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The fall of 1989

The Berlin Wall crumbled. Regimes toppled. But 30 years later, how much have things changed?

The fall of 1989

The Berlin Wall crumbled. Regimes toppled. But 30 years later, how much have things changed?
(Hanna Barczyk for The Washington Post)
By , ,

Thirty years ago, the citizens of Soviet-dominated Central Europe achieved something extraordinary: a wave of peaceful revolution that swept away the system that had exerted near-seamless control over their lives for the previous four decades.

The enormous impact of those events was obvious to everyone who witnessed them. Since then, a generation has passed. The Berlin Wall — and everything it symbolized — is just a memory, and it is tempting to view the events of 1989 as mere history.

That would be a mistake. In fact, that remarkable year has left an enduring imprint on Europe — and the rest of the world. The upheaval of that moment still shapes politics, economies and biographies in ways we don’t normally consider.

We may think we have put 1989 behind us — but its shadow still looms large.

Merkel, the one who went west

By Stefan Kornelius
(Omer Messinger/Getty Images)

Stefan Kornelius is the foreign editor of the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the author of “Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and Her World.”

The night the Berlin Wall came down, Angela Merkel went to a sauna. Just as she did on every other Thursday, the young academic indulged in a typical East German pastime: spending a few quiet moments with friends in boiling heat. Merkel finally heard the historic news when she returned home — but she decided to go to bed rather than enjoy the newly won freedom to cross the once-sealed border. It was only on the next day that she set foot in West Berlin, where she met a cousin and carefully tested the mood of the crowds.

Merkel is not known for being overly emotional. But that night she immediately knew that her career as a physicist had come to a sudden end. East German scientists lagged far behind the West, and there was almost no way for someone in her position to catch up. So Merkel made a bold decision and went shopping for political parties. She chose to align herself with a new group that called itself Democratic Awakening, which seemed to offer the right mix of seriousness and liberalism. It became her first political home.

In East Germany’s first free election a few weeks later, her party fared poorly. It soon entered into a coalition with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union, and she never looked back. From then on, the life story of the first female chancellor — and arguably the most powerful female politician in the world — is well-documented.

And yet one mystery remains. Merkel embodies the ultimate East German success story. She has governed united Germany for an astonishing 14 years. Her biography conveys several powerful messages: Anyone can make it; our democracy rewards ambition and talent; East and West can come together. You’d think that Merkel is the one politician east Germans could be proud of.

But they are not. Merkel is anything but the poster girl of unification. Her approval ratings in east Germany are worse than in the west. Whenever she campaigns in the east, her former compatriots greet her with whistles and catcalls. During recent regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg, Merkel’s party strategists decided to ask her to stay away, fearing a negative effect on the vote if she showed up.

Merkel is probably the most prominent example of a deep East-West divide that separates not only Germany but also Central Europe. Even though the former satellites of the Soviet empire have caught up with the West economically and in many measures of modern life, their citizens can’t shake the nagging feeling that they don’t quite belong. Citizens of Hungary, Poland and other countries of the old Eastern Bloc often claim that they feel like they’re the losers of the historic events that took place 30 years ago — even when the men and women expressing the sentiment hadn’t been born when the wall came down.

A photo taken in 1989 in the northern Polish city of Bachotek shows now quantum chemistry professor Malgorzata Jeziorska; Joachim Sauer, the husband of German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and the German leader during summer school at a university for chemistry students. (Bogumil Jeziorski/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Sociologists and psychologists have had a field day with this phenomenon. Dozens of studies and polls have analyzed the gap. Most end up recommending a strategy of patience. On Oct. 3, Germany’s official day of national unity, the chancellor mused that the passage of a generation just isn’t enough time to get over the shock of a collapsing world order.

East Germany now enjoys modern infrastructure. Cities and villages glow with fresh paint, and huge malls stretch along highways. But that’s only the surface. Rural areas are running out of inhabitants. Those who want jobs tend to head west or south, while those who stay behind are either old or tarred as losers. Since 1990, some 2 million east Germans, overwhelmingly young people, have left their homes.

East Germans believe that the rest of the country looks down on them. It’s a vicious circle: The more the story of second-class citizens is told, the deeper the gap between east and west becomes. Half of those living on the territory of the former German Democratic Republic see themselves as east Germans, not as Germans.

Not surprisingly, the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany is strongest in the east, where it claims that only it can complete unification. The remedy it proposes is a mix of isolation and nationalism, with a strong appeal to notions of identity. It’s copying the recipes of similar Eastern European movements in Poland or Hungary: Use discontent with the economy and demographic change, mix it with xenophobia and historic trauma, and add a bit of strongman.

