The World After the Wall Fell

'Es geschah im November' by Kani Alavi, East Side Gallery Berlin
‘Es geschah im November’ by Kani Alavi, East Side Gallery Berlin

It was twenty-five years ago this week that the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. The 155 kilometre edifice, first composed of barbed wire, then unrelenting concrete, had risen overnight 28 years earlier as if in a single stroke, a testament to the might of the (poorly named) German Democratic Republic and the Soviet system that buoyed it. It came down in pieces, the work of tens of thousands of individual hands. In a matter of hours a city, long-divided, became one. A nation and a continent promised to follow.

In Berlin, Germany and throughout Eastern Europe, the tenor of the anniversary is one of jubilation. Even my generation, who did not witness the Wall ripped apart on nightly television or on the front page of newspapers, cannot escape the draw of that autumn evening in November. The fall of the Berlin Wall has come to stand for more than the liberation of a city, the reunification of a nation or the fall of a much-loathed police state. In the cascade of events from 1988 to 1991 that culminated in the final disintegration of the Soviet Union, no other event has so captured the global consciousness; it has become our symbolic stand-in for the end of the Cold War. Here was the manifestation of the “Iron Curtain” first invoked by Winston Churchill in 1946, finally rent asunder.

By November 1989, the Soviet Union’s grip on its satellite states had slipped. Emboldened by the knowledge that, under the reformist Gorbachev (or “Gorbi!” as he was hailed on the streets), the Soviets would not intervene militarily as they had in Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, millions across Eastern Europe took to the streets against their flailing governments. The Solidarity movement gained power in Poland’s first free elections; Hungary opened its borders to Austria for a “Pan-European Picnic’; over two million people linked hands for the 600km human chain across the Baltic States; and in Leipzig 70,000 nonviolent protestors stared down the guns of the armed forces, chanting “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people!”)

Berlin’s symbolic deliverance began with a blunder. The Politburo of the GDR, having already pushed out the much-loathed General Secretary Erich Honecker, attempted to curry favour with its seditious citizens by easing travel restrictions. The heated meeting on November 9 had stretched into the evening, butting against a scheduled press conference with the international media. Gunter Schabowski had missed the deliberations – instead, he was handed a hastily drafted note outlining the decision to be read to the assembled reporters.

It was by all accounts a fairly dull occasion – that is, until around 7pm, when one journalist posed the rudimentary question of when the new laws would go into effect. Schabowski fumbled. The paper in his hands did not specify. He improvised. “It will come into force… to my knowledge, immediately.”

 The conference was broadcast live throughout West Germany – and the millions of East Germans with banned satellite dishes trained on foreign televisions stations heard it too. The guards on the wall had not been notified about the change in policy. No one had. So they had no idea what had been wrought when thousands, then tens of thousands, then what must have felt like the weight of one great city, converged at dozens of points along the wall. Citizens marched, sang and danced through the checkpoints and barricades, beneath the sentry towers and across the raked and exposed ‘death strips’ where thousands of their fellow countrymen had fallen to unremitting machinegun fire. The bewildered and outnumbered guards received no orders, and by daybreak had loosed no bullets.

Its power neutered, the wall would not stand. The tangle of wrought steel and grey cement was assaulted by hammers, chisels, pick axes and rifle butts in the days and nights that followed, finally torn at by bare calloused hands. A demolition crew handled the remains on the eve of Germany’s reunification less than a year later. Only a few fragments remain in Berlin today, grist for memorials and art installations, with a number of graffitied slabs resting in foreign museums for posterity. The people would not rest until their symbol of imprisonment was reduced to dust. In the world beyond, there was no doubting the retreat of Soviet power. Within two years, the Soviet Union itself would no longer exist.

The repudiation of the Communist past has continued apace in Eastern Europe. From Berlin to Tallinn, citizens will break for lunch from desk jobs with international firms in the lower storeys of foreign-financed skyscrapers, crossing main streets lined with designer brands from Paris and Milan (via China, of course), and pay with Euros for a McDonalds burger or Starbucks coffee.

The great bronze statues of Lenin, Marx and the bare-chested workers of the proletariat have been banished from city squares to graveyards, museum basements and kitsch attractions. Even at Budapest’s Memento Park, which celebrates and saves these monumental artefacts of the old regime, I would find a multitude of moustached and capped Lenins, arms aloft in revolutionary salute, piled in a scrap heap. In Ukraine, closer still to Russian border (and within the old imperial ones), the Lenins are still being torn down, even as the indignity riles Putin’s resurgent, bloodthirsty bear. 

Lenins in Memento Park, Budapest
Lenins in Memento Park, Budapest

For all but the most devoted of ‘fellow travellers’, the fall of the Berlin Wall ranks as a triumph. It marks the victory of Liberal Democracy (and its partner Capitalism) over Communism; freedom over authoritarianism. The Cold War was brought to an end, not with a hail of gunfire, but the roar of the masses seizing their own future. The success of non-violent protest in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Baltic States in 1989 appears only more remarkable in light of the devolution into authoritarianism and violence that marked comparable revolutionary waves in 1848 (Europe’s ‘Springtime of Nations’) and 2011 (the Arab Spring). Mao insisted that “a revolution is not a dinner party”; but what could have been a more revolutionary act than East and West Berliners sharing champagne over the ruins of the wall, or picnickers carousing on the open Austrian-Hungarian border?

