City limits: in West Berlin, press and police watch East Germans cross the border, 10 November 1989. Photo: Magnum Photos/Mark Power
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Crossing over: Germany’s dramatic reunion, 25 years on

Historians, scholars and Berliners are looking back at the chain of cause, effect and accident that led to the events of that night of 9 November 1989, and the way the city and its citizens have evolved since then.

The Collapse: the Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall 
Mary Elise Sarotte
Basic Books, 272pp, £18.99

Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall 
Hester Vaizey
Oxford University Press, 218pp, £20

Berlin Now: the Rise of the City and the Fall of the Wall 
Peter Schneider
Penguin, 326pp, £9.99

It is strange to think that the Berlin Wall has been down for a quarter-century, almost as many years as it stood. It seemed for a whole generation to be an indestructible symbol of Europe’s division, for a cold war in which the fate of the world hung in the balance. It is almost as strange, given the state of the world today, to recall the year 1989, when – with the signal exception of the horrors of Tiananmen Square – almost all the news was good, where in one country after another freedom was won, borders were opened and democracy triumphed.

When I first arrived in East Berlin in 1981 as a young correspondent for Reuters, one of my first stories was the huge military parade held to mark the 20th anniversary of the building of the wall. As I listened to the dictatorial head of state, Erich Honecker, claim it might stand for a further hundred years it seemed all too obviously true.

Now, 25 years on, it is of little surprise that historians, scholars and Berliners are looking back at the chain of cause, effect and accident that led to the events of that night of 9 November 1989, and the way the city – and the citizens at its heart – have evolved in the decades since.

In The Collapse, the American historian Mary Elise Sarotte uses the benefit of hindsight to track the developments in East Germany, beginning with a depiction of the inhumanity of the wall, reinforced by the grim story of one of the last young men to die attempting to cross it, just a few months before it fell. Chris Gueffroy was shot through the heart by an East German border guard marksman in February 1989. The friend who was with him was badly wounded but survived and was jailed for three years, only to be released to West Berlin in October 1989.

Sarotte’s book is at its best on the farcical sequence of events on the fateful evening of 9 November itself. Honecker had been ousted by his own politburo after demonstrations in East Berlin and Leipzig, and his bumbling heirs, in an effort to defuse the tension, made a hash of announcing a change in travel restrictions. What was intended, we now know – even though those involved have since changed their stories to fit the subsequent facts – was merely that East Germans would be allowed “freely” to apply to make trips to the West, on the assumption that once this was allowed, most would choose not to emigrate but to return home. As it happened, Günter Schabowski, the 60-year-old politburo spokesman, misread a note about the new rules hurriedly passed to him before a press conference, and announced that people would be allowed to cross the border, including the wall, “with immediate effect”.

Schabowski’s inaccurate choice of words was seized on, and misinterpreted, by the western reporters present. East Berliners, who listened almost exclusively to West Berlin news programmes, could hardly believe it – justifiably – but hurried to the crossing points “just in case”. Sarotte recounts the story (established by German reporters in the early 1990s) of how the guards at the Bornholmer Straße checkpoint, the biggest crossing point in the densely populated working-class East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, were soon facing a crowd of thousands clamouring to be let through.

In an attempt to put historic events at a human, understandable level, Sarotte focuses on a couple of individuals who were among the first to be let through to the West, their identity cards (unknown to them) having been stamped to mark them as undesirables, not to be allowed back in.

With no clear instructions coming from on high, Harald Jäger, the Bornholmer commander, who had only half a dozen men against a crowd of thousands pressing on the barriers, had two alternatives: order his men to fire, unleashing carnage and perhaps a mass onslaught, or to let people through. He took the line of least resistance. Soon reporters were beaming back not just radio reports but live television pictures to East Berliners sitting at home. They saw their fellow citizens crossing to the West, and the trickle became a flood.

Caught out like everyone else by Schab­owski’s unexpected and unintentional, unscripted announcement, I was coming back to Berlin from a demonstration on the Baltic coast. I dashed to Bornholmer, where I, almost alone, was not allowed to cross even though I had a multiple-entry visa. With stereotypical Prussian bureaucratic thoroughness, the guards pointed out my visa was valid for Checkpoint Charlie only. I arrived there to a scene of chaos. The border guards I had known for years, by sight if not name, offered to look after my car for me.

Shortly before 11pm I crossed from East to West Berlin, as I had done hundreds of times before – but this was the first time I had a beer thrust into my hand and my hair tousled to cries of “Wilkommen in die Freiheit” (“Welcome to freedom”). The rest of the night was a blur of a party as I met East Berlin friends on the Kurfürstendamm, the glitziest boulevard in the West. My friend Dieter Kahnitz, who ran a bar barely a hundred metres from the Bornholmer crossing, took an improbably capitalist decision: instead of joining the queue to cross to West Berlin he kept open all night and made a small fortune from revellers passing in both directions who did not have the Deutschmarks to celebrate in the West.

