This is a week of geopolitical paradox: We are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall even as we watch Vladimir Putin’s violent efforts to erect a new Iron Curtain further east, notes analyst Chrystia Freeland.
But beware, Mr. Putin: The more enduring precedent is still 1989, when the Iron Curtain crumpled for good, she writes for Politico:
Most of the former Warsaw Pact states are now thriving, European market democracies. And here are four more positive lessons of 1989 and the quarter century that followed:
—The European Union can work: These days, the European Union mostly seems to be a case study in how not to run 21st century capitalist democracies. …. But that same fusty, process-driven, boring European Union is responsible for the most successful democratic transition since the Marshall Plan. This historic transformation would have been impossible without Europe’s example and its generosity: the prospect of EU membership is what persuaded Eastern European societies and their political elites to stick with democratic and market reforms in the lean years….
—History isn’t destiny: The peaceful co-existence of Germany and France should have taught us that even centuries of enmity don’t make war inevitable. But, in the age of ISIL and Vladimir Putin it is easy to forget that history, including bitter, bellicose cultural history, need not always repeat itself. … It isn’t a fairytale to believe that one day a democratic Russia might become likewise reconciled with its neighbor. Indeed, a precondition for Russia’s democratic transition — however many decades it takes for that to again seem like a possibility — will be accepting Ukraine’s independence.
—Privatization isn’t enough: When the Berlin Wall fell, the big question was how to go from communist authoritarianism to market democracy. …. It is no accident that one of Vladimir Putin’s first steps after arriving in the Kremlin was to imprison Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian businessman who was most aggressively fighting for liberal democracy, and to confiscate his assets. Without the rule of law, broad public support and organized civil society, private property proved to be as easy to confiscate as it had been to award.
—Organized civil society is essential: Political choices in central Europe and the former Soviet Union over the past quarter century have been as diverse as the region, but there is one constant. The transition worked in countries that arrived in 1989, or 1991, with a strong, well-organized civil society, committed to change, and they failed where it was absent. Poland owes much of its success to the strength of its Catholic Church and to Solidarity, its independent and battle-tested trade union. By contrast, the collapse of the Communism left Russia with a civil society that was atomized and mistrustful.
“Nowadays, democratic revolutions seem more likely to fail or to fizzle out: witness the Arab Spring and Ukraine’s own Orange Revolution,” she writes. “But before 1989 there was 1956, 1968 and 1981 (the Polish declaration of martial law to suppress “Solidarity”). That’s the biggest lesson of the fall of the Berlin Wall—It takes years of defeat to finally succeed. And that success has endured.” RTWT
Putin’s recent endorsement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact is an attempt by the Kremlin to move from one account of Russia in World War II to another—a shift in national historical memory that would have implications for all of Europe, argues Yale University’s Timothy Snyder.
Two versions of the commemoration of the war were always available because the Soviet Union fought on both sides of the war, he writes for the New York Review of Books:
In the first part of the war, from 1939 to 1941 the Soviet Union was a German ally, fighting in the eastern theater and supplying Germany with the minerals, oil, and food it needed to make war against Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and most importantly France and Britain. After Hitler betrayed Stalin and the Wehrmacht invaded the USSR in June 1941, the Soviet Union was suddenly on the other side, and soon found itself in a grand alliance with Britain and the United States.
For decades, official Soviet accounts of the war passed over the first part in silence and celebrated Soviet feats of arms in the second.
“In making his alliance with Hitler, Stalin had a political logic. He imagined that in supporting the Nazi state as it began its total war he would turn the German armed forces to the west, away from the Soviet Union. In this way, the inherent contradictions of the capitalist world would be exposed, and Germany, France, and Britain would collapse simultaneously,” Snyder notes.
“In his own way, Putin is now attempting much the same thing. Just as Stalin sought to turn the most radical of European forces, Adolf Hitler, against Europe itself, so Putin is allying with his grab bag of anti-European populists, fascists, and separatists. His allies on the far right are precisely the political forces that wish to bring an end to the current European order: the European Union.”