Angela Merkel never became that strong figure. Her political style is far too nuanced, her speaking skills too underdeveloped. She has a deep conviction that democracy means above all compromise, achieved in detailed negotiations without fanfare. Ever since she set out on her new path on that November night 30 years ago, she was fated to become not the first east German chancellor, but the third chancellor of unified Germany. As easterners see it, she westernized – and therefore betrayed her identity. She’s the one who went west.

Putin and the ghosts of 1989

By Christian Caryl
(Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Thirty years later, it’s hard to fully appreciate just how revolutionary the revolutions of 1989 were. To us now, it’s obvious that the Stalinist regimes of east-central Europe were ripe for collapse. But this is the wisdom of hindsight.

It was certainly clear that the Soviet Union and the countries in its orbit were economically backward; Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985, had basically admitted as much. But that didn’t mean that Marxist-Leninist regimes were destined to end up on the ash heap of history.

Communist dictatorships kept their populations under tighter control than any other political systems before them. They exercised obsessive control over links with the outside world; every foreigner who entered was carefully tracked. Even today, communist regimes survive in China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea. (Interestingly, we know that Kim Jong Il, the father of the current ruler in Pyongyang, forced his subordinates to watch videos of the December 1989 execution of Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as a reminder of what might happen to them if the Kim regime were to lose its grip on power.)

In East Germany, a vast network of millions of citizens happily informed on their neighbors. The Stasi, the East German security service, was notorious for its obsessiveness and fanaticism. (It even archived the smells emitted by dissidents.) Surely, many assumed, it was impossible for a government that enjoyed the power of the all-knowing Stasi to be vulnerable to overthrow. And it was — until it happened.

There is one modern-day leader who is uniquely qualified to appreciate just how extraordinary the 1989 revolutions were: Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 1989, he was a young Soviet intelligence officer stationed in the East German city of Dresden, where the KGB maintained a branch office. Throughout the fall, he and his Soviet colleagues had watched with growing trepidation as ordinary East Germans took to the streets to protest their own government. Their numbers, initially modest, soon skyrocketed. When I attended my first mass demonstration, in the city of Leipzig on Oct. 23, I found myself in a crowd of 250,000 people — and that was just one protest in a country of 16 million. Just a few weeks later, on Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall finally fell, setting communist East Germany on a path to its eventual dissolution.

On Dec. 5, the revolution arrived at Putin’s front door. A group of demonstrators turned up outside the villa housing the KGB branch office and threatened to storm the premises. Putin, in what has now become an oft-recounted moment in his official biography, told them politely but firmly to leave what the Soviets considered to be a military base — or he and his comrades would open fire. The East Germans dispersed.

A photo of the former remand prison and regional office of the East German Ministry of State Security (Stasi) in the eastern German city of Dresden on March 8, 2018. This was where Vladimir Putin lived and worked as a KGB agent from 1985 to 1990. (Robert Michael/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

It’s hard to know precisely what happened; the historical record has been strongly colored by the official version of events propagated by Putin and his government. Yet I see little reason to doubt that the young intelligence officer who would one day become his country’s ruler experienced East Germany’s revolution as up close and personal. While I can’t look into the Russian president’s soul, I believe the moment left a lasting imprint on the mind of the future dictator.

If Putin needed any reminder of the potential fragility of authoritarian regimes, he got it in 2011. Brazen fraud in local elections triggered a wave of popular protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other big cities; Putin’s 2012 announcement that he planned to run for a third term as president (after an interlude in which his protege Dmitry Medvedev held the office) acted as an accelerant. He had already seen several other rulers toppled by uprisings in his post-Soviet neighborhood — the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

The sense of threat was compounded by the chain of events that would come to be known, in the West, as the Arab Spring. Beginning in Tunisia in late 2010, it soon claimed such ruthless dictators as Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. If they could fall, anyone could fall.

Putin succeeded in defusing the challenge to his authority with a combination of suasion and threats. But the realization that his own country might be susceptible to a people-power uprising prompted him to reconsider how to deal with the possibility of mass discontent.

And in 2016, he created an entirely new institution — the 380,000-strong Russian National Guard, which combines the missions of suppressing mass uprisings and the monitoring of domestic dissent. While Russia’s existing security agencies mostly remained intact, there was one feature of this new one that set it apart: It answers directly to Putin, not to the bureaucracy. The old East German Stasi — like its Soviet counterpart, the KGB — was designed to defend the Communist Party, not individual leaders.

