- 20 Nov 19
Three decades ago the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Those who proclaimed the ‘end of history’, at the time, have surely been proven wrong...
Thirty years ago, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. People took it apart with hands and hammers and danced on the rubble. The old USSR had been crumbling for some time, but many had thought the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was made of sterner stuff. But no, it fell too.
Back then, it felt like a modern miracle, or a fairy tale’s happy ending, as though a dam had broken or the ice queen had been vanquished. A golden shaft of sunlight seemed to have pierced the darkest clouds. As east and west began to mingle, hope dared to flourish.
The wall had isolated the enclave of West Berlin from the GDR and from the east of the city alike. It was, of course, well-known from people being shot while attempting to cross from east to west and of spies being exchanged. Everyone knew Checkpoint Charlie. It was immortalised in film and fiction, a crossing point between worlds, an intersection of contrasting realities.
It didn’t just make a statement about the divide between the communist east and the capitalist west: it was the divide. And then, as the late Gay Byrne liked to say, there it was, gone.
Built in 1961, it was the Iron Curtain made manifest in reinforced concrete. In 1946, Winston Churchill warned that “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe: Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia.”
Those states comprised the USSR’s sphere of influence, a buffer zone that would protect Russia against aggression from the west. The wall became increasingly tangible as the countries behind the wire grew ever more totalitarian and determined to isolate their populations from what they saw as contamination by western ideas.
In 1987 the Hog walked part of the old border in the Harz Mountains in Germany. It was real. There was a high fence, watchtowers and armed guards. Transit into the old GDR took time and cost money. You were “observed”. But then, as great films like The Lives of Others show us, so was everyone over there.
Authoritarian and Pro-Russia
Thirty years later, four points strike us. The first is how closely the old Iron Curtain resembles Donald Trump’s “beautiful” wall. It effectively ran from the Baltic to the Adriatic just as he envisages a wall (or fence) running from the Pacific to the Caribbean. Of course, Trump’s wall is meant to keep people out and the Iron Curtain was meant to keep people in. It was ideas they wanted to exclude. Would his blue collar constituency be so keen if they saw the very real connection? Why would they support his wall, having opposed the Iron Curtain?
The second point is this: the Iron Curtain’s shadow lingers yet. In most of what was once the Soviet bloc, authoritarian populist Governments are in power. They are also close to Russia which has, after the trauma of the collapse of the USSR, largely reassembled its sphere of influence and even extended it, for example in Syria, mainly at the expense of the USA.
Pro-capitalist theorists gloated that the demise of the USSR marked the end of history and the beginning of a golden age of capitalism and democracy. They were wrong. The west asserted its dominance crudely, arrogantly. Its agents of reconstruction were ham-fisted, dedicated to a slash and burn approach to the institutions of the old socialist states. West Germany rebuilt after World War II with the aid of the Marshall programme. No such largesse came the way of the collapsed Soviet bloc when the Cold War ended. That was a cardinal error.
Then came the Great Recession of the 21st century, a hubristic crisis arising from the marrow of economic libertarianism. Capitalism almost went the same way as communism had a generation before. That could yet happen.
The third point concerns Hungary. It led the downfall of the Soviet empire but now it leads the rebuilding of the Russian bloc. Long thought more liberal than the others, in 1988 it had made it easier for its citizens to travel to the west. In May 1989 it removed the barbed wire fence with Austria. Since East Germans were allowed to travel within the bloc they could now escape to West Germany through Austria and more than 13,000 did so in September 1989 alone, a phenomenon that the Hungarian Foreign Minister refused to block.
So the Hungarians unpicked the lock. Thirty years later, their government is authoritarian and pro-Russia and has made legal and constitutional changes that give it control over the country’s nominally independent institutions. It has imposed restrictions on the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, asylum seekers, and the private sector.
Armed and Hostile Minority
In its report Freedom in 2019, the NGO Freedom House gives it an overall score of 70/100 but just 3/7 for freedom, political rights and civil liberties respectively. There is also a very powerful far-right movement. The latter mimics many aspects of the old communist regime and espouses a desire for order, hostility to immigrants and naked racism, including anti-Semitism.
The fourth point is about Ireland, Brexit and talk of a border poll. German unity followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. It wasn’t expected. It had been thought that the GDR would continue but with a new constitution. Quite rapidly, however, this was jettisoned. Without great forethought and much faster than was prudent, the decision was taken to unify.
While there were grave concerns across Europe, the Irish supported German unification and Charles Haughey used our Presidency of the EU to propel it forward. But nobody should think that it all went swimmingly. It didn’t. There were myriad difficulties in employment, training, infrastructure, finance, the environment. They haven’t yet been fully fixed. There were challenges in relation to culture and values too. As with the rest of the former Soviet bloc, there’s a strong far-right movement, especially in the East.
Those who now call for a new “conversation” on Northern Ireland and a border poll should study the history of German reunification. Being generous and persuasive is part of the process – but so too is caution and risk assessment. What’s the cost and who’ll pay? And how do you deal with a large armed and hostile minority? Make haste slowly. The 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall remind us that things go backwards as well as forwards. We too have forces at work that would return us to the bad old days. Freedoms may be fixed in Constitutions but they aren’t set in stone. Ours should be guarded closely and intensely.