What Germany’s Foreign Minister Gets Wrong about the Berlin Wall

East Berlin border guards stand atop the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandeburg Gate, November 11, 1989. (Reuters)
‘Europe’ did not defeat Communism by itself.

Historical revisionism as an academic divertissement is corrupting, muddling the intellects of generations. For instance, ignoring or obscuring the fact that Soviet socialism (like its sister, National Socialism) was a murderous tool in the hands of large bureaucratic states run by thugs — and thus a target of popular opprobrium and of often bloody opposition — results in a young population that is not ashamed of wearing hats with a red star or of voting for aging socialists known for their fondness toward the USSR. Historical ignorance leads to the resurrection of ideas that have failed and have caused millions of deaths.

But historical revisionism is also used for foreign-policy purposes. Proffered by the highest echelons of a nation’s executive, it is more immediately dangerous, because it lays the foundation for a political posture that ignores key facts and tries to build a diplomatic or security architecture that is hostile to the very order it wants to protect. The most recent and worrisome example of such revisionism comes from the heart of Europe, Berlin, in the words of the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas.

Maas released a short article commemorating the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A heady and joyful event, the fall of the Wall was a victory against oppressive Communist regimes propped up by brute power. More broadly, the annus mirabilis of 1989 was a culmination of decades of sacrifice by the oppressed nations in Central and Eastern Europe, supported by the free nations of Western Europe and by the deep and long commitment of the United States to fight the evil ideology of Communism. For Maas, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a victory over “walls and borders,” admittedly in the name of freedom and rule of law, but he is vague about who in particular the opponent was. The socialist paradise of the proletariat, which built the Wall and the Iron Curtain from the Baltic to the Adriatic and was responsible for 100 million dead, remains unnamed as the enemy.

One can let this perhaps inadvertent omission pass, blaming the superficial rhetoric of public pablum coming out of ministries. But it’s more difficult to ignore three clear and linked arguments that are deeply worrying.

First, the German foreign minister never mentions the United States, the principal defender of Europe and advocate of European unity. Reagan’s famous speech calling on Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall has no place in Maas’s historical revision, even though Gorbachev is thanked for his policies of perestroika and glasnost. Maybe this blatant omission is due to some historical jealousy, as a U.S. president rather than a German foreign minister was the more vigorous defender of freedom and a more willful proponent of victory.

But out of such a revisionist, or ignorant, view of history, an alternative view arises: Minister Maas seems to believe that Europeans did it all themselves. From the Gdansk workers to the Czech Charta 77 signatories, the victory over the wall was a victory of Europeans and Europeans alone. As Maas puts it, “The autumn of 1989 showed what we Europeans are capable of when we think and act beyond national borders; the power that we have when we stand up for freedom and democracy and for the rule of law and justice.” And “German unity was also a gift from Europe to Germany.”

The historical record is brutally different: Europe has not been able to defend itself against threats arising from within its own continent, whether from Berlin or Moscow, since the beginning of the 20th century. The slow suicide of Europe began in the fields of Flanders and dragged on through the slaughter of World War II and the Soviet gulag. And Europe did not reorder itself alone, but only with the substantial help of the United States.

Because Maas sees “Europe” as some sort of autonomous actor that brought down walls and borders, the policy prescription — and this is the second worrisome argument — is “more Europe.” It’s unclear what “more Europe” means here, except that those who advocate “less Europe” should be shunned and defeated. The institutional architecture of “more Europe” is not discussed, but it is clear that “more Europe” means “no United States.” Those who advocate “less Europe” (arguably, the Brexit proponents or perhaps some Central European capitals) are probably also the most pro-American nations, and for Maas this is a zero-sum world: To suggest that the U.S. has a role in Europe is to undermine “Europe” and want less of it. This view is logically consistent with the earlier historical revisionism: If this ill-defined “Europe” by itself gave unity to Germany and is the sole author of 1989, then it is necessary to keep it autonomous and protect its progressive development.

Such a paean to an autonomous “Europe” is as unrealistic as it is dangerous. It is unrealistic because Europe detached from the United States has been and continues to be incapable of resolving its own conflicts, not to mention of deterring external threats. It is dangerous because Europe without an external friendly balancing power will be run by the most powerful state (or group of states) pursuing its own narrowly defined interest. It is certainly understandable why the German economic powerhouse would want to cut transatlantic ties, but Maas should at least be honest that this is not for the sake of some noble concept of “Europe.” Under such a concept of “Europe” hides the dominating role of Germany.

Finally, Maas defines the main threats — “worldwide challenges” — facing Europe and the world as nebulous trends or forces. Like the “walls and borders” of the Cold War, these threats simply are, and the main risk is that we cannot find another Gorbachev out there to join hands with us and tackle the challenges. There are four principal challenges to be solved by a cooperative, multilateral, and global approach: “globalisation, climate change, the digital transformation and migration.” Who are the stubborn states that do not understand the necessity of global cooperation? Moscow, Beijing, and Washington. The three states are morally equivalent because they seem to reject Maas’s vision of an “alliance for multilateralism,” a vision that is the metric for moral judgment.

This preachy slavishness to a progressive notion of multilateralism for its own sake is not new. But it is peculiarly wrong – and, yes, peculiarly preachy — to see it coming from a minister of a state that has consistently pursued unilateral policies that undermine the security of its own European allies. The Russo-German NordStream 2 gas pipeline has been criticized by Central European states, Ukraine, and the United States because it considerably weakens energy security. Germany ignored these concerns. The wealthiest European economy, Germany continues to underinvest in defense, despite a revisionist Russia waging a war on Europe’s eastern frontier. And the 2015 unilateral decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel to let migrants enter the EU without any consultation with other European states will continue to have political, social, and security repercussions in the years to come. Germany is perhaps the most unilateral power of Europe, erecting a rhetorical façade of multilateralism over its own policies. In fact, the louder the cries for multilateralism, the more unilateral the policies.

If Heiko Maas’s vision is reflective of widely held convictions in Europe, and Germany in particular, we should redouble our efforts to overcome the historical ignorance at its basis — but if this fails, we ought to be prepared for a deep crisis in the transatlantic relationship.

Jakub Grygiel is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.) and a senior adviser at The Marathon Initiative.


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