The Other Side of the Berlin Wall

by Andrew Kessinger on November 12, 2009

20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

German Chancellor Merkel touted the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall as a “day of celebration for all of Europe.” But not everyone is elated.

Representatives of the four powers that occupied Germany after WWII, including British Prime Minister Brown, French President Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, gathered with Merkel in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate for a night of international solidarity.

The festivities included an outdoor concert led by famed conductor Daniel Barenboim and the symbolic knocking down of a painted piece of wall which in turn knocked over 999 other pieces – ala domino effect – along a mile-long stretch of the former Wall’s path.

Where were you on the night of November 9th, 1989?

Beyond such pageantry, however, it is clear that not everyone present recalls the historic moment with the same collective memory – or even remembers where they were on that fateful night.

Accused of re-writing history, President Sarkozy pretended to have been in Berlin the night of November 9th 1989, posting a Facebook photo of himself helping tear down the wall. The problem was, of course, that there was little probability he could have taken a flight that morning given that the rapid unfolding of events took even Germans by surprise. His stretching of the truth has but chipped away at French trust.

Chancellor Merkel, for her part, was in fact there – albeit in a local sauna. For such a pragmatic politician, it seems no weekly tradition was worth breaking – ‘end of history’ or not. To be fair though, she did hop over to West Germany for a beer after her spa session.

As for Obama, he was busy finishing up his first year of Harvard Law School in 1989. No one faults him for not taking the flight as a student, but some are wondering why he chose not to go as president. Citing scheduling difficulties, Obama sent Secretary Clinton to represent him at the 20th anniversary. American conservatives – no doubt still angry over his election win and ongoing healthcare reform – claimed Germany suited Obama as a campaign backdrop in 2008 but that the fall of communism was too sensitive a subject for him to acknowledge, let alone celebrate.

Speculations and gossip aside, President Medvedev did attend the festivities but without the rose-tinted retrospection of his colleagues. His thoughts are on candid display thanks to an interview with Der Spiegel:

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, you are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with other world leaders in Berlin. Where were you on Nov. 9, 1989?

Dmitry Medvedev: I don’t remember, but I still recall very precisely how suddenly our lives changed. I was a teaching assistant at the University of St. Petersburg at the time, and I realized that this development would affect not only the Germans, but all of Europe and, ultimately, also the destiny of our country. The Berlin Wall was a symbol of the division of the continent, and the fall of the Wall united us again. Some of our hopes from back then have been fulfilled, others have not.

SPIEGEL: The fall of the Wall made former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a respected figure in Germany and throughout the West. How would you judge his historical accomplishments?

Medvedev: As the head of state, it is not my place to pass judgment on my predecessors. Germany and other European countries give Gorbachev credit for the fall of the Iron Curtain. There are differences in opinion about his accomplishments for our country. The collapse of the Soviet Union occurred during his term in office. A great many Russians have the feeling that they lost their country back then, and they hold him responsible for this. Whether or not this is justifiable is something for historians to decide.

SPIEGEL: Your predecessor Vladimir Putin was not so reserved in his remarks. He called the collapse of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Medvedev: He didn’t connect this with the name Gorbachev, so in that sense he was as reserved as I am. The collapse shocked everyone who lived in the Soviet Union, regardless of whether they perceived the disintegration of the state as a personal catastrophe or as a consequence of the rule of the Bolsheviks. And it was really very dramatic: A people who had been united for decades — and in some cases for centuries — suddenly found itself in different countries again. Contacts with family and relatives were cut off.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, you said that since the fall of the Wall, many of your hopes and those of your fellow countrymen have been fulfilled, others have not. Which ones were you referring to?

Medvedev: I have already mentioned the positive things. But it has not been possible to redefine Russia’s place in Europe. After the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, we were hoping for a higher degree of integration. But what have we received? None of the things that we were assured, namely that NATO would not expand endlessly eastwards and our interests would be continuously taken into consideration. NATO remains a military bloc whose missiles are pointed towards Russian territory. By contrast, we would like to see a new European security order.

He’s not alone in expressing disappointment with the lack of economic and geo-political unity that German reunification seemed to promise.

Gorbachev – also present at Monday’s ceremony in Berlin – warned of conflating the fall of Communism with the idea that unfettered economic liberalism is somehow superior. From the Guardian:

[After the fall of Communism] it was soon very clear that western capitalism, too, deprived of its old adversary and imagining itself the undisputed victor and incarnation of global progress, is at risk of leading western society and the rest of the world down another historical blind alley.

Today’s global economic crisis was needed to reveal the organic defects of the present model of western development that was imposed on the rest of the world as the only one possible; it also revealed that not only bureaucratic socialism but also ultra-liberal capitalism are in need of profound democratic reform – their own kind of perestroika.

Poland’s Adam Michnik, one of the leaders of the Solidarity social movement that contributed to fall of communism, is grateful for the last twenty years but had hoped for more.

It was in Poland that the Berlin Wall began to crumble.

For Poland, the last two decades [since] have been the best in the last 300 years. And yet so many Poles today are deeply dissatisfied. Why?

Post-communist transformation creates not just winners, but many losers: those who are unemployed, rejected, pushed into poverty. The often brutally greedy new elites are slow to learn democratic habits, respect for the law of the land, pluralism or tolerance.

Poland today – 20 years on – is a normal, democratic European country. It’s the kind of country I wanted my generation to bequeath to our children. Although, to tell the truth, I wish that it was a rather better one.

Perhaps the same can be said of Germany itself. Despite an estimated $2 trillion in money transfers from West Germany to East Germany, the latter still suffers from a twice-as-high unemployment rate, to mention but one malaise. West Germans are just as dissatisfied about the lack of progress, with some viewing the East as a social welfare state holding back the country from full development. A recent poll by Leipziger Volkszeitung daily went so far as to demonstrate that one in eight Germans want the Wall rebuilt.

On the whole, there is no mistaking that the vast majority of Europeans are celebrating the end of Communism this month, but the East still needs a few more decades of growth before the real party begins.

This article was first published in the New Atlanticist. Photo by Daylife.

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