The revolutions of 1989 thus carried within every peaceful march the promise of something new. The protesters of the Eastern Bloc did not just desire the material wealth of their compatriots across the policed border – many carried their own vision for a better world, one that did not necessarily slavishly follow America and the West. Vaclev Havel, the Czech dissident-playwright-turned-President, envisioned a new form of government that was not only post-socialism but also post-democracy. In his seminal essay The Power of the Powerless, he saw the resistance movements against totalitarianism as a new starting point:

Are not these informed, non-bureaucratic, dynamic and open communities that comprise the ‘parallel polis’ a kind of rudimentary prefiguration, a symbolic model of these more meaningful ‘post-democratic’ political structures that might become the foundation of a better society?

And yet, for all our triumphalism at the Wall’s fall, it is hard to find the traces of that ideal society in the chaos of today’s post-Soviet world. Twenty-five years ago, Francis Fukuyama’s famed thesis that we had reached “the end of history” may have seemed eminently believable in the wake of the seemingly decisive victory of liberal democracies. It is a harder sell today, as we see those same democracies mired in crisis. For the eighth straight year, Freedom House has measured a decline in the number and quality of democracies worldwide. States that embraced democracy in the post-1989 wave are backsliding, autocracies are on the rise, and civil conflicts are multiplying. We face political and economic instability, mounting inequality, catastrophic environmental failure, unprecedented corporate influence and state surveillance systems that would awe the Stasi. Even the United States’ emergence as the world’s sole superpower in the 1990s proved pyrrhic, though it would take another decade for America to discover that the Cold War had left it crippled too.

Those hammers beating at the cement in Berlin struck at, and finally shattered, the bipolar superstructure that had encased global political life since the waning days of WW2: USA v USSR; liberal democracy v socialism; Capitalism v Communism. The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought an end to what has been dubbed ‘the Communist experiment’. Historian Orlando Figes describes it as:

An experiment which the human race was bound to make at some point in its evolution, the logical conclusion of humanity’s historic striving for social justice and comradeship.

In the twenty-first century we cordon away this defining belief system of the 20th Century, which only decades ago felt like a viable alternative path for humanity, as an ideological dead end. The prevailing attitude is probably best captured in passing by Homer Simpson:

Marge, I agree with you – in theory. In theory, Communism works. In theory.

Discredited in practice, the idea is left benign. Even ridiculous. We tend to treat communism like the students half-a-dozen drinks down at a party that so often defend it: intriguing, familiar, but altogether easily dismissed. Yet we do not treat so cavalierly, nor joke about so easily, the enemy ideologies of fascism or religious fundamentalism, though the followers of Marx have exacted a similar, even greater, toll in blood.

Perhaps this is because we implicitly recognise that liberal democracy and communism spring from the same womb. Both draw on the ideals of the Enlightenment, resting on the same tenants of reason, science, popular government and the rejection of inequalities based on birth or origin, however imperfectly realised. Marxism goes further, to embrace an outright utopian vision of the future destined to follow the inevitable class struggle. Founded on aspiration rather than fear or hate, it cannot help but compare favourably to fascism and fundamentalism, with their repudiation of reason and fetishisation of submission. In weighing their faults, novelist Martin Amis notes, “Marxism was the product of the intellectual middle classes; Nazism was yellow, tabloidal, of the gutter. Marxism made wholly unrealistic demands on human nature; Nazism constituted a direct appeal to the reptile brain.” Communism tends towards the better, not baser, parts of our nature. It is thus easier to laugh it away, like the naive idealism of youth, than recant those aspirations altogether.

In theory!” Homer Simpson reminds us. For, comprehensible or not, the story of “Really Existing Socialism” in the 20th Century is one of abject failure. Surveying the human rights abuses indulged by the states of the Eastern Bloc and the catastrophic death tolls under Stalin and Mao, what choice could there be but to reject outright the ideology that led humanity to that grim lacuna? The socialist states failed not only the people in their care, but their own professed vision of an egalitarian future.

Yet many of the campaigners of 1989 did not envision the outright elimination of socialism in favour of democracy. They imagined the future lay in synthesis of the two systems in the old dialectical mould of Marx’s philosophical predecessor, Hegel. Dissident resistance in the Eastern Bloc often drew their goals not from long stares across the border, but by recognition of the gap between the promises of official socialist ideology (“freedom”, “solidarity”, “true democracy”) and their leaders’ practice. In the pure triumph of economic and political liberalism, these values have been lost like so much detritus from the fallen wall, swept away in our rush to forget. 

Lenin for a New Generation, East Side Gallery Berlin
Lenin for a New Generation, East Side Gallery Berlin

The dream of what socialism could be has perhaps never been better expressed than in the closing moments of Goodbye, Lenin, where the fantasy world of socialist triumph conjured by a young man for his sick mother reaches its apotheosis in an address by the faux head-of-state ‘Sigmund Jähn’:

We know our country is not perfect. But what we believe in inspired a lot of people in the whole world. Maybe we have drifted off course from time to time. But we collected ourselves. Socialism doesn’t mean walling yourself in. Socialism means reaching out to others, and living with others. Not just to dream about a better world, but to make a better world.

