Berlin breach: the fall of the wall on 9 November 1989 changed the Soviet Union almost as much as Germany. Photo: Chute du Mur Berline/Gamma-Rapho/Getty
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Why the fall of the Berlin Wall was a disaster for the right

To those on the right, the end of the Iron Curtain 25 years ago was a moral and ideological victory – but they have found some of the consequences dismaying.

One of the guiding ambitions of right-of-centre politics in Britain, America and most of the west during the 1970s and 1980s was to effect an end to the Soviet Union or, at least, to its imperialist domination of eastern Europe. This was bred most obviously of self-interest, given the threat this superpower was assumed to pose to the security of the west. Many on the right went further, harbouring an ideological desire to have communism removed from the map of Europe. Though far from unknown in Britain, this view was most common in America and attributable not just to the influence of hard-line Republican politicians – Barry Goldwater was there long before Ronald Reagan – but also to writers popular in American culture such as the Russian refugee Ayn Rand.

In common with fellow democrats on the centre and left, the right also sincerely deplored the lack of freedoms in the Soviet system and the violations of human rights caused by the repressiveness of the state. However some, following a tradition of isolationism that stretched back to the 1890s and the Marquess of Salisbury, embraced the doctrine that what happened domestically in those countries was no concern of Britain. Yet others, notably Margaret Thatcher and her adherents, regarded the suppression of individual liberty in the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc as morally unacceptable and a stain on any nation that condoned it; and in the case of countries in eastern Europe that had functioned as democracies before 1939, it represented a shocking reversal of progress compared with the period between the two wars.

Then, with the toppling of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago this weekend and the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991, both the end of the eastern bloc and the emasculation of its former masters came in quick and inevitable succession. One commentator, Francis Fukuyama, declared that history had ended. A bright and irresistible future beckoned for the west; Russia could join the family of free and progressive nations; swords could be turned into ploughshares; liberty and, in its wake, prosperity would sweep the old world once more. The right rejoiced at this near-bloodless toppling of an evil empire and celebrated the triumph of its ideals of liberty and capitalism. Mrs Thatcher, of course, fretted about the reunification of Germany, as did many of her generation who recalled the megalomaniacal wickedness of Hitler, his conquests and his genocide – but such reservations were not to be allowed to spoil the party.

A quarter of a century later it is apparent that things have not turned out so well as the right of 1989 had hoped. Russia, humiliated in a fashion similar to Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany after Versailles, its empire lost and its clout enfeebled, has sought to rebuild a place in the world by resorting to a means familiar from its history – auto­cracy and not necessarily a more enlightened and just one than was practised by the Romanov tsars. Eastern Europe is nothing like the mythologised fairy tale of the Austro-Hungarian empire or even the inter­war model of new, earnest statehood: the right especially is having to come to terms with parts of it being a breeding ground for organised crime (something that flourishes under capitalism), an entrepôt for the drugs trade, a back door into Europe for immigrants and a source of tension with Russia that, because of the enthusiasm with which Nato and the EU embraced the former Soviet bloc, has become our shared problem. The European Union has expanded to include many former client states of the Kremlin and has therefore supplied the influx of legal immigrants causing so much difficulty to the present Conservative Party and providing such an opportunity for Ukip.

If all of that weren’t proof enough of the soundness of the adage “Be careful what you wish for”, the lifting of the Iron Curtain also led to strategic and foreign policy developments that most on the traditional right would never have chosen. The decision in Britain to wind down the country’s defence capabilities, even before the cuts enforced by the present coalition, was informed by the notion that Russia was no longer a threat. After the events of the past 12 months in Ukraine and with mounting evidence of destabilisation in the former Baltic states because of the alleged mistreatment of ethnic Russians, that may no longer be the case. And the US, which since 1945 has increasingly seemed a country seeking an enemy in order to define itself, appeared temporarily destabilised after 1991, as if part of its raison d’être had been removed. After disastrous foreign wars it now seems reluctant to engage at all with Europe and came half-heartedly and late into the Ukraine imbroglio. The fall of the Wall began a long process of detachment by the US from Europe, helped on by other factors of its own making, leaving its former enthusiasts on the right without the paternal guidance so many of them had come to rely on.

None of this is to dispute the great benefits that came after the Wall and the Iron Curtain were taken down. The regime had liberalised since the murderous days of Stalin but life in the east in the 1980s, a time of expansion and rabid consumerism in the west, remained controlled, monochrome and underpinned by fear. The inhumanities went on almost to the end. The imposition of martial law in Poland by Wojciech Jaruzelski and the intense activity of the Stasi in East Germany right up to the fall of Erich Honecker were but two testimonies to that – and the rough justice meted out to the Ceausescus, executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989, betrayed the effect on the people of living under totalitarianism.

Those trapped in eastern Europe before 1989 rarely desire to return there. The want of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of movement and freedom to grow outside the Soviet model was truly repressive and is well rid of. The reunification of Germany was a magnificent achievement even if, after all this time, parts of the old east still show signs of relative poverty and deprivation. But what the west failed to handle properly – indeed, failed to handle at all – was the new Russia, with consequences that, many fear, have yet fully to play out.

