International Panel Discussion: 20 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

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Co-sponsored by Accademia d’Ungheria, Ambasciata di Polonia, Ambasciata della Repubblica Slovacca and Istituto Culturale Ceco.

A large crowd, most of which remained in attendance throughout the four hours (break included) of the event, gathered in the Aula Magna Regina at John Cabot University on November 11, 2009 to listen to an in-depth discussion concerning the long-term effects of the spectacular fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. The panel included experts from all around Europe and the US , such as: Christian Ostermann, director of the Cold War International History Project at Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC; Oldrich Tuma, director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Prague; Adam Glapinksi, a former member of various Polish governments and a professor at the Warsaw School of Economics; Jane Hardy, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, UK; Muriel Blaive, research fellow of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Vienna, Paul Gradvhol, professor at Université de Nancy, and Guido Lenzi, Advisory Council member of the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs.

Professor Argentieri, (director of the Guarini Institute, serving as moderator), and Professors Colatrella, and Terzuolo represented JCU. Also were in attendance Ambassadors Michael Steiner of Germany, Jerzy Chmielewski of Poland and Miklós Merényi of Hungary. After a welcoming speech by Franco Pavoncello, President of John Cabot University and a further introduction to the topic by Professor Argentieri, the conference began.

Dr. Christian Ostermann was the first speaker. He addressed the general issues and political climate which surrounded Europe and the world during the late 1980s. He explained how this political climate of anxiety and confusion contributed to the “accidental” fall of the Wall. He explained that there was much miscommunication among the East German bureaucracy which led to the opening of the Wall. He also spoke about the lack of solidarity among each country’s communist parties, and how communism had begun to fracture within the USSR at this point. He also emphasized the importance of the movement of the East German people to countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary and vice versa. This mass exodus of East Germans caused many issues for both these countries, and eventually both nations allowed East Germans to travel outside of the bloc, i.e. to the West. Dr. Ostermann emphasized that it was a combination of these factors which allowed the Berlin Wall to fall.

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Next, Dr Tuma spoke in more detail about the Velvet Revolution, which took place in Czechoslovakia in 1989. The Velvet Revolution was a peaceful and successful event, leading to the fall of Communist party dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, and to the eventual secession of Czechoslovakia from the Warsaw Pact. He emphasized the importance of the fall of the Berlin Wall on the Czechoslovakian public and also highlighted the similarities between the East German and the Czechoslovakian government. Thus, Tuma concluded that when the Berlin Wall fell, it sealed the fate for the fall of the Czechoslovakian Communist party. The fall of the Berlin Wall allowed the Czechoslovakian people to see that change was possible, and that they could remove the totalitarian government from power.

Following Dr. Tuma, Professor Terzuolo spoke, serving as a discussant of the previous two contributions. He agreed fully with the connections both Dr. Ostermann and Dr. Tuma had drawn between the fall of Berlin Wall and the changes in other Soviet Bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia.. He mentioned his own work at the State Department around the time of the fall of the Wall, precisely in the right place –i.e. the East European and Yugoslav desk – and his work in the Czech Republic after the fall of the USSR in the 1990s. He mentioned that the period during and after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR was an exciting one to work in, given too that the changes had been quite unexpected.. He also emphasized the importance of Gorbachev’s reforms, which ultimately led to the fall of the Wall. Professor Terzuolo held that, without the implementation of policies such as glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall would not have been possible.

The second part began with Professor Glapinski, who teaches at the Warsaw School of Economics, and spoke about the effect the fall of the Berlin Wall had on Poland. Professor Glapinski highlighted the economic effects of the fall of the Wall and the fall of communism. He emphasized the realistic view that the type of economic liberalization imposed on Poland was actually negative for most of the country. He pointed out that the economic state of Poland suffered greatly after the fall of communism and has yet to fully recover. This has resulted in a deep division between the very rich and the very poor within the nation. Additionally, Glapinski criticized the Polish government for working with the communists and secret police after the fall of the USSR.