It’s a change that demonstrates just how palpably the ghosts of 1989 continue to haunt Putin’s imagination three decades later. That he’s managed to stay in power as long as he has shows just how carefully he has absorbed the lessons of that miraculous year.

The strange odyssey of Orban

By Emily Tamkin
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Emily Tamkin is a writer and reporter based in Washington. She is the author of the upcoming book, “The Influence of Soros.”

In the late 1980s, when a somewhat lax form of Marxism/Leninism still reigned in Budapest, Bibo Istvan Special College for law students was “an island of autonomy and self-determination,” as author Paul Lendvai wrote in a recent book. Starting in 1986, the college received funding from Hungarian American billionaire George Soros, who subsidized its intellectually and politically curious students. In 1988, a group of those students founded Fidesz, a politically active youth group.

One of their members rocketed to fame in June 1989, when he gave a rousing speech at a Budapest ceremony commemorating Imre Nagy, a communist-era leader fondly remembered for pushing back against Soviet rule. The 26-year-old Fidesz member assailed Moscow and demanded the removal of Russian troops — striking a chord at precisely the moment when long-rising discontent with the U.S.S.R. was about to translate into revolutionary change around the region.

The young man’s name was Viktor Orban. Not long after his speech, he set off for Oxford, where he studied on a Soros scholarship. He returned to Hungary in 1990 as a young star, a future liberal leader. Or so everyone thought — and continued to think for years, as he rose to become Hungary’s prime minister.

But in 2014, during his second stint in office, Orban famously said, “The new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” Even more famously, he has relentlessly attacked his one-time benefactor. In 2018, parliament pushed through a “Stop Soros” law, making it illegal for individuals or organizations to provide help to undocumented immigrants. Central European University, which Soros founded in Budapest in the early 1990s, has been largely pushed out. Somewhat less famously, Orban’s government rewrote the Hungarian constitution in 2012 and passed a law under which the government oversees the courts. Orban himself has been accused of using his power to enrich his family and allies.

“Once in office, Orban changed his spots,” Soros writes in his latest book, “In Defense of Open Society.” “He sensed a political opportunity on the right and became increasingly nationalistic.”

And this, generally, is the thinking: Orban changed. He was a democrat, a liberal, and then he got power and stopped being one.

But look more closely at the young man back in 1989, the one giving speeches as hope for democracy and liberalism swept across Europe. A different picture starts to show, one in which Orban has always been Orban.

In the spring, I spoke with Tom Melia, now the head of the Washington office of PEN America. Back in the days when Bibo Istvan Special College was an autonomous island, Melia was at the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit NGO that tries to bolster democratic institutions around the world, working on Hungary, “the most open of the Warsaw Pact countries in that period.” At the time, he said, people thought Fidesz was made up of smart, young people who were going to save the world.

I asked if he’d been surprised by the evolution of Orban and Fidesz.

Being an opponent of a dictatorship, he said, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good democrat: “You may just be a competitor for power.” During the 1990s, he says, some of those who knew Orban began to warn Melia about him. “They said that it was his domineering personality, his intolerance of dissent and discussion that grew in that period of the first parliament. So they saw something there that I didn’t necessarily see.”

Melia told me about Balint Magyar, a sociologist who was education minister both in the period before Orban’s first government and in the period between Orban’s first and second government. Back in 1990, Magyar had surprised some observers of Hungarian politics by publishing a diagram in which he plotted Fidesz as somewhere between the European liberals and the conservative populists. In June, in Budapest, I met with Magyar himself. I’d asked him how he’d known.

He told me that it had to do with language. When Orban first came on the scene, people thought that the language of liberal democracy was what people wanted to hear. When Orban figured out that it wasn’t, he changed what he was saying.

With a change in language came political machinations. In the 1990 election, Melia recalled, the members of Fidesz were so young that they displayed pictures of themselves and their babies to show they were grounded family men. Fidesz changed the rules after the first elections so that, despite its youth organization origins, older individuals could run for office for Fidesz. They got their parents and family members to run back home in the countryside, building a rural presence — and a more conservative voter base. By the time they came to power in 1998, they were part of a center-right coalition, having beaten the socialist and liberal coalition that ruled from 1994 to 1998. Orban, who served as prime minister in the new government, was ousted in 2002 — and came back in 2010 determined to hold onto power. He used the language, the tools and the anti-Soros campaigns available to him to do that.

