Germany held a big party earlier this month to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was 25 years ago but, so far, I still reckon it has been the most important political event of my lifetime.
I remember watching the footage, with a feeling that world events were moving at a pace I’d never seen before. The sense that the Eastern Bloc was about to change had been building up since Gorbachev’s reforms in the late 1980s. When the communist regimes began to fall apart, though, they did so remarkably quickly. At the start of 1989, communist governments still ruled Eastern Europe. By the end of the year, all those outside the Soviet Union had capitulated or been overthrown.
A friend of mine in Germany told me that something was afoot. I thought about just chucking some clothes in a bag and heading over there to see. Perhaps if I had still been a student, I would have. But I was in my twenties by then, just into my second job and things were busy at work. I can’t even remember what was so pressing but at the time it seemed more immediately important than a jolly in Germany. The times I have wondered about that decision since….
It’s perhaps difficult for those who don’t remember the Cold War to know what it was like. As a child, I read Biggles books. By then, the flying ace was no longer shooting down Germans. He was an agent in the fight against the brutal and barbaric communism which was hell-bent on enslaving us all. From Biggles, I progressed to Alistair MacLean, Frederick Forsyth and Len Deighton. I was left in no doubt that Eastern Europe was a dark, cold and sinister place. Listening to Eastern Bloc radio stations, which became a bit of an obsession of mine when I was about 12 or 13, did nothing to dispel that feeling. With their aggressive propaganda and spine chilling interval signals, they combined the menace of Big Brother and the Dark Lord of Mordor.
You may dismiss this as the over-active imagination of a child but this isn’t something I could have made up on my own. The Soviet threat was a regular feature in TV programmes, newspaper articles and the conversations of adults. The question in the 1970s was about how much more of the world would be swallowed up by the communists and whether they would ever grab more of Europe. If you had predicted that, by 1990, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would be gone, people would have thought you delusional.
My first visit to Berlin in the 1990s was in a cold January. That was ideal because the city looked how I expected it to look. Grey, no leaves on the trees and lots of people in long coats. Just right for a briefcase swap on a park bench or an exchange of captured spies on a bridge. In what had been East Berlin, there were still buildings with bullet holes from where the Russians had fought their way in. Because the East had so little investment, many buildings had not been refurbished, so the evidence of war was still there. I remember sitting in a bar and suddenly it hit me; I’m having a night out on the beer in East Berlin! I never thought I’d do that.
Since then, I’ve been pissed in Plovdiv, sozzled in Sibiu, comatose in Cracow and intoxicated in Irkutsk. The only reason I didn’t get mullered in Moscow was because the beer was so damned expensive.
I have visited many of the old Eastern Bloc cities and even worked in a few. I travelled across the vastness of the old Soviet Empire to Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Vladivostok, names I used to stare at in my history books and which I assumed I’d never see. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall I found myself playing croquet with some Romanian colleagues. They thought it was the craziest game they’d ever seen and couldn’t stop laughing throughout. It was a scene unimaginable a decade earlier. I stood there, mallet in hand, savouring the moment, thinking about how massively things had changed.
Recently, though, some of the optimism of the post Berlin Wall era has faded. There has been talk of a new Cold War. Russia’s willingness to use military force in Georgia and Ukraine and its more aggressive stance towards the West reminds us that there is still some unfinished business. Many in Russia’s elite accepted the post Cold War settlement reluctantly and temporarily. But, as Columbia University’s Robert Legvold said, treating these conflicts as a new Cold War makes it more likely that they will turn into one. Instead, he says, a bit of “damage control” and “anger management” are needed now. For all the sabre-rattling, such a conflict would be as damaging to Russia as it would be to the rest of Europe. Probably more so. The situation is tense but the comparisons with the 1970s are probably overdone.
In any case, the frontier of a new Cold War would be much further to the east than the old one. Much of what we used to call the Eastern Bloc has moved on. Most are members of NATO and the EU now. As Jackart said, NATO has made them safer and the EU has made them richer. What was once the Iron Curtain is now a cycle path.
There have been some remarkable cultural shifts too. During the World Cup, Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski told Charles Moore:
When Poles can’t cheer for Poland, they cheer for Germany.
Pew’s research on European attitudes to other Europeans shows that Poles rated the Germans as both the most and least trustworthy. This probably reflects a generational split but the fact that even half of Poland trusts the Germans and cheers for them at football is extraordinary when you consider the two countries’ history.
Last week, the Romanians elected a president from the country’s German-speaking minority. After centuries of German and Hungarian domination, Romanians might have cause to resent the German minority (and many probably do) but the election of Klaus Iohannis is another sign that people are rising above these old enmities. To put this in context, it would be a bit like the Irish electing a member of the English aristocracy.
Younger voters and social media campaigns played a large part in Iohannis’s victory. He is seen by many as a break with the past and a symbol of the old order changing. My friend Perry Timms was in Bucharest last week and told me that there was a buzz and sense of hope about the place. Ana Marica talked about getting her country back!
— Ana Marica (@Ana_Marica) November 22, 2014
Blimey! A German helping the Romanians to get their country back…..
You may laugh but I still love the Scorpions’ Wind of Change, released as the old order in Eastern Europe was collapsing. It captured the spirit of the time and it seemed right that Germany’s supergroup should be the ones to make it.
Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow share their dreams
With you and me
Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away
in the wind of change
The Children of Tomorrow have finished their education and are in their first or second jobs now. Those born just after the fall of the Eastern Bloc are in their early-to-mid twenties, the same age I was when it all happened. For them, the Cold War is like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of Kennedy were for me. Something from the distant past which adults still talked about as if it had happened yesterday.
There is still a lot wrong with Europe but, on the whole, things are better now than they were 25 years ago. The threat of war has receded and few these days fear the knock of the secret police. The old East is safer, more prosperous and democratic. In short, it’s starting to look more like the rest of Europe.
During the Romanian election, the Daily Mail ran a piece whinging about Romanians swamping British streets as they queued to vote. In the 1980s, we’d have thought it astonishing that Romanians were allowed to leave their country, let alone that they’d be electing a president, and a German at that.
The Children of Tomorrow are turning their backs on the past. Lets hope that, when they start running the show in the next ten years or so, the winds of change will blow the last of Europe’s old hatreds away.