March 24, 2009
Hidden Heroes of the Cold War's End
Historian of Europe Karl Schlögel on the molecular movements of history:
The grand moments with which history usually preoccupies itself are inconceivable without the molecular events that make them possible. And the Europeans who make a career out of standing and speaking for Europe are nothing at all without the unknown Europeans whose stories are never told. We all know the stages of Brussels, Strasbourg, Paris or Maastricht, upon which “Europe’s representatives” play their parts. It’s not enough that that we’re kept up to date on all their entrances and declarations. It’s always the same names, the same faces, the same gestures. In 1949, a group of townspeople from Aachen, Europeans of the first hour, created the Charlemagne Prize for “persons who have advanced the ideas of European understanding in political, economic, and spiritual relations.”
In the list of those honoured since 1950, one more or less finds all the great Europeans, from Count Coudenhove-Kalergi to Vaclav Havel, from Jean Monnet to the Euro. One can extrapolate this line and list easily and without a great deal of imagination. But one could also award the prize to people who were indispensable to the Europe that has evolved since 1989. There are more than a few claimants for these honours: the transportation ministers and the engineers who built the bridges, streets, and rails that paved the way to a new Europe and brought Europeans closer to one another. The shippers and logistics experts who have made careers out of shortening distances and creating a sense of proximity should also be eligible. Nor should one leave out the transportation companies and founders of discount airlines who have radically altered the map of Europe in our heads. Now, we not only know where Palermo is, but also Tallinn; not only Lisbon, but also Riga and Odessa. They have established lines of transit between the Rhein-Main area and Galicia, between Warsaw and the English Midlands, between Lviv and Naples. The discount airlines have made Berlin a neighbour of Moscow and contributed to an increase in cosmopolitanism. Krakow now has a connection to Dublin.
Entire economies can no longer function without this flow of traffic. The renovation of apartments, the care for pensioners and for the infirm in cities - even those located far from the border - now lie in the hands of personnel crossing over our borders. The Aachen Prize Committee could easily get an idea of the eligibility of candidates by looking at their timetables, price lists, and bookkeeping methods. They would determine that there’s not a place in Europe that can’t be looked up. Every act of research would become a joyous virtual journey to the New Europe.
One of the arguments that Schlögel makes is that the fall of the Berlin Wall mattered less than the mid-1980s institution of an express train line between Moscow and West Berlin, connecting the Communist states to the allied “island” in West Berlin, enabling all sorts of traffic of black-market goods, ideas, and people across what had seemed like impermeable borders. “To this day, there is no memorial for the anonymous black marketeers of Patrice Lumumba University at the Zoological Garden railway station. Instead, a freedom memorial is being planned for the exact spot where absolutely nothing happened.”
I really like this idea that a city is not only a place, or a set of people, but also a mental/kinetic map of all the places, people, and things connected to that place — a perpetually unexhausted, evolving set of possibilities.