One of my very earliest memories is of walking with my parents and older sister on the banks of the River Elbe near Dannenberg in what was then (in the mid-1950s) West Germany. At that point the Elbe marked the border between the Federal Republic of (West) Germany and the (East) German Democratic Republic. The river here is very wide, but as I walked with my parents they explained that the men I could just about see on the other side were armed border guards and that they would stop anyone who wanted to swim across the river. The idea of wanting to swim across this vast river seemed absurd to me, and so I quietly thought of the role of these guards as being one of wanting to help people do what was in their best interests. Probably they thought the same. When just a few weeks later my father explained that one such would-be swimmer had been shot by the guards on entering the water, I did think that their particular service of helping citizens had been taken beyond reasonable limits, and as a three-year-old I changed my views.
But right then, East Germany was haemorrhaging citizens. By the end of the 1950s over two million people had fled their republic to seek a new life in ours. And so in August 1961 the most porous part of the East-West frontier – the divided city of Berlin – was closed with the erection of a wall that surrounded the western enclave. Even then, there continued to be regular (and often ingenious, but also often fatal) attempts to flee from the East to the West, including continuing attempts at the River Elbe where I walked as a child.
Today, November 9, marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; or to put it more accurately, of the decision by the East German authorities (who were at that point in serious difficulty) to open the wall to informal transit in both directions. Not long afterwards the Wall did come down, and not long afterwards again East and West Germany were reunited. And as we know, the American political economist Francis Fukuyama declared at that time that we had reached ‘the end of history‘: the competition between ideologies was over for ever, and the West’s liberal capitalism had won.
Of course history didn’t end – and for the record and to be fair, Fukuyama has developed a much more nuanced view of international affairs since then, indeed last year he supported Barack Obama’s successful bid for the US presidency. There is, it is true, no longer a recognisable global ideological conflict between a capitalist and a socialist world view; but this has given way to lots of other conflicts, some of them very hard to contain in philosophical terms. The events of September 11, 2001, and what followed them were infinitely more alarming in many ways than the articulated and feared threats of the Cold War that, at least in Europe, never produced any actual conflict. Meanwhile in the states of the former East Germany, which often have had to suffer greater economic and social problems than the former West, a significant minority have started to feel some nostalgia for the old times, a condition that has been called ‘Ostalgie’ (a contraction of ‘East Nostalgia’).
Whatever may be the view of it now, the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the very greatest iconic moments in history, unforgettable to all those who saw it, even if just on a television screen. Even if it made no clear statements about ideologies, it did declare that attempts by a state to suppress its own citizens could not work for ever. But it did not solve all of Germany’s problems for all time, never mind the world’s. Over the years, governments have increasingly failed to deliver a vision of where they think we should go. Economic boom conditions dulled some of the questions about vision, but they have now returned with a vengeance. So the right mood for the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Wall is not one of triumph and self-satisfaction, but one of re-appraisal of what western developed countries have been doing, and what they intend to do now.
That’s a job for all of us, and the time is right for it.