U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Element of Surprise

Cheering people stand on the Berlin Wall at Brandenburg Gate on Nov. 9, 1989.

Cheering people stand on the Berlin Wall at Brandenburg Gate on Nov. 9, 1989.

On November 9, 1989, I was having a beer with a friend at Conte’s Pizzeria in Princeton, NJ, when I glanced up at the tv behind the bar.  People were climbing on the Berlin Wall. It’s hard to express how extraordinarily surprising this was to see. News traveled more slowly in those days before most people were online.  And though the images came from a few hours earlier, this was the moment that I found out that, for all intents and purposes, the Berlin Wall was no more.  Of course, the events of that evening had been building for weeks. East Germans had already been leaving the country via Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which had opened their borders to the West. But for those of us who grew up during the Cold War, the fall of the Wall seemed almost unimaginable right up until, suddenly, it happened.  I remember thinking that evening: this must be what 1848 or any of the other great revolutionary years felt like. The world had changed in a way that felt utterly sudden and surprising to those of us living through it.

I’ve been thinking about that moment as I live through this year’s weird and surprising presidential race. 

Donald Trump seems poised to win the Republican nomination. Bernie Sanders – still a long shot to win the Democratic nomination – just won the Michigan primary in what psephologists are calling the biggest primary upset since at least Gary Hart’s win in the 1984 New Hampshire primary.

As always happens in the face of surprising political events, journalists, political scientists, historians, and politicians are all trying to understand what’s happening on the fly.  All such attempted understandings have an element of prediction about them. And as the dust settles, events will fit some narratives and fail to fit others. And, eventually, the sense of surprise will go away.

Looking back, it’s much easier to see the seeds of the Cold War’s end in the years between 1989 and 1991. In 20/20 hindsight, events that surprised us no longer seem so surprising.  The Wall fell. Germany reunified. Eventually the Soviet Union collapsed. But in the moment, the direction of events was anything but clear.[1]

In the fall of 1989, I was enrolled in Arno Mayer’s graduate seminar in modern European history.  Throughout that eventful fall, Arno assured us that, whatever else happened, Germany would not reunify.  And he was not alone in that conviction.  His colleague Harold James had just published A German Identity: 1770-1990 (1989).[2] James’s book ended with a confident prediction that the two Germanys were now truly separate societies that would likely always remain apart. Luckily he was able to revise the book for the paperback edition, which not only corrected that prediction about the two Germanys, but also subtly changed the title to A German Identity: 1770 to the Present Day. Arno is a man of the left; Harold was the most politically conservative member of the department. Both wrote brilliantly about twentieth-century German history.  Both were completely blindsided by German reunification.

From my experience of those events a quarter century ago, I draw a number of lessons for the surprising times we live in now.  First, we really do not know how things will turn out. That is, I think, always true. But it’s especially true at those moments when the unfolding of events seems already not to be going as anyone had expected.  Secondly, that sense of surprise may end up residing more in our individual memories of the experience of living through the moment than in the histories we tell about it in the future. After all, we historians make sense – or at least try to make sense – of the past.  If the past doesn’t make sense, if it doesn’t seem at some level unsurprising in retrospect, we’re not explaining it well. But I think there’s a cost to this semi-forgetfulness about surprise. The element of surprise deeply colors the human experience of living through times like these.  Making sure that it plays an important part in the histories we tell in the future will make them thicker descriptions of the past. And remembering that surprise will remind us of something we know as historians, but sometimes forget in our lives: the contingency of history.


[1] Just as I remember exactly what I was doing when I saw people dancing on the Wall, I remember just what I was doing on August 19, 1991, when Soviet hardliners attempted a coup d’état against Mikhail Gorbachev. I happened to be visiting a friend of a friend on Cape Cod. And as events in the Soviet Union played out, Hurricane Bob was rolling up the Atlantic Coast.  I remember watching CNN out of the corner of my eye as I helped move all the lawn furniture inside, got the house storm-ready, and joined the unbelievable traffic jam heading westward.  At the time, it felt as if we might get caught in a major storm and the Soviet Union might return to its pre-Gorbachev state.  But Bob never really made it to Massachusetts. And far from portending the end of reform, the coup collapsed and the Soviet Union itself soon followed.

[2] Pro-tip: Never have the end date of your work of history fall after the publication date.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. The example I often cite when the subject of unpredictability comes up is how to interpret the 1964 US election. At the time, it was perfectly sensible to conclude that consensus liberalism had been confirmed and libertarian conservatism repudiated once and for all. But, of course, it was actually the last gasp of the consensus, as the contradictions and dissatisfactions split it at the seams and the political direction of the nation sped towards the right. We can better understand why with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time a person would have been labeled a fool for calling LBJ’s landslide a last hurrah. Prognostication really is a mug’s game.

  2. I haven’t read Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” but in “The Last Utopia,” Samuel Moyn quotes a line from the novel – “People think of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing” – [4].

  3. Absolutely love this post, in both its broad argument — how crucial it is to recapture that feeling of surprise at what, in retrospect, “fits” in our narratives — and its details. “News” worked and moved differently in the 1980s and early 1990s than it does today.

    Since he’s on my mind, here’s Eco channeled by William of Baskerville:

    “There was no plot,” William said, “and I discovered it by mistake….The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless.”

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