Robert Darnton recalls his front porch seat at the fall of the Berlin Wall

Historians in the News

...Historian Robert Darnton was a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in West Berlin in 1989. Author Mary Elise Sarotte ’88 had just returned to the United States from a year of study at the University of West Berlin. Waltraud Schelkle, a native German, was living in the city and working in developmental economics.

Darnton, Harvard’s Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, had intended to write a monograph on 18th-century France. Then “the ground began to tremble,” he said, and so he quickly changed course, directing his gaze to the shifting political landscape.

Signs of change came in the form of press reports about the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for greater openness and transparency. But there were other telling signs, too. While attending an academic conference in East Berlin in the summer of 1989, Darnton was nudged by an excited colleague after a speaker cited the work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, considered taboo by East German officials. Soon after, Darnton’s friend nudged him again.

“He said, ‘Did you see that? He wasn’t talking from a script.’”

Lectures had to be read from prepared scripts cleared by the local cell of the communist party, Darnton recalled. “Something really big is going on,” his friend told him.

Darnton, who vividly captured his experiences in “Berlin Journal, 1989-1990,” was at times a firsthand witness to unrest. Traveling to East Germany, he attended protests and rallies. But on Nov. 9, when the wall finally fell, he was out of the country. “The irony is, and this pains me to admit it, I was not there … I was in Rome giving a paper.”

Back in Berlin a few days later, Darnton was the first person to escort a different friend, a scholar from East Germany, on his inaugural tour of West Berlin. The reaction was striking.

“I remember asking him, ‘What words would you find to convey your first impressions?’ and what he said was, ‘It’s so ugly,’ which really took me by surprise. But what he meant was all this neon, all these advertisements, all of this consumer society flaunting itself at him, as he felt. Whereas in East Berlin … none of that existed. There were, as in many East German cities, huge slogans on top of buildings — not exactly advertising, but giving you sort of communist hortatory about working harder for the party and that kind of thing. But aside from that there was really nothing, no neon that I could remember and very few lights.”

On New Year’s Day, Darnton found himself celebrating among hundreds atop a section of the wall near the Reichstag. “We just climbed on. You weren’t supposed to do this, but it was complete chaos. The only way you could get up was someone would extend an arm and pull you up and then you were absorbed into this sort of peristaltic movement of people on top, as though you were in the intestines of something. It was an extraordinary experience.” ...

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