30 years – the fall of the Berlin wall: What about Europe?

Thirty years ago the Berlin Wall fell and so did the old world order. The Soviet Union only survived a couple of years. Some might remember the dream of Mikhail Gorbachev about the common “European house”. But now Russia and the European Union seem to stand on opposing grounds. In our three-part publication, our Polish, German and Ukrainian authors describe how people’s opinions towards the EU in their countries have changed in the last 30 years.


Michał Kokot

Born 1981, studied Journalism and Social Communication at the University of Wrocław, Poland. Since 2013 he is working as a journalist at the Foreign Desk at the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza daily, covering European affairs.

Thirty years ago Poland was a grey country with a broken economy. In the early 1990s, I experienced it myself several times, while crossing the Polish-German border on the way to western Germany, where I spent two years of my childhood. The border back then was not just an artificial division between the two countries. Entering Germany every time was like entering another world, with smooth highways, better-dressed people, and shops full of things that Poles usually still could not afford.

Almost three decades later there is no border anymore and both countries became closer to each other. At least in an economic sense. The Polish economy grew rapidly after 1991, thanks to a strong demand of the people to join the European Union. It pushed every political party to conduct reforms to fulfill the criteria set by Brussels in the negotiation process. Finally, in 2004, Poland joined the EU.

Many saw that as a historical moment – after the bloody period of WWII and the German occupation and nearly 45 years of being behind the Iron Curtain, Poland had finally become a part of the European community.

Poland started to fix things. Respect for the law and a reduction in crime were the most important criteria set by Brussels to enter the EU. In 2004, the unemployment rate had just reached its peak, which led to a huge exodus of Poles looking for better lives abroad. According to state statistics in those first few years, more than 2 million Poles left the country, mainly for places where the labor market allowed them to work without permits – the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Politicians soon caught on to this. During the 2007 election campaign, the leader of the opposition Donald Tusk promised that Poland would become “a second Ireland” under his government – a slogan that referred to Ireland’s booming economy back then. In the next eight years, Tusk seemed to fulfill his promise. The Polish economy was booming and unemployment shrinking, though this did not lead to the return of those Poles who had emigrated a few years before. Moreover, the social inequalities between better-developed urban areas and rural ones become bigger.

In 2015, when the migration crisis started, it became clear what the majority of Poles thought about Europe and European values such as solidarity and tolerance. The outgoing government of the center-right Civic Platform (PO) agreed to take part in the relocation of refugees, which the then opposition Law and Justice party (PiS) used as a tool in their hate campaign against refugees. Eventually, that helped them win the 2015 parliamentary elections.

PiS politicians, including its President Jarosław Kaczyński, used language which in some cases was comparable to Nazi hate speech from the 1930s. Among other things, Kaczyński once said people should be aware of refugees because there are “parasites in their bodies, which are harmless for them but could affect Poles”.

After taking over power, PiS initiated judicial reforms whose main goal was to concentrate the party’s power. Their fight to undermine the judiciary led to a quarrel with the European Commission, which launched Article 7 against Poland. This triggered a fear that Poland might be thrown out of the EU, so Kaczyński decided to stop his judicial “reforms”.

According to the polls, the vast majority of Poles support Poland’s membership of the EU. There are still European and democratic strongholds in Poland, mainly in the largest Polish cities. But at the same time, most people associate being a member of the European Union with economic prosperity and wealth, not with values. And it has become clear that the social division between pro-European Poles and those who think more nationalistically has become deeper than ever in the last few years.

It is not just a Polish story. If you live in the European Union, you have most likely seen the same phenomena, as most societies have become more divided than they have ever been.


Natascha Freundel

Born 1974, is an editor at rbb Kulturradio. After studying philosophy and German literature in Berlin and Frankfurt/M., she worked as a freelance journalist in Berlin and an editor at NDR Kultur in Hannover. She covers a wide range of cultural topics, with a special focus on Soviet and post-Soviet history, Jewish history and culture in Israel.

Paris! My mother had always dreamt of Paris. Even in her childhood in the Soviet Union, Paris was for her and her friends synonymous for a distant, unreachable paradise, for elegance, savoir vivre, beautiful names like Natalie… At the end of the 1960s my mother married a student in Moscow from the GDR. Soon after they moved to Magdeburg, where their daughters were born. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was finally able to see Paris, and also Strasbourg, London, Lisbon, Rome, Luxembourg, and Amsterdam. Helmstedt, my first city in the West, where we picked up our “welcome money”, seemed terribly boring to me. But Foreign Europe was, and is, alluring and fascinating. I still feel very lucky that I am free to move around Europe.

The European Union is not just a promise of free travel, but also of peace. My mother married my father although she was afraid of the Germans, who probably killed her parents shortly before the end of the war. When the Thuringian town of Saalfeld was burning, my father had been covered with damp cloths in his stroller. And I remember the harsh light of the bomb in my nightmares, as it dropped out of the Cold War onto our prefabricated concrete neighborhood. Today, my children from time to time speak about living in Tel Aviv one day, in Venice or London.

