Berlin +20 – Europe Reborn
Speech to Missouri School of Journalism, September 9, 2009
I have a confession to make. On September 24, 1989 I threw a book out of a moving train window for the first and last time in my life.
Admittedly, this wasn’t just any book. I happened to be reading ‘The Bass Saxophone’ by banned Czech author Josef Skvorecky. And it wasn’t just any train. This was the service that connected Nuremberg in the former West Germany with Prague in the country once called Czechoslovakia.
As the train approached the Czechoslovak border I remembered that my trusty Lonely Planet guide to Eastern Europe warned tourists against bringing books by outlawed writers into the communist country. So as the train passed through the bucolic Bavarian countryside I hurled the book into a field of bemused cows.
At a border that no longer exists between two countries that no longer exist passengers had to wait for three hours as border guards checked visas and rifled through luggage. At Cheb, the first sizeable town in Bohemia, we were then frog-marched off the train to change the equivalent of $20 a day before heading on to the capital.
It is hard to believe that less than 20 years ago, this crossing was a frontier of fear that separated two ideologies bent on destroying each other.
“The Iron Curtain was hundreds of miles of barbed wire, watch tower and minefield, with an awful sameness to it,” writes Jan Morris, probably the greatest living English-speaking travel writer. “Travelling from east to west through it was like entering a drab and disturbing dream, a half-lit world of shabby resentments, where anything could be done to you.”
Prague in 1989 was a beautiful city, as it is today. But it was also a city gripped by fear, crushed by the weight of history and blackened by a thin sheen of soot. Asked what the biggest change between then and now was, a Czech friend recently told me: “You could say the grey changed to colour – like a TV.”
For over 40 years after the communists seized power in 1948, the Czech lands were cut off from the western part of Europe and left to languish in obscurity behind the Iron Curtain.
Czech novelist Milan Kundera has said the Soviet annexation of central Europe “caused western Europe to lose its vital centre of gravity.” In the ultimate triumph of politics over geography, the former Czechoslovakia was consigned to eastern Europe, despite the fact it has gone through the same historical processes as western nations and that its capital Prague lies considerably nearer the Atlantic than such ‘western’ European cities as Athens, Helsinki and Stockholm.
Communism resulted in something of a national trauma for Czechoslovakia, which was as rich as Switzerland before World War II and gave the world writers such as Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek and composers such as Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana. The humiliation of being colonised by Russia – a poorer country that had never tasted freedom – was compounded by the fact that millions of Czechs were forced to make a humiliating choice between cooperating with a system they despised or opposing a system that seemed destined to last for eternity. Most chose to “live within a lie” as absurdist playwright Vaclav Havel described it in his 1979 essay Power of the Powerless.’
Czechoslovakia wasn’t the only country that suffered of course. For over 40 years East Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Bulgarians, together with the people of the Baltic states and the former Yugoslavia – lived in a state of fear and unfreedom. Calls for greater liberty – like in Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968 and Poland in 1980 – were met with tanks and bullets. Thousands of people died but tens of millions experienced a fate almost worse than death – the extinction of the self. In his best-known novel ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ Kundera writes: “Many also died without being directly subjected to persecution; the hopelessness pervading the entire country penetrated the soul of the body, shattering the latter.”
Western Europeans also lived in a state of fear. Fear of Soviet tanks motoring across the Fulda Gap. Fear of a world war erupting on the continent for the third time in 70 years. Fear of nuclear annihilation.
So this was Europe in the autumn of 1989 – around about the time many of you were born. A continent divided by an Iron Curtain between a free, capitalist west backed by the United States and an unfree communist east sponsored by the Soviet Union. A continent frozen in aspic by a cold war that relegated Europe to the role of bystander in its own backyard. A continent still traumatised by two world wars and facing the distinct possibility of a third world war on its soil.
But it was not just the continent that was split down the middle. Countries were too. Germany was divided into a western and eastern half. So was its capital city. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” declared Winston Churchill in his famous Fulton, Missouri speech on March 5, 1946. “Behind that line,” he continued, “lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”
And so it remained for over 40 years.
Then came what British historian Timothy Garton Ash describes as Europe’s “9/11 of hope.” On November 9, 1989 – almost 20 years ago today – thousands of Germans started hacking away at the Berlin Wall that had separated the eastern and western halves of Berlin for almost four decades. Little over a week later, communism was toppled in Czechoslovakia and by the year-end almost all the former Soviet bloc countries had been liberated.
