The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps the most striking symbol of the Iron Curtain, was a cause of celebration for supporters of democracy everywhere.
But as huge crowds basked in the light of illuminated white balloons and the sound of music in united Berlin, the euphoric rhetoric of the day could not dispel a sense of foreboding.
Although there is scarcely a physical remnant of the wall left for the souvenir hunters, less-visible reminders of divided postwar Germany persist. While 75 percent of Germans who live in the east said they considered their country’s reunification a success in a recent survey, only half of western Germans agreed.
There are various signs of east-west differences. Probably first among them is that income levels remain much lower in the east. Not unrelatedly, there are more foreigners residing and visiting in prosperous West Germany, whereas in East Germany there are fewer foreigners, more xenophobia, and more neo-Nazis.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the Germans can look back at the happy ending of the Cold War years without peering over the edge to the years of the Holocaust immediately preceding them. Though the Holocaust was not on the agenda for the anniversary celebrations, and it may have been selectively deleted from the memories of some, we could not escape being reminded of it. In contrast to the Germans’ focus on the years when the wall stood as a dark time, we look beyond it to a much darker time.
Credit is due to Chancellor Merkel, who noted that the same day the wall fell, Nov. 9, was the day in 1938 known in infamy as Kristallnacht, when the Nazis set fire to synagogues, plundered Jewish homes and businesses, and detained and killed thousands of Jews. It was, she said, “the start of the killing of millions.”
However, the biggest cloud over the celebration was arguably not from the past but from the future.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a hero of the end of the Cold War, in Berlin for the ceremonies, warned that the world was “on the brink of a new Cold War. Some are even saying that it’s already begun.”
Gorbachev raised the specter of recrudescent Russian expansionism in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Much as in the past, Russian fears of Western encirclement fuel its aggressive foreign policy. Whether out of authentic paranoia or cynical manipulativeness, Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the advent of an expanded NATO to advance native nationalism, along with his burgeoning personal power.
That the U.S. and its allies in Western Europe repeatedly shrink from any serious confrontation with Russia makes no difference. Putin denies charges of Russian trouble-making, and only recently blamed Washington for the unrest in Ukraine and for Islamic terrorism as well. Yet, at a press conference when a British journalist asked him about reports of Russian troops operating in east Ukraine, Putin ignored the question.
But Gorbachev also pointed an accusing finger westward.
“Euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of Western leaders,” he declared over the weekend. “Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and the lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world.” He cited enlargement of NATO, Kosovo, missile defense plans and wars in the Middle East as evidence of Western hubris, and urged the lifting of economic sanctions against Russia.
Coming from Gorbachev, who has denounced Putin’s authoritarianism and corrupt government, these words must give Western leaders all the more cause for concern.
The mutual fear and hostility that now exists between Russia and the West seems like a replay of the psychic dysfunction of the Cold War. But on Monday, a report by the European Leadership Network’s London-based think-tank showed how quickly all this could lead to something very dangerous.
Invoking the Cold War term for nuclear risk-taking, the report, “Dangerous Brinksmanship,” recorded 40 dangerous or sensitive air and sea incidents involving the Russian military recorded in the past eight months. The encounters have taken place mainly around the Baltic Sea, but also in the Black Sea and along the U.S. and Canadian borders. The scariest case was a near-collision between a Russian spy plane and a passenger plane taking off from Denmark in March with 132 passengers on board.
The Russian bear is growling, and the West — from Berlin to Washington — must take this threat seriously.