It has been fascinating listening (in the car on the drive from London to Liverpool) to all the stuff on Germany 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I did a 30 minute slot on a radio station this morning and was interested to listen to the memories of Germans from the east and west of that surprising and momentous day two decades ago.
Last year I was in Astana, Kazakhstan, for a conference and was seated at dinner one evening with the Chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Tokayev is a very fluent English speaker and a politician of broad experience. I think there were seven or eight of us around the table and the conversation ranged widely over all sorts of political matters. Being a little opportunistic, I thought I’d grab the chance to ask questions I could never ask anyone else: Tokayev knew Gorbachev and Yeltsin and worked closely with both of them.
I asked him why it was that Gorbachev is seen in the West as a great hero – the one who liberated the East and ended the Cold War – and Yeltsin is seen as an egotistic drunk who was an embarrassment to everyone who saw him. His response surprised me. He said that Gorbachev was a loser (my word) who sanctioned a massacre in Kazakhstan only several years before Glasnost kicked in and then oversaw the collapse of an empire; Yeltsin, on the other hand, was admired for his strength, political ability and his drinking. Apparently, in Russia a man who can hold huge quantities of alcohol is revered rather than resented.
This made me realise again that it is too easy to assume that everybody sees the world through the same lens. The way we judge ‘strength’ in the West might be totally different from how it is viewed in the East. It was fascinating listening to Tokayev telling stories of people who are legendary in my world, but for very different reasons and from very different perspectives.
It is a similar story in Germany today. Ostalgia (as it is being called) refers to the sort of romantic memories of the old German Democratic Republic. The world of the Berlin Wall was easier to understand: east and west, capitalist and communist, etc. But there were things of value in the east: universal health care, full employment (even though much of the work was not great), cheap travel, good education, etc. One German commentator I heard this morning noted that ‘you cannot put a price on freedom’, but that freedom comes at a price: freedom to fail, to be unemployed, to lose, to be poor, and so on.
The events of this night 20 years ago remind me that freedom must never be romanticised – but it must be highly valued. The fall of the Wall brought losses as well as gains. But life is like that. Isn’t it?