Fall of the Wall 30 years on: what is there to celebrate?

The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated in Berlin, Germany and Europe last weekend. Commentators in Eastern and Western Europe examine what has become of the spirit of 1989.

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Népszava (HU) /

The dreams of 1989 have been shattered

The victory of liberal democracy seems to have been an illusion, writes Népszava:

“The fall of the Berlin Wall was decisive for the continent's entire future. It strengthened the sense of belonging and the belief in democracy, it laid the foundations of our shared Europe. We thought that liberal democracy had prevailed. ... But since the end of the 2000s serious crises have swept across the world and Europe ... The populists and the right-wing extremists have been unable to achieve a breakthrough in European politics. ... But they have made the situation in Europe uncertain and unstable. All these disruptions are both a cause and a consequence of the fact that the spirit that shaped Europe after the fall of the wall seems to have vanished into thin air.”

Contrepoints (FR) /

Central Eastern Europe values liberalism

In Contrepoints, political scientist Alexandre Massaux calls attention to an opinion poll showing that people in the Central Eastern European countries of the former East Bloc take a more positive view of capitalism and liberalism than their Western neighbours:

“The key element that makes Central Europe more optimistic is that during the decades that followed the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, all of these countries successfully implemented major liberal reforms. Today they have more economic freedom than France. Even the so-called 'populist' parties in power in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic haven't managed to destroy the spirit of freedom that blossomed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The majority there are still aware that they need the free market to ensure prosperity.”

O Jornal Económico (PT) /

Mental wall makes things easy for propagandists

Jornal Económico believes the current trend towards authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary has to do with the fact that the Wall never really came down in the minds of the people living in these countries:

“For decades, the people of Eastern Europe were ruled by propagandist regimes that depended on the creation of a 'reality' that existed only in the lies invented by their propagandists. ... In countries like Poland and Hungary, people believe politicians who talk about conspiracy theories because decades of propaganda and totalitarian rule conditioned them to distrust everything. Paradoxically, they accept even the most ridiculous lies as plausible and convincing. ... From a psychological point of view, a large part of the populations of Poland and Hungary still lives on the other side of an imagined 'Berlin Wall'.”

De Morgen (BE) /

The world has grown up

Sociologist Mark Elchardus points to exaggerated expectations and unfulfilled hopes in De Morgen:

“Thirty years on, the most striking aspect is the naive expectations of that time. ... The fall of the Berlin Wall was seen as a confirmation of 'the end of history': the conviction that the entire world would move on to a market economy, liberal democracy and the trivialisation of nation states. Today it seems amazing that this could have been the assumption back then. These haven't been our best 30 years. Almost everything has become unstable. But they were particularly instructive years. The world has grown up. And no matter how you look at it: today's young climate activists seem to be fighting for a less shrill, more subdued society, just like the East Berlin students back then.”

Latvijas Avīze (LV) /

Europe has lost its self-confidence

The people who marched in 1989 dreamed of a stronger Europe, Latvijas Avīze points out:

“German Chancellor Merkel visits Beijing every year. Emmanuel Macron, her counterpart in the Elysée Palace, follows in her footsteps. But in trade with China, no one has got an inch further towards realizing the main goal and the real purpose of the trip. In the same way European diplomacy is coming out the loser in its dealings with Russia, because Berlin and Paris are giving priority to pressing ahead with Nord Stream 2. Equally, Berlin has consistently put the brakes on Ukraine's and Georgia's joining Nato, which helped West Germany's democracy survive years ago. And as we know, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs led by Heiko Maas has not recommended recognising the Holodomor [the 1932/33 famine in Soviet Ukraine] as genocide.”

Kommersant (RU) /

The wall in people's heads is far lower

The persistent gap between east and west Germany can't be exploited politically, Kommersant notes:

“Russia shouldn't gloat over Germany's problems or point to them as proof of the 'decline of the West'. The social consensus on key political issues is broader than it may seem from outside the country: the wall in people's heads is far lower than the Berlin Wall was in reality - and people can climb over it without putting their lives at risk. The AfD's demands for a correction of the Russia sanctions are fuelled more by the desire to negate Merkel's political legacy than by selfless altruism towards Moscow.”

Upsala Nya Tidning (SE) /

Hope in hard times

Despite the growth of right-wing populism there are also movements that tie in with the values of 30 years ago, Upsala Nya Tidning notes:

“In several countries, veterans of 1989 are joining forces with younger people who weren't even born 30 years ago to defend basic democratic values. There's a growing student movement in the Czech Republic, and despite the electoral victory of the PiS this autumn the democratic forces in Poland are not about to throw in the towel. The presidential elections in Slovakia in March this year showed us what is possible.”