The next time I visited Czechoslovakia – in the summer of 1990 – I didn’t need a visa and the border crossing was like any other in Europe, except for the surly guards. In Prague, to quote the Irish poet W.B Yeats, all had changed, “changed utterly.” I was there to teach Russian teachers – who didn’t speak a word of English – how to teach English to high-school students that fall. A Moravian economics student I knew was told to forget everything she had learnt in her first three years in university. Marxist economics, like Russian, was suddenly so 1980s. The Rolling Stones rolled into Prague – the first major western rock band in 40 years – and Vaclav Havel welcomed them on stage.
Twenty years on, Europe is a continent transformed.
Travel to the Czech Republic from inside the EU today and you don’t even have to show your passport. You can withdraw Czech crowns – soon to be replaced by euros – at one of the many airport ATMs, jump in a taxi and discover a city centre changed beyond recognition. Radio Free Europe has its offices in the communist-era parliament, the ticking hand of a clock has replaced a giant bust of Josef Stalin on the banks of the Vltava River and the Palace of Culture – where communist party congresses used to be held – has recently been the venue for NATO and International Monetary Fund summits.
The Lonely Planet’s 1989 guide to “Eastern Europe” – a political rather than geographical term rarely used today – describes the region as “the last frontier of tourism in Europe.” Not any more. Prague has half a dozen low-cost flights a day from Britain alone, making it more likely you will hear English than Czech in the winding streets of the old town. Ryanair flies to Wroclaw, Szczecin, Lodz and half a dozen other unpronounceable places in Poland. The Baltic capitals of Riga and Vilnius – Soviet cities 20 years go – have even become popular stag party destinations for British revellers: much to the dismay of many locals.
Even the countries listed under “Eastern Europe” in my battered old travel guide have been consigned to history 20 years after the continent drew a line under a century of division and devastation. East Germany has joined west to create Europe’s most populous country. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia after a “velvet divorce” in 1992. Yugoslavia has splintered into seven states after a series of bloody civil wars. And the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – which threatened western Europe with annihilation for almost half a century – now has an archaic and faintly comical ring to it.
It may come as a surprise to Euro-skeptics and American neo-conservatives, who see Europe as “old,” sclerotic and incapable of reform, but probably no continent on earth has changed more radically – at least in political terms – than Europe since the end of the 1980s.
Of the 47 countries that comprise the Council of Europe – the pan-European human rights watchdog that predates the EU – 19 did not exist in 1989. But don’t take my word for it. Just tune into the Eurovision Song Contest – that continent-wide extravaganza of kitsch – and listen to the scores come in. Hello Moldova. Bonsoir Azerbaijan. Good evening Ljubljana. It’s as much a geography lesson as a musical spectacle.
Of course, it is central and eastern Europe that has changed the most. Ten countries that once languished behind the Iron Curtain – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia along with the three former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are all members of the European Union and NATO. Albania and Macedonia are both members of the world’s most powerful military alliance, Croatia is on path to joining the EU and the other Balkan states that were racked by war just a decade ago will almost certainly join the Union within 10-15 years.
Many of the changes have been painful and their have been many losers as well as losers in the headlong rush towards capitalism. But just wander the streets of Tallinn, Ljubljana, Bratislava or Riga today and the sense of relief and optimism are palpable. “We have become normal, boring Europeans,” a Lithuanian friend told me recently. “Thanks god,” she added.
But it is not just the east that has changed. The prosperous western half has gone through its own silent revolution too. To get some idea of this, imagine if the United States scrapped the dollar in favour of a ‘currency of the Americas,’ let interest rates be set in Ottawa, had its Court of Justice in Caracas and parliament in Santiago de Chile, completely opened its frontier with Mexico, accepted Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama as American states and rewrote its constitution four times. Only then do you get some idea of what Europe has gone through in the last two decades.
In 1989, the EU had just 12 members. Now its has 27 stretching from the sun-drenched shores of the Algarve to the Polish border with Belarus and from the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea. Within a decade the EU may have 35 states if the Balkan countries, Turkey and Iceland join. With half a billion citizens the EU dwarfs the United States in terms of population and is only surpassed by China and India.
The EU’s powers have also mushroomed. In 1993, when I was doing an internship in the European Commission, I was one of a dozen people working on EU foreign policy – which largely consisted of faxing well-meaning declarations around the capitals, tippexing out undesirable words and phrases and then re-faxing around said capitals for approval. No wonder the EU was powerless to prevent the Balkans bloodshed of the mid-1990s.