If Sarotte’s extensively well-researched and fluently told history has a flaw, it is that it is heavily biased in favour of an American perception. She warns that any western triumphalism is misplaced, but still concentrates unduly on the role and reporting of the NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, a name not known to most East Germans.

The Oxford academic Hester Vaizey’s archly titled Born in the GDR is not so much a book as a graduate research project, which is in no way to disparage its interesting insights. Vaizey, too young to have first-hand knowledge, has chosen eight former East Germans and interviewed them about their memories and experiences since the fall of the wall. Her interviewees show up the contrast between sinister Stasi-state perceptions of the East and those former citizens who look back on it with an almost Farageiste nostalgia (when life was easier, there were fewer foreigners, and the price of a pint and a loaf was constant).

At one end of the scale is Mario, a gay East German who was jailed for attempting to flee to be with his West Berlin politician boyfriend, then interrogated and encouraged in the relationship by the Stasi, trying to exploit it for intelligence. He is still undergoing therapy today.

At the other is Peggy, a young teenager in 1989, who looks back with nostalgia on a carefree youth, holidaying by peaceful lakes, with modest expectations, and unprepared for the cut-throat world of western capitalism. She recalls the mother of her friend bursting into tears at her first sight of the shops in West Berlin’s Europa Centre, bewildered by the choice of shoes and matching handbags. She has my sympathy. When I first came back to England from Moscow and East Germany in the mid-1980s I found myself unable to buy a toothbrush. There was too big a choice. I was used to: “Toothbrush? Da or nyet?” I left my south London Sainsbury’s with a jar of gherkins and frozen prawns, the only items I recognised.

Vaizey quotes the Leipzig psychologist Walter Friedrich describing the dilemma that East Germans faced in 1989-90 as they prepared for unification and were “confronted with textbooks lauding the praises of the West German state, which only months before had been portrayed as an imperialist oppressor. Normality had been turned on its head.”

The same logic would confuse people all over the formerly communist world. Muscovites had been taught that the greatest crime you could commit was to buy an item at one price and sell it at a profit – only to be told in the 1990s that not only was this legal, but it was the basis of social progress. Russian girls decided their ingrained notions of morality meant nothing any more, and prostitution became an attractive and well-paid career choice.

Peter Schneider’s Berlin Now is for those with a knowledge of the city back then and a curiosity about how Europe’s most anomalous, schizophrenic, stultified metropolis from 1945 to 1989 has been transformed into the continent’s most vibrant capital, yet still with an offbeat edginess and sense of self-denial.

Schneider, a “foreigner” from Freiburg, on West Germany’s western edge, represents a particular class of Berliner: those who chose to come and study in West Berlin because the city’s ambivalent and disputed status released them from the otherwise obligatory military service.

He came, and stayed, and became in many ways the archetypal postwar new Berliner, with a keen eye for the reality behind his adopted home’s famed grumpiness, lack of hospitality, rough street accent and above all Schnauze (literally “snout”, for which our closest equivalent is London cockney “attitude”). Having spent formative years in my own twenties in East Berlin, where Schnauze was at its most acute, I recognise Schneider’s gradual understanding of the city that became identified as the Nazi capital, even though it never gave the Nazis a majority (they went from 2.6 per cent of the national vote in 1928 to 18 per cent in 1930, and at their peak got no more than 28.6 per cent in Berlin).

Berliners took life as a series of hard knocks. During the years of partition the city’s true identity, its accent, its cynical view on life, were sheltered in the East from the draft-dodging, cosmopolitan and insular city in the West. Schneider is nostalgic more for West Berlin than the East he hardly knew, but he has embraced the city’s new incarnation.

Berlin Now is stuffed with glorious anecdotes about the rows over architecture, infrastructure, sexuality and morality in a city forced to weld itself together since 1989. High on its list of worries has been how to cope with an influx of “newbies”: rich West Germans, lured to the nation’s new capital and despised by the natives for diluting its character.

I cannot help being drawn to the story of Wolfgang Thierse, the East German who until 2013 was deputy president of the Bundestag, still living in the now über-trendy Kollwitzplatz by dint of a pre-unification lease. The flat that was my first marital home, with 29 Stasi microphones hidden in the walls (Reuters found them when it renovated the place in the 1990s), was just around the corner.

There is no time like the present to recall the point when, in a brief moment of clarity, even the British rejoiced in the new-found freedoms of their fellow Europeans instead of complaining about them. 

The updated edition of Peter Millar’s “1989: the Berlin Wall – My Part in its Downfall” is published by Arcadia Books (£9.99)

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Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

***

Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.

***


In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.

***


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge