As we continue our series of articles focusing on the fall of the Berlin Wall,  John Gloster-Smith believes that while the fall of the Wall was indeed a momentous historical event, the Europe that has followed has become a very different and just as divided place.

The Berlin Wall famously fell 30 years ago on 9 November 1989, a hugely important event not only for Germans but also for a divided Europe and a world long accustomed since at least 1948 to a partition between a democratic-capitalist USA and a totalitarian-communist Soviet Russia. To many, the fall of the Wall was symbolic of the end of an era and there was great optimism for the future. One writer even enthusiastically declared the end of history. It was

not just…the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Francis Fukuyama).

How hollow those words can seem today! The fall of the Berlin Wall was indeed a major turning point in history, but arguably not for the outcome that Fukuyama and many others anticipated.

Cold War confrontation

The Wall represented a rigidified split of East and West, an ideological as well as a political divide that emerged from the horrors of the struggle against Nazism. As the armies of the west and Russia established their presence in Europe at the end of World War Two, Germany was partitioned between east and west and so too was Europe. What Churchill dubbed in 1946 “the Iron Curtain” came down across Europe. Berlin however was in the eastern zone but by agreement was divided between the occupying powers. It became a focus for repeated confrontations between these ideologically opposed forces, and for escapes to the west by people eager to get away from what was perceived as an oppressive regime and to a liberal, democratic and far more prosperous west. Thus in 1961 a wall with heavy fortifications and a “no man’s land” was built to stop these migrations and came to be seen as a notorious symbol of the division that had taken place.

This was the era of the Cold War, an armed confrontation between east and west that dominated the period from 1945 to 1989, and where the world revolved around the two competing power blocs of east and west or, like India, “non-aligned nations”. NATO was formed as a western military alliance of mutual defence against a feared Soviet attack. The European Economic Community (EEC), later the EU, of certain western European states was formed partly to avert future war between old protagonists, as well as to revive and develop the European economy. This was a very tense period when many feared the outbreak of nuclear war, as during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when Russia placed missiles in Cuba and President Kennedy threatened war unless they were removed. Europe was seen as a potential battle ground and large armies were maintained there by both sides along with huge missile batteries.

The collapse of the Soviet system

Yet, behind the façade of confrontation, the Soviet system was decaying and the contradictions in its economic system eventually triggered an economic crisis that in effectively brought the regime down, despite efforts by the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to liberalise the system. In Eastern Europe too, after a series of earlier “false dawns” such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, or the liberalising “Prague Spring” of 1968 which was put down by the invasion of Czechoslovakia by communist Warsaw Pact forces, there were now at last real stirrings of protest and growing demand for change, as seen for example in the Polish trade union Solidarity movement in Gdansk led by Lech Wałęsa. The changes in Russia served as signals to unrest in Eastern Europe. In East Germany too pressure was building and it was the announcement by the regime that East Germans could visit the west that triggered a mass movement that culminated in the physical pulling down of parts of the Wall on 9 November 1989. It was a moment of huge emotion after years of division and separation. The Fall was accompanied by regime changes across Eastern Europe, the force of “people power” on the streets to ensure change, the emergence of fledgling democracies, the downfall of the Soviet regime and independence for a number of Soviet republics, the reunification of Germany after 44 years apart, and applications by Eastern European countries to join the European Union.

New destabilising crises

Thus, one might reasonably observe that liberal democracy had indeed triumphed. Certainly the USA, as the so-called “leader of the free world”, thought it had. As the surviving protagonist of the Cold War and now the only “superpower” it was left in possession of the field, and championed democracy across the globe. The EEC was joined by most states in Europe and became the European Union, a union of democratic states. The ‘90’s could well have seemed to be a time of relative peace and stability. Yet to look back now on this time it might also look like a time of transition.

In today’s context, the world looks very different to that of the period after 1989. The promise of the “end of history” and the triumph of liberal democracy as “the final form of human government” looks like a doomed forecast. Even in Germany, unification has not brought the hoped-for “better life” for the east.

A series of crises have it seems sadly put paid to the optimism of 1989. Internationally, all was changed by the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, the US response to which was to fight “a war on terror”, initially in Afghanistan, but then with its invasion of Iraq in 2003, to forcibly bring about “regime change”. The writ of the USA, it turned out, did not run globally. There were competing claims to legitimacy in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, no longer confined to just Iran, and there were challengers to the western view of how the world should be. Suddenly the world no longer looked stable and the Middle East and North Africa in particular became centres of civil war and big power interventions.

A further destabiliser has been the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting recession across the world. In developed, western societies, the pattern of the globalisation of trade and manufacture has been increasingly seen as a threat, and there has been a desire to limit foreign competition, restrict immigration and restrain the power of certain global corporations. Politically, societies have become restless, disengaged from and critical of governing elites and propelling forward new regimes. Known as populism, it has thus also been a widespread and destabilising phenomenon. Another threat to established order also lies with climate change and the impact this is already having in certain parts of the world. When survival is threatened, humans can notoriously revert to type.

The rise of the “strongman” state

Authoritarianism has strangely come into fashion once more. Perhaps one of the most important developments has been the rise to global importance of China, a totalitarian regime as well as a modern industrial economy which has now overtaken the US economically. Many states in Asia and Africa are not democratic and are governed by a dominant elite who enjoy the profits of power. Many regimes can be described to a greater or lesser degree as corrupt. What many regard as Asia’s one big democratic success story, Modi’s India is riven through with corruption, the suppression of minorities, the use of violence as a political weapon, and sectarianism.

In the US, President Trump, the “Great Disruptor”, has pulled apart the US global system in the pursuit of America First. Thus trade war is pursued as a tool of influence and a number of countries are now being hit by US tariffs and damaging world trade, most particularly China. He has pursued a somewhat erratic foreign policy, targeting Iran, appearing to be Putin’s friend whilst also increasing the arms war, criticising the EU and Europe in general, denouncing international treaties to which the US is a signatory, and engaging in conflicts whilst also talking of pulling out of foreign engagements. Internally, the President is considered by many to be abusing the powers of his office to breaking point and threatening the US constitution.

Yet this “strongman” style is also to be found in a number of erstwhile democracies. Examples include Orban’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, Duterte’s Philippines and most of all Putin’s Russia. Eastern Europe has not found the establishment of democracy to be an easy or steady journey. Such regimes see the need for a powerful individual and a limit on basic democratic rights. They also tend to be nationalistic. Russia is also a revisionist in international terms, seeking to regain the former power of the Soviet Union. Thus it has worked to establish control over its former republics that became independent and to undermine democracies in neighbouring countries. It has interfered in elections in both the US and UK.

A multipolar world

Rather than a bipolar world of two power blocs, we now have a competitive multipolar world that looks a lot less stable and more unpredictable in terms of potential conflict. Parallels have been drawn with the world before 1914, with unstable big power relationships, one state – the US – being seen as overpowerful and leading to counterbalancing alliances such as that between China and Russia, and revisionist states seeking to change the global order and penetrate spheres of influence belonging to other powers.

Thus, in retrospect, in this necessarily brief and selective survey of the post-war world, 1989 and the optimism that followed maybe now look more like an interlude or transition to a new, more unstable and more unpredictable world than the birth of an enlightened new order of liberal democracy.

John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/

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