Monday, August 9, 2010

An Audacious Hope Became Joyful Reality

Commemorating the Demise
of the Iron Curtain


For students entering college this autumn, the Berlin Wall might seem like distant history. But to those in mid-career, who are still young from this writer’s perspective, the hope that this monstrosity would ever come down appeared audacious. Yet it happened. Twenty years ago, Germany was reunified. The Iron Curtain disappeared. To commemorate this exhilarating event, and to keep its memory alive among the next generation, the League of Faithful Masks and Concordia University Irvine are offering a unique Celebration of Freedom.

We will celebrate this anniversary with a variety of events on the campus of Concordia. There will be a German Film Week. There will be a month-long exhibition of artifacts, documents and works of art pertaining to Germany’s division, to life in East Germany and to reunification. And there will be, on October 6, a rich conference featuring classical music and jazz, a brand-new documentary and, most importantly, the historical witness of fascinating persons who have experienced reunification from a variety of perspectives.

You will find a wealth of details about our German Days, including programs and sidebar stories, on the “front page” of a special edition of The Mask. ( The point of the present article is to explain why The League of Faithful Masks is doing this. The League’s stated mission is to champion the worldview of vocation, a worldview strongly shared by Concordia University. It holds that all humans are called to serve each other altruistically. It is hard to imagine any good-neighborly service more urgently needed than providing witness to history, for as the old adage has it: no history, no future.

Five anecdotes of recent weeks might illustrate the exigency of a return to the appreciation of history and its twin, geography, to assure the survival of our civilization in this age of information, an age whose principal mark seems to be that it renders our contemporaries increasingly uninformed. For the sake of trans-Atlantic evenhandedness, I am taking my examples from four different countries.

United States: As I was preparing the German Day program, a well-meaning American acquaintance with an M.A. degree cautioned me against referring to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), arguably the most brilliant mind in German cultural history. She insisted that a direct line linked Goethe to Hitler, and that the proximity between Weimar, Goethe’s place of work for decades, and the Nazi extermination of Buchenwald was “no coincidence.”

France: At a dinner conversation, the name Martin Luther came up. Said a local politician at my table: “Martin Luther? Wasn’t that the black guy from Switzerland?” She confused Martin Luther with Martin Luther King, the U.S. civil rights leader, and with reformer John Calvin who, though born in northern France, spent the most important years of his ministry in Geneva.

England: Again at a dinner, a British friend told me of a teacher he knew who had taken a class of English grammar school (high school) students to Dover. The teacher pointed to the English Channel and asked his pupils: “What lies beyond this body of water?” Some opined: “Perhaps the United States?” Others said, “No, no, it must be Africa.” It was news to all of them that by crossing the Channel they would soon reach France on whose shores perhaps their great-grandfathers had died.

Germany: The features editor of a well-known newspaper proposed to his editor-in-chief producing a special issue commemorating the 450th anniversary of the death of Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Luther’s most significant associate. The editor-in-chief, a man in his early thirties, rejected this idea outright. It turned out that he had no idea who Melanchthon was, the man educated Germans have venerated since the late 16th century as the “Praeceptor Germaniae” – Germany’s teacher.

USA again: In a recent journalism class, students interviewed a 15-year old girl of Vietnamese descent. “What publications do you read?” they wanted to know. She mentioned The Economist, a British weekly magazine of high quality. “Why The Economist?” they asked. “Well,” she replied, “I don’t want to be a moron like the other kids in my class who don’t even know who the current President of the United States is.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent a postdoctoral year at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1930, he was horrified by the cluelessness of the students he had to listen to in seminars. “They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria,” he wrote. This clueless verbosity Bonhoeffer observed 80 years ago has now become an all-Western property, much to the detriment of the young people who are so often deprived of the basic historical guideposts for their journey through an in increasingly dangerous and inscrutable world.

The most tragic aspect of this is what has really been stolen from the younger generation: a historically grounded basis for hope. What happened in Germany in 1990 provided such a footing. Being hopeful seemed audacious for many of us. But then hope became a reality. This is why The League of Faithful Masks, Concordia University and their partners are inviting you to celebrate with us. The demise of the Iron Curtain, which looks like just a fact of distant history to some, has given all of us cause for courage.