Germany more attention than the 3rd of October. Are the Germans not ready for any kind of “Verfassungspatriotismus”?
    The 3rd of October was chosen because the 9th of November was already the day of commemorating the Hitler Ludendorff Putsch (1923) and the Reichskristallnacht (1938). Nevertheless, the day 9th of November a the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall has the stronger denotation than the 3rd of October. After approx. 80-100 years (three to four generations) the remembrance of an event transgresses from collective to cultural memory. This transgression now starts for the previous events 1923 and 1938, so, in the case of 9th of November in Germany an experienced events overlaps a narrated event.
    My argument here is that what McFalls calls “false memories” is rather a product of a complex politics of remembrance and representation in which, as Oliver Schmidtke pointed out, the East Germans play a marginal role.
    Why is it that 20 years after the unification of the two German states the remembrance politics is primarily a western one, focusing on the fall of the Berlin Wall as a symbol of victory of a superior system over an evil, unjust state, an “Unrechtsstaat”? The East Germans were heroes only for a short time, but socially surviving (not very heroic) in the new political, legal and labour system required new competences, skills, and habits, causing a disruption of entire biographies and identities. As East Germans say, what is left of the GDR is the “Sandmännchen” and “der grüne Pfeil”. With this “deprived sense of ownership” as Schmidtke calls it, there is not much access to modern means of representation like media, institutions and people in responsible positions that are not to a certain extent transformed by and assimilated into the western social and symbolic system.
    The individual, the East German, acts in a social framework and is part of an intersubjective symbolic system, and therefore has access to numerous collective memories and collective self-images; but how this memory is mediated and becomes visible in public, finds other audiences and reproduces on a larger scale is a question of not only the politics of remembrance but also access to the means of representation for the production of narratives, images, institutions, places and monuments that constitute the social and communicative household of a society.

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