Fast forward two decades and the EU is sending troops to the Congo to make sure elections pass smoothly, it has soldiers in Chad protecting refugees from Darfur, it has virtually taken over the running of Bosnia and Kosovo from NATO and the UN, it has security missions in Transnistria, East Timor and Gaza and leads negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme. It was also instrumental in making sure the International Criminal Court was set up and the Kyoto Protocol to limit global warming was ratified – in the teeth of vociferous opposition from the United States.
Europe, which almost annihilated itself in the first half of the 20th century and was sidelined for most of the second half of the century, is now very much back as a world power – and a world power for good.
The European Union is also the world’s biggest economic power, exporter, trading bloc, aid donor and foreign investor. Not bad for a continent that lay in tatters 65 years ago.
In the past 20 years, EU states have pooled powers in sensitive areas – such as defence, counter-terrorism, immigration, asylum policy and border controls – that lie at the heart of national sovereignty.
Remember the franc, the deutschmark, the peseta, lira and drachma? Once proud currencies that symbolised national power and prestige, they have now been consigned to the scrapheap of history. The euro, a currency many predicted – and some hoped – would fail is now stronger than the dollar or pound and quickly catching up with the greenback as the world’s preferred reserve money.
But perhaps the most dramatic change over the last 20 years has been the gradual scrapping of border controls between EU states. It is now possible to travel from Tallinn to Seville and from Stockholm to Sicily without showing a passport or stopping at a border. Even when ID is called for, Europeans now flash almost identical burgundy EU passports.
The effects of this ‘big bang’ removal of borders have been profound. Practically, it has meant the end of two-hour waits at the Italian-Slovenian or Latvian-Lithuanian land crossings. Travellers can now sleep comfortably in the thought that the days of customs officers barging into your train compartment and barking ‘passports please’ at four o’clock in the morning are now over.
But the effects are also political. After all, it is difficult to argue that a person on one side of the border should be taxed, taught and ruled differently from a person on the other side of that border when the frontier separating the two is no longer there.
Over the centuries, tens of millions of Europeans have died fighting over sometimes illogical, often arbitrary and almost always unnatural frontiers. But with the Schengen treaty many of the frontiers European nations fought over – for example between Poland and Germany – have effectively ceased to exist, making the prospect of war between EU states even more unthinkable.
Last week, European nations commemorated the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two in Poland and other places. For millennia Europe has known war, suffered war, been defined by war. The First World War – the ‘war to end all wars’ was meant to banish conflict from the European continent for good. But instead it sowed the seeds of an even more savage bout of bloodletting – the Second World War.
Sixty million people were killed in this war, including 20 million Russians. Six million Jews were gassed, shot, bayoneted, starved, burned and beaten to death. One in five former inhabitants of Poland and the Baltic States was dead. Twelve million ethnic Germans were forced to flee their homes and tens of millions of other Europeans were homeless or left injured or traumatised by the horrors of the war.
Great European cities – Berlin, London and Nuremberg had been virtually wiped off the map, agriculture production was halved and millions faced the threat of starvation. This was Europe just over 60 years ago.
For the first time in over 500 years Europe was sidelined. The continent that had given the world Socrates, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rubens, Darwin and Galileo had entered into a reverse enlightenment. Europe had simply imploded.
Five years later, on May 9, 1950, French foreign minister Robert Schuman launched a plan to pool French and German coal and steel production in order to make war between the two countries “not merely unthinkable but materially impossible.” Two years later, the European Coal and Steel Community was born and five years later came the founding of the European Economic Community with just six members. Europe was on the road to a second renaissance.
50 years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome the European Union has 27 members with half a billion people. For the first time in its long and bloody history, Europe is whole, free and at peace and almost all its states are prosperous free market democracies. Finally, Europe can breathe with two lungs again.
Of course the EU is not perfect. 15 years ago, while EU leaders were squabbling about ways of fine-tuning their rulebook, 200,000 Bosnians, Serbs and Croats were slaughtered in the greatest bout of bloodletting on the European continent since the Second World War. It is a stain on the conscience of Europe that will live with those of my generation forever.
The EU’s problems are well documented – especially by the British and American press. It has to create more jobs, become more competitive, better integrate its growing immigrant population, reform its bloated welfare system, reverse plummeting birth rates and learn to punch its weight on the world stage. But it is only by appreciating how far Europe has come that you can judge how far it still has left to go.
