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The Berlin Wall is dead! Long Live the Berlin Wall?

by Adam Martincak

On the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I wish to impart some wisdom to the readers of this article during the 2019-2020 Hannah Arendt Promotion at the College of Europe. The proposition is that, it was not a foregone conclusion that merely because the Berlin Wall was crumbling in 1989 that there was an ordained historical process at work. Even if it was, it was not following an indomitable post hoc ergo propter hoc logic which implies that the rest of the Warsaw Pact regimes and the Soviet Union would collapse afterwards.

Quite the opposite in fact, in the same year and even after the Berlin Wall came down. In NATO countries, foreign policy advisors and intelligence analysts remained unconvinced. The declassification of documents with the passage of time as well as interviews with those officials have shown that they were certain, despite whatever internal difficulties were occurring within the Warsaw Pact and in the Soviet Union, that the Iron Curtain would never collapse. Hence, it would be a permanent feature of humanity’s existence on the landscape of planet earth for the foreseeable future.

The historian Timothy Garton Ash, while reflecting recently on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, said that it was "The Best Year in European History." I indubitably concur, as the son of parents who fled from the repression of the communist totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia. Though I was only 4 years old at the time, the memento I have is that of my parents being shocked and in disbelief when the Berlin Wall was coming down. They could not believe what they were seeing, though it was broadcast evidently in front of them on television. After the reality dawned on them, it became clear that this was real, it was happening, and it was not some sort of a phantasmagoria. Soon after, they erupted with sheer undulated cries of happiness. This was a miracle, something they never thought they would see, let alone experience in their lifetimes.

As the events that led to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall by the West and East Germans were unfolding, the eventual lifting of the darkness of the Iron Curtain with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Bloc really was as the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s book title, « The end of history ».

It really felt like that for my parents and for many in those countries who had been occupied by the Soviet Union and had totalitarian systems imposed on them from above in Central and Eastern Europe. That was the beginning of the end of the literal division of Europe due to the Cold War. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the totalitarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe was what Czech President Vaclav Havel referred to as their “return to Europe” along with the prospect of their future membership in the European Community.

30 years later, the Berlin Wall and some divisions which it represented that were not solved continue to exist, even if only in a metaphorical sense. “Old habits die hard” is the classic English aphorism that human beings are creatures of habit and slow to change certain mentalities or of ways of doing things. Some things have not changed very much apparently, as divisions in Europe are re-emerging, much to our detriment threatening the future of representative democracy and the European Union. In Germany, a populist political party with rhetoric reminiscent of the Nazi Party during the Weimar Republic is questioning the legitimacy of Germany’s democratic post war Constitutional order as well stoking anti-Semitism.

We also see worrying signs of dictatorial tendencies and trends remerging in Central and Eastern European nations, and the re-emergence of anti- democratic political movements all over the continent. Some of these are supported financially or materially by the usual suspects where foreign regimes are concerned.

Despite the end of the Berlin Wall, to some degree the divisions it engendered continue to live on in hearts and minds of Europeans, even if they do not realize it. It turns out that eliminating the legacy of the Berlin Wall is a long-term project, much like the Vergangenheitsbewältigung of post war Germany. It seems that all Europeans need a process of coming into terms with the past, since some of those divisions can be traced back to older fault lines of the First and Second World Wars.

This should come as a stark reminder that the European Union project as well, as democracy itself, should not be taken for granted. We should heed that carefully given some of the extremes in the political discourse today. We need to remain vigilant and continue the effort and hard work to make democracy and the European Union project succeed for the benefit of future generations, because going back to the past is not an option.


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