Twenty five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is as though a large part of the twentieth century never happened. An entire period is erased from the public consciousness, almost like a blank spot in a film. The dissolution of the former Eastern Bloc is entirely attributed to forces in the West; the role of the East is largely forgotten. The free market economy was and is presumed to be history’s inevitable course, our collective manifest destiny. After having engulfed the West in the 1980s, it was only a matter of time before it would engulf the East too.
How accurate is this account of events? Those of us old enough to have witnessed the fall of the Wall mostly remember the overwhelming sense of surprise, the worries that the West was not quite ready for this… Reagan’s call on Gorbachev to “Tear down this Wall”, a few years earlier, was uttered in the firm conviction that he never would. When he did, it was largely met with disbelief.
The Wall did not fall
Those who had built the Wall now demolished it. For a while there was no denying the fact that the dissolution of the East was – at least partially – created in the East; not just through the removal of the Wall, but through a larger reform from within, coupled to crucial proposals for disarmament. It was predominantly this reform that triggered the famous moment in November ’89. Twenty five years later, this version of history (one the remaining powers have never been particularly keen to emphasize) has gradually faded into the background. Even the official historical terminology embodies a curious misnomer: the Wall did not ‘fall’; it was torn down. (By the same side that had built it.)
Today the construction and demolition of the Berlin Wall feel like parenthesis in a text: whatever is written in between can be removed without fundamentally altering the course of the narrative. The 28 years leading up to ’89 are now widely viewed as time that passed between one pointless act and another. (If you don’t build walls, you don’t have to tear them down.) But how much historic license can be claimed in viewing recent history as expendable text between parentheses? The Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961; the Red Army took Berlin in 1945; the USSR declared war on Nazi Germany in 1941; the October Revolution took place in 1917; Karl Marx launched the Communist manifesto in 1848… How far do we need to go back? How much of history can we regard as an aberration? Where do we insert the opening parenthesis: 25 years ago? Half a century? A century? …more?
Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East had been the home of a parallel narrative which spanned half the globe, with its own interpretation of history, a different philosophical disposition to ‘economic inevitability’ and its own particular version of the truth. In the East, the Wall was not a symbol of oppression, but a form of protection: an ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’ to protect a real democratic system, acting out the will of the people, from outside aggression. As a teenager I would listen to the radio and sometimes, when surfing the FM and MW frequencies, I would hear the broadcasts of Radio Moscow, transmitted from East Berlin. I remember being mesmerized by its creative interpretations of the truth – or at least the truth as I had come to view it through Western media: I would hear the same news facts, the same events with the same cast of characters…
However, they were embedded in completely different discourses, invariably relaying the opposing view with an entirely different and almost always an inverse notion of victims and perpetrators.
Action against the other truth
This year I turned fifty. My life can now be divided into equal halves: half of my life I have lived with the Wall, half of it without it. I am old enough to remember the ideological context of its existence, young enough to have a vested interest in its absence. For me, it remains an open question if the existence of two parallel systems may have served a purpose beyond the eventual disappearance of one of them. The West, despite fears of an all-out confrontation between the two systems, seemed a less harsh, more humane place than it does today, particularly to those struggling to keep up in an ever more intense economic rat race. In retrospect, it is not that far-fetched to historically interpret the welfare state, as it existed during the 60’s and 70’s in Western Europe, with labor movements, minimum wages and social provisions, as a kind of pre-emptive action against this ‘other version of the truth’: a way of preventing it from becoming the only truth.
It is ironic how today, even with the Wall gone, the divide persists, only this time not as a political divide, but as a divide between rich and poor, between opportunity and the lack thereof. This is often explained as the backlash of forty years of communist rule, creating an almost insurmountable economic impairment; but as time passes, that position seems increasingly untenable. It appears the asymmetries produced by the universal presence of an uncontested and unchallenged capitalist system itself are far larger than any asymmetry ever created by the two different ideological systems. The physical wall that once separated the German people seems to have been replaced by an intangible wall, a default inequality no longer subject to any political will (either on the left or the right) to remedy it.
A premature sense of closure
Much of the twentieth century was dominated by ideological oppositions, rooted in highly politicized historic determinisms. But if the course of history is dialectic, what follows? Does the 21st century mark the absence of ideology, of the political? Consensus by way of amnesia? No longer do we hold a regard for the grand social experiments of the last century. We recognize their failure and move on. Through forgetting we hope to avoid repetition and with it the chance of new failures. Yet somehow, in dismissing these experiments as aberrations, we also forego the nature of their deeper quest – the issues which they, for better or for worse, tried to address.
Somehow the end of the Berlin Wall has granted history a premature sense of closure (the demolition of built structures tends to do that), a ‘happily ever after’ which will not materialize any time soon… History craves for a degree of definitiveness it can never acquire, and somehow that craving condemns us to proceed on the basis of half-truths, which we then take for the whole truth.
In a campaign speech during the primaries of 2008, Obama quoted William Faulkner: “The past is never dead, in fact, it isn’t even past.” At the time he was talking about the history of racial relations in the US. In 2014, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this quote seems every bit as true for global relations. Last month there were 19 incursions into NATO air space by military aircraft of the Russian Federation in a space of 24 hours. Two weeks ago, ironically coinciding with the celebrations in Berlin, the Russian ministry of defense voiced the intention to resume patrols of long range bombers in the Gulf of Mexico.
As the West proceeds on the basis of its half-truths, the East seems increasingly set on claiming theirs. We eradicate the time before 1989, they eradicate the time since. It seems that in the end nothing is unilateral, not even the erasure of history.