When deciding whether a potential story is a real story I always encourage my students to ask three questions: why does this matter? What difference will it make? Why should I care? In two words: so what? So what lessons can we draw from this turbulent two decades of European history and why should you care?
Firstly, nothing is inevitable; everything is possible. I was brought up to believe that the cold war was a fact of life, that the east-west division of Europe was permanent and that the threat of conflict in Europe would always hang in the air. Nothing led me to doubt that for the first two decades of my life.
Even in September 1989 – 20 years ago today – when I visited the communist bloc for the first time, there was little to suggest the post-war order would come crashing down like a house of cards.
And then Europe’s 9/11 happened. The Berlin Wall was torn down, the Czech Republic and almost a dozen other countries shrugged off half a century of communist dictatorship in a series of largely non-violent revolutions. Within a year Germany was reunited, the dissident absurdist playwright Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia and the electrician turned trade union activist Lech Walesa was the Polish head of state. Two years later the Soviet Union had splintered, Czechoslovakia had split in two and the map of central and eastern Europe had been completely redrawn.
So don’t let anyone tell you there is a natural, immutable order of things, that change is impossible – as if you need reminding of that after the release of Nelson Mandela, the outbreak of peace in northern Ireland or your presidential election last year.
Secondly, don’t forget, belittle or underestimate Europe amidst all the hype about China and India. Europe’s decline is not terminal. Many of the countries that once ruled the world are now small to middling states, but united they represent possibly the most powerful bloc on the planet.
Remember, Europe – the continent that was in ruins 60 years ago and powerless to affect its destiny 20 years ago – is now the world’s biggest economy, exporter, trading club, overseas aid donor and peacekeeper. More importantly, perhaps, its people enjoy the highest standard of living on earth. For most of the world Europe is not just the name of a continent; it is the dream of a better life.
Of course Europe can be infuriating. It is slow to act on the world stage, snail-like in reforming itself and riven by rivalries. But fights now take place around conference tables rather than on battlefields. That, in Europe, is progress.
Some analysts predict a G2 alliance emerging between the United States and China. But it is difficult to see how a communist dictatorship that outlaws opposition and oppresses its own people can be described as a reliable partner. I’m afraid the EU is also the only powerful ally the United States has when it comes to advancing its core values – from Afghanistan to the WTO to fighting for freedom and against global warming.
Thirdly, history may not have ended – as Francis Fukuyama predicted – but Europe is a lot less burdened by its past than at any time since the war. Just 25 years ago Milan Kundera wrote about Czechoslovakia sinking under the weight of its own history. Now communism is textbook stuff to the young people of the Czech lands, who have known nothing else but freedom.
Of course, the past still weighs heavily. Take a stroll around Berlin and you pass Holocaust memorial after terror museum after crumbling wall remain. It is a surreal city where the no-man’s land created by the wall still snakes through the centre, creating a rust belt of decay and dereliction in the heart of the German capital.
Or go to Sarajevo and try and live in the present. On that street corner was where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. And in that market 66 shoppers were blown to pieces by a Serb shell in June 1994 during the long, painful siege of the Bosnian capital. And those makeshift cemeteries that encircle the city like a ring road? Testimony to Europe’s shame and impotence in the mid 1990s.
Europe cannot and should not erase its past. But it is slowly learning to live with it rather than in it.
Finally, I would plead for America to be patient with Europe as it enjoys this rare moment of relative peace and prosperity. “Don’t tell me peace has broke out,” says a character in Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘Mother Courage and her Children.’ When you study history and you look back at the inquisitions and pogroms, wars and revolutions, famines and despots and intolerance and extremism that have scarred Europe for centuries – if not millennia – you begin to understand why Europeans look at the world with a weary eye, see things in shades of grey rather than black and white, are suspicious of all-knowing religions and ideologies and are reluctant to get involved in foreign military adventures.
I am part of the first generation of Europeans to be brought up without the shadow of war, tyranny or hunger hanging over me. That’s the good news. I’m also part of the first generation to be brought up in a continent where the twin bedrocks of modern civilization – the all-powerful church and the all-powerful state – are crumbling beneath my feet. Maybe that’s good news too.
Ladies and gentlemen, the journey Europe has travelled over the last 20 years is an extraordinary one. In the east, almost 20 countries have shrugged off communist tyranny and rejoined the European family of free nations. And in the west, the EU has undergone a silent revolution from a sleepy western European trade bloc to a continent-wide fledgling superpower with global ambitions.
But perhaps the most important thing is that few people talk about east and west Europe anymore. Europe has become one. Europe has been reborn.