It has been 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell. Kati Piri gave a speech on this historic day in Berlin:
My father pulled me near him and said: ‘Kati, history is written here’. We were standing in the living room together watching the evening news. I was 10 years old and it was the first time I saw my father getting emotional.
The TV showed a sea of young people laughing and jeering on top of a wall. One man was attacking the wall with a pickaxe. Others joined in, destroying the wall with whatever they could get their hands on. Loose panels in the wall were pushed back and forth until they fell over. People flooded through the walls. They held each other. They cried as history was being made.
So did my father.
This was his history, too.
My father fled Hungary when he was sixteen years old. One cold afternoon in 1956, after the revolution was cracked down, he told his parents he was going out to get apples. Instead, he made his way to the border with Austria, crouched in the shrubs until nightfall came, and crawled under the barbed wire border fence as fast as he could to escape the bullets that the border guards of his homeland were firing at him.
He rarely told us about his flight. But this night, sitting in front of the TV, he pulled me close and said: “Do you see all those people? Do you see how they are embracing each other? Do you see how happy they are?”
I saw it.
“This,” he said, “is what freedom looks like. From now on, anything is possible”.
The Berlin Wall was a massive physical structure. Standing at 3.6 metres tall, it spanned 155 kilometres all around West Berlin. The wall’s 302 watchtowers and 20 bunkers had to prevent East German citizens from defecting to the West’s freedom and prosperity. 100 000 bravely attempted to cross regardless. 5 % of them made it to the other side. 95 000 did not. At least 140 died.
The Berlin Wall was also a massive structure in our minds. It served as the tangible representation of our separation, not just as a geographical or political entity, but as humans. We grew up separately. We lived our separate lives. ‘We’ were over here. ‘They’ were over there. And things were supposed to stay that way. On 19 January 1989, just ten months prior to the historic event that we are celebrating today, East German leader Erich Honecker predicted that the Wall would “still exist in 50 and even in 100 years, if the reasons for it [were] not overcome”.
Yet gradually, our interest in each other grew. We had been kept apart for too long. Now we wanted to know who was on the other side. And when the wall came tumbling down, due in part to a bureaucratic accident among a wave of revolutions in the East, we saw that what US President John F. Kennedy had remarked in his 1963 commencement address at American University was true: that among the many traits citizens of the East and the West had in common, none was stronger than our mutual desire for peace.
All of Europe, if not the entire world, was gripped by euphoria during the weeks and months after the fall of the Wall. Ossis and Wessis spent days talking to each other, laughing with each other, rejoicing in each other. Barely a month later, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President George H.W. Bush released a statement saying the Cold War was drawing to a close. The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the ouster of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and the Baltic States’ democratic move towards independence during the following year sealed the fate of the Iron Curtain. Suddenly, the opportunities seemed limitless. Europe, long torn in two, was whole again. If the unity of the people could defeat darkness itself, was there anything the people could not achieve?
Today, my father’s tears of joy over the fall of the Berlin Wall seem a distant memory. Leaders all around the world give preference to building walls over tearing them down. Some even take pride in making this construction of divisions into their rallying cry. Over the span of a mere thirty years, we went from 15 border barriers to77. Together, they span 40 000 kilometres – or exactly the circumference of the earth. These walls could literally divide the world in two.
Some would say that we lost. Europe’s grand vision of democracy, liberalism, and the end of history that dominated the 90s has made way for pessimistic introspection.
And that is not without reason. Far-right, anti-immigration and Eurosceptic parties have surged in popularity across the Union. Some member states have chosen to include these parties in their governments in the recent past. Other member states in the East are currently led by leaders that edge ever closer towards authoritarianism. They erode the carefully constructed systems of checks and balances, curb judicial independence, police their civil service, and attempt to bring the media and civil society under state control. Corruption is endemic. New walls are erected to keep out refugees.
In the country of my parents, Hungary, illiberalism has taken root. Despite this, Viktor Orbàn still has the support of the majority of the population.
Many regard these voters with bewilderment. Who are these people that seem to prefer autocracy to freedom? Why, despite these three decades of living like us, are they still so different? Why are they still building walls? Why are they not more like us?