Some time ago the word „Dexit“ appeared in this country. Even more than “Brexit” or “Frexit”, it sounds to me like a poisonous chemical. Why are so many Europeans tired of the European Union? It is often said that the EU is an opaque, bureaucratic construct whose purpose is to secure the power of some powerful states, especially Germany. Germany patronizes weaker European countries, goes a perhaps legitimate reproach. So the European Union needs to be made more transparent and more deeply anchored in people’s lives. It must not be a topic only for elites. How many prominent conferences, how many books have been dedicated to the request of former European Commission President Jacques Delors to “give Europe a soul”! Europe has innumerable souls, stories, faces, and I would like to see them in the center of politics and education. We Europeans do not have too much, but we have thought and argued far too little about Europe. If we don’t do it now, we’ll soon find new walls.

Paris is the paradise, like Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm are – for many people outside Europe. The dramatic image of the “wave of refugees” and the selfish isolationist politics of many European countries have left me stunned. Is it naïve to think that the European Union should be able to give immigrants a life of dignity? That it has not yet learned to argue decently and openly about immigration? That it is far from finished with the realization of the European dream? That dream, I believe, does not yet have a good alternative.

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Born 1980, is a Ukrainian philosopher, writer, and journalist. Senior expert at Internews Ukraine, editor in chief at UkraineWorld.org, a journalist at Hromadske.ua, lecturer at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Author of 4 books and numerous articles on philosophy, history of ideas, geopolitics, Ukrainian politics, and society. Doctor of political studies (EHESS, Paris).

When Milan Kundera wrote his famous “Tragedy of Central Europe” in 1984, he brought the “kidnapped” Central Europe back to Europe’s mental map. His text imagined an enlargement of Europe to the East, which opened minds for the EU’s political expansion 20 years later.

By erasing the lines between Western and Central Europe, however, Kundera also drew new ones: Eastern Europe, under Soviet rule, remained enslaved by what Kundera called “Russia”, a terrifying void with no visible national distinctions. For Kundera, countries like Ukraine simply didn’t exist.

In 1984 this seemed like a logical myopia. After a long struggle for its identity, Ukraine as a nation had been absorbed into Soviet-Russian identity. When Kundera wrote his essay, thousands of Ukrainians were in gulags, silenced; their voices rarely reached the West. Earlier, in the 1930s, an entire intellectual generation had been exterminated (we now call it the “Executed Renaissance”). About 4 million peasants (the core of what was then the Ukrainian nation) were starved to death in an artificial famine of 1932-33.

Silencing through extermination had its results: when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, “homo sovieticus” did not disappear. The USSR collapsed as an empire but continued to exist in a new “suzerain-vassal” form: in the 1990s, Moscow still effectively ruled its former lands.

Furthermore, Ukraine’s 1990s were different from the 1990s in Central Europe: while the latter made huge economic gains under European influence, Ukraine was “privatized” by the new local elites: former Soviet or KGB nomenclature, “red directors” and criminals. All this formed a new oligarch mafia, which took deep roots.

In the 2000s and 2010s, Ukrainian citizens revolted twice against this system, during the 2004 Orange revolution, and as with the Euromaidan movement of 2013-2014. Both had a new nature: they were revolts of a new Europe against a non-Europe. Despite their ambiguous achievements (institutional reform was modest in both cases) both diminished the influence of homo sovieticus and opened the way for Ukraine’s new European look.

When, back in the 1920s, Ukrainian intellectuals like Khvyliovyi or Zerov were advocating a “Eurasian renaissance”, a “proletarian” complement to the elitist European Renaissance of the 15-16th centuries, they attempted to link Ukraine to Europe and draw it “away from Moscow”. In 2018-2019, “away from Moscow” became a political slogan of President Poroshenko. Poroshenko’s five-year rule can be praised or criticized, depending on one’s viewpoint, but the slogan reflects a broader social reality: an increasing number of people had turned their faces from the East to the West. This no longer concerned only intellectuals, as in 1920s, but was a much wider process in politics, education, culture, and business.

Kundera’s essay still remains an important line of thinking but it should not be taken as dogma. Since 1984, Europe’s borders have shifted eastwards. Today they are somewhere in war-torn Donbass in eastern Ukraine, and not between Central Europe and “Russia”, as Kundera believed.

But today’s epoch is also more gloomy than the 1990s or even the 1980s. Borders between Europe and non-Europe became more liquid and more fractious: it is no longer an “iron curtain”, it is a river of fire. Contrary to Fukuyama’s optimism in 1989, we don’t know yet today who will win in the battle between liberalism and authoritarianism, between Europe and non-Europe. In this battle, the destiny of Ukraine will play a crucial role.

This publication is a part of the project “Inside Ukraine”, by the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation, implemented by n-ost and financed by the German Federal Foreign Office.



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