Thirty years ago today the Berlin Wall fell. What follows is the basic text of a lecture I gave at Bradford Cathedral on Wednesday 6 November. It was followed by a very good Q & A which is not recorded here.

In a crowded field I think Timothy Garton Ash’s books on Europe stand out. His The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 (just updated this month) is an eye-witness account of these momentous events. His book The File is fascinating. His book of essays Facts Are Subversive repays careful reading (and see my review of it here). Yes, I am a fan.

Here is the (very long) basic text of the lecture:

Memory is not an uncomplicated matter. If my own memory is suspect, then corporate memory offers even more opportunities for selectivity. We select those elements of our past that help construct the narrative that makes sense of, or gives shape to, the life we either think we have had or wish we had had. We all do it, and every society, country or community does it.

If you don’t believe me, then look at any tourist display blurb and ask what it doesn’t tell you. Or, perhaps more pertinently to where we are at in Brexitannia just now, listen to the language. I give two quick examples before getting to my main theme.

First, contrary to assertions by some politicians, England (let alone Britain) did not win the Second World War singlehandedly, pluckily standing in isolated bravery against the Nazi empire: our European neighbours provided huge numbers of people not only in the resistance on the mainland, but also fighting with Allied forces across the globe. Then ask further about Commonwealth citizens whose contribution has not always been acknowledged or rewarded.

Secondly, the British Empire was not primarily an example of “the world’s greatest trading power”. It is shocking how the new Brexit appeal to our imperial past stresses our excellence and success in global trade without any mention of oppression, exploitation or military power. (Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, in his book Inglorious Empire, points out that prior to the British colonising his country India held 23% of global trade; by the time the British left India they had 3%. Draw your own conclusions.)

Now, you might wonder why, in beginning a lecture on where the world is thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, I have begun with these particular examples of selective collective remembering. Well, the answer is simply that it might be easier to think about post-1989 Europe and the competing narratives being spun about it if first we have looked closer to home at our own limitations and failures.

St Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Two weeks ago I stood outside St Vitus Cathedral at the heart of Prague’s Pražsky Hrad and opposite the residence of the Czech President since independence post-1989. I went over to look at some display boards that tell some of the history of the residence. There is only a single line about the post-war pre-1989 period. It says something like: “Even during the time of unfreedom some important people visited this place, including the famous astronaut Yuri Gagarin.” That is the sole mention of the Communist period. Did Stalin visit? Or Honecker? Or any other head of state? Or just an astronaut?

I cite this example because what is omitted tells a powerful story – for now, at least. 1945-89: 44 years of recent history – lived through by most people alive today – simply ignored.

Yet, go down the hill from the Hrad and there is a special exhibition of photography celebrating events across Eastern Europe in 1989. To get in you have to pass a chunk of the Berlin Wall with a Trabi sat on top of it. You then get to walk around a garden and through a building with an excellent and haunting display of photographs from the GDR, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Of course, these images capture moments when the people involved did not know how the story would end. There was no guarantee that, despite Glasnost in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, the troops wouldn’t once again follow the tanks into Wenceslas Square or down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate. I look at the photographs through a lens that lived (albeit at a not disinterested distance) through the events recorded, and I know what did happen next.

Fall of the Wall exhibition, Prague

I also remember the euphoria. It was hard to believe in late 1989 that the ultimate symbol of division was being demolished by ordinary people while soldiers looked on. The opening of borders between Hungary and Austria, the decade-long demonstrations in the shipyards of Gdansk in Poland, the pressure on the West German Embassy in Prague, to mention just a few phenomena that contributed to the demise of a divided Europe, didn’t quite hold the symbolic power of a wall of death being picked apart.

The world was changing before our eyes, and it wasn’t long before politicians and commentators alike were proclaiming the end of a bi-polar world, the triumph of free-market capitalism, world peace and a glorious future. ‘Freedom’ was the byword and, despite Margaret Thatcher’s serious hesitations about the reunification of Germany, optimism was never going to be defeated by rational judgement.

