Europe's past is being rewritten
25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall
Twenty-five years ago this autumn the Berlin Wall was pulled down and a wave of euphoria swept not just across that city, but across Europe, and then the world. When, also in 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote we were seeing the “end of history” it seemed to make sense. His essay suggested not that history was over, but a new era was coming, one in which liberal democracy had defeated authoritarianism and the world would now inevitably become more free.
In the wake of the fall, eastern European nations swapped authoritarian regimes for democratic governments. And people who lived behind that wall were now able to travel more easily, read news that had previously been censored, and listen to music that had been forbidden. Many got the chance to vote in their first free election, with a choice of parties, and even had the option not to vote at all.
Bricks were falling and barriers were coming down as that long line of wire and sentry posts that had divided a continent was dismantled.
A quarter of a century on and the bubble of optimism is deflating. The two world superpowers of the 1980s, the US and Russia, are squaring up again, with presidents Putin and Obama exchanging threats and counter threats. In parts of the former Soviet Union little appears to have changed for the better with attacks on gay people, anti-gay legislation and the introduction of blasphemy and anti-swearing laws. In Belarus and Azerbaijan the hope for freedom still exists, but an atmosphere of fear prevails. Journalists there still live in fear of being beaten up, imprisoned or put under house arrest for writing articles that report problems that dictators would rather not have reported. Internet restrictions stop news being distributed, and samizdat, the opposition’s underground newspapers of the Soviet era, continues to exist in Belarus. Further west of Moscow things are better than they were. Freedom to travel, write and read what you want came with the new era. But there are ominous signs. In Hungary there has been a rise in discrimination against minority groups such as the Roma, swastikas painted on Jewish gravestones, and a rise in support for fascist groups. In Poland there are similar reports of upsurges in extremism and homophobia. That initial post-wall swell of enthusiasm for change has been replaced by cynicism and anxiety.
Across Europe a strand of nasty nationalism is striding into the political arena. And weeks after Russia occupied Crimea, and continues to stand at the redrawn borders of Ukraine, the European landscape looks almost as anxious and divided as it did in the days of presidents Reagan and Brezhnev. Fears about a new Cold War feel well founded. If history teaches us anything, it should teach us to expect situations to repeat themselves, and to learn from the past.
History is certainly playing a part in these cycles. The narratives of hate often use a rewriting of history to make their case. “Those people hated us, so now we can hate them,” argues one set. “They supported the Nazis in the war,” argues one more. “The Jews might have had it bad, but it was just as bad for the non-Jewish Poles,” argues another.
A new memorial to a pro-Nazi leader in Hungary has been erected, and writers with far-right connections are now on the country’s school curriculum. Austerity has given the nasty nationalists an opportunity to tell a new story about Europe. It’s too open; it’s too competitive for jobs; our young people don’t have enough opportunities; it’s all the fault of (a group can be named here). And all this creates distant echoes of German voices in the 1930s. Austerity and high levels of unemployment open up an angry fear of a troubled future where people will have less than they have now, often an excuse for popular support for repressive legislation. Politicians and wannabe politicians are drawing out emotional memories of Russia’s fight against the Nazis; World War II victories; and myths of Russia resplendent in centuries past or Hungary split and defeated, then mixing with nostalgia, a cupful of anger and a return to religiosity, in some cases, to present the case for tighter drawn laws that ban free speech or allow states to clampdown on groups they don’t like.
The past is being rewritten.
So, have the expected gains been as nought? In her article for this issue, Irena Maryniak argues that the dividing line in Europe still exists, but it has now shifted further east, along the eastern border of the Baltic states and down the western border of Belarus. To the east there is a greater expectation of conformity and that the group is greater than the individual. There are fault lines where tensions explode and where the push and pull from decades and where arguments about national identity and geo-political pressures result in sudden uprisings and anger. Meanwhile, Konstanty Gebert, who was a leading Solidarity journalist and continues to work as a writer, charts the public’s disillusionment with the “free” press in Poland. He explores why the newly independent media was not as willing to investigate stories as objectively as it should have done, and how people’s trust in the media has dissolved.
Our three German writers on the post-wall era explore different themes. Crime writer Regula Venske looks at the expectation that Germany would have a cohesive national identity by now, but her exploration through crime novels of the country’s image of itself shows a nation more comfortable with itself as regional rather than national. Matthias Biskupek looks back at theatre and literature censored in the former East Germany; while academic and writer Thomas Rothschild has felt his optimism ebb away. Meanwhile Generation Wall, our panel of under 25-year-olds from eastern Europe, speak to their parents’ generation about the past and talk about their present.
Clearly it’s not all bad news. Those members of Generation Wall are mentally and physically well travelled in a way that the older generation was not able to enjoy. They have experienced a life mostly uncensored. Freedom House’s influential Freedom in the World report shows that the number of countries rated as “free” has swept from 61 to 88, and four more than 1989 are rated “partly free”.
And as this year’s Eurovision Song Contest showed there are protests across Europe at the heavy-handed tactics of Russian authorities, and at their attitudes to minorities. While a Eurovision audience booing at the Russian contestants or Russia’s neighbours reducing their traditional 12 votes won’t have a long-term effect, it is a sign of an airing of opinions from traditional Russian allies. Bloc voting, so long a tradition in Eurovision, appeared to be breaking down. The end of history has not happened, but learning from the past should never go away.