John Rees was reporting from Berlin 25 years ago as the demonstrations which brought down the Stalinist dictatorship reached their peak. Here he reflects on the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall
I had been passing through Checkpoint Charlie for three days. I was interviewing activists who had been organising the huge demonstrations against the East German regime from one of the protesters' bases, the Gethsemene Church. On the day before the Wall fell, the 8th November, my contacts in the West told me it would be fine to take some socialist papers through to the East in my bag. That proved to be an exaggeration.
My bag was searched at Checkpoint Charlie. For half an hour, one of the longer half hours in my life, I was detained as successively higher ranked officers from the hated security police, the Stasi, came down to read the papers with the kind of attention that their normal readers rarely gave them. In the end I was waved through. It was then I knew for sure that the old state had given up and that it was bound to fall. So it proved. I only learnt later that East German leader Erich Honecker had given the order to open fire on the protestors, but the soldiers had refused. It was the same thing: the state had been hollowed out.
What did those East German protestors want? They certainly wanted political freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom to vote, freedom to meet, freedom to march and freedom to join trade unions and political parties. But they also wanted to retain much of the social infrastructure and welfare state that was part of their life in the East.
The political culture of the opposition can be seen in the sticker I picked up 25 years ago in Gethesemne Church. It reads 'Workers! Vote New Forum'.
The form of address is the first interesting thing: this is still the language of class politics. The assumed audience for any change is the working class. And why not? It had been strikes by the massive free trade union Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s that had begun the unravelling of the Eastern bloc and in the late 1980s it was still the presence of Solidarity that had caused another crisis.
The second interesting thing is that it calls for a vote...at a time when no free elections seemed possible! New Forum's aims were limited to democratic reform, unlike Solidarity which, at the start at any rate, had more revolutionary aims.
And New Forum in East Germany was not like Solidarity in its social composition either. It was a much more middle class opposition movement aimed at political reform rather than a working class movement aimed at social and political transformation. This was a fatal weakness. When Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned his East German satellite there was no social force that could resist the embrace of right wing West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. German unification would be a Western annexation, not the beginning of a social revolution.
This does not diminish the value of the real political freedom gained, but it fell far short of what East Germans wanted in 1989. Recent maps produced for the Washington Post tell this tale in, literally, graphic style.
There is no question that most East Germans still support unification, although West Germans are less enthusiastic. While 75 percent of Germans who live in the east said they considered their country’s reunification a success, in a recent survey only half of western Germans agreed. This is probably because the neoliberal era has coincided with unification. The previously prosperous West German economy and welfare state has been eroded, partly, so Germany's elite has said, to pay the costs of unification.
But economically East Germans remain poorer than West Germans (map 1). And unemployment is much higher in the East (map 2). Even though there are far fewer immigrants in the East the far right gets much more support in the East, another indication that it is economic distress which is the main driver of right wing success (maps 3 and 4).
The persistent influence of the East German welfare state can be seen in the much higher level of pre-school care for children and in the level of flu vaccination, both far higher in the East than in the West (maps 5 and 6).
Unification has worked far better for Germany's ruling class. It has made it economically and strategically the heart of Europe, turning France and Britain into more marginal states, and able to dictate the European response to the financial crash of 2008.
Geopolitically the reunification of Germany resulted in the hugh eastward expansion of Nato in the last 25 years. German recognition of Slovenia, despite US objections, led to the break up of Yugoslavia and then to the Balkan War. This was the first 'humanitarian intervention' on which all others, including Afghanistan and Iraq, were modelled.
The promise given to Gorbachev in Berlin by then US Secretary of State James Baker, that Nato would not expand 'one inch to the East' if the Russians withdrew from Germany, has proved to be one of the greatest diplomatic deceptions since Hitler guaranteed the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia.
Since that moment Nato has done nothing but expand East, gobbling up former Warsaw Pact countries until it now directly stands on the, much contracted, borders of the Russian state itself. The full and dangerous meaning to this development has only become apparent in the Ukrainian conflict this year.
The seeds were sown in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall of a more dangerous period of major state rivalry. Twenty five years on we are beginning to see those dangers take shape.
As the material structure of the Berlin Wall came down other, less visible, walls went up. The neoliberal offensive that took a huge step forward in Germany in 1989 has created a wall between the rich and the poor that is higher than ever, and more difficult to cross.
The Wall between Russia and the West is less visible now, but it is a more dangerous flashpoint than it was a generation ago. Russian and Nato troops faced off at the end of the Balkan War, Georgia was backed by the West in the standoff with Russia in 2008, and now Ukraine is being torn apart by the consequences of EU and Nato expansionism.
Could it have been different? Yes, but only if the original democratic instinct of the East European revolutions had developed into a social and economic challenge to capitalism. This has been the question at the heart of every modern revolution from that day to this. It was at the heart of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, it was there in the Indonesian revolution of 1998, and it was at the core of the Arab revolutions of 2011.
One simple enduring truth emerges from these revolutions. A socialist outcome will not even be posed, let alone achieved, unless organised socialists are present in the struggles which precede the revolution. Democracy is always a starting point in any revolution. But democracy alone will not answer the question of whose interests are to be served by what comes next, the workers and the poor, or the rich, the powerful and the well-armed.
A generation ago protestors brought down a vicious police dictatorship. But the bankers, bureaucrats and the corporate heads stole that revolution, in what some Solidarity leaders called 'the velvet restoration'. Remember the protestors bravery and their achievement. But next time, and there always is a next time, we must make sure the gains of the revolution are ours, and that they are permanent.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
More articles from this author
- Corbynistas! Up your game, or lose the game
- Marxism and the Brexit crisis
- Why I won't speak at the Oxford Union
- It’s austerity, stupid
- Theresa May: more than a lame duck, less than a dead duck
- Theresa May fiddles while the country burns
- Why you should be on the protest that could bring down the government