Time (US) /

For a Europe without dividing lines

Former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev calls for a new rapprochement between the East and West in an article that appeared in Novaya Gazeta and Time Magazine:

“[I]t was the people - two peoples - who mattered the most. The Germans, who declared their will for national unity decisively and, most importantly, in a peaceful way. And of course the Russians, who understood the Germans' aspirations, who believed that Germany had indeed changed and supported the will of the German people. … We drew a final line under the Cold War. Our goal was a new Europe: a Europe without dividing lines. The leaders who succeeded us have failed to achieve that goal. A modern security architecture, a strong mechanism for preventing and resolving conflicts have not been created in Europe. Hence the painful problems and conflicts that beset our continent today.”

Denník N (SK) /

Unable to decide between Byzantium and the West

In the past 30 years democracy in Central Eastern Europe has undergone an "Eastern mutation", Dennik N laments:

“We've been unable to explain to the generations that grew up after the change of regime precisely what democracy is good for. As a result we're still half-way between Byzantium and the West. Our citizens support both democrats and despots. Lack of character, negligence, hatred and corruption are part of everyday life. We created a sort of mishmash and called it democracy's Eastern mutation. ... In 1989 the West was still a beacon of hope, as we wanted be. Unfortunately in the meantime the West, too, mutated because of people like Trump and Johnson.”

Večernji list (HR) /

Nostalgia syndrome not confined to Eastern Europe

Even in economically robust Germany people are not immune to the glorification of the past, Večernji list states:

“The GDR regime was undoubtedly repressive, but not entirely without appeal. The west Germans can't understand that not everything was black and grey in East Germany. ... Wages were low, instead of Mercedes and Opels they drove Trabants and Wartburgs, but life had its bright sides. Nobody had to worry about their job or whether they would get their salary because there was zero possibility of a company going bankrupt. ... This shows that Germany, the most developed country in Europe, suffers from the same syndrome as the former communist or socialist countries, the nostalgia syndrome.”

Wedomosti (RU) /

Kremlin building a new Wall

Russia is being sealed off by its own government - but this time virtually, Vedomosti writes:

“The anti-Western propaganda of the pro-state media creates bogeymen and the image of a beleaguered fortress. At at the same time it points a finger at internal enemies and blames foreign interference for the widespread dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country. An attempt is being made to imprison the people not physically, but in terms of information, by isolating them within the Russian Internet. ... At the same time the Kremlin is pushing to re-establish the bipolar world and to give itself the status of an alternative centre of influence with the support of traditionalists who don't agree with globalisation or the US's role in world politics.”

Le Point (FR) /

Positive developments in the East

The populist forces whose success was also based on opposition to imitating the West are now themselves in crisis, Le Point notes:

“Above all in the big cities, the remarkable economic development is helping to keep democratic ideals alive. ... This year, several positive developments testify to the vitality of civil society. In Slovakia a liberal has been elected president. In the Czech Republic huge demonstrations have denounced corruption among the leadership. In Poland the women's movement has prevented new restrictions in the abortion law. The European elections in May have shown that the populists are on the wane across the board. Thirty years after the revolution of 1989, the counter-revolution is now on the defensive.”

Dagens Nyheter (SE) /

Communism fuelled nationalism

Dagens Nyheter looks into the rise of nationalist parties in Poland, Hungary and the eastern German states and concludes that communism is partly to blame:

“Communists like to say that they're internationalists. ... But in practice the defining feature of communism, particularly in its Stalinist and Maoist forms, was a strong orientation towards nationalist ideas and hands-on nationalist policies. Rituals and institutions that had been compromised by Nazism in West Germany were able to live on in the GDR, protected by the red flag and loudly proclaimed 'antifacism': parades, leadership cults, a youth organisation clad in uniforms and an omnipresent state police.”

Le Temps (CH) /

A missed opportunity

Germany's reunification has done nothing to advance cooperation in Europe, complains journalist François Schaller in his blog with Le Temps:

“The European community missed its last chance to evolve towards the egalitarian federalism it clearly needed. Instead, Europe has progressively become a laughing stock: an 'association of sui generis states', as the official definition has it. Neither a federation, nor a confederation, nor a simple free trade zone, nor any of the above. No, it's become something much more creative, as befits Europe's genius: an enlarged, unstable, Euro-centric, Franco-German Europe. Governed by French presidents and German chancellors over the phone and Franco-German summits and EU Council summit meetings that trick the people into believing there is a consensus.”

Spiegel Online (DE) /

What is not being talked about

Spiegel Online recalls that German reunification did not necessarily have to happen the way it did:

“Back then, 42 percent of the East German population wanted their own constitution, 38 percent wanted an all-German constitution, and just nine percent wanted to adopt the West German Basic Law. There was a bitter dispute over whether the reunification should be carried out in accordance with Article 23 (accession without a new constitution) or Article 146 (the drawing up of a new constitution for all Germany) of the Basic Law. ... But not long afterwards Bonn took over and pushed through the policy it thought was best. And perhaps it was: maybe there was no real alternative. But no one is even talking about this as we celebrate reunification, neither in politics nor in the media.”

