Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall it is time for reflection, but there is also a need to express gratitude. We might not always appreciate it, but we owe the free nations of Central and Eastern Europe a great deal. Their success is shaping our future.In the 1980’s I often met with representatives of political parties created during the democratisation process of the early 1900’s. I also met with exiled leaders of democratic governments established during the interwar years, governments which had fallen victim to either the Second World War or to the decent of the Iron Curtain across the Continent.The British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey is known for his prophecy at the beginning of the First World War; ”The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Grey lived to see the end of that war, but his prophecy was fulfilled. From 1914 it took three quarters of a century until Europe as a whole would once again experience the democratic development and the strive for national independence of the turn of the century, until the lights were once again lit. By the fall of the Berlin Wall, Grey had been dead for 56 years.
In this perspective the fall of the Berlin Wall marked a more decisive historical shift than German reunification and the fall of dictatorships alone. The fall of the Wall foreboded Europe’s return to a process of openness based on an individual freedom which unites both a European and a national identity. Aspiring nations which disappeared when borders were drawn after the First World War, perished in the Second World War or disappeared behind the Iron Curtain are now part of the new Europe.
History has caught up with Europe and transformed society and geography into something completely different than what political borders once gave us an impression was self-evident. My country, Sweden, has gained new neighbours in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, as well as a united and open Germany. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are two other new nations, in the centre of Europe. Democracy was left behind and ethnic tensions preserved for more than a hundred years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and during the existence of Yugoslavia. But it is obvious the prospects for a peaceful development in the region can be found in a continued European approach. Democracy and liberty is not defined by borders as obstacles to individual freedom, only borders preserving the independence of nations.
In my home town there is a pier, commonly known as ”the end of the world”, simply because it is so far from the city centre. But, once it was, in a more profound sense, indeed the end of the world. There one world ended and on the other shore of the sea there was another world, with different societies, different people and a different culture. These two worlds never met, other than at negotiating tables and thru trade agreements. Those who lived on the other side of the sea, in the other world, were isolated from our way of life. They were poor and oppressed, and due to the political geography of the day they were also enemies as part of the constant threat posed by the Warsaw Pact.
It was in their world the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact planned military landings on Sweden’s shores. They rehearsed invasions and we planned for our defence. They belonged to another world. We lived in a world defined by individual freedom, democracy and a market economy which gave us prosperity, innovations and cultural freedom.
Our world, the first world, was unchallenged when it came to economical advances, knowledge and science, and also in building a sufficiently strong military capacity to deter. Our world was based on values that formed the rules system of the international community. Socialist dictatorships did not set the rules; instead they adopted the language of democracy in order to try to persuade their own they too lived in democratic societies.
Socialist dictatorships formed the other world, where people were subject to an oppression of terrifying proportions. Ruthlessness and military build up meant these regimes constituted a permanent threat to others.
In addition, there was the third world. It too, was a consequence of borders drawn by the victor powers of the First World War. Countries in this part of the world were independent, but a peaceful and democratic development was prevented by dependence on former colonial powers and the manner in which borders had been drawn by these. The third world posed a threat only to itself, in the form of ethnic conflicts and destructive regimes. People suffered from lack of dynamics and peaceful change in these underdeveloped one-party states. Amazingly these regimes were portrayed by the European left as the most progressive of regimes.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the logic behind this world order became obsolete. The fall of the Wall shaped a new world, with globalisation, democratisation, and openness across borders. A common world, with major variations, but also a world where dynamic development was not limited in the way it had been in the old second and third world.
The fall of the Wall led to a unique historic development, the like of which the world had never seen before. Never before have so many taken the step from poverty to rapidly increasing wealth. 30 years ago one billion people could enjoy a relative measure of prosperity; today four billion people are allowed to live dignified lives provided by economic growth.
Put in this perspective and as severe as it is, today’s economic crisis is only a dent in a long-term success story. Poverty remains only in parts of the world where religious fundamentalism has raised new walls, in countries not reached by globalisation and market economy, and where oil has given ruling elites economical power over their citizens. The fall of the Wall not only gave us market economy and the dynamics it provides, it also gave people all over the world opportunities and possibilities they had previously been denied.
The Wall did not fall due to a historical coincidence; its fall was not historically given, it was the result of the force created by ideas of individual freedom and liberties, equality, right to dignity and a free and open society.
These ideas finally broke the legitimacy of the old order, even among the ruling elites. The Wall came down when it was not longer possible to justify the oppression, when it was evident the regimes were not only morally corrupt, but could not claim to provide any material or social advantage, when it was not even possible to create an illusion of this. The Wall fell not only as a physical divider of Berlin, but also in the way it had come to mentally shape the world of its era. But it would still be there if it had not been for all those who made the ideas of freedom and liberty their own, all those who had the courage to stand up for these ideas, to protest and fight.
The Berlin uprising in 1953, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Polish freedom movement of the 1980s, were all examples of how people stood up to the oppression. There was also everyday resistance by dissidents, authors and others, who made clear there were other ideas and ideals than the ruling brutality. The imprisoned, the deported and the executed were those who believed in the ideas of freedom and liberty, and we should not forget them. The Wall did not come down by itself, it was brought down by people who stood tall in the struggle for ideals the Communist regimes tried to silence and stamp out.
Today we may ask ourselves how it was possible for such a perverted ideology, with such limited popular support, to survive for decades and be allowed to define everyday life on an entire continent. There are several explanations.
There are those who believe oppression is justified. Totalitarian ideologies provide their followers with a belief that they have a right to use violence without respect of human life and dignity. Nothing matters but the fulfilment of the totalitarian ideals. Peoples’ dreams are deemed a nuisance in a society aspiring to be perfect. That is why Communist parties in the West kept saluting their comrades in Eastern and Central Europe, sending telegrams wishing them all the best, all until the end when the postal addresses ceased to exist and the messages of greeting were returned.
