November 1989: Moments that Change Your Life

by Bruce Berglund.
A man hammering at the Berlin Wall soaked by water.

Men hammering through the Wall as E. German guards fire water cannon through the crack, soaking everyone in that freezing morning. (Source: Smithsonian online. Click the image for more.)

Most of us remember exactly where we were when we first heard reports of certain historical events. My grandparents remembered where they were on the Sunday of December 7, 1941, while for my parents’ generation the crushing news came on November 22, 1963. Of course, all of us remember where we heard the first reports on the Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001.

My list of memorable moments is long: I heard the news on August 16, 1977, from the AM radio in my family’s kitchen. On the same radio in the same kitchen, I listened to the live broadcast on February 22, 1980. I learned the news of September 28, 1978 on the playground of my elementary school, and I was in high school study hall when the reports broke on January 28, 1986.

May 2, 2011. February 11, 1990. April 20, 1999. February 1, 2003. October 6, 1981. In each case, I remember the spot where I first heard—or watched—the news.

One memorable date that holds special resonance for me is November 9, 1989. Last month, there were plenty of commemorations marking the 25th anniversary of that day’s historic event, the opening of the Berlin Wall. Here at Calvin, the German Department organized a program to mark the occasion, and to explain the Wall’s history to current students, all of whom had been born years after the reunification of Germany. As a historian of Eastern Europe, I was invited to say a few words at the event. My remarks were less historical than personal. Even though I had no direct connection to Berlin or the old East Germany, the opening of the Wall proved to be a decisive moment for me. I look back now and see how the events of 1989 put me on a path of study, research, and teaching, as well as making possible friendships and experiences that have enriched the last 25 years of my life.

In the autumn of 1989, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, a history major with plans to enter law school after graduation. I had long had an interest in the Soviet bloc, something like a desire to “know my enemy,” stirred by the heightened Cold War tensions of the late 1970s and early 80s. By my college years, Gorbachev’s perestroika had calmed relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union. In fact, there was a surge in enrollments in Russian language courses at universities across the country at that time. I was one of those students, learning Russian in the expectation of new opportunities in the reforming USSR.

Given my interest in all things Soviet bloc, I had followed reports in the winter and spring of 1989 of negotiations in Poland between the government, the Catholic Church, and the Solidarity labor union.  Another entry in my file of historic dates comes from those months: June 4, 1989. Of course, the shocking news of that day was the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing. But on that same day, Poland held the first open elections in Eastern Europe in more than 40 years, which Solidarity won overwhelmingly. Later that year, when school resumed in the fall, the news from the region was of East German citizens fleeing to the West by the thousands through Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In early November alone, before the Wall opened, over 62,000 citizens of the GDR traveled through Czechoslovakia to West Germany. It looked as if East Germany was going to empty out.

Still, I was stunned on the evening of November 9 by the video of thousands of East Berliners pouring through the checkpoints and climbing on top of the Wall. Berliners were stunned as well. As we now know, the immediate opening of the Wall that night was not by deliberate government decision. The Politburo had decided to put new travel regulations in effect the next day, allowing people to exit directly to West Germany rather than having to travel through neighboring countries. However, the Politburo’s spokesman was unaware of the specifics when he appeared before the press. In reply to a reporter’s question of when the new regulations would be in effect, he answered: “As far as I know, effective immediately, without delay.” As word of the mistaken announcement spread across the capital, crowds streamed to the crossings, where they met confused border guards. The order came later that night to let the people through.

From a historical perspective, it’s important for us to remember the unexpectedness of the Wall’s opening. When I’ve taught students about the events of 1989 in classes, we’ve looked at the deep debt of the communist governments, the overall economic stagnation, the dissatisfaction of the population, and, of course, the oppressive police state. From our standpoint, there is so much evidence of internal rot in the former communist states that we assume they were destined to fall.

As a friend of mine in Prague once reminded me, that was certainly not the case. A week after the Berlin Wall had opened, my friend Daniel was detained by the Czechoslovak state police. They were interested not about Daniel, but another person at his church. After questioning, the police released him—and he went right away to warn his friend. But the man dismissed the imminent threat of his arrest. The regime’s days were numbered, he said. Daniel couldn’t believe what his friend was saying. As he talked with his friend on that day, November 16, Daniel still believed that he would live the rest of his life under communist rule. He remembered distinctly that conversation, and what he was thinking, and the date. The very next day, November 17, 1989, the revolution began in Prague.