Glapinski then emphasized that because of the economic issues and fumbling actions of the government, the Polish population lacks a strong middle class, and thus tends to vote in a more extreme fashion. This is an incredibly frustrating situation for the more educated part of the Polish population, who would like to see the success of a true democracy be employed within Poland. Unfortunately, as Professor Glapinski highlighted, the issue is cyclical, and no major progress has been made. The counselor of the Polish Embassy then made comments on Glapinski’s criticisms of Poland and its government. These criticisms were then rebutted by Glapinski himself, further emphasizing the split views and true polarization that exists within Poland today.

Dr. Jane Hardy was next. She conducted several research projects and interviews within Poland after the fall of communism, and her work has emphasized the gain of power by the ex-communists in recent years. She argues that the failure of democracy within Poland today can be traced to three main arguments: one is that the development of Poland has been very uneven, and democracies do not succeed well in countries without a solid middle class. Secondly, that the path of transformation was constrained by the type of capitalism forcefully implemented upon Poland. Hardy argues that if a different type of capitalist model had been implemented in Poland, the transition would have been smoother, and that a more solid Polish middle class may have developed. Finally, Hardy argues that the integration of the international economy itself is relatively uneven, thus, Poland has a hard time finding its economic place within the world.

Professor Colatrella acted as the discussant for Professor Glapinski and Dr. Hardy’s statements. He added his own personal experiences and opinions about the fall of the Wall and communism and what it meant for all nations around the world. He highlighted the importance of student and citizens’ movements and their role in the fall of the Wall and of the USSR. However, he pointed out a paradox that can be drawn between 1989 and 1848. Where these two important political years should serve as each others opposites or counterparts, historically, we see that they have a lot in common. Professor Colatrella focused on this interesting paradox highlighting its importance.

Dr. Blaive started the third and last part of the conference. She emphasized the role of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in the fall of the USSR. She highlighted that the end of communism in Czechoslovakia did not involve an equally significant change in political culture, as the one very typical of totalitarianism is responsible for the attempt at concealing the past from the new generations.

Dr. Blaive emphasized the danger in forgetting history, pointing to communist gains in elections as one of the direct results of the denial of history within the Czech Republic. She said it was important to recognize that democracy and communism can coexist, they are not completely opposing ideologies, and it is important for the Czech people to realize that the two may work together in harmony to achieve the end goal – happiness – without necessarily degenerating in a dictatorship.

Professor Gradvohl spoke after Dr. Blaive. He added insight concerning communism and Hungary and the current political climate of Eastern Europe. Professor Gradvohl highlighted that the political culture in Hungary after the fall of communism suffered greatly, and that many citizens were more disinterested and unwilling to participate in the new democracy. Gradvohl emphasized that the lack of faith in politicians and politics because of the corruption within communism is one of the main obstacles in Hungarian political culture today. He drew an interesting parallel between Goulash as the soup, Goulash communism and the contemporary political climate of Hungary. Drawing a parallel between the importance of meat and other scarce goods in communism opposed to a post materialist democratic society. He believes that this lack of need for material items, such as meat, has left the Hungarian population relatively confused and unsure of what to pursue next.

Ambassador Lenzi closed the conference with his talk on Europe after the fall of the Wall. Ambassador Lenzi emphasized the importance of the EU after the fall of the Wall and the reunification of Europe after the fall of communism. He mentioned the hopes of European politicians post communism: that things would simply fall into place, and that there would not be any more main conflicts. However, this has sadly proven to be premature. Ambassador Lenzi emphasized the current divisions after the EU enlargement among European countries, specifically new Europe, old Europe and Eastern Europe and hopes that in the future they may be able to work out their problems through international organizations and more transparent communication. Ambassador Lenzi emphasized the hope that after the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty all of Europe can be united as one strong voice on the international stage.