- The Washington Times - Monday, November 9, 2009

Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, some political scholars and historians are facing the challenge of making that history relevant to today’s students — many of whom weren’t even alive in 1989.

“They know that they’re supposed to see it as important, but it doesn’t have the same visceral, experiential component,” said Georgetown University professor Jeffrey Anderson, who teaches in the university’s School of Foreign Service.

Mr. Anderson said his students have a better overall knowledge of the history of the Cold War than most of their U.S. peers, but still lack a complete contextual understanding.

“It comes close to being the first thing they remember seeing on TV,” Mr. Anderson said. “They may not have pieced it together at the time.”

Without that understanding, students are less likely to be influenced by the emotional context of the event and more likely to see the fall of the wall as a logical step in the collapse of communism, Mr. Anderson said.

Aviel Roshwald, who also teaches at Georgetown, said his students generally are limited in their understanding of the history surrounding the wall and have no emotional connection to it.

“If they don’t know anything else about the fall of communism, they know about the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said Mr. Roshwald, who has taught European diplomatic relations at Georgetown since 1991.

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Mr. Roshwald said that over the past 20 years, he has increasingly had to explain concepts such as “glasnost” and “perestroika” and the greater significance of the wall’s fall.

Glasnost means openness and refers to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s willingness to open up the communist government to greater transparency and accountability; perestroika means “restructuring” and refers to economic and political reforms Mr. Gorbachev introduced.

“In 1990, you didn’t have to explain why this was a big deal,” Mr. Roshwald said.

A small sample of local students would seem to confirm his assessment.

Several students started their answers with an explanation of East and West Berlin and a mention of communism when asked about the wall but didn’t know much else.

Howard University junior Shenise Miller, 20, said she remembered receiving a cursory lesson on the Berlin Wall as a high school student in Long Island, N.Y.

“We talked about it for two seconds in high school,” said Miss Miller, a political science major. “It was one page in my history book.”

Aaron Worku, an 18-year-old computer engineering major at the University of Maryland, said he doesn’t know very much about the wall and doesn’t see it as relevant to his life.

“It didn’t affect me or anyone I know,” he said.

Mr. Worku added that he sees the assassination of President Kennedy as more relevant because “world leaders don’t get killed that often.”

Old Dominion University finance major Javon Gant, 20, said he has only a vague understanding of the significance of the Berlin Wall, but added that he has a similarly limited understanding of the conflict between North and South Korea.

All three students said they have seen footage of the wall being torn down but that when they first saw it, it had little or no meaning to them.

In contrast, the three remembered exactly where they were during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and how they felt.

“I thought it was the end of the world,” said Mr. Gant, who was in middle school at the time.

Mr. Anderson and Mr. Roshwald said their students are much more connected to the fallout of the 2001 attacks because they were old enough to understand it.

“For these students [Sept. 11] was vastly more real,” Mr. Anderson said.

Young people in Germany and Eastern Europe are naturally more affected by the consequences of the Cold War than their American counterparts. Even if they have no clear memories of their own, their parents and grandparents provide links to the past.

During a recent round-table discussion at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, several Poles in their 20s were surprised when a reporter asked if they knew much about the communist period.

“Those times are always present in most of what we do,” said Ewelina Jurkiewicz, a 26-year-old freelance journalist. “I know that I wouldn’t be able to live the way they did back then, but it’s part of our history.”

Andrzej Bobinski, 30, said Poles still look at Russia with suspicion because of what happened during the Cold War and earlier. “We relate everything that happens [today] to the past,” he said.

Young people in some eastern parts of Germany remark that their cities and villages are not quite developed yet by Western standards. In many places, building modern infrastructure has proved a slow and painful process.

“There are still many wounds that need to heal,” said Erland Ritter, a 35-year-old Berlin-based businessman.

Teenagers, however, have a different take. They usually talk about communism almost as if it were part of mythology — or at least a very distant historical period. Of more than 100 high school students in Bulgaria who were asked whether they knew what life under communism was like, only few said they did.

“I know a little from my grandmother, but it’s not really a big part of my life,” said Tanya Georgieva, a 15-year-old student in the eastern city of Burgas.

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