Gorbachev, democracy and the Berlin Wall
The ‘celebration’ of the bringing down of the Berlin Wall (and the militarised border between the former East and West in Germany) is being held. Germany’s Christian Democrat-led government has marked the anniversary with many events, but the question ought to be: what are they celebrating? Is it the demise of communism? Is it the ‘victory’ of Western democracy? Or is it the fragile success of having steered without serious catastrophe a course that has become more unsustainable with every year for Germany’s 80.6 million?
These are the questions that do not hide behind the marketability of an event such as several thousand lit balloons in Berlin tracing the course of the Wall when it divided the city. The ‘installation’ will bring the tourists in, but little else for a city whose government – brazenly arm-in-arm with reckless property speculators – posed as being “poor but sexy” much to the disgust of Berliners.
It is difficult to slide away from the consequences of history. In the early euphoria following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany moved quickly to erase the scars of its Cold War division. “But East Germany’s legacy remains visible in statistics,” the weekly newspaper Die Zeit has commented, showing that German unification left scars that have not yet disappeared.
An editorial blog post related to the article observed: “The border still exists. Nearly exactly where it existed in reality, Germany is still divided in two. Until today, 25 years after the end of the imposed separation, there is an important demographic and economic imbalance, and there are also very different lifestyle habits.”
In the former eastern part of Germany, the income per capita is still considerably less than in what used to be old Federal Republic (the west), and farms are considerably bigger in the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) than in the old West Germany – the legacy of collective farming. Easterners also put their children in day care, and most get flu shots each year, and the eastern population is older.
Those older residents remember ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ more readily than do Germans elsewhere in Germany. These were the concept-words employed by Mikhail Gorbachev which made the reunification of Germany possible. The former leader of the Soviet Union (the USSR) returned to Berlin to speak at a forum organised to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the message he gave was weighed down by his disappointment with the West and was charged by his warning – delivered as clearly and precisely as when he was general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – that the new Cold War is the product of the current thinking of the West.
After the Berlin Wall was brought down and Germany began its process of reunification, the leaders of the western world were intoxicated with euphoria of triumph, and they adopted anti-Russian policies that eventually led to the current crisis, Gorbachev said.
“Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and a lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world. And they refused to heed the word of caution from many of those present here,” he said. “The events of the past months are consequences of short-sighted policies of seeking to impose one’s will and fait accompli while ignoring the interests of one’s partners.”
Gorbachev gave a list of examples of those policies, including the expansion of NATO and the development of an anti-ballistic missile system, military interventions in Yugoslavia and Iraq, the west-backed secession of Kosovo, the crisis in Syria and others. The Ukrainian crisis is a “blister turning into a bleeding, festering wound,” he said.
Western policies toward Russia championed by Washington have led to the current crisis, and if the confrontation continues, Europe will be weakened and become irrelevant, said Gorbachev. “Instead of becoming a leader of change in a global world Europe has turned into an arena of political upheaval, of competition for the spheres of influence, and finally of military conflict. The consequence inevitably is Europe’s weakening at a time when other centres of power and influence are gaining momentum. If this continues, Europe will lose a strong voice in world affairs and gradually become irrelevant,” he said.
The anniversary of Mauerfall – the bringing down of the Berlin Wall and the militarised boundary between East and West Germany – has been employed by Zygmunt Bauman (professor emeritus of Sociology in the Universities of Leeds and Warsaw) to comment on the hopes of 1989 and the realities of 2014.
“We have seen a steady dismantling of the network of institutions intended to defend the victims of the increasingly deregulated greed-driven economy, and a growing public insensitivity to rampant social inequality, coupled with the incapacity of a rising number of citizens, now abandoned (since no longer viewed as a potential danger to capitalist order or a seedbed of social revolution) to fend for themselves as they might on their own glaringly inadequate resources and capabilities.”
This has resulted, Bauman continued, among the actual and prospective stake-holders of democracy, in a steady erosion of trust in the ability of democratic institutions to deliver on their promises: a stark contrast to the high hopes of the heady, optimistic aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. It has also resulted in an ever-widening gulf and a breakdown of communication between political elites and the man in the street.
“The ostensible triumph of the democratic mode of human co-existence, in practice brought a steady shrinking and fading of public trust in its potential accomplishments. Such unprepossessing and depressing effects struck, though in unequal measure, all member states of the European Union.”
Amongst the many commentaries in Berlin’s newspaper, one from taz – the short form of Die Tageszeitung – explains the cultural gulf between ‘ossis’ (from the east) and ‘wessis’ (from the former West Germany). “East Germans and immigrants were still commonly referred to as ‘foreigners’, both equally outsiders and underdogs in the West German perspective after the fall of the Wall. They dressed differently, had strange habits and foreign dialects and accents. But culturally East Germans had something in common with many immigrants – both came from societies in which the sense of community was very important.”
This was evident in everyday East Germany (the DDR). There were few telephones and not many public places in the GDR, and hence colleagues and friends met in their own flats and apartments. The result was that close neighborliness was well developed in many migrants at that time. They differed in this from the “distant West Germans”, who even 25 years ago preferred to met each other in cafes or restaurants rather than in their homes.
Twenty-five years after November 1989 what is Germany recalling? There are many unkept promises rued by a society in which the joy of being “wieder ein Volk” (once more a people) has been eroded by the finance politics of austerity and the creeping ruin of corporate control. At the time it looked so very different.
In 1986, in the journal Widersprüche (April 1986), the sociologist Timm Kunstreich commented: “Especially concerning the understanding and productivity in the seemingly petty bourgeois work ethic conceptions, the prominent idea is one of characteristic blocking of the transformation process in the GDR. The consequence of the reduction of the integral state is that the ‘proletarian’ company is pushed into the ground. To many social institutions such a proletarian society appears as ‘Prometheus in chains’, bound by a rigid state-partisan control machinery based on collectivism and planned democracy.”
What has been transformed, what is blocked and what remain cultural differences? Far too many of the German Volk (especially the youth) are a Prometheus bound despite reunification, the so-called free market and the removal of the spectre of communism. Every trait of the DDR/GDR that was reviled is seen again, 25 years later, through the employment of new tools of technology, finance, the marginalisation of local alternatives, the intrusion of the private sector into the domains of the state.
This has resulted in a stark and saddening contrast to the high hopes of the heady, optimistic aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. “Twenty five years ago people stormed a barbed-wired wall that epitomised their un-freedom, hoping that once that wall were down, democracy would guarantee them freedom and that freedom would assure their well-being. Twenty-five years after democracy is in a state of unprecedented (and all but unimaginable at that time) crisis,” Bauman has said. The lit balloons that today give Berlin a ghost wall are alas no more than the gaslight of a depression that is palpable, though in unequal measure, in all member states of the European Union.