What happened next might best be related to a parable Jesus told about a man who was delivered of a demon, only to allow a whole community of demons to occupy the now-vacant space. If you want to understand where the Russian oligarchs got all their vast resources of money, this is where to look. The collapse of a structure – not just political, but social and psychological – left a vacuum into which those best equipped to exploit it quietly stepped. As Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 illustrates perfectly, there are particular people whose expertise and instincts lie precisely in exploiting other people’s chaos for their own benefit. We’ll come back to this shortly.

But, first, let’s recall a few facts. Following the defeat of Germany in May 1945, the country was occupied by four powers: America, Britain, France and the USSR – each given their own zone. Berlin, located in the Soviet Zone, was itself divided between the four. The three western zones formed the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, which made the formal establishment of the German Democratic Republic (from the Soviet Zone) inevitable. Movement across borders remained fairly straightforward until the numbers of people migrating out of the GDR into the FRG pushed the authorities into doing the unthinkable: building a wall. On 13 August 1961, Berliners woke to find barbed wire blocking the border roads while workman began to erect a militarised concrete wall across the city. 27 miles long, it eventually held 302 guard towers and 55,000 landmines; 5,000 people escaped over or under the wall (including 1,300 guards). 327 people were killed along the German border, 262 of them in Berlin, including 24 border guards who were shot while on duty (usually for refusing to shoot civilians trying to escape). More than 200 border guards committed suicide, but most deaths involved civilians, 80% of whom were under the age of 35 (of which 10% were women).

The mantra within the GDR was that the wall was needed to prevent people flocking into the workers’ paradise from the western capitalist prison. The real reason was to stop people leaving, especially those needed if the socialist economy was to be built and protected. In 1989 30,000 East Germans fled when Hungary opened its borders temporarily; they sought refuge in West German embassies in other Warsaw Pact countries. The pressure built; Gorbachev, seeing the need for radical economic and political change, had opened the door in people’s imagination, and it would not now be closed. The 40th anniversary of the GDR took place in October 1989. Within a few weeks it began to cease to exist.

There is a strange symmetry to Germany, but one that we might note before looking shortly at what is happening there now. The Holocaust began its public expression and gained public sanction on 9 November 1938 – Kristallnacht, when Jews and their properties were directly attacked by violent Nazis and any pretence at civility in the political sphere died. The nightmare of the Third Reich, followed by the destruction of the war, the subsequent division of Germany and the failure of the Communist experiment in enforced ‘freedom’ – all collapsed into the euphoria of 9 November 1989 when the Wall was finally breached and the prison gates opened at last. Half a century of people’s lives, and now freedom.

The problem with politics is that politicians cannot always afford to tell us the truth. The language of liberation hid the realities and costs of change. Freedom always comes at some cost at some level, but the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Velvet Revolution was the destruction of eastern industry and the loss of a secure way of life. The reunification of Germany took place on 3 October 1990, but was, in fact, a take-over. Overnight many East Germans lost their homeland, their identity, their system, their flag, anthems and institutions, their values and their future. The West was going to put right what had been so wrong in the East; no value was attributed to anything experienced in the GDR between 1949 and 1989. The GDR had been annexed and had to assume the shape of the winners. Christian Wolter, a carpenter, lamented: “There was a uniqueness to East German society that didn’t exist in the West. There was something we had which I can only describe as solidarity.” Gerhard Mertschenk, an official with the East German Olympic Committee and a member of the SED (the Party) was blunt: “There was no unification, there was colonisation. I found myself on the garbage heap at 46.”

Much more could be said – not least that change inevitably brings cost: West Germans paid tax increases in order to invest and transform the former GDR economy and infrastructure. Long-term gain might bring short-term pain. But, if we are to understand what is happening in Eastern Europe today, we must at least try to enter into the experience of many who celebrated the fall of the Wall in 1989 only later to ask if all was as it appeared or, indeed, was promised. The diminishment of memory on the part of the ‘losers’ in the Cold War has only fed the sense of exploitation, resentment and devaluing experienced still by many in the East. (If you want to understand a little more, two films illustrate the phenomenon of change and what life looked like before and after. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) and Goodbye Lenin are worth a watch.)