The thwarted nostalgia of this climax unsettled me on first viewing – was it an unwitting apologia for a system that deserved only our scorn? On revisiting the film leading up to the anniversary, I found I had mellowed to its message. I recognise now that it is better for us to understand that thwarted dream – how it prospered as well as why it withered – than rush to cast historical judgement. On our own road traveled by, we have yet to reach that better world.

Though we may bristle at Fukuyama’s thesis, there is a grim familiarity to his elegiac vision of the world at the end of history, where ideological struggle has given way to;

Economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.

Today there is not even a guarantee that this staid future will be a liberal democratic one. Though the banishment of Marx and his acolytes from the battlefield of ideas has left capitalism to ascend unfettered since 1989, China’s concurrent success has proven to many that capitalism can succeed hand in hand with autocracy, rather than its tottering old democratic dance partner. Fukuyama is right that no idea of governance to arise in the intervening twenty-five years (not ‘the China model’, not ‘Great Russia imperialism’, and certainly not Islamic fundamentalism) is as attendant to the needs of the people as liberal democracy – but can we be so sure that the best idea is sure to win out on the global marketplace? Worse still, our democracies today have shrunk and shriveled from those that the campaigners of 1989 fought for.

Liberal democracy appears to have had the misfortune of reaching its summit of power just as the neoliberal ideologies of Regan and Thatcher (proudly proclaiming “there is no such thing as society”) eroded away its capacity to care for the greater community. That crisis has ensued in the new multi-polar world is undeniable; even the free-market bastion The Economist asks plaintively in 2014 “What’s gone wrong with democracy?” If only the solution was obvious; if only there was a barricade to be pounded against, and an evil empire due to fall.

It seems inevitable that we will grope beyond democracy and capitalism as we attempt to devise solutions for the current impasse. In her new book This Changes Everything, activist Naomi Klein argues that our answers to environmental disaster and political turmoil do not rest within the rules of capitalism as currently constructed. No surprise then that those recent movements such as Occupy that have arisen to challenge capitalist orthodoxy still draw on the language and critiques of Marx. Yet despite initial bursts of enthusiasm, the debate and demonstrations have yet to cohere into a universal movement, nor overcome the entrenched distrust of those theories that underpinned such great suffering in the Eastern Bloc. The old binary is too easily recalled, the freedoms of the market too entrenched, and synthesis as distant as ever.

The Arab Spring may be the closest we have come to recapturing the spirit of 1989 in the decades since. Millions united in support of the brave protestors of Tahrir and Benghazi, inspiring movements of solidarity and resistance as far away as Wisconsin and Moscow. French philosopher Alain Badiou saw the potential in this wave for a new political order; but though these revolts confirmed a near-universal desire for freedom and representation that cuts across culture, they also reminded us of the difficulty of realising them.

In contemplating the resistance against Czech socialism, Vaclav Havel knew it was possible that the solidarity of the dissidents and their global supporters would fade when the war was won;

“Perhaps all this is only the consequence of a common threat. Perhaps the moment the threat ends or eases, the mood it helped create will begin to dissipate as well.”

We need look no further than the ruins of the Berlin Wall itself for evidence. The WALLONWALL exhibition mounted on the East Side Gallery in 2013 catalogued the walls that have risen in the intervening years– demarcating Israel & Palestine, Baghdad, Belfast and USA & Mexico. Many who railed against the wall designed to hold the people of East Germany in will tacitly accept a wall intended to keep ‘the other’, be it by religion, race or poverty, out. Australia, girt by sea, has no need of walls when we can allow the tempestuous ocean and patrolling vessels to do our dirty work. Such, it seems, is the limit of empathy for those who would so loudly cheer for the freedom of Berlin.

WALLONWALL by Kai Wiedenhöfer, East Side Gallery Berlin
WALLONWALL by Kai Wiedenhöfer, East Side Gallery Berlin

Our failures in these subsequent decades can do little to dim the power of 1989. The achievement – liberation through non-violence and the undaunted expression of the people’s will – remains worthy of all the celebrations the former Eastern Bloc can muster. What rankles is how severely we have failed to live up to the ideals of that revolutionary year. The freedom that the East Germans tore cement and steel for can all-too-easily lapse into authoritarianism, be subsumed by a slavish devotion to capital, or, as Fukuyama visualised, devolve into unending calculation and consumption.

We all too readily accepted the triumph of the brave men and women who tore down Europe’s ‘Iron Curtain’ as our triumph, and so neglected to apply those very ideals that made it possible to ourselves. Complacent, we have allowed our democracy to moulder. And rather than embrace the best of socialism, we have expelled it. Government by the people can only survive, and prosper, if the people are willing to fight for it. It is not enough, then, for us to cheer past victories. It is on us to create the world that seemed possible on the day after the wall fell.

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