The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago opened many previously closed doors. But aren’t there also new obstacles and barriers to use these allegedly open doors? Are there new curtains and walls behind these doors?
What were the circumstances and conditions for the fall of the Berlin Wall? Europe was divided in ‘East’ and ‘West’ for more than 40 years. Europe was breathing during that time ‘with one lung only’, as expressed by Pope John Paul II. Several attempts to end the communist dictatorship such as in Budapest in 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and the creation of Solidarność in Poland 1980 failed dramatically but remained in the memory of the people.
On the other side, between 1973 and 1975, official representatives of the East and West met in Helsinki for a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the first multilateral forum for dialogue and negotiation between the two blocks, with the participation of the neutral European states as well. After two years of meeting in Helsinki and Geneva, the CSCE reached an agreement with the Helsinki Final Act. The document contained a number of key commitments on political, military, economic, environmental, and human rights issues that became central to the so-called ‘Helsinki Process’. In many countries ‘Helsinki committees’ emerged as a reaction of civil society to the Helsinki Final Act, focusing in particular on the 3rd basket of the document dealing mainly with human rights.
So, the spirit of 1956, 1968, and 1980 was alive and was encouraged by the achievements of Helsinki. Nevertheless, the development was slow and mainly determined by the commitment for a peaceful process and a clear rejection of military solutions. But towards the end of the 1980s one could feel that something was in the air. Civil society all over Central and Eastern Europe became louder. Parliamentarians of communist countries like Hungary and Poland, and certainly from Yugoslavia, expressed their interest in democratic values and institutions devoted to democracy such as the Council of Europe. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe created the ‘special guest status’ for parliamentary delegations from the other side of the still divided Europe.
Even the ruling communist parties in some countries prepared for change. In Hungary progressive leaders supported new democratic movements and trade unions. In Poland the regime started a round table with the (still prohibited) trade union Solidarność that let to first free parliamentary elections in April 1989 and the share of power between the Communist Party and Solidarność. In spring 1989 Hungary began the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and on 27 June 1989, the foreign ministers of Austria and Hungary, Alois Mock and Gyula Horn, symbolically cut the barbed wire between the two countries.
In early July 1989, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbatchev paid a historic visit to the Council of Europe and emphasised the idea of the ‘common home of Europe’. There is no doubt that his policy of Glasnost and Perestroika plaid an important role in the significant changes in Central and Eastern Europe.
The dramatic events continued. Dr. Otto Habsburg, son of the last Austrian Emperor and head of the Paneuropa Movement, organised with the approval of the Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth in Sopron a ‘Paneuropean picnic’ with an open border to Austria. Hungary was one of the few countries citizens of the GDR could go to for holidays, so in August 1989 there were tens of thousands of GDR citizens in Hungary. For many of them, the open border to Austria was the opportunity to escape and go the West. The situation in Czechoslovakia was different, but the Hungarian example encouraged East Germans to seek shelter in the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany from where they could finally go by special trains to Western Germany. Obviously the majority of GDR citizens did not want to leave their home. But the desire for freedom and human rights was growing and encouraged by the events in Hungary and Prague.
“We are the people” chanted hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters in the GDR with candles in their hands. While the regime wanted to celebrate its 40th anniversary, people demonstrated that this is not their state and the showed their sympathy with Glasnost and Perestroika and its leading figure Mikhail Gorbatchev. On the 9th of November 1989 the helpless regime of the GDR gave in. The wall fell.
The fall of the Berlin wall opened the way for German unification but also supported a very emotional and historic moment of democratic change in Central and Eastern European countries. Following the Hungarian model and the picture of the open wall in most of the countries, the change was peaceful. One exception was Romania because of Ceaușescu’ another exception was the former Yugoslavia.
International observers saw the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at that time as a frontrunner in democratic change and rule of law. But some of the communist elites tried to survive through nationalism in order not to lose their influence and privilege. The result was four wars: the brief war of the federal army against Slovenia; a bloody one between two groups speaking the same language – the Serbs and Croats; the third, a very cruel one in Bosnia – a civil war between three ethnicities (and religions); and finally the Kosovo War – the Milosevic attack on the Albanians in Kosovo and the NATO intervention against Serbia. For Croatia and Slovenia, which are now EU members, this is history. However, the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo is still open. The Dayton Agreement stopped the war in Bosnia but it did not bring peace to the country, which is still divided into three ethnic groups. There are walls in the minds still to fall.