Although the oppression and the brutality could not be hidden and the failure of the socio-economic experiment was obvious, Communists in the West could always find signs of progress in the East. To them the values of freedom and democracy were of minor importance compared to other goals and ideals.
Without doubt western support helped to maintain the oppression. Even in democracies there was a debate on the success and advantages of Communist dictatorships, which concealed the true extent of the oppression.
Totalitarian regimes prosper and survive through fear and terror, by being led by psychopaths who do not hesitate to use deadly force against innocent people. This encourages the psychopathic strain in others. Those who are ready to kill and destroy always have an advantage to those who only want to discuss and question. Those who do not consider human life and freedom as important has an advantage to those who believe in human dignity and the right for people to shape their own lives. A small minority ready to kill, can oppress the many.
It is a basic instinct for us human beings to adjust and rationalise our own reality. Tell us often enough that freedom is oppression and oppression is freedom, and we will adjust. We can be fooled because we want to be, but also because it can be a necessity in order not to risk the lives of family members or because we do not want to go through life knowing we are subdued.
Another reason as to why the oppression could last for such a long time is that it was excused as faults and insufficiencies in a broader perspective of goals and greater ideals. Means justify the end. Some will have to sacrifice their lives in order to accomplish the great common project. And in every society there are traitors, who will portray self-interest as pragmatism and will claim they are doing the best possible of the current situation.
We all lose out when one person’s freedom is sacrificed for a greater cause. We all have a right to individual freedoms simply by being individuals and citizens. The rule of law is based on people’s rights as individuals, not because we are always right, but because we all have rights.
In the 1980’s, when I met and worked with various Baltic independence movements, it struck me how concerned, or formalistic, they were about the independence of their states and the legal acts which once constituted the foundation for their independence. At the time this felt irrelevant, as the circumstances were so different. The real issue, I thought, was Soviet oppression ignoring any legalistic perspective with the arrogance of a dictatorship, and of course this was the case. But to those who lived under this oppression, legality was something to hold on to, they had the law on their side and saw it as proof they were right. The lesson to learn from those who stood up against oppression is that the rule of law can be trampled upon, but this cannot be accepted and there must not be room for compromise. It was this refusal to compromise that brought down the Wall.
In the West the left used to portray the demand for free and fair democratic elections in the East as unrealistic. Compromises had to be made. Instead, it was claimed, we should find a way to co-exist within a system promoting common security. In Sweden, many on the left denied that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were occupied countries and there was a belief people in those countries only desired a bit more cultural independence. Some were even impressed by Communist regimes’ capacity to create wealth that equalled that created by market economies.
Many were ready to compromise on freedom, at least other people’s freedom. But if you compromise on other people’s freedom, you compromise on freedom as such. This is what we must learn from the ear of the Wall and the Iron Curtain. By compromising some in the West contributed to the continued oppression, they provided the dictatorships with an aura of legitimacy.
The Wall came down because enough people told the truth. It was built upon an unjust idea of oppression leading to humiliation and poverty. If not a sufficient number of dissidents and oppositional Central and Eastern Europeans had had the courage to express their views, the Wall would still be there. If they had not been seen and supported by us in the West, they would not have had the strength to do what they did.
In Europe it was our political family, political parties built on ideals of freedom and liberty, who insisted we had a responsibility to stand up to oppression and to support those doing so in countries behind the Iron Curtain. Socialist and Social Democratic movements in Western Europe did not share this view. If not enough people on both sides of the Wall and the Iron Curtain had exposed the Communist system for what it was, it is likely some dictatorships would exist to this day.
All of this is worth while remembering when we look at the walls of our time. The decline of democracy in Russia is creating new tensions and conflicts. People are being oppressed and humiliated by fundamentalist and despotic Islamist regimes. If we do not see the oppression as what it really is and if we do not force the oppressors to view themselves in the light of what they really are, then the lack of respect for basic freedoms and rights can spread to other countries. The Berlin Wall was a one-time occurrence, but all around the world new walls are built between peoples and countries.
Today’s conflicts between democracy and dictatorship are more out in the open than before. What we have learned from the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin wall is important, not only to prepare us for future battles for freedom and justice. Political movements placing freedom first are those best equipped to protect and defend our civilisation and human dignity. This is a heavy responsibility.
This is why we have reason to feel gratitude towards the people of Central and Eastern Europe. Not only to those who stood up against the oppression, not only to those who tore down the wall, but to all those who during the past 20 years have contributed to build new and free societies. We in the old West have learned a lot from their experience, they have forced us to rediscover some of the ideals on which our own societies are based. All that we took for granted; the very essence of democracy, the importance of the rule of law and the respect for human dignity and individual freedom.
In a mere 20 years they have built prosperous societies with growth levels Western Europe has not seen in decades. The current economic crisis has of course had consequences all over the continent, but there is reason to believe the turn-around will be faster and stronger in those economies which are characterised by low taxes and limited regulations. The nations of Central and Eastern Europe have given the rest of us a lesson in market economy’s superiority as creator of wealth. Enterprises in the West have faced fierce competition, but this has created incentive for them to restructure and become more efficient, which will give them an advantage in an ever increasing global competition.
Finally, the enlargement of the European Union is changing the EU’s agenda from protection of what once was, to forward-looking policies of deregulation and co-operation where co-operation is really essential. The ten new Member States from Central and Eastern Europe have renewed the EU and will continue to do so. By setting an example they have made all of Europe better.