Beyond the Berlin Wall
This blog accompanies a new collection of articles from the Contemporary European History archive relating to the Berlin Wall.
Demonstrations in the East of Germany from the last few years have placed the events of thirty years ago in the spotlight once more. When supporters of the Alternativ für Deutschland revive the chant “Wir sind das Volk” and talk of a “Wende 2.0” it may be tempting to simply write off this rhetoric as an unscrupulous appropriation of language that was used to communicate very different political priorities and values in 1989. Our understanding of political moments and their significance is rarely stable, however. Given recent battles over the meaning of 1989, it may, once more, be time to reconsider what exactly ‘the people’ wanted when they came out on the streets of East German cities in the autumn of 1989. Protesters were surely disillusioned with an East German regime that seemed remote, corrupt, and unequal to the economic, environmental and geopolitical challenges of the day. But what exactly are the parallels, if any, with present-day demonstrations that accuse the current German government of failing to deal with global warming, mass migration and an economic system that creates winners and losers?
A look through the Contemporary European History (CEH) archives shows that the journal has led the charge to reevaluate the meaning of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 2009, Charles S. Maier introduced a special issue dedicated to the Fall of the Wall, by asking ‘What Have We Learned?’ Writing shortly after the crash of 2008, Maier already detected widespread disappointment that the promise of 1989 had not been fulfilled. After 9/11, the War on Terror and the start of the Great Recession, it was clear that ‘End of History’ readings were unsustainable. So how might the events of November 1989 still speak to us, he wondered.
One theme examined by CEH authors is the role of popular culture (see Jeff Hayton ‘Crosstown Traffic’ and Lorenz M. Lüthi ‘How Udo Wanted to Save the World in ‘Erich’s Lamp Shop’). Viewed from a Western perspective, popular culture offered Eastern German citizens forbidden fruit that would show them a world the censors didn’t want them to see. Media that could transmit news and other cultural products across borders was therefore usually ascribed a positive role during the Cold War. But what now of the (mis)information that populists from across the globe share via the (mostly) borderless internet? Do we now inhabit an altogether new information universe to that which existed before the Wall fell? Or can comparisons be made, or even continuities identified?
Similarly, the contrast between a closed East, where travel was restricted and individuals’ movements were surveilled, and an open West, within which Europeans travelled freely for work and leisure, seemed stark in 1989. But, as Germans’ angry response to revelations of NSA spying revealed in 2013, the apparent differences between the ‘free world’ and the Communist world may no longer appear so absolute. We may then reread Gary Bruce’s 2005 study of the Stasi in the East German Perleberg district from a new perspective. The complaints of populists in many countries that deep states rule in their own interests, concealed behind democratic facades, may sound eerily familiar to the slogans from thirty years ago. If we return to the agenda of the AfD, we may recall that this protest party began by railing against a ‘deep Europe’ that is apparently bureaucratic, shadowy, and intent on tying the hands of any German politician who seeks to limit migration or safeguard German sovereignty in multiple other ways. Perhaps, then, we should reflect on Mark Gilbert’s review article of 2007 that asked whether the EU suffered from ‘delusions of grandeur’?
Finally, we may ask ourselves if the Eastern Europe that existed at the end of the Cold War still remains a ‘Great Blank Space’ in our knowledge, to quote the title of James Robertson’s review article of February 2016. We clearly need to hear more from authors in the region – authors such as those who used the platform of the Central European University, whose recent struggles were discussed in Holly Case’s and Istvan Deak’s introduction to a virtual special issue in 2018.
Articles from the CEH archive free to access until 30th November 2019:
- How Udo Wanted to Save the World in ‘Erich’s Lamp Shop’: Lindenberg’s Concert in Honecker’s East Berlin, the NATO Double-Track Decision and Communist Economic Woes by Lorenz M. Lüthi
- The Great Blank Space Beyond the Wall: Eastern Europe in Modern Intellectual History by James M. Robertson
- ‘In our District, the State Is Secure’: The East German Secret Police Response to the Events of 1989 in Perleberg District by Gary Bruce
- What Have We Learned since 1989? by Charles S. Maier
- Western Communists, Mikhail Gorbachev and the 1989 Revolutions by Silvio Pons
- Crosstown Traffic: Punk Rock, Space and the Porosity of the Berlin Wall in the 1980s by Jeff Hayton
- Crisis, Normalcy, Fantasy: Berlin and its Borders by Paul Steege
- Delusions of Grandeur: New Perspectives on the History of the European Community by Mark Gilbert
Main Image: Shutterstock 698657773 Detail of the remains of the Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany. Segments of wall left as a reminder of events leading up to the fall of the wall in November 1989. Photographed in 2013.