Crowd of people, with student waving Czechoslovakian flag in the foreground

Thousands of students in Prague protest the communist regime in November 1989.

“We are living in very extraordinary times,” said Václav Havel in an address to a joint session of Congress in February 1990, two months after the Velvet Revolution had swept the Communists from power in Czechoslovakia. If the autumn of 1989 had a heroic figure, it was Havel, the playwright who became a dissident, a political prisoner, and then in 1989 his country’s first post-communist president. I found Havel especially compelling from the time I read that speech to Congress, reprinted in Time magazine. “We still don’t know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics,” Havel said. “We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success – responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged.”

Perhaps it was because I was a student at the time, young and yearning for ideals, but this notion of morality in politics struck me as extraordinary. Havel’s words, his life’s story, and the whole drama of 1989 fired my curiosity in a way that’s still hard to explain. Eighteen months after that autumn of revolutions, I made my first trip to Europe, with a backpack over my shoulders. The least expensive flight was to Amsterdam. But I got on an eastbound train right away, first to Berlin, then to Prague.

I returned from that trip to Europe and started law school in the fall. Torts and contracts, however, couldn’t keep my attention. A volume of Havel’s essays had just been published, and I read them during breaks between classes. Like other young Americans who traveled to Prague in the early 1990s, I also read through the novels of Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Havel’s essays and Kundera’s fiction stirred big ideas that carried me away from reading cases and writing briefs. By the sixth week of the semester, when I was reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in the back row of my torts class, it was clear the bar was not in my future.

Prof. Berglund in a t-shirt and baseball cap posing in front of the Prague skyline on a summer day

Bruce Berglund as a student in Prague, 1994.

In the years since then, I’ve made plenty of trips back to Prague. My family and I spent two full years in the city (two of our children were born there during those stays). I’ve brought students to Cracow, Budapest, and Sarajevo; I’ve enjoyed memorable visits with colleagues in Warsaw, Berlin, and Ljubljana; I’ve visited mountaintop castles in Slovakia, Orthodox cathedrals in Romania, and a Roman amphitheater in Croatia. Unfortunately, my visits have been infrequent as of late. My work in the region has waned, while I’ve moved on to other projects and courses.

Still, I have students who are drawn to Eastern Europe. This spring, one of our history graduates will take an internship at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest. A recent graduate just began a doctoral program in East European studies. Other former students ended up in Bosnia, Romania, and Turkey. I’m always pleased that this often-overlooked part of the world still exerts a pull on young people. Looking back on how the events of 1989 pulled me, it is striking that our lives can be shaped—for decades to come—by moments in the news, or books, or classes that we experience when we’re 20 years old. The events of 1989 didn’t liberate me from an authoritarian regime, they didn’t give me freedom to write or work or worship as I chose. But they did change my life.

Bruce Berglund’s area of focus in his doctoral studies was East European and Russian history.  He is editor of The Allrounder​, an online journal that features the writing of academics and journalists on sports, society, and culture.”

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Book Note: Aliens in the Promised Land, ed. by Anthony Bradley

by Eric Washington.

book cover of Aliens In The Promised LandEdited by the prolific theologian Anthony Bradley, Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013) is a timely collection of essays that challenge the Evangelical powers that be on the issue of the inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities within the leadership structures of both churches and institutions of higher education. By implication, this book opposes systemic and institutional racism operating within Evangelical churches and institutions. This work offers a wide array of insight from minority leaders within Evangelicalism on the issues of race and inclusion from the rather startling argument by Lance Lewis (“Black Pastoral Leadership in Church Planting”) that white Evangelical churches should take a moratorium on planting churches in African-American communities to Ralph Watkins’ (“A Black Church Perspective on Minorities in Evangelicalism”) lament regarding the exclusion of an African perspective in the church history course at Fuller Seminary. Though the arrangement of the book lacks thorough cohesion, it is a welcome addition to other recent publications on the issue of race in Evangelical churches and institutions such as Edward Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues and George Yancey’s sociological study Neither Jew Nor Gentile.

