Thirty years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. That day more than any other symbolized what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history.”
The Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War went down with the wall’s crumbling stones. Democratic states and new economies were constructed out of the remains of failed communist systems, and within two years the Soviet Union itself was dissolved. 1989 and its quick aftermath saw the end of one union and the creation of another. The end of the Warsaw Pact and then of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics saw the expansion of NATO, and more significantly the transformation of the European Economic Community into the expanded and expanding European Union. The world I grew up in, a world divided into two camps, was no more.
Global cooperation, European unity, a single European currency, and George H. W. Bush’s vision of “A New World Order” marked the promise of that time. “Out of these troubled times,” President Bush said in his famous speech to Congress, “a new world order can emerge. A new era — freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony.”
Today, almost a year since George H. W. Bush died, his vision of a better reality seems more distant than ever. The peace that U.S.-led forces sought in the Persian Gulf was not long-lived. The hopes we shared for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that began in those heady years have been disappointed. European and international harmony is imperiled. The threat of terror, the elusiveness of justice, and insecurity of peace have returned with a vengeance. We are tempted to dismiss the thesis of Francis Fukuyama, who famously celebrated 1989 as “the end of history.”
Fukuyama did not mean that things would stop happening. His point was that the main force of at least recent history was the struggle between the principles of liberty and equality with their competitors. In 1989 the liberal egalitarianism of the West, in both political and economic terms, had triumphed over communism, its last great competitor. Influenced by the Hegelian philosophical perspective that history can be read as the arc of an idea across time, 1989 marked the close and resolution of that arc.
Thirty years after that arc closed, we question the almost eschatological reading of the meaning of 1989. Can we claim with certainty that the capitalist system is the surest way when our government is entrenched in a trade war against Communist China — yes, Communist — and when we have suffered through a recession and know we cannot count on the comfortable retirement that our parents may have enjoyed? When we look at what has happened over the past 30 years, from ethnic genocidal conflicts in the Balkans and Rwanda, to explosive murderous terrorism, to the continued irresponsible destruction of the environment, and to the resurgence of hatreds we thought long buried, an irrational fear of immigrants, a jingoistic populism of national self-interest that has spread like a plague throughout the world, and an alarming increase in anti-Semitism, the supposed end of history seems unreachable.
But the belief in the positive resolution of history is a foundational pillar of Judaism. Ani ma’amin: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah,” our brethren said as they walked into the gas chambers. “Even though he may tarry, even so I wait for him that he might come any day.” This was Maimonides’ 12th principle of faith, the hope in the future, and the redemption of the world. 1989 did not mark the end of history. We did not find full redemption. But we got a glimpse of it.
When I entered the Jewish Theological Seminary to study for the rabbinate, my friends and I asked our theology professor, the late Dr. Neil Gillman, why he thought that belief in the coming of a messiah and the end of days was important for the modern liberal and critical American Jew. (This was at the time when the Lubavitcher rebbe first was declared the messiah.) “But we must believe in an end of days,” Professor Gillman told us. “Why?” we asked. “Because if we have no beginning, and we have no end, then we have no middle,” he told us.
Dr. Gillman did not necessarily intend to impart a riddle. What he sought to teach us was that we can only truly understand our place in the world if we can understand where we are coming from and where we are going. I had studied Chinese history in college, and I was struck by how the Chinese understood history to flow in cycles rather than on a linear plane. Like the pessimistic author of Ecclesiastes, the Chinese believed there was ultimately nothing new under the sun, and that each progression and regression was marked by the end of one dynasty and the start of another.
Not so in the West. We believe that history has a beginning and an end, and that we are somewhere in the middle. We don’t have to look to Hegel, or Fukuyama, to learn that history has a purpose. It’s in our Bible. It is the essence of our Torah. God created the world so that a covenant could be forged with Abraham. God took the Israelites out of Egypt so that they could receive the Torah at Sinai. God led the Israelites to the Promised Land so that they might preserve the covenant in peace and prosperity. History moves forward with purpose. But at the same time it never quite ends. On Simchat Torah we read the conclusion of the Torah, which leaves off on a cliffhanger. Moses preps the people for their new life in the Promised Land, then climbs Mount Nebo and looks out at the promise. And then he dies. The journey, the hopes, the purpose, are left incomplete and unrealized. And if we read through the rest of the Bible the story never really ends. Because life goes on. But we should not lose track of where we are going.
History went on after 1989. There were ups and downs, as there always are. But what marks the person of faith is the belief, the conviction, that history will find its way through, that things will get better, even if the path is hard to see. Even if it is much harder to see now than it was 30 years ago.
Judaism teaches us to recognize our mistakes but not give up on ourselves. We neither say, “This is the best it can be,” nor “It really can’t get better.” Looking at our collective past, we should not despair at history. We should not give up on leadership, on engagement, on politics, on the ability to achieve the right and the good. We are still here and history continues.
Thirty years ago, history responded to Ronald Reagan’s famous words from Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” While the fall of the Berlin Wall did not mark the end of history, it reminds us to hold fast to a vision of what a better world could look like.