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The perennial fight for freedom

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl
November 9, 2019

The fall of the Berlin Wall has become a global symbol of freedom. But 30 years later, Germany is still searching for its identity. The search shows that the struggle for liberty is a perennial one, says Ines Pohl.

West Berliners welcome East Berliners
Image: Imago/Sven Simon

Anyone who thought the fall of the Berlin Wall and the lifting of the Iron Curtain would mean fortified borders would forever vanish has been proven wrong. Now, 30 years later, the opposite has been shown to be the case and border walls are making a comeback.

Not just along the US-Mexico border, but also between Israelis and Palestinians, or the two Koreas. Border walls are also making a comeback in the European Union, where in some places fences are being thrown up and border checks have been reinstated. All of which makes a look at Germany more attractive.

Read more: The day the Berlin Wall came down

Leap of faith for a united Germany

East Germans, inspired by glasnost and perestroika and the courage of Poles and Hungarians, brought down the wall that separated Germany into east and west in a truly peaceful revolution. Not a single shot was fired. No one was hurt in the dramatic days and hours leading up to and on the actual night of November 9, 1989.

Thanks to the trust of the international community, above all the United States and Gorbachev's Soviet Union — and despite initial apprehension from France and Great Britain — Germany was reunited 11 months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This laid the foundation for the creation of a single welfare system, a united infrastructure network and everything else needed to turn two separate entities into one functioning nation.

Read more: Being a German born in 1989

Yearning for hope

So it's no wonder that on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world once again looks to Germany. Perhaps people are looking for something to give them a glimmer of hope in times dominated by feelings of insecurity and uncertainty, when familiar structures seem to be dissolving.

Ines Pohl
DW Editor-in-Chief Ines PohlImage: DW/P. Böll

In Germany, however, it seems few are proud — or even happy — about what has been achieved. Instead, Germany's struggle with itself has led to political upheaval that has unhinged the political order established over the past three decades. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is especially strong in the eastern states, questions the core values that underpin a reunited Germany. It casts doubt on the idea of Europe, on Germany's approach to immigration, and is dominated by a racist and nationalist view of the world and humanity. Germany's two largest parties are losing support, and forming governing coalitions is increasingly difficult. The days of Germany's much-lauded stability and predictability are — for the moment — gone.

The rise of right-wing populists, of course, is not unique to Germany. But here, there are factors that are specifically tied to Germany's history as a divided country.

East Germans brought about the end of the former East Germany. They courageously stood up for democracy and then essentially had to restart their lives in a reunited Germany, and their accomplishments have still not received the recognition they deserve. Now this willful ignorance is coming back to haunt us.

Read more: Reflecting history: the Berlin Wall Memorial

Tremendous challenges ahead

Given the general uncertainty and tremendous challenges of a globalized world, Germany now, 30 years after its peaceful revolution, must ask itself what kind of a country it wants to be.

A country where Jews must fear for their safety when they gather at the synagogue to pray?

A country where politicians who take a clear stand against right-wing nationalist ideology and the politics of isolationism have to fear for their lives?

A country that determines who belongs based on people's roots or the color of their skin?

These existential questions weigh too heavily to allow for a relaxed and carefree anniversary celebration. But for this very reason, I hope these days of recollection will inspire courage in my homeland.

During the days of commemoration and celebration, I hope we ask the question of how we imagine our country in 30 years' time — that our answers are courageous rather than disheartened; that our responses are anchored by the German constitution, as much of what it set in stone is being called into question today. So these days, we celebrate the courage of those before us. And I hope that gives us the strength to fight for a future of freedom and justice.

Read more: Defining what it means to be German in a unified country

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Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl