Taking Peace for Granted

By Michael Lederer

Pho­to Cred­it: Michael Led­er­er | Pho­to of Genia Chef’s “The Great Game,” oil on can­vas, 2013 (frag­ment)

It’s so easy to take peace for grant­ed, when we have it.

In my 2012 book, The Great Game: Berlin-War­saw Express and Oth­er Sto­ries, the char­ac­ter Cal, an Amer­i­can writer liv­ing in Berlin, com­mits the sin of lament­ing peace as dull. Board­ing the train for War­saw at Zoo sta­tion, look­ing out his win­dow as the Reich­stag and Bran­den­burg Gate slip by, he reflects on how “con­crete, barbed wire and gun tur­rets had been replaced by a cur­ry­wurst stand, shoe stores, and oth­er unre­mark­able trap­pings of the every­day. Every­thing looked so nor­mal, as if peo­ple had nev­er argued let alone fought here. The grave­yard of com­mu­nism and fas­cism looked beau­ti­ful with its flow­ers and its riv­er in the sunshine.”

But Cal – named for his safe, priv­i­leged, native Cal­i­for­nia – was frus­trat­ed. “The banal­i­ty of today’s pros­per­i­ty be damned,” he thought. “‘Orson Welles was right about the cuck­oo clocks.’ On this day, Cal was not inter­est­ed in sun­shine, flow­ers and rivers. He want­ed shad­ows, smoke and bas­tards. He want­ed danger.”

A look out the win­dow now and Cal would have his wish. Return­ing trains from Poland to Berlin brim-full of Ukrain­ian moth­ers car­ry­ing chil­dren, their fathers and hus­bands left behind to fight a re-fanged Rus­sia. For where a writer like Cal seeks con­flict only to enliv­en his sto­ries, like a chain­saw to but­ter for­mer KGB agent Putin has brought the unsteady calm of what for­mer U.S. Defense Sec­re­tary Bob Gates calls a “hol­i­day from his­to­ry” to a bloody end.

Peace no more.

Sara­je­vo 1914. Crimea 2014. One eye on the cal­en­dar, Putin knew in hind­sight his­to­ry would spot it, one cen­tu­ry exact­ly – bulls­eye. In his view, it’s all one war, inter­vals meant only for regroup­ing, reload­ing. Today his Sude­ten­land (this time unit­ing not Ger­man- but Russ­ian-speak­ers, bor­ders be damned). Tomor­row, if not his Poland, his Moldo­va. Geor­gia. And then…

How for­tu­nate oth­ers today, fol­low­ing his lead, are not seek­ing to reclaim past empires. Eliz­a­beth II, Charles at her side, mount­ing horse and charg­ing off to recap­ture India, Kenya, Amer­i­ca. (Avoid York­town.) Turkey’s Erdo­gan, sud­den­ly not con­tent with today’s bor­ders, Ottoman glo­ry beck­on­ing, hoist­ing sword and lead­ing his troops through the Balka­ns, Iraq, Egypt. And Rome, dust­ing off its char­i­ots, then onto the Appi­an Way. Until one reclaimed empire bumped into the edges of the next, and the whole damned cycle would begin again.

Like Cal, I now live in Berlin, hav­ing moved here from my native Amer­i­ca across a wide shel­ter­ing sea. That sea not quite wide enough, how­ev­er, like many in my peace-and-love gen­er­a­tion (remem­ber peace? remem­ber love?). I can recall climb­ing under my school desk dur­ing air raid drills in those long-ago black-and-white duck-and-cov­er days.

My son, 12, came home from school a few days ago and asked, “Do you think there’s going to be a nuclear war?” As fast as that, a qui­et, peace­ful street out the win­dow, or swing set in the gar­den, Potemkin illusions.

Still, “Where there is light there are shad­ows, where there are shad­ows there is light.”

The ter­ror unfold­ing now in Ukraine bears wit­ness to the worst but is also bring­ing out the best in peo­ple. Tremen­dous acts of courage and com­pas­sion, a glob­al wave of empa­thy. There’s a reborn uni­ty in the West in par­tic­u­lar, a deter­mi­na­tion to see free­doms long fought for not just sur­vive, but advance.

This is a dan­ger­ous, but tem­po­rary, step back on a long march forward.

When peace comes again – and it will – let’s not repeat Cal’s mis­take of find­ing it dull. Hard won, it’s the most excit­ing chap­ter in the human story.

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Michael Led­er­er is an Amer­i­can writer who lives in Berlin. His screen­play, Sav­ing Amer­i­ca, won the 2019 PAGE Screen­writ­ing Award. His newest stage play, I Have Seen the Mis­sis­sip­pi, is the sto­ry of the only small group of Jew­ish refugees from Europe admit­ted into the Unit­ed States dur­ing WW II. Com­ments about this blog are wel­come on the author’s web­site: https://www.michaellederer.com/