Of the many points that might be made from the experience of the last thirty years, it is the disillusionment that holds the key to much of what we are witnessing now. Yes, living standards improved for most people, but, on average, people in the former GDR territories of Germany earn 75% of people in the west of the country; GDP is 66% of that in the west and unemployment nearly 5% higher; the percentage of young people under 20 is considerably lower in the east than in the west. Although other measures are better (for example, life expectancy, completion of secondary education and employment rates among mothers), the rise of the Far Right and the popularity of populist demagogues across the world suggest that, contrary to western capitalist assumptions, people are actually motivated by more than money, security and consumerism. Westernisation has not led to paradise, after all.

I want to come back later to the role of the churches in all this, but, for now, we need to take a look at what is happening now, thirty years after the fall of the wall. And Germany, which I know best, is illustrative of wider phenomena.

Reunification saw a rise in xenophobia and attacks on migrants and foreigners in the east. Neo-Nazi parties gained traction, but never gained enough open support to make a significant mark on electoral politics. That has all begun to change.

Regional elections in Saxony on 1 September this year saw the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) come second with 25% of the vote. On the same day in Brandenburg the AfD got 27.5% of the vote. On 27 October in Thuringia the Left Party won, but the centre-right CDU (Angela Merkel’s party) fell to third place behind the AfD. How and why are the extremes pulling in the votes while the centre is collapsing?

As usual in these matters, there are many reasons and they are complex. Some are even just speculative: extrapolating future electoral behaviour from a vote today is a dangerous game and should be treated with caution. But, we can be fairly certain that three factors are having a powerful impact on electoral behaviour in these former East German Länder:

First, despite Angela Merkel being an East German, her government has increasingly been seen as an elite who take power for granted. Longevity in government, however successful, breeds a sense of tiredness and a need for change. Secondly, Merkel’s welcoming of North African migrants into Germany demonstrated firm moral integrity and purpose, but it legitimised a growing resentment in Germany about how the nature of the country was changing. This in turn was fed by a similar phenomenon to that in Brexit Britain: that global empowerment was leading to local powerlessness, and that local identity was being diminished and diluted by intrusion. Thirdly, the seeds of authoritarian ‘illiberal democracy’ (to use Viktor Orban’s words) found ready soil in those communities that feel increasingly left behind, neglected or fearful of losing their future.

Of course, these phenomena are not unique to Germany. The winners of globalisation do not have to worry about local identity as they treat the planet as an endless resource for their own economic and personal growth. The losers – or those whose grievances can be massaged by populist leaders, even if the loss is hard to evidence – are reasserting the local over against the global … and the costs, where identified, are regarded as a price worth paying.

This picture is being painted across Eastern Europe. As a number of commentators have been pointing out in recent weeks – in anticipation of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall – three decades’ experience have persuaded many people that the gods of western free-market liberalism (economic as well as cultural) have proved as illusory as the defeated gods of Communism, Nazism and imperialism. That’s the problem with empires. Disillusionment creates a longing for security, often searched for in the nostalgic reaches of a romanticised memory.

The result is that Germany is now struggling with the end of the Merkel generation, appears unable to find a successful transition, whilst being challenged by a right-wing nationalist movement that is growing in confidence. It might not last, but it is clearly worrying for many Germans whose memory of the early twentieth century is still raw. They know fascism when they see it.

Frank Richter, a theologian and activist in Dresden, has identified the root of dissatisfaction in the experience of drastic change. “These multi-layered factors [young/old, educated/less educated, urban/rural, etc.] are extremely pronounced in East Germany because the people here have already experienced so much drastic change in their lives. Many people feel overwhelmed, and the populists play this tune terrifically.”

When Pegida started marching in Dresden and other cities in Thuringia they chanted “Wir sind das Volk!” To English ears this doesn’t sound very remarkable. But, this was the cry in East Germany in the run up to 1989. “Das Volk” has a resonance and deep connotations in German that “the people” does not quite capture in English. And where you put the stress matters enormously: “Wir sind das Volk!” or “Wir sind das Volk!” And, of course, there are resonances with the Nazis’ appropriation of the term in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. But, what was the cry of the crowds pushing for change in the GDR has now become the slogan of identity for the resurgent far right. In both cases – 1989 and 2019 – “Wir sind das Volk” articulates a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and a statement of intent to reassert identity over against the seemingly powerful neglect of ordinary people and their concerns.

Which brings us to the role of the churches.

