Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The bliss of experiencing the fall of the Berlin Wall

Anne Applebaum has a very perceptive comment on all the celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite all the problems that there have been for the former East Germans and the other inhabitants of the Soviet bloc countries since the end of the Soviet Union, they are still doing so much better than might have been expected 20 years ago. And nothing about that progress was predictable.
But what did we think Central Europe would look like 20 years after Nov. 9, 1989? I can promise you, having been in Berlin then myself, that no one had the slightest idea. Angela Merkel herself has said that she thought it was ridiculous even to speculate on the possibility of a united Germany, so absurd did that idea seem -- even after the fall of the wall. Indeed, so outlandish did the notion of NATO expansion seem that when officials in the new democratic government of Poland first raised the idea, American diplomats in Warsaw angrily told them to forget about it.

Back then, most of those who did make predictions saw a dark future. The rise of virulent, angry nationalism was forecast by more than one expert. Others foresaw the rise of anti-Semitism and the growth of neo-Nazism; Germany was going to become "the Fourth Reich." Many in the West protested, preemptively, against the "witch hunts" that might be conducted against former communists. Now that he is a revered symbol of freedom, nobody remembers that the Polish Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, was tapped as a potential right-wing demagogue, too.

Some truly awful things did happen: In Yugoslavia there was a bitter war. In Russia, revanchism has returned. Authoritarian dictators run several of the former Soviet republics. But the heart of Central Europe -- Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, Romania and Bulgaria -- is peaceful and democratic. More than that: The inhabitants of Central Europe are healthier, more prosperous and more integrated with the rest of the continent than they have been for centuries.

This, then, is what I think was bothering me about the commemorations: Too many of them treat too much of the past two decades as a foregone conclusion, focusing on what didn't happen rather than what did. Too many have taken the achievements for granted. Too many of us forget that there are few historical precedents for the past two decades. "Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven." When Wordsworth wrote those words about the French Revolution, the post-revolutionary terror was a recent memory, the Napoleonic wars were still raging and his poem was an ironic comment on the naivete of youth. But we are now as far from the events of 1989 as Wordsworth was from 1789, and here in Central Europe there is no need for irony at all: Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.
That is why this celebration is so important. We must remember all that was achieved and that none of it was written in stone that it had to happen that way. For those countries that have not slid back into authoritarianism like Russia, this anniversary is truly something to savor.