Thirty years ago, Communist regimes collapsed across Central and Eastern Europe. This process came to a crescendo in early November with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was not simply a historically important event, but also an iconic cultural moment. It captured the imagination of millions of people around the world. Why? This question was at the heart of a symposium held at the center earlier this week, “Cultures of the Wall.” Organized by Barbara Launbenthal and Hans Boas (both professors in UT’s Department of Germanic Studies), the symposium explored the history of the Berlin Wall, through both German and American eyes, investigating why we “remember” an event that most of us didn’t witness, how it became a symbolic moment in world history, and why people came to think that the toppling of an architectural structure represented a greater political reality.
For most Americans, the fall of the wall was experienced through the prism of news media— the accounts of photojournalists, print journalists, and television reporters who went to Berlin during 1989 to cover the events. The Briscoe Center is home to numerous collections that document the activities of American news correspondents on the ground, including Dan Rather, Flip Schulke, Howard Sochurek, and Rod Nordland—as well as the staffers, producers, and researchers who worked in the background. Together, journalists helped a generation of Americans make sense of history as it unfolded, but the events also touched them in a deeply personal way.
For Flip Schulke, history came full circle at the wall. He had first visited Berlin in 1962 as the wall was being constructed. Back home he was deeply involved in the civil rights movement, working as Martin Luther King’s personal photographer. Throughout his long and storied career, Schulke kept coming back to the wall, notably in 1980 (when the original structure was reinforced with concrete blocks) and again in 1989 when it came down. On the latter trip, he heard German protesters singing the African American anthem, “We Shall Overcome” as well as extolling the virtues of nonviolent protest. “All I could think of was Dr. King saying, ‘free at last, free at last,'” reflected Schulke in 1997. I’m glad the center could host the symposium—many thanks to Barbara and Hans for organizing it.
The arrival this month of Abbie Hoffman’s papers represents a major acquisition for the center. The collection documents his deep involvement in the anti-Vietnam war movement and the cause of social and racial justice. It includes correspondence with fellow activists like Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and Allen Ginsberg, as well as letters from President Jimmy Carter, Norman Mailer, David Bowie, and John Lennon. Whatever one thinks of Hoffman’s leftist politics and unruly antics, he was undoubtedly at the heart of the seismic cultural shifts that rocked America in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Hoffman wanted those cultural shifts to translate into political reality. He called his approach to activism “guerilla theatre,” his way of awakening young people to injustice.. “He was a utopian and a dystopian,” wrote Jonah Rankin, author of For the Hell of it: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman (1992). “Give hippies [only] marijuana, rock ‘n’ roll and sex and they’d be easily pacified and co-opted, he argued.” Because Hoffman believed that the Vietnam War, racial injustice, and economic inequality were absurd and cynical, he thought the protest of them should be too. Today it is commonplace to see a fusion of comedy, media spectacle, and political activism across the ideological spectrum. One might say Hoffman’s approach has been elaborated upon by the likes of John Oliver or Jon Stewart. But in Hoffman’s heyday it was new and revolutionary—and certainly rough around the edges!
The Hoffman Papers join others at the center that document the various ways people and groups have tried to change America through protest and organizing. They include the Field Foundation Archives, the Sara Clarke Social Justice Collection and the Francis Jalet-Cruz Papers. Hoffman’s papers are also linked to those of John Henry Faulk, a radio personality, environmentalist, and activist whose career was railroaded in 1957 when he was blacklisted by the McCarthyite organization, AWARE. Faulk eventually won a landmark libel suit that helped put an end to the blacklist in the television, radio, and motion picture industries. In very different ways, Faulk, Hoffman, and others have contributed to upholding the First Amendment rights of all Americans regardless of their political persuasions. These rights are obviously vital to historians and journalists. In addition to leaving researchers and students with fascinating archives to work with, the likes of Hoffman and Faulk helped pave the way for them to publish and assemble freely.
Don Carleton, Ph.D.
J. R. Parten Chair in the Archives of American History