There are, of course, a variety of theories about what happened to Orban. I have heard people say he resents Soros because he doesn’t like to owe people anything; that he was a genuine liberal democrat; that he wants to show big city people that he’s just as good and smart as they are.

And all of that may be true. But I think it was also true that, back in 1989, Orban was already Orban, already the man who wanted power and would say what he thought necessary to say and do what he thought necessary to do to keep it. Thirty years later, it looks as if the changing means achieved that steady end.

The end of history? Not quite.

By Brian Klaas
(Françoise Chaptal/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images) (FRANCOISE CHAPTAL/AFP via Getty Images)

In the summer of 1989, just a few months before protesters streamed through Checkpoint Charlie of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama published an article in the National Interest called “The End of History?,” which later became the foundation of his book “The End of History and the Last Man.” He argued that the great ideological struggles of the 20th century — first between liberal democracy and fascism and then between liberal democracy and communism — were over. History, defined by Fukuyama as the struggle between grand ideologies, had reached its endpoint. Liberal democracy had won.

“What we may be witnessing,” Fukuyama wrote, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

When the Berlin Wall fell only a few months later, Fukuyama looked more like a prophet than a political scientist. But does he still look right today?

Thirty years later, history itself appears to have refuted “the end of history.” China, Russia and Vietnam have revived and prolonged authoritarianism precisely by adapting capitalism to their own designs. Turkey and Egypt have created new forms of sultanism. And in east-central Europe, Hungary and Poland — once bright spots of the 1989 revolutions — are once again embracing one-party rule in all but name. Germany, once the standard-bearer for Eastern Europe, now also finds itself bedeviled by right-wing populism. Even in the United States — a country that Ronald Reagan called a “shining city upon a hill” in January 1989 — a weak but dangerous would-be strongman now rules.

These examples, and others, are driving a dangerous trend. Young people in the West are losing faith in democratic institutions. Roughly 75 percent of Americans born in the 1930s say it is “essential” to live in a democracy — but only about 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s share that view. Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden show a similar dynamic.

More are also willing to consider alternatives that were once unthinkable fringe views. In 1995, 1 in 16 Americans said army rule would be “good” or “very good.” By 2014, that figure had grown to 1 in 6.

Yet this is not the entire story. For one thing, the current democratic recession doesn’t negate the astounding growth of liberal democracy since World War II.

In 1945, the world was home to 137 autocratic states — and just 12 democratic ones. By 1989, the number of autocracies had fallen to 105 compared with 51 democracies. In 2018, democracies were in the lead, by a count of 99 to 80. (This is a broad category that encompasses many different kinds of states, ranging from robust parliamentary democracies to relatively illiberal ones.) Oxford economist Max Roser calculates that the number of people who live in democracies nearly doubled between 1989 and 2015, from about 2 billion to about 4 billion.

Even more striking, perhaps, is the persistence with which post-1989 despots strive to present themselves as democrats. Many make a point of holding regular and seemingly competitive elections (while rigging them). They allow a semi-free press (which they muzzle when it suits them). They make a pretense of maintaining the rule of law on paper (though not in practice). As Nic Cheeseman and I have argued, this is why there are more elections than ever before as the world becomes less democratic.

This would seem to undercut Fukuyama’s argument but actually reinforces it. The world’s dictators are trying to create the illusion of liberal democracy to justify their rule. Most of those leading the democratic recession still say democracy is the ideological ideal.

Fukuyama noted that “it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society.” This may have been his most astute observation of all; modern politics appears to be bearing it out.

Authoritarianism and illiberalism have not died. Yet as I write this, people are taking to the streets once again across the world — from Hong Kong to Chile, Ecuador to Algeria, Lebanon to Sudan. The reasons for their protests differ widely — but what they all have in common is the demand for a voice over decisions affecting their everyday lives. None of the participants in these mass uprisings is demanding that despots tell them what to do.

All of them are marching in the footsteps of those who, 30 years ago, pushed against the walls and curtains of dictatorship until they finally fell. The defenders of the open society continue to fight, and they still have much to fight against. Even so, the promise of democracy beckons just as persistently as it did in 1989. Otherwise the strongmen would not have so much reason to fear it. But fear it they do.

Read more:

James A. Baker III: All presidents should follow George H.W. Bush’s model of presidential diplomacy

China tried to erase the Tiananmen Square massacre from memory. But its legacy lives on.

Max Boot: I thought 1989 was a new dawn of freedom. I was wrong.

Christian Caryl: Trump’s America feels a little more East German every day

Robert Kagan: The strongmen strike back

Anne Applebaum: 100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried.

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