Lessons we can learn from the fall of the Berlin Wall have never been more topical
Did we learn from this that it is necessary to support and encourage citizens who fight for democracy and human rights, to promote their access to the negotiating table? No.
Most history books and articles increasingly tell a standard story about the fall of the Berlin Wall: the Soviet Union could no longer economically and militarily handle competition with the West, and brand-new Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev was forced to initiate a policy of glasnost (transparency) and perestroika (restructuring) in the mid-1980s. Together with Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev agreed to abolish a new generation of nuclear weapons in Europe (the 1987 INF Treaty), and once the citizens of the Warsaw Pact countries received a little freedom, the fall of the Wall quickly followed, and with it the collapse of the communist system.
This vision of the events of the 1980s and the end of the Cold War is too narrow and merits several important additions.
The contributions of citizens
First of all, the calls for nuclear disarmament grew stronger in the 1970s. In order to curb the mass protest against new nuclear weapons in Europe, in a famous 1979 ‘double-track decision’, NATO intentionally added a negotiation component to the decision to deploy 572 new nuclear weapons in European NATO member states. Nevertheless, resistance to the nuclear arms race continued.
In Western Europe millions of people took to the streets to protest against the new nuclear weapons, which included cruise missiles that were supposed to be deployed in the Netherlands.
In the USA, the Freeze movement posed pressing questions regarding the ‘logic’ of having more and more nuclear weapons, and in Western Europe millions of people took to the streets to protest against the new nuclear weapons, which included cruise missiles that were supposed to be deployed in the Netherlands. During the negotiations ‘zero options’ flew back and forth across the table, which had a primarily propagandist goal, until Reagan and Gorbachev themselves decided on a real ‘zero’, to the consternation of many NATO allies.
This culminated in the INF Treaty. But this agreement (which has, unfortunately, been abandoned recently) would very likely not have come about without a worldwide lobby of citizens and peace organizations.
The contributions of dissidents
Secondly, we must realize who led the mass movements that resulted in one communist party after another disintegrating in 1989. These were the leaders of often small groups of ‘dissidents’, aided by peace and human rights organizations in Western Europe.
The 1980s saw the emergence of an alliance of independent peace organizations in Western Europe with human rights activists and so-called dissidents in the Warsaw Pact countries. The fight against nuclear weapons was hence associated with the fight for human rights and democracy in the communist countries. Organizations such as Pax Christi Netherlands and the Interkerkelijk Vredesberaad (IKV, Interchurch Peace Council) established contact with these openly critical citizens from the late 1970s, initially primarily in the GDR (East Germany), but then rapidly also in Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Central and Eastern European countries.
This collaboration gave rise to much discussion and criticism in Western Europe. The political left stressed that we should acknowledge more the ‘blessings of real socialism’: yes, there were some restrictions on freedom of speech and such, but everyone had free education and health care, and there was a lot more equality. The political right was sceptical of changes ever being able to be initiated in any way other than through harsh confrontation. Reform movements had never yielded success; just look at Hungary in 1956, the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 and the declaration of martial law in Poland in December 1981, when the independent trade union Solidarnosc was outlawed. Nevertheless, through IKV Secretary Mient Jan Faber, Pax Christi Netherlands and the IKV very explicitly declared their solidarity with Solidarnosc, as well as with other groups such as Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, on the occasion of the first large peace demonstration (Amsterdam, 21 November 1981, more than 400,000 participants).
The (independent) peace organizations in Western Europe made no secret of the fact that the dissidents and independent groups in the Warsaw Pact countries were their primary partners.
Contact would become increasingly intensive over the course of the 1980s. Together with other independent peace organizations in Western Europe, Pax Christi and the IKV employed a ‘dual-track policy’. There was contact with the Peace Councils, which presented themselves as independent but were, in fact, part of the communist power structures. The (independent) peace organizations in Western Europe made no secret of the fact that the dissidents and independent groups in the Warsaw Pact countries were their primary partners.
Churches played a major role in this in Poland and the GDR in particular. The Polish Pope John Paul II ensured that the bishops expressed their support for the independent trade union Solidarnosc, which rapidly grew into a mass movement. Groups of Catholic intellectuals also had a lot of influence in Poland. Pax Christi Netherlands worked together with Catholics in the communist countries to break through the isolation of the churches there and ignite the discussion about issues of peace and war. The IKV was focused more on the Protestant churches. In the GDR the church leadership was divided, but almost everywhere opposition groups, made up primarily of young people, found shelter with churches and pastors, both literally and figuratively. This also had its practical aspects: only churches possessed stencil machines, for example.
There were individual pastors who themselves undertook courageous initiatives. In the second half of the 1980s, large ‘Ecumenical Assemblies’ took place during which criticism was voiced of the system and participants discussed the future. Although structurally hindered by the GDR’s government, the IKV succeeded in making an active contribution to these discussions. There were also numerous contacts of local protestant communities in the Netherlands with the GDR (about 400 in 1989), although these were less politically oriented. Just as today demonstrations for peaceful change frequently take place after Friday afternoon prayers in mosques, the first mass protests in the GDR, in the city of Leipzig, followed ‘political’ prayer meetings in Protestant churches.
