Germany’s Zeitenwende of 1989-90 and its contemporary European reverberations

Sepia images of the historical sweep via the fall of the Berlin wall to the reunification of Germany, and so of Europe, look much clearer than today’s turning point.


Nineteen eighty-nine was the most formative political and personal moment of my generation. To become an adult during such a societal transformation made these world-historical events very immediate. We were 20-year-old witnesses to a non-violent revolution—we could see with our own eyes that such a revolution was not only possible but could move history in entirely new directions.

What happened in 1989, culminating in the fall of the Berlin wall, and what happened in its aftermath, as Germany was reunited in July 1990 while the cold war came to an end, is not just a German story of east and west. It is not only a German-American story either. It is also a story of European union, driven by the citizens of central and eastern Europe—especially Poles, Czechs, Slovakians, Hungarians and east Germans.

Important truths

The revolutions of 1989, which made possible the fall of the wall, reveal two important truths.  Freedom cannot be suppressed forever: when people no longer fear those who suppress them, they will rise and demand liberty. And authoritarian governments and tyrants—no matter how powerful they seem—cannot rule through weapons and violence indefinitely: the dialectics of history and the power of freedom will sweep them away.

The revolutions were also made possible by many people in the years before that eventful autumn. Two stand out. The then US president, John F Kennedy, stood by Berlin when the wall was thrown up in 1961 and became a symbol of American commitment to the freedom of west Berlin and the federal republic. We are forever grateful for the solidarity of our American partners. And the social-democrat leader Willy Brandt fought over the course of his life to overcome the division of Europe and Germany. He sought to make life in divided Germany more bearable while looking for cracks in the ‘iron curtain’ for rapprochement, changing the European political environment step by step.

A personal example of the consequences of this rapprochement: in the summer of 1990, I made my first trip to Poland, to spend a year and a half working as a volunteer at Auschwitz/Oswiecim—small Polish city, memorial, museum—the byword for unimaginable brutality and horror as the site of the largest and most notorious Nazi extermination camp. Only a few decades after the darkest days in human history, I could witness the daily dawn of hope, peaceful revolution and democracy in Poland. A better world was possible.

In the shadow of the horrors of the 20th century, Polish-German friendship was hardly a given. From my experience in that most formative trip, however, that Poland was able to take its place in the centre of Europe and become a good neighbor of a unified German republic was no miracle. It was the result of civil conviction, courage, optimism and a fight for democracy.

Missed opportunities

But I also saw then how difficult daily life was for those living in the middle of a radical economic transformation and how disappointing the immediate results of 1989 could seem. It was not a perfect revolution. Some of those disappointments might also be called missed opportunities. Freedom had won, but we had imagined that this victory would result in deeper political changes: we thought 1989 would beget a more egalitarian and just society. 

Such hopes did not quite materialize. Unchecked capitalism indirectly triumphed. For many the transformation meant not only disappointment but often great hardship. This is probably one of the reasons why, over 30 years after the splendid events of that year, we seem to be experiencing so many setbacks. 

November 9th 1989 can remain a symbol of freedom, but the real struggle for freedom and justice never ends, because our democracies are not given but must be secured and renewed on a daily basis. And when I reflect today on what that Zeitenwende of 1989-90 means for our current political moment, this seems a much less clear turning point than the one three decades ago.

As we enter a new decade, with fundamental change all around us in the way we work, communicate and live, we see greater geopolitical tensions and a world order struggling to survive. Social-democratic leaders must make a better job of understanding and explaining the transformation of our time, not getting lost in the challenges of day-to-day politics. More importantly, social democracy must provide a sense of security for those who feel threatened by the changes they are undergoing and do more to preserve the global institutions we helped to build.

This piece originally appeared in Social Europe 

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