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Two Dates Bound by Terror
An Essay by Alexa Dvorson

audio Listen to Dvorson's essay.

The difference in the way Europeans and Americans abbreviate calendar dates occasionally leads to trans-Atlantic mix-up when it comes to birthdays, for example, or expiration dates. While Americans write the month first and then the day, Europeans do the opposite. A small difference, but a haunting one.

Nov. 9, 2001 -- Never mind the 63 years in between -- what binds these two dates now, two months and two days apart, is terror.

For the rest of Americans' collective memory, 9/11 is the gaping wound at home that's led to a storm of bombs on the other side of the world. What Germans refer to as 9/11, the 9th of November, is seared into national memory as the dress rehearsal for the Holocaust.

That night in 1938 stands out in the 12 years of Nazi terror as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass, when Nazi thugs set scores of synagogues on fire and plundered Jewish-owned businesses.

As Jews in Germany were killed by the hundreds or rounded up for deportation that night, the world would change for millions of people, whether they realized it then or not. That's what people are saying today about 9/11 and America. In Berlin, it's tempting to walk lightly in a place so heavy with history. With all the haunting reminders of Nazi terror, it's also tempting to find solace in the naive notion that the worst humanity could do to itself is behind us.

"Sometimes it's even tempting to think things can only get better, that humanity really has learned from the past. Sept. 11 in America and November in Afghanistan make you think again."

Alexa Dvorson

Just outside an elaborate subway station at one of the city's busiest crosswalks is a black plaque with the names of 12 Nazi concentration camps printed in bright yellow letters under the heading "never forget." And nobody does. Sometimes it's even tempting to think things can only get better, that humanity really has learned from the past. Sept. 11 in America and November in Afghanistan make you think again.

There's another unsavory link between these two loaded dates. While most Germans were stunned with grief after the attacks in America, neo-Nazis applauded the terrorists and chanted in the streets. Skinheads might still beat up Arab Muslims out of xenophobic hatred, but suddenly their perceived enemies have been transformed into anti-American soulmates. Such distortion inflicts another wound on this scarred city.

Since divided Berlin was the fault line between the Cold War superpowers, it was always considered the ground zero of a potential nuclear showdown. Now the topography of terror has shifted ground zero to New York. And this week, Germany's been asked to commit almost 4,000 troops to the war on Afghanistan. For a nation whose people have sworn “never again” since 1945, it's a lot to ask.

In these unsettling times, it's finally tempting to stress a happier anniversary on Nov. 9, the day the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989. On that night, scenes of euphoric disbelief were beamed around the world as Germans danced on the death strip and drowned 40 years of Cold War angst in champagne. But on this chilling 9th of November, after the 11th of September, any celebrations are on ice.

Alexa Dvorson is a free-lance reporter based in Berlin.