Within the scope of collaboration with independent initiatives and human rights activists, relationships were also established with Vaclav Havel, Jiri Dienstbier, Jaroslav Sabata, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Arpad Göncz and Janusz Onyszkiewicz, among others. Not only did they lead independent initiatives for years that would ultimately mobilize the masses at the end of the 1980s, after the revolution of 1989 they also filled the vacuum created by the collapse of the communist system with authority and a certain inevitability.
The role of the churches and these activists who, in the context of the Helsinki Accords of 1975 among other things, dedicated themselves to democracy and human rights and often spent years in prison, is under-acknowledged. The solidarity that West European independent peace organizations continued to practice should also be mentioned more often.
The Neues Forum, the alliance of the opposition groups, drafted a new constitution for a democratic GDR, but this was never discussed.
In the GDR, a key country for the Warsaw Pact, things went a little differently. The GDR was formed after World War II, and with the dissolution of the communist system also the country’s reason for existence disappeared. The Neues Forum, the alliance of the opposition groups, drafted a new constitution for a democratic GDR, but this was never discussed. It was logical that after the fall of the Berlin Wall the discussion quickly turned to the reunification of the two Germanies. Paris, but also The Hague, did not have a positive reaction to the idea of German unification. In part in response to the negative reception of the neighbouring countries, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl decided to quickly move ahead with reunification. This is also what the majority of the population wanted. ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (‘We are the people’), the slogan of the East Germans prior to the fall of the Wall, rapidly became ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ (‘We are one people’). In fact, the large and rich West Germany took over the impoverished and smaller East Germany. It’s no wonder that people in the Eastern part of Germany still grumble about that up to this day.
Certainly in the GDR, a large number of the opposition groups were focused on developing an improved socialism. That’s why they didn’t want to be called dissidents. They didn’t want to be all lumped together with the opposition in the other Warsaw Pact countries. The relationships were also complex there, and differed per country. Many adhered to the rather simple idea that the enemy of your enemy is your friend, and thus embraced the hard capitalism espoused by Ronald Reagan, and especially also Margaret Thatcher. However, even in these countries there was a large group searching for a system with respect for human rights and democracy that would not be at the expense of the more vulnerable and low-skilled citizens and would be sensitive to less affluent countries. This discussion was also encouraged in the interaction with IKV and Pax Christi, as those involved would often later stress.
Many adhered to the rather simple idea that the enemy of your enemy is your friend, and thus embraced the hard capitalism espoused by Ronald Reagan, and especially also Margaret Thatcher.
In the GDR, the euphoria about the fall of the Berlin Wall felt by the opposition groups was short-lived. A comparable disappointment would later also occur in factions of the dissident movements in the other Warsaw Pact countries. The EU at the time invested a lot in Central Europe, but there was complete uninterest in discussing improvements of the Western European liberal system that also set the course for the EU’s packet of accession requirements, the acquis communautaire. Winner takes all! Capitalism, with its open and democratic state structure, won out over the closed, undemocratic model of communism. Clear, right?
The value orientation of the critical dissidents didn’t simply go away, and certainly in the first half of the 1990s they remained true to their ideas as much as possible. By way of example: Vaclav Havel, former President of Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic), and Arpad Göncz, the first democratically elected President of Hungary, actively supported the Yugoslav and former Yugoslav citizens who opposed the ethnic nationalism that led to the Balkan Wars in the 1990s. Also interesting was the attitude of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who in 1995 reported on the human rights situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the UN in his role as Special Envoy. Several weeks after the genocide of Srebrenica, at the end of July 1995, he handed in his resignation in protest against the failure of the leaders of the international community, which he reproached for their lack of courage and resolve. He remained true to his principles and human dignity. He could only do one thing before the victims of the genocide: resign. Other diplomats, including UN Under-Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Special Envoy Carl Bildt, were critical of the international measures but ultimately resumed the order of the day, and stayed put.
Winner takes all! Capitalism, with its open and democratic state structure, won out over the closed, undemocratic model of communism. Clear, right?
Lesson 1. Rehabilitation of the citizen
Today, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are still lessons to be learned from those important events. The first lesson is that politicians and diplomats should finally understand what can happen when citizens unite for the good causes of democracy and human rights. It’s high time for rehabilitation of the citizen as an actor in times and processes of transition and change, an actor that deserves support and respect. Citizens don’t play a leading role in the traditional historical record of the fall of the Wall, but they certainly weren’t puppets controlled by Gorbachev or Reagan. No, together they made up the masses that, adequately guided by authoritative dissidents, revealed the bankruptcy of the communist system.
Did we learn from this that it is necessary to support and encourage citizens who fight for democracy and human rights, to promote their access to the negotiating table? No. As always, we do business with men in capital cities, often also men with blood on their hands, as long as we believe that this is to our benefit. Just think of the EU deal with the Sudanese President Al Bashir, who of course was indicted by the ICC but was primarily of interest to us because he was supposed to help prevent tens of thousands of poor wretches from heading in Europe’s direction.
Just as we waited much too long to see whether the (at the time still) peaceful protests against Syrian President Assad would be successful.
