‘The greatest geopolitical catastrophe’
This is not to say that there were no contemporary concerns. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was worried about a reunified Germany, and the administration of US President George H. W. Bush was alarmed by the prospect of the USSR’s collapse. The American political scientist John Mearsheimer predicted that the end of Communism would lead to a revival of the ultra-nationalist ideologies that had plagued Central Europe in the 1930s, a forecast apparently confirmed by the violent collapse of Yugoslavia (1991-1999). More tellingly, it is evident that the majority of the post-Soviet elite in Russia saw the fall of the wall as a disaster, concluding that their country had been humiliated by the West in the process.
The current Russian President (and former KGB officer) Vladimir Putin is on record as describing the disintegration of the USSR as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th Century, and Russian propaganda claims (falsely) that the expansion of NATO Eastwards represents a broken promise on the part of the Bush administration.
Thirty years on...
It is easy to forget what Europe looked like before the tumultuous events in Berlin on the night of the 9th November 1989. There are enduring legacies of the continent’s divisions, most notably the continuing economic divide between the former GDR and the Western half of Germany, and also a sense of ‘Ostalgia’ which looks back at the certainties of the past, and which overlooks the grim realities of the police state. Both Hungary and to a lesser extent Poland are displaying disturbing signs of political illiberalism, undergoing what critics describe as gradual but insidious attacks on the liberties won in 1989 – a free press, an independent and impartial judiciary, and free and fair elections. Moreover, there is a debate as to whether Europe faces what could be described as a ‘new Cold War’ between NATO and Russia, particularly after the invasion and annexation of the Crimea and the current war in Eastern Ukraine.
Nonetheless, the political and social-economic transition of the past three decades remains a remarkable and positive achievement for millions of people behind the old ‘Iron Curtain’. And as someone who grew up during the 1980s wondering if he’d see either adulthood or the end of civilisation, I can assure readers that the way in which the Cold War ended could have been a lot worse.