For baby boomers and the older segment of ‘Gen Y’, 1989 was a watershed year in geo-politics. In front of the world’s eyes, people power—the courage of ordinary, anonymous citizens—was put to the test twice in one year with two different outcomes.
In China, authoritarianism demonstrated that power still does grow out of the barrel of a gun. But in East Germany, a truly peaceful revolution was won by people no longer prepared to live a lie.
The twentieth century was the bloodiest century in human history.
Technology and ideology combined to enable totalitarian regimes to set about the systematic butchering of vast, almost unimaginable numbers of people designated as ‘enemies’—amongst others, Jews and kulaks—for the most puerile, anti-human reasons. While the horror of fascism was dispatched in 1945, its twin—Soviet totalitarianism—lived on. The story of its downfall is remarkable and inspiring—and perhaps has disturbing resonance in today’s world events.
Throughout the 1950s, the old German capital, Berlin, split between east and west, had been a pressure point for the flow of refugees seeking freedom. While country borders could be patrolled, the ‘Socialist Unity’ regime found it next to impossible to police the maze of Berlin city blocks and alleys straddling two very different worlds.
In August 1961, the East German authorities built a steel and concrete barrier—‘die Mauer’— physically cutting the east off from the west, expressly telling their own citizens they were not trusted to remain and were now little more than open air prisoners. By the early 1970s, official orders to border guards were to ‘shoot to kill’ any ‘traitors’ desperately attempting the crossing.
On best estimates, from 1961 to 1989 some five thousand East Germans were smuggled one way or another across the Wall. German researchers today believe that around two hundred people were shot or beaten to death trying to realise their dream of freedom.
While there is due credit to be paid to the historic importance of individuals—how can anyone doubt the symbolism of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II or, for that matter, the less clear legacies of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin—the beauty of the story of the Berlin Wall lies supremely in people power.
In June 1987, US President Ronald Reagan came to West Berlin—in part to deliberately repeat the symbolic solidarity of an earlier president, John F. Kennedy, in June 1963—and publicly called on Mister Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’. Reagan’s cry spread like wildfire through the populations of Eastern Europe and, encouraged by world support, people voted with their feet.
At the start of 1989, the geriatric East German dictator, Erich Honecker, offered his opinion that the Wall would stand for another fifty years if the West remained hostile to the East. In August-September 1989, an estimated 13,000 East Germans made it through to Austria via Hungary or Czechoslovakia. In October, Poland lifted visa restrictions on the movement of East German citizens.
And on Thursday 9 November, the East German authorities saw the writing on the wall as the border restrictions around its neighbours collapsed. At 7pm, there were radio announcements that visa requirements were lifted, effective immediately. At 11pm the guards opened the gates. The spontaneous party, the joyous dancing on the Wall itself, was broadcast around the world in hours.
Almost all of the wall was demolished in 1990, and by October 1 that year East and West Germany had been re-united—something even a wild optimist would not have conceived as vaguely possible even five years earlier. The political changes elsewhere in the Warsaw Pact, initially sparked by Polish Solidarnosc as far back as 1981, accelerated throughout the east.
Yeltsin’s political challenge to Gorbachev—and then Yeltsin’s considerable personal bravery in facing down an attempted hardliner coup in August 1991, while Gorbachev was mysteriously ‘isolated’ on the Crimea—finished off the parent regime. On 31 December 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (CCCP) formally ceased to exist.
These extraordinary events— the resolution of so much pain endured throughout the twentieth century—happened only twenty-five years ago, and yet it may as well be another world away, especially for anyone younger than 40.
The Russian Soviet ideology was an aggressive and expansionist enterprise from 1917 to 1991. Its core belief was that it represented the highest stage of human social development and it was scientifically, economically, and technologically destined to succeed older, less humane social orders.
But similar comments, with slight modifications to include race or other factors, could possibly be made about German Nazism or Italian Fascism.
From Karl Marx, with his human specimens classified into economic classes and sub-classes, to the tawdry collection of racialist and eugenicist philosophers measuring skull dimensions, the end of the dangerous and delusionary nineteenth century European romantic-humanist project—exhausted, cynical and ultimately self-hating—is important.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is a powerful symbol of the end of a failed world view. The US academic Francis Fukuyama famously coined the phrase ‘The End of History’, first in an article in the National Interest magazine of summer 1989, followed by a book of the same title in 1992—celebrating the apparent victory of liberal democracy over its totalitarian challenger.
Fukuyama’s optimism was perhaps a tad premature. (And to be fair to Fukuyama, a thoughtful historian and sociologist, he has spent much of the past two decades devoting many useful volumes to discussing how civil societies develop and are sustained against both internal tensions and external threats.)
And while the barbarism of radical Islam is a direct threat to life and peace, primarily in the Middle East, it is not an existential challenge to liberal democracy. It is a civil war within the Muslim world trying to close the door against ever-looming modernity. It is absolutist not out of strength, but from fear of the modern world. The threat to liberal democracy is not in Arab frustrations with their own inabilities. The threat is back with authoritarian regimes with strong economies and growing technological capacity—the two countries featured in 1989: China and Russia.
Russian expansionism and contempt for Western opinion was epitomised in July 2014 with the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight MN 17 by pro-Russian ‘militia’ somewhere inside the borders of Ukraine. The murder of 298 passengers and crew including 27 Australians is not something to be relaxed about. The weakness of the West’s response, and more broadly the weakness of the NATO alliance formerly led by the United States, sends worrying signals to the ex-Soviet satellites who are trying to join the West. Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia—amongst others—all are justified in feeling nervous at the moment.
And in China, the gutsy Hong Kong students from September 2014 onwards have shown the world their passion and belief that the democratic right to be consulted is not a gift to be bestowed on them by a distant bureaucracy, but part of what makes their special system work.
Yet are we in the liberal democracies speaking up for the Ukrainian democracy under external military attack, or for the beleaguered Russian critics trying to make the shreds of Moscow’s democracy still work? How are we showing our solidarity with the sons and daughters of Tiananmen as they prove their courage on the streets of Hong Kong?
In September 1983, Soviet Union fighter planes intercepted and shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 when it allegedly strayed into Soviet airspace. 269 passengers and crew were killed. The response of the West was strong and immediate, condemning Soviet barbarism and imposing significant sanctions.
There still existed a broad coalition throughout the West—liberals, conservatives and democratic socialists—committed to exposing and criticising the authoritarian threat. Bodies such as the legendary Congress for Cultural Freedom—founded by pro-democracy intellectuals initially meeting in West Berlin in June 1950—articulated a broad-based case for human decency against those tempted by appeasement or cultural relativism.
This capacity to make the case for democracy is weaker today than it was in 1989. A serious situation exists, as the friends of civil society in places like Ukraine and Hong Kong struggle desperately to either survive or emerge as democracies. What are we doing to answer their cries for help today? Our silence so far is unsettling.