Just as we waited much too long to see whether the (at the time still) peaceful protests against Syrian President Assad would be successful. Just as the EU stresses the role of civil society in the accession strategy when it comes to democratization and creating conditions for peaceful co-existence and reconciliation, but politicians and technocrats in Brussels refrain from taking a hard line against nationalist politicians about their glorification of war crimes, the muzzling of independent media and obstruction of lawsuits against notorious war criminals. But noblesse oblige, values necessitate action. Or they should, in any case.
Those who pay attention to what is going on in Brussels in order to get insight into the EU strategy regarding current developments in Lebanon or Iraq, where a million people are protesting in the streets these weeks, or in Sudan, where mass protests forced the president to resign, will often encounter the buzz word ‘stabilization’. However, all too often we can see what stabilization really means in practice: new power sharing deals for and by men and parties to which millions of citizens object, and not a radical break with nationalistic or tribal politics or widespread corruption. Stabilization is primarily about our interests (safeguarding economic interests, holding back immigrants and refugees, and fighting terrorists). We are happy with a few cosmetic changes. When the Syrian revolution still offered hope, demonstrators made it clear what they wanted: a deep revolution, fundamental reforms. But this is not the goal of stabilization. It’s simply not about human rights or human dignity.
Stabilization is primarily about our interests (safeguarding economic interests, holding back immigrants and refugees, and fighting terrorists).
Stabilization is primarily about our interests (safeguarding economic interests, holding back immigrants and refugees, and fighting terrorists).
The fall of the Berlin Wall offered us the perfect opportunity to significantly expand the tool box for international politics and diplomacy, entirely in line with European values. We didn’t do this, and thus it still needs to happen. We cannot credibly speak about European values if we callously leave the citizens who stand up for democracy and human rights in the cold, time after time.
Lesson 2. High time for a dialogue about the neoliberal system
In recent years it has become more than clear that the current neoliberal system is not suitable for resolving the major issues of our time. What’s more, this system helped create these problems: the migration flows, climatic change, a growing underclass of citizens who will not reap the benefits but shoulder the costs of globalization. Differences are getting bigger not only between countries but also internally within countries. The primacy of the market has major consequences. The public domain is under pressure, and market forces are seen as more of a value than a choice. Populist parties are draining the political centre, centrist parties are forsaking their traditional (yes, elitist) role and are too often being swayed by the gut feelings that also dominate social media. Citizens are increasingly active in revitalising local communities, but democracy as such is under pressure in many countries and regions – despite the many thousands of bottom-up initiatives enriching representative democracy with the promising fruits of participatory democracy.
Democracy as such is under pressure in many countries and regions – despite the many thousands of bottom-up initiatives enriching representative democracy with the promising fruits of participatory democracy.
We see how countries are addressing the threats confronting them with measures that do a disservice to the democracy and principles of open society. We also see this with the EU as a whole; see for example, the failure regarding the migrant and refugee flows. The us-them mentality is growing stronger, all the while we should instead be more open to having a true discussion with the ‘others’ who find their way into our society, whether as a knowledge migrant or as a war refugee. We live in a globalized society, and we cannot return to the time when we were still ‘free of any foreign blemishes’ (van vreemde smetten vrij), as it was called in the former Netherlands national anthem.
Has the time come to finally have the discussion that many of our friends hoped to have 30 years ago, about a democratic structure of the state and of society that is also sensitive to vulnerable citizens, regions and countries? In which solidarity is an inspiration and in which people who strive for good things not only for themselves but also for others are not dismissed with sneering comments as reprehensible ‘do-gooders’? A discussion which, of course, includes those who argue for the populist-driven values of one’s own identity and nationalism. We have to find solutions together. More than a discussion, perhaps we should call it a dialogue, and act accordingly. Has the time come to finally have the discussion that many of our friends hoped to have 30 years ago?
Much has been written about the new European Commission. Is the attention to a European way of life a capitulation to the populists or an opportunity to revamp European values in a changing world? The new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, indicated on several occasions that the EU has to strengthen its relationship with Europe’s citizens. We could be cynical about this, but we could also embrace that idea and contribute to it ourselves. Naturally, such an investment in relationship restoration with Europe’s citizens can only be successful if it is paired with the strengthening of a social Europe.
As far as PAX is concerned, we are choosing a new impetus for Europe as a peace project, a social Europe, a European citizenship. Certainly, ideas for this should also develop from the bottom-up.
We’ve already believed for too long that they – of course – would want to be like us.
We must emphatically involve the ‘new’ member states of the EU in this process, including those that are currently out of step, such as Poland and Hungary. Because it is essential to better understand how they view the important questions of our time, as we’ve already believed for too long that they – of course – would want to be like us. The EU magic formula ‘unity in diversity’ is certainly not a reality; at most it’s an ambition or objective to aspire to. Better late than never. We should now have the discussion about how we imagine the Europe of tomorrow.
(With thanks to Wim Bartels, Gied ten Berge, Laurens Hogebrink, Janneke Houdijk and Cees Volwater for their contribution and comments on an earlier version of this essay.)
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