But this narrative of democracy giving way to autocracy, of light giving way to darkness, is careless at the very least. This way of thinking relieves us of our responsibility to reach out. And if we fail to even make an effort at understanding what drives these people, these same fiercely independent people that tore down the wall 30 years ago, we allow these walls to live on in our minds.
The transition from socialism to capitalism was not easy. From the outset, the unification of Europe was not a unification of equals. The relatively poor, community-focussed, introspective East was overwhelmed by the wealth and self-assuredness of the middle-class West. The GDR alone witnessed the privatisation of thousands of firms over the span of a few years. In the first half of the 1990s, Eastern states’ GDP fell by 20 to 30 percent. Millions lost their jobs. The wages of those who remained never caught up. Unemployment rates soared. Many left for the West, leaving half-empty ghost towns behind.
This was not what people had expected from reunification. They used to harbour great dreams of freedom and prosperity.
Some leaders of newly independent states that found themselves in an economically vulnerable position,
responded by fostering a clear and exclusive national identity of which they alone were the guardians. This allowed citizens to be part of something greater than themselves. And it protected its leaders: any attack on the leader was an attack on the entire population.
Fear and vulnerability set the stage for the erosion of political freedoms. Governments brought courts under their supervision, aligned newspapers and other media outlets with their policies, and suppressed dissent.
These autocrats were not alone. They rode a global wave of strongman rulers that proclaimed to put their country first, ramping up anti-immigrant rhetoric while increasing socioeconomic inequality and, in many cases, reaping substantial financial benefits. That is how they built new walls in their people’s minds.
Once these walls existed in people’s minds, building physical walls was the easiest way for a government to demonstrate that they were actually undertaking action.
Thirty years after my father showed me the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV, 523 kilometres of Hungary’s borders are now sealed off by a wall.
Those are the three types of walls that I see today: the old walls that we tore down, the new walls that we erected, and the walls in our minds that we need to overcome in order to truly unite.
But walls keep out the light. And it is this light that we need in order to, in the words of Willy Brandt, grow together. Because we belong together.
Doing so seems challenging in many ways. Today’s escalation of global trade wars, rejection of multilateralism, and geopolitical antagonism between global and regional powers recently led even Gorbachev to remark that “international politics is on an extremely dangerous trajectory”. EU member states seem to be drifting apart, with one of the Union’s most important members slated to exit within the coming few months.
Will these new divisions finally tear us apart? Will the global system, under pressure from protectionism and polarisation, finally implode and drag us all into chaos?
No. It will not. Let me give you two reasons.
The first reason is the people’s deep-rooted and powerful resilience. This summer witnessed a quiet revolution when people throughout Eastern Europe people took to the streets to demand greater transparency, and end to corruption, and adherence to the rule of law. Protests in Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania were the largest since 1989. And like in 1989, it is the region’s young people that are driving change.
The second reason is the growing awareness that the European Union truly needs all of its members. On a global stage where great powers are redefining their approach to politics, the world needs reliable global powers to protect our achievements. Only collectively will our voice make an impact.
We need to start by accepting that the old order is gone. We can no longer go it alone as individual states. Instead, we must provide a vision that reinvigorates the powerful idea of the European Union as a provider of peace and prosperity for all. We must create a long-term strategy fostering true unification. And we must support this strategy with our full political, institutional, and financial capacities.
Our strategy needs to be based on a series of concrete actions in the interest of all concerned. We break down the intangible walls that divide us by reducing the inequality within and between our communities and states. We deepen our union by strengthening our democratic institutions, sharing our social policies, and securing our neighbours. We protect our union by safeguarding our partnerships, the institutions of multilateralism, and our achievements in the areas of peace and security – underpinning these with economic and defensive capabilities. And we widen the inclusivity of our union by allowing states that fulfilled the criteria to join.
63 years ago, my father dreamed of freedom. 30 years ago, part of his dream came true when the Berlin Wall came down. Today, it is up to us to tear down the walls in our minds. To paraphrase the famous words of Willy Brandt: ‘What belongs together will grow together.’