The major strength of this work is the collection of self-narratives given by the majority of the contributors. These stories given by African-Americans, Latinos, and one Asian-American allow readers to sympathize and for some to empathize with the struggles they have endured being Evangelicals of color. In Bradley’s introduction he shares the tension and also the anguish of being a self-identified Reformed Evangelical amid a never subsiding tide of racism. He writes that “John Calvin-loving racists” posted outright racist things about him on the internet in 2004. In a poignant statement, Bradley writes that “some of whom the Puritans are precious did not welcome my presence among them” (13). Another powerful story emerges from Harold Dean Trulear’s chapter “Blacks and Latinos in Theological Education as Professors and Administrators.” Trulear, an associate professor of applied theology at Howard University’s Divinity School, re-tells a conversation he had with an Evangelical African-American pastor who told him that while attending a theologically conservative seminary members of the majority culture treated him “like a dog,” but when he matriculated at a liberal school in its department of religion professors and colleagues treated him “like a man” (96). Others such as Orlando Rivera (“Blacks and Latinos in Theological Education as Students”) and Vincent Bacote (“Ethnic Scarcity in Evangelical Theology: Where are the Authors?”) share autobiographical nuggets that situate themselves within post-Civil Rights US history and within Evangelicalism. As scholars at Nyack College and Wheaton College, respectively, they pinpoint those extra layers of difficulty apparent at Evangelical institutions for both scholars and students alike such as the need to recruit and maintain more minority students and faculty and the necessity of creating networks for minority graduate students in the field of theology. These stories and observations highlight the grave disconnect between Evangelical commitment to preserving sound doctrine and its commitment to alleviate America’s racism and the racism that is prevalent within its own domain.

Another strength of this book is the plethora of challenges offered by the contributors in particular Amos Yong and Juan Martinez focus on issue of transnationalism. Both argue that white Evangelicals have failed to understand transnationals within the ranks of Evangelicalism. In his chapter “Race and Racialization in a Post-Racist Evangelicalism: A View from Asian America,” Yong, dean of the School of Divinity at Regent University, criticizes white Evangelicals for neglecting “to understand the Christian faith in a global context.” According to Yong, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans possess a “global consciousness” that negates the need to assimilate into American Evangelicalism (53). In addition, this issue is important for Latino Evangelicals as asserted by Juan Martinez, a professor and administrator at Fuller Theological Seminary. In his chapter “Serving Alongside Latinos in a Multiethnic, Transnational, Rapidly Changing World,” Martinez maintains that Latino students in US seminaries offer a rich, global, and dynamic spiritual perspective “that may be better able to respond to postmodern reality” (67). Because of this, seminaries should open ways for non-Latino students to learn from their Latino counterparts regarding ministering in “an increasingly diverse world” (67).

Though this book offers a wide scope of the negative impact of race on Evangelicalism, including the entire Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s study on race published in 1994 found in the appendix, it suffers from a modest lack of cohesion in its organization. For example, Rivera’s chapter on problems faced by African-American and Latino students lacks coordination with others in that it fails to highlight minority leadership in the church or in the academy specifically. Carl Ellis’ chapter on discipling urban young men though highly practical and informative also fails to connect solidly with other contributions. Both of these chapters upset the flow of the book.

Despite the forgivable problem of seamless of cohesion, Bradley’s edited collection is critical for Evangelicals during this period of heightened racial sensitivity in America. Its candor should be taken as truth-telling and redemptive, and it deserves to be read by all Evangelicals carefully with open ears and open hearts. Bradley concludes with a stinging yet important assertion regarding how to proceed in this work of racial reconciliation in Evangelical churches: there must be a discussion of white privilege in order for white Evangelicals “to use their privilege redemptively in a broken world” (153). If such an inclusion is carried into the conversation of racial reconciliation there would be much fruit born and needed healing will occur.

This book review first appeared in The Gospel Coalitions Reviews

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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Manhood, Sports and War

by Will Katerberg

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about masculinity. I’ve been teaching some classes on the relationship between conceptions of manhood and race and American foreign policy in the late 19th and early 20th century. Think Teddy Roosevelt. I’m also thinking ahead about a course on masculinity and sports that I’m co-teaching in January with one of my colleagues, Bruce Berglund.

TR boxing

Teddy Roosevelt, dressed for boxing, while at Harvard in the 1870s.

This morning, as they often do, the guys on ESPN radio repeatedly made the connection  between masculinity, sports and war. They talked about football players going into battle. And they spoke approvingly of men who, on the field and in their personal lives, “take care of business” and “do things the right way.”

