LAWRENCE – Nov. 9 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that symbolized the eventual collapse of communism and emergence of capitalism throughout Eastern Europe.
Professors at the University of Kansas can provide insight into one of the most significant events of the 20th century. Their expertise ranges from Cold War history to novels inspired by the events following the end of communism. Several KU professors were in Germany when the wall fell or lived in Eastern Europe in the years that followed, witnessing the sometimes difficult transition from a socialist to capitalist society.
The following KU professors are available to provide commentary on the fall of the Berlin Wall. To arrange an interview with any of these scholars, contact Christine Metz Howard at 785-864-8852.
Lorie Vanchena, associate professor of Germanic languages and literatures and director of the European Studies Program, has taught classes about Berlin in Berlin to American students. In 1982, Vanchena visited West and East Berlin and recalls once being denied access into East Berlin at the historic Checkpoint Charlie.
“It is still somewhat surprising to be able to walk through the Brandenburg Gate and not have a wall, Russian tanks and soldiers right there,” Vanchena said.
From 1989 to 1990, Vanchena lived in Germany, where she closely followed the fall of the wall and the country’s unification process. At first, West Germans were welcoming, Vanchena said, but the initial euphoria wore off and moods changed within weeks as more East Germans crossed the border. And, for some East Germans, especially those connected with the Communist Party, the fall of the wall left them unemployed and with a much lower social status.
“Within weeks life changed dramatically, but not always for the better,” she said.
Nathan Wood, associate professor of history, is an expert on 20th century Eastern Europe. Wood, who lived in Poland from 1991 to 1993 and visited the country many times since then, can speak personally to the legacy of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Though he did not arrive in Eastern Europe until a year and a half later, he observed the often rocky results of the transition from communism to a market economy firsthand. During his first stay in Poland, Wood saw the price of goods double.
“If before the collapse people had money, but there was nothing to buy, afterwards, everything was suddenly available, but because of inflation, hardly anyone could afford it,” Wood said. “I’m not sure what’s worse.”
Since then Wood has seen the country’s standard of living increase, which is evident alone by the ever-increasing number of cars clogging the city streets. By most metrics, people are better off, he noted, but this does not mean that there’s no room for what the Germans call “Ostalgie,” or nostalgia for some elements of the state socialist past. On Nov. 11, Wood will give a lecture at KU titled “Taking Stock: 25 Years Since the Fall of the Wall” about the changes in the region since Nov. 9, 1989.
Marike Janzen, assistant professor of humanities and coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies program, researches authorship and the practice of solidarity. She is working on a book that focuses on German writer Anna Seghers, who lived in East Germany during the Cold War. Janzen is studying how Seghers’ works can offer insight into the way that authors aimed to achieve international solidarity during the 20th century.
Janzen can share personal memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall. She was in West Berlin visiting family on the historic day. As soon as Janzen and her family received word that the wall had fallen, they headed straight to the Brandenburg Gate. While the crowd had a celebratory atmosphere, Janzen said a deep sense of solemnness also was present.
“You knew that there had been so much damage associated with that wall and the border. People had died trying to cross the border, and it was so painful. So for it to be suddenly gone, people had to make sense of that,” Janzen said.
Janzen returned to Germany in 1995, where she lived in the former East German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, in a town near the Baltic Sea. There, she helped teachers who were transitioning from teaching Russian in the classroom to English. That experience provided an intimate look at the reunification process.
“I think there was a sense by East Germans that the material evidence of their lives was erased quite quickly,” Janzen said.
Svetlana Vassileva-Karagyozova, associate professor in Slavic languages and literatures, has an upcoming book that examines Polish coming-of-age novels centered on the generation who grew up under communist ideals and emerged into adulthood just as communism was collapsing. The genre is a popular one in Poland, where much of the country is preoccupied with the past, Vassileva-Karagyozova said. Almost all the novels have characters who fail to mature, which is linked to the generation’s inability to take over political leadership after the decline of communism.
“The younger generation blames the older generation for stealing the ’89 revolution because the older dissidents didn’t allow their younger fellows to move to leadership positions,” Vassileva-Karagyozova said. “The younger generation turned their attention to other areas where they could feel useful. They concentrated their efforts on building a new Polish free-market economy. And, they were extremely successful in that. But today they regret that they couldn’t realize themselves as a political generation.”
Erik Scott, assistant professor of history, is an expert on modern Russia, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was the best-known manifestation of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War’s division between the capitalist west and socialist east. But Scott said that the Iron Curtain was more porous than many people think, with ideas, culture, capital, and sometimes people going back and forth.
The legacy of the Berlin Wall and the rollback of Soviet influence and military power from Eastern Europe is still being determined, Scott said, and he points to Russia’s recent interventions in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
“There is an effort by Russia to reassert control over former Soviet spaces and perhaps redefine post-Cold War borders,” Scott said.
Robert Rowland, professor of communication studies, is an expert on the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, particularly during the Cold War. Rowland is co-author of “Reagan at Westminster: Foreshadowing the End of the Cold War,” which examines the famous address Reagan gave to the Houses of Parliament. In that speech, Reagan warned “the march of freedom and democracy” would leave “Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history.” Rowland also can talk about the speech Reagan gave in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate, where he implored, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
“Reagan helped convince Soviets that it was in their best interest to agree to arms control, which lead to glasnost and perestroika and the rejecting of a communist controlled government,” Rowland said.