I have a friend in Berlin who doesn’t like the film Das Leben der Anderen. He thinks it romanticises the role of the Stasi in the GDR and their impact on ordinary people. He once described to me how, coming home one evening as a young man, he heard his parents’ conversation from inside their apartment … on the radio in the car outside. Instead, he pointed me to a film called simply Nikolaikirche. This, he felt, told a truer story.

The Nikolaikirche in Leipzig was the venue for ‘peace prayers’ held every Monday evening. Christian Führer, the Lutheran pastor of the church, described how these meetings grew from 600 in 1988 to over 4000 by September 1989. There were – reportedly – 28 Stasi officers watching the pastor day and night. These prayer meetings were perceived to be a serious threat to the regime. Christian Führer tells some wonderful stories about this time and these events in his book Und wir sind dabei gewesen: Die Revolution, die aus der Kirche kam. The church events led to peaceful demonstrations and, despite provocation, beatings and threats, Führer’s leadership and moral courage shaped the outcome of these confrontations. On 9 October 1989 – one month before the fall of the Wall – over 70,000 people moved from the church through the city of Leipzig chanting “Wir sind das Volk”. Not a single shot was fired. As Führer said: “There was tremendous relief that there was no Chinese solution and a feeling that if 70,000 could achieve what they wanted, then East Germany was no longer the same country it had been that morning. The regime had been expecting everything. The only thing they weren’t prepared for was candles and prayers.” When the church was occupied by 600 communist officials one day, they were shocked to find that instead of stone-throwing counter-revolutionaries, they actually found people praying and singing hymns.

This is an example of how, not knowing the end of the story (and fearing it might be bloody failure), the church opened up space for conversation, dissent and resistance whilst urging peaceful challenge for constructive change. It is probably worth noting at this point that protestors at this point wanted reform and not necessarily abolition of the state. But, the church’s involvement and leadership was crucial.

However, once the revolution had happened and, eventually, Germany was reunited, the church’s influence slowly declined. Church membership in the east is still well below that in the west, and, according to a recent book by theologian and television journalist Arnd Henze (Kann Kirche Demokratie?), membership of the church is statistically more likely to align with right-wing sentiments than with those that motivated East Germans to seek freedom from communist oppression. It is as if the churches had served their purpose and now had little to offer to those shaping a different political future.

Of course, this isn’t all that can be said about the church in the east. But, there is a marked difference between the churches in the west and the confidence of those in the east. Currently, there is a spat going on in Thuringia because the Protestant (Evangelical-Lutheran) bishop of Saxony, Carsten Rentzing, resigned following discovery of things he had written in the past in support of far-right ideologies. (Saxony is the Landeskirche in which our link Kirchenkreis Erfurt is located.) He was clearly conservative on many social and ethical issues, but when challenged from within the church to respond to criticism of his earlier views, he simply went silent and eventually submitted his resignation. I have read the materials in question – and much of the reportage arising from his resignation – and it is hard not to sympathise with those church members wanting him to explain himself, not least how he might justify his views theologically. He still has not spoken. A petition in favour of him remaining the bishop has reportedly been signed by around 15,000 people.

So, even the church is challenged. The source of dissent and peaceful resistance against the previous regime is now divided over the legitimacy of views that would not shame German ideology of the 1930s. What might this have to say to us – in a country where the Labour Party is being investigated for its anti-semitism, several Labour MPs have either resigned or defected because of this anti-semitism, and Jewish Labour has told Jews not to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s party?

Perhaps the first thing is that people are very fickle. Conviction and passion for justice can take terrible turns when the conditions (or the objects of protest) change. Given the nature of Germany’s fairly recent history, it is hard from the outside to work out how anti-semitism, rejection of dispossessed and powerless migrants and resurgent passion for ‘German identity’ have become popular once again. The churches – certainly church leaders – are once again facing questions they thought had been closed down in 1945.

But, perhaps we need to be realistic about human beings and collective memory. In his great autobiography The Time of my Life Denis Healey suggested that politicians who have never fought in or experienced a war are more likely to send our troops into war in the future. We now have a younger generation for whom Hitler and the Holocaust are the stuff of history books and documentaries that relate to a different and long-gone world. Keeping an honest collective memory alive is a difficult task. Living in the present in the light of the past is not straightforward or simple. The building of contemporary walls, ostensibly to protect a nation’s purity and security, might have some popular appeal, but only if we simultaneously forget the real and symbolic power of actual walls in our recent history. Walls do not work.