One of the issues they’ve wrestled with regularly in the past half year has been problems with domestic violence by football players, recently by stars like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. These are men whose “savage” vigor is admired on the field, much like with soldiers, but whose seeming inability to restrain it off the field is a publicity nightmare for their teams and the NFL.

The guys on ESPN have also wrestled with the problem of injuries on the field, notably concussions. Can the NFL protect the health of players without domesticating the game, such that it no longer requires or fosters the manhood associated with violent sports like football? Should it even try? Or should players be allowed to decide for themselves, as men, whether the risks are worth it?

During the heyday of Teddy Roosevelt, in the 1890s and 1900s, anxiety about manhood was common in the United States (and in Canada, Great Britain, and western Europe). The challenges of harsh environments and hard work on America’s rural frontiers had once made American men morally and physically vigorous, popular intellectuals like Roosevelt believed. The prospect of fighting “savage” Indians, and even more the occasional reality, had tested and honed the mettle of American men. Now that America was becoming urban and industrialized, would American men lose their vigor and become “soft” and “over-civilized”?

Concerns about race exaggerated these anxieties. What would immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and Asia do to American “bloodlines,” especially now that there was no frontier to transform foreigners into vigorous Americans? “Old stock” Americans like Roosevelt, with their roots in the Protestant countries of Western and northern Europe, were having fewer children. Some Americans talked about “race suicide.”


Recruiting poster for the reserve forces in the British Army, ca. 1914.

In this context intellectuals and politicians like Roosevelt advocated substitutes for the frontier and the kind of labor farmers once did, as a way of transforming immigrants into Americans and more generally ensuring the vigor of American boys and men. Calisthenics and sports in school to encourage physical fitness. Organizations like the Boy Scouts to teach boys woodcraft, hunting and martial skills, and the moral and physical vitality that came with them. Theologians talked about “muscular Christianity,” idealizing not the meek and mild Jesus they associated with womanly Christianity, but the vigorous Savior who took a whip to the money changers and cleansed the temple of their corruption.

Roosevelt also saw war for empire as a way of continuing what the frontier had once offered, in fighting against and defeating over-civilized Europeans like the Spanish in the Spanish-American war of 1898 to 1899, and in fighting Filipinos to secure and colonize America’s new “Gateway to China.” Those who opposed these wars and the creation of an overseas American empire were “soft,” not manly.

roosevelt-01-lgRoosevelt self-consciously tried to embody these ideals of masculinity, and he and his supporters played them up in his campaigns for office as a politician, notably in his vice presidential campaign in 1900 and his presidential campaign in 1904. Roosevelt did not just write histories of the American frontier; he owned a ranch in the Dakotas and worked it as a cowboy, hunted buffalo, and even joined the occasional posse to find outlaws (whose rough vigor he admired, even if he lamented their lack of enough civilization to restrain that vigor and use it for good ends).

In 1898, at the start of the Spanish-American war, Roosevelt organized a militia unit known as the Rough Riders, made up of some of his friends from Yale, who like him were obsessed with masculinity, and frontiersmen he’d gotten to know during his time in the American West. Though he had been a sickly, asthmatic boy, he became a vigorous man.

TR boxerDepictions of Roosevelt campaigning for office and later as president invariably touted or mocked the ideals and persona that he cultivated, depicting him as a boxer, a cowboy, a Rough Rider, a hunter, and more.

But this same Teddy Roosevelt is also the man who won a Nobel Peace Prize, for negotiating an end to a war between Russia and Japan, and the man who saved football. In the same year in fact, 1905.

roosevelt footballRoosevelt approved of violent sports, saying: “I believe in outdoor games, and I do not mind in the least that they are rough games, or that those who take part in them are occasionally injured.” Like many other Americans he was concerned about the number of deaths and injuries in football during the early 20th century—18 deaths in 1905 alone. But he also feared that college presidents might “emasculate” the game in trying to reform it. Some universities had suspended their football programs. So Roosevelt summoned coaches from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House to save the game (from itself).

Roosevelt should not get all of the credit for reducing the level of brutality in football and changing how the game was played. But he used his “bully pulpit” to good effect.

One hundred and ten years later not much seems to have changed. Or at least not as much as one might think—given decades of changes values associated with feminism, Title IX, gay rights, and the like, and their impact even on sports. President Obama hosted a White House summit on sports concussions in May of this year. Concerned observers once again wonder whether the game can be saved without emasculating it. And sports and war continue to provide metaphors for each other. It is “not a dead but a living relationship.”

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

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