Denik N (CZ) /

Anti-democratic instincts live on

The people of Central Eastern Europe still haven't got the hang of democracy, political scientist Jiří Pehe comments in Denik N:

“Although most people don't want to return to the days before 1989, election results and polls show that identification with the values of liberal democracy is particularly low in post-communist areas. The current difficulties for Czech democracy are mainly caused by people who formed the silent majority in the former regime. ... Most of them never really became democrats. ... As soon as they encountered the first major difficulties they returned to the reflexive behaviour they learned in the former regime, including admiration of a strong hand.”

Večernji list (HR) /

Croatians still waiting for the Wall to fall

Večernji list describes the transformation in Croatia as half completed, at best:

“Thirty years later, a strange mixture of liberal democracy, free market economy, socialism, self-administration, state interventionism and rigid, authoritarian party structures is at work in Croatia. One often hears the question: When will the Berlin Wall finally fall in Croatia? ... Yes, we have moved beyond socialism. But only with one leg, the right one. The left leg is still stuck in socialism. ... The problem is that people aren't choosing business ventures and risks but want to find work in the public sector and then take it easy until retirement. ... Thirty years later, Croatia is the EU's worst performer. When will the changes come?”

La Vanguardia (ES) /

Beginning of the end for the welfare state

La Vanguardia points out that not only did the Wall come down, but the welfare state also came under major pressure:

“The scenario created after the fall of the Berlin Wall exacerbated the crisis that had taken hold in the welfare state in post-war Europe. The contraction of the state, as preached by the neoliberal theorists of the Chicago School and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman in the mid-1970s, found a breeding ground in this new Europe. It endangered the old economic and social model and consequently the politics of European social democracy. Thirty years after the East Berliners tore down the wall, Germany and Europe must choose between those who want to lead them back into a dark past and those who want to continue advancing towards freer societies despite all the obstacles.”

Le Monde (FR) /

The revolution hasn't failed by a long shot

The revolution of 1989 is often seen as having failed due to the election of illiberal leaders in former East Bloc states. But this view is false, Le Monde criticises:

“Who are we to judge? We supplied the model. For a long time it proved its worth. But even before Orbán its weaknesses became apparent with the devastating crisis of 2008. Resting on its laurels, this model was unable to summon the creativity and audacity it needed to renew itself, and this has produced Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Matteo Salvini. No, the 1989 revolution has not failed, no more than it was the end of the story. And if we get things right, it could even be a new start.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung (DE) /

The real revolution was in October

The Süddeutsche Zeitung finds it incomprehensible that the events preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall receive so little attention:

“The days of October 1989 were decisive for the victory over the repressive regime that had existed for forty years. The GDR leadership gave no order to fire and it was now the rulers who were afraid rather than the demonstrators. Solely for that reason were GDR citizens able to storm and dance on the Wall. Unity was preceded by freedom. It was the victory of a whole country, albeit one still divided into two halves. The Berlin Wall fell on 9 November, but the revolution was in October. Yet this is not celebrated in Germany, which prefers to focus on the final act ”

The Evening Standard (GB) /

It's worth fighting for an open society

Even if democracies aren't perfect, it is certainly worth fighting for them, The Evening Standard believes:

“The Europe we inhabit has struggled to live up to its aspiration. But the gambles taken on the streets of eastern Europe then, and Hong Kong now, were about a belief that open societies were better than those which defined themselves by enmities. They were also driven by a faith that unpredictable democracies outweigh the paralysis of closed societies. It was worth the risks the foot soldiers of change took 30 years ago. For all the setbacks since, it still is.”

Latvijas Avīze (LV) /

Modern walls are even harder to overcome

Latvijas avize finds it regrettable that thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, borders in Europe and the world are once again becoming fortified:

“Because of the negative connotations, we no longer speak of walls, but of fences and defensive systems. Thanks to modern surveillance technology, these fences are even harder to overcome than the Berlin Wall. In 1989, Hungary was the first socialist country to open its border with Austria. Today, this same country has built a barrier that is far more difficult to overcome - on the border with Serbia. Other fences exist in the form of barbed wire: those between Israel and the Palestinian territories, between Bulgaria and Turkey, between the Baltic States and Russia, and between Abkhazia and Georgia. Not forgetting Trump's wall on the Mexican border. ... The history of humanity has, however, shown that mechanical barriers are only a temporary solution.”

La Vanguardia (ES) /

Reunification has yet to succeed

East and West Germany are still divided, La Vanguardia observes:

“There are many reasons why East and West still feel divided. There is huge inequality, as a study by the Munich Ifo institute has shown. This means that living standards in the East German federal states will not reach those of West Germany for decades, if indeed at all. Many Germans, especially in the east, are poor, even though they live in one of the world’s strongest economies. That fact is both dramatic and paradoxical. And now the spectre of recession has raised its head as well. ... After three decades, the country has not managed to overcome these inequalities. ”