With the end of the third decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is safe to make two claims: Firstly, enough time still hasn’t passed for those who participated in the November demonstrations in East Germany to forget the key reasons for their revolt; Secondly, sufficient time has passed for the Berlin Wall to become a political myth. We are faced with a confluence of the actual and the mythical regarding the ideas that drove the ‘Fall of the Wall’ 30 years ago.
To include more clarity here, we need to (de)brick the Wall as a symbol and as a political event. Symbolically, The Wall’s meaning was always related to liberties. Like every symbol, it is vague and open to interpretation. The impression is that the discontent of the citizens of East Germany peaked when the system refused to allow their freedom of movement, despite the fact that Hungary and Poland had already liberated their border policies. The openness to interpretation is clear – as the symbol was transformed in the subsequent decades into a neo-liberal driving force behind the creation of a free and open market for people, ideas and goods, thus providing the justification for the unipolar world of the “end of history”.
Politically, the ‘Fall’ was an anti-communist project. It marked a wave of democratisation sweeping across Eastern Europe, starting in Poland and ending in the former Yugoslavia. In East Germany, it was the desire for systemic change that came first, with the project of national unification coming only later. The slogan Wir sind das Volk! (We are the people) had two meanings: the negative, that we are not (only) the working class, and the positive, that we are all one people. The same phrase expressed the divergent goals of democratic freedom and ethnic unity. The interpretations of the slogan that later followed became a constitutional part of the Wall’s myth.
The memory of this political fact needs to be nurtured if Europe wants to preserve the symbolic meaning of the Fall and remove radical political interpretations that are taking primacy in the post- Berlin Wall legacy
The echo of the Fall resonated in different ways in the Western Balkans. The dissolution of communist Yugoslavia wasn’t initially seen as a project that would increase political liberties. This idea only became a key in each of the successor states, respectively, once the path to the EU was taken. The ethnic goal took primacy. Claiming that the Fall determined the ascent of ethnic identities would be far fetched, however.
As Gourevitch claimed, as authoritarian power declines, national identities emerge in their full form. Combined with the authoritarian heritage, the das Volk revolt was interpreted in the Western Balkans as a need to create a new kind of bond, one between strong national leaders and the people, thereby weakening unconsolidated institutions.
The case of the Western Balkans shows the validity of Mudde’s claim that the November events in East Germany created a political space for populism. Even in Germany, the sense of the unequal development of the former West and East parts, coupled with nostalgia for former times, led to the decline of leftist parties and the rise of radical right populism (AFD).
In Eastern Europe, discontent with the free market pushed voters into the protectionist hands of conservative populist leaders, with Poland and Hungary representing the prime examples. It is this feeling of resentment for the legacy of 1989 that is leading to deeper divisions across post-communist Europe, between the elites and the people, the capitalists and the workers, and between the people of the heartland and minorities and, most recently, immigrants.
What is forgotten in the post-communist states, is that it was the Fall of the Berlin Wall that made it possible for the people to freely express their resentment toward the political establishment. The passage of time has taken its toll. The memory of this political fact needs to be nurtured if Europe wants to preserve the symbolic meaning of the Fall and remove radical political interpretations that are taking primacy in the post-Berlin Wall legacy.