Did the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall bring the people in Central and Eastern Europe what they expected? Eleven former communist countries have been admitted to the European Union. They have developed well and are steadily reducing the distance to the EU average in many areas. However, in the eyes of the population that might be too slow. Other countries in the region were granted the status of ‘candidate’, but compared with the ‘big bang’ in 2004 this status looks more like a delay of membership than a promising track. And what happened recently in Albania and North Macedonia is not only a shame but a strategic mistake of enormous proportion.
Another critical aspect is the relationship between the European Union and its Eastern neighbours, particularly Russia. The Europe of 1989 was not the Europe of the twelve members of the European Community. Rather it was the whole of the (political) continent, a Europe reaching from Reykjavik in the Northwest to Nicosia in the Southeast, from Lisbon on the Atlantic to Vladivostok on the Pacific. When one spoke about enlargement, it was the enlargement of the Council of Europe, from 23 member states in spring 1989 to 47 in 2007 after the independence of Montenegro. The European Community – since the 1992 Maastricht European Union – and Russia made several attempts for a ‘strategic partnership’ from which we are still far from. Strategic confrontation could better describe the situation after the Ukrainian crisis and the imposing of mutual sanctions.
The EU is unable to successfully tackle common problems like the refugee and migration issue. It is hard to understand that countries where political suppression forced many people to flee show zero solidarity. In the global arena a Union that failed to carry-out a common foreign and security policy beyond veto rights is losing ground and influence. European policy very often is reduced to the lowest common denominator.
So, where is the emotion, the spirit of solidarity, the engagement for the common good that was there when the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall fell?
The politicians of 1989 remembered the horrors of World War II and themselves experienced the tragedy of divided Europe. The new generation of politicians seems to be bland, prosaic, more pragmatic and less emotional. But the common home of Europe needs narratives and visionary goals. Not the ‘end of history’ but an end to all that caused so many tragedies on our continent. This continent has seen so many wars that often devastated nearly the whole continent, like the 30 years’ war, the Napoleonic wars, WWI, and finally the culmination of the horrors in WWII. ‘Never again’ is a common reaction to the bloody history.
But how to realise this wish of the European people? In ancient times, and not only then, many followed the Latin adage Si vis pacem para bellum: ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’. I am quite sure that this advice never worked. A good neighbourhood, early warning systems, exchange of military information, and above all, inclusive security architecture may serve the goal of lasting peace better than arming ourselves. Again, we may find conflicting messages again. I learned that the European Commission presented its plan to strengthen the military industry, so following the old concept. The same day I read that Jean-Claude Juncker thinks that there is no European security architecture without Russia, which looks like the new model.
Again, the policy of President Trump, who sees everything as a business – if the Europeans want security through the NATO umbrella, ok, we provide them with, but they have to pay for it – offers a chance to Europe. No, thank you, Mr. President. The European NATO members stand loyal to the alliance, but instead of paying more for it, we are creating our own Pan-European security system built on confidence, a good neighbourhood and the belief in the common home of Europe. If somebody is interested in a new Cold War, maybe we can not hinder it, but this time outside and without Europe, please. This is the most important lesson history has taught us.
In my book, The European Dream, I quote the historian Wolfgang Schmale who suggested “that a ‘myth deficit’ may prove fatal to the European project”. Should we leave myths only to the nationalistic, chauvinist, whatever country ‘first’, ‘no-to-Europe’ scene? We neither live in the golden age nor in an epoch of disasters. But to be honest, 74 years after the end of WWII, 62 years after the Treaty of Rome, and 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have to admit that the situation is closer to the golden age than the opposite. Of course, a ‘better’ Europe will always be ahead of us.
With Vaclav Havel I believe that “without dreaming of a better Europe we shall never build a better Europe”. The better Europe will certainly not be built by falling back to nationalistic divides, to failed ideas of the supremacy of some nations over the others, to protectionism, to hatred, stereotypes, and ethnic prejudices. A vision of a future without these ugly attitudes shall prevail. We all know the famous question, whether a glass is half full or half empty. Applied to our question, I would like to ask, whether neighbours are potential friends or potential enemies. Together with the optimist for whom the glass is half full, I choose the optimistic or visionary view of neighbours and declare them potential friends. There is also the pressing need for European security architecture, a future without wars, without dividing walls, without dictatorship.
To get weekly updates from Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute subscribe to our Newsletter.
You may also be interested in:
Politics in a post-crisis Middle East
Global energy security as an ontological system
The psychology of walls and the need for windows of dialogue
The Global South and Basic Income: A feasible solution for the 21st century?
Civil society and public institutions in international multi-stakeholder cooperation