Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11 in Berlin

I think I've mentioned before that Berliners have a long tradition of loving America and Americans. Much of this love can be traced back to the Berlin airlift that began in June 1948 after Josef Stalin announced his intention to bring West Berlin under Soviet control and blocked off all land and water routes into the city, planning to starve the Berliners into submission. Two days later, a fleet of British and American supply planes under the command of American general Lucius D. Clay began flying in food and supplies to Tempelhof airport. The Luftbrücke (air bridge) was to continue for 15 months, and the Rosinenbomber (raisin bombers) have lived on in the public imagination.

This was the historical backdrop to John F. Kennedy's celebrated visit to Berlin, where he declared himself a Berliner on the steps of the Schöneberger Rathaus or Schöneberg town hall. Each borough of Berlin has its own Rathaus, and during the academic year 2001-2002 I spent a great deal of time in the Rathaus of the Schöneberg district where I was living; the amateur string orchestra I played in that year held its weekly rehearsals in one of the upstairs rooms.

It was terrible being so far from home the day of 9/11. A friend in Berlin had heard on the 3:00 p.m. radio news (9:00 a.m. EST) that a terrible accident had taken place in New York and had called me right away, so I was watching live on CNN as the second plane struck the South Tower, and then as the South and then the North towers collapsed. The television image of the South tower vanishing in a plume of dust is the most horrifying thing I have ever seen; I can only imagine the terror of those who witnessed it in person. Hours later, when I was finally able to tear myself away from the television and venture out into the street, I found the city of Berlin in mourning. People in the subway looked as if they'd had a death in the family, and many were wearing little American flags on their clothing. Where did all those little stickpins come from? A day or two later there were new stickpins, showing the American and German flags intertwined. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder declared Germany's "unconditional solidarity" with the United States. And when I showed up to orchestra rehearsal two days later, I found the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg completely blanketed with flowers: hundreds and hundreds of small individual bouquets left by individual Berliners who wanted to express their feelings of sympathy and solidarity. The American embassy was ringed with flowers too.

Three days later, a massive demonstration was held at the Brandenburg Gate, which had been draped with an enormous black banner reading "Wir trauern [we mourn] - our deepest sympathy." Two hundred thousand Berliners showed up for it. The point of the demonstration was to emphasize German solidarity with the United States and pay tribute to a long friendship between nations, but I noticed a new tenor in the placards I saw a number of Berliners holding up. People were starting to remember that America was a major military power and worrying about what a reprisal for the attacks might look like. Might it look like a new world war? German President Johannes Rau officially called on the United States to practice "Besonnenheit," a word that goes back to Herder and Kant and can be translated as "sober-minded reflection." German hearts were bleeding for America - both in the government and on the street - but no one wanted to see the United States go to war. And while initially there was support for U.S. military operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq two years later on obviously flimsy grounds cost the United States much of the love and respect it had enjoyed in Europe, even in Berlin.

Ten years after the tragedy, military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, so it is hard to imagine the day when Berliners thinking of America will once more think first of the airlift and only after of these wars. I hope that day will come.

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