Eastern Europe is seeing a resurgence of nationalism. Having escaped the suffocating grip of the Soviet bloc, there is little appetite for handing new political freedoms (or sovereignty) over to what some perceive as another empire – the European Union. Those countries that embraced Europe in the aftermath of communism’s demise have grown confident in trumpeting their own identities whilst commandeering Christianity over against the threats from Islam and ‘people not like us’. This defence of Christendom is unlikely to stand in the longer-term when it is linked inextricably with nationalism, xenophobia, a declining birth-rate and fear of those powers growing in confidence: China, India, and so on. However, it might have contemporary appeal at a time of widespread disillusionment, economic stress and identity anxiety.

This is where we might conclude and move on to discussion and questions. When Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev on 12 June 1987 (the 750th anniversary of Berlin) to “tear down this wall!”, he did the easy bit. Knocking down walls is a start; but, shaping the space that is then created is a much more challenging task. And the churches – here, in Germany, in Hungary and elsewhere – face the same old questions, regardless of whether or not we are successful or whether people use us to achieve peace and then forget us. Faithfulness to God’s call to love our neighbour as ourselves and to love even our enemies matters more than packing the pews and winning approval. Times will change and sentiment will move on. But, we read the Bible and the Bible tells a story of transience, unfaithfulness and people who as easily shout “Hosanna!” as they do “Crucify him!”.

Europe faces a challenging future. Thirty years are not long. Things can change quickly. A culture and its institutions can take centuries to build up, but they can be destroyed in days. The Wall should not be forgotten, nor should the reasons for its demolition. But, it should remain not as a mere historical memory of unspeakable division and cruelty in the past, but serve as a living symbol that strikes our imagination as we seek to shape the future.

I’ll do a review of the responses to my Radio Times article once I know I can post the article itself on this blog. In the meantime, I’ll just say I have been inundated by comments in various media – most of them reasonable in their judgements.

Easter Day began for me in a hospital chapel where easy platitudes about ‘healing’ don’t work. When people are facing their mortality in more than philosophical ways, easy language has to be avoided. We had a great celebration of Easter, rooted in the conviction that ‘God raised Christ from the dead’ – so there is hope.

But, an article in today’s Independent on Sunday struck me and brought back other memories. Titled ‘A ringside seat to the Russian Revolution’, the article is based on an interview with a brother and sister who lived through extraordinary times and now have reached their century. It is a fascinating interview.

It brought back to my memory a man I met in 1980 when I was learning Russian. Dr Vlod Ototski , then in his late seventies (?), came in several times a week from his home in London and gave us conversational practice. He would occasionally slip into Polish, but then come back into Russian. (If I remember correctly) he had been born in Russian-occupied Manchuria, witnessed the Russian Revolution, fled to Poland (because he was on the wrong side), escaped from Katyn, joined the British forces, was on the wrong side of post-war Poland and lived as a member of the Polish Government-in-Exile in London until his death.

He was a remarkable man – the sort whom you know it is a privilege to meet and from whom you can get glimpses of history while it remained one man’s memory. First-hand recollections of the Russian Revolution were hard to come by even in the 1980s for ordinary young people like me.

What struck me, however, was his recognition that when people speak of the ‘end of the world’, they forget that this represents the experience of people in every generation: those millions who died during the Revolution itself and the ensuing decades of Stalinist brutality; the ordinary people of Central Europe who were moved across Europe from one oppressor to another; the officers slaughtered at Katyn; and so on. Each individual had a story, a network of relationships, a potential future – and worlds were torn apart every day in the most brutal ways.

But he also saw that every generation has to make its own history and shape its own character. People survive the most appalling cruelties and losses and go on to live fruitful lives, have families, build new societies and create hope for a different future for their children and grandchildren.

One of the messages of Easter is that death, violence and destruction do not have the final word in this world – even when they seem to be insuperable. And that is one of the powerful messages of the Gospels as well as one of the challenges Jesus poses to our notions of might.