Mikhail Gorbachev may eventually be seen as one of the greatest lost leaders of the 20th century, one who deserves comparisons with F W de Klerk for the enlightened way in which he resigned himself to the morally inevitable and enabled some measure of representative democracy to be brought to his country. But de Klerk was fortunate to be passing South Africa to a statesman of the calibre, integrity and vision of Nelson Mandela: Gorbachev had only the increasingly drunken, corrupt and venal Boris Yeltsin. Under Yeltsin the poor had their meagre savings devastated by his economic mismanagement, while the cunning became fabulously rich. A kleptocracy was formed. All that changed when Putin succeeded Yeltsin at the millennium was that the kleptocracy was taken over by the government itself and therefore became more systematic and better organised.

Given the nature of Yeltsin, the novelty of the conditions in which he was operating, the ease with which he was manipulated by others even less scrupulous than himself and the bruised condition of a Russia shorn of its empires in eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union, it was never going to be easy for the west to influence him, let alone bring him onside. Once he left and an apparently more rational being succeeded him in the shape of Putin, hopes were high, until Putin showed himself to be uninterested in liberal ideals and very interested in sequestering as much power and money as possible for his own use.

Perhaps it was because the end of the Soviet system came so precipitately that the west had such unrealistic, or half-formed, expectations of what would follow. What the New Statesman, in its editorial last week, described as “the havoc being wrought by the forces of globalisation: the free flow of capital and people, open markets, the dominance of a deracinated plutocracy” are as much a consequence of the end of the cold war as of anything else. The right, which advocated globalisation as part of the inevitable march of capitalism, has shown itself incapable of dealing with its realities.

The EU is one obvious example. In the early years of the century prominent Conservatives, then impotent in opposition, were among those leading the cry for the expansion of the club to include those countries that had for decades been impoverished by Soviet control. Their eventual admission was represented almost as a reward or a compensation for what they had endured between 1945 and 1990. However, in moments of honesty those same Tories who wanted eastern Europe brought into the EU expressed the hope that the numbers would become so unwieldy that there would have to be extreme subsidiarity if the club were to continue to function: which meant a return of sovereignty to nation states, while only those matters essential for the maintenance of a single market remained in Brussels.

In did not turn out like that. The European Commission wields as much power with 28 members as it ever did with six, nine or 15. The EU may be over-bureaucratic, deficient in democracy and even in some senses corrupt but it still functions and it still restricts the sovereignty of its members. What the right certainly did not envisage was that the liberation of eastern Europe from the Soviet empire would lead to a mass migration of its former citizens, or their children, to Britain. The idea that eastern Europe post-liberation would revert to a kind of Slavonic Hollywood musical, with happy, smiling locals industriously and cheerfully confining themselves to the development of their own nations, was always going to be nonsense. One of the principles of a free market – which Europe notionally is – is that it entails mobility of labour, even if that means workers going from Bratislava to Bradford or Tallinn to Torquay. The EU, with the earlier complicity of the right, has become a structure that is the inevitable consequence of the end of the Soviet system (and indeed in some structural ways replicates it), just as the Soviet bloc was the inevitable consequence of Stalin’s part in the defeat of Nazism.

The other main consequences of 1989 have been equally unwelcome to the right. Even before the attacks of 11 September 2001 the US was scaling down its presence in Europe, its need to engage with the continent diminished since the cold war. This was of sufficient concern to the then prime minister, Tony Blair, that when asked to endorse George W Bush’s foreign policy in the aftermath of those attacks he did so rather too wholeheartedly, not least, as was widely perceived at the time, to renew US engagement with Europe. Blair, absurdly, saw himself as the “bridge” between the two continents. And, for a time, the US not only tried to stay friends with Europe but it also sought, through the G8 and bilateral relations, to make a liberal westerner of Vladimir Putin. It failed in that, too.

America’s first reaction to those failures was to withdraw wherever possible, Barack Obama realising, when he succeeded Bush, that his country was not wildly popular in the world. Obama did, belatedly, engage with Europe over Ukraine, resuming a role familiar to presidents from Truman to Reagan in warning Russia not to overstep the mark or it would be punished. Russia has been punished with sanctions but remains in Ukraine, suggesting it lacks the respect for Obama’s America that Khrushchev reluctantly had to show to Kennedy’s during the Cuban missile crisis. Obama must wish he had stuck to the state department’s original message, which was to tell those who asked that Russia was primarily Europe’s problem and Europe should solve it. In reality, Ukraine has proved the absurdity of the EU’s claim to have a security function in keeping the peace in Europe: the EU simply abandoned Ukraine to its fate after years of increasing its vulnerability by attempting to seduce it and Russia has revealed itself as being as ruthless as it ever was in the days of the Soviet Union, if not more so.

But there are two harder consequences to swallow still. Germany may not have fulfilled Thatcher’s fear that it would start a third world war and most would think it highly unlikely that it would ever do so. However, it has established an economic hegemony over Europe that may yet destroy the euro and, with it, much of the European project. Far from unifying the continent through the institution of the EU, Germany has divided it. The French rail against its economic policies; the Greeks brandish swastikas when Angela Merkel pays them a visit; the Hungarians have an unpleasant, anti-Semitic government whose brand of politics, mixing kleptocracy with totalitarianism, bears an alarming resemblance to that of Vladimir Putin; across the Mediterranean from Spain to Greece the German-led policy of austerity has led to youth unemployment rates of up to 60 per cent.

In the wake of the liberation of eastern Europe, many of the liberated countries have been condemned to follow German-backed economic policies and have started to feel not so liberated after all. Because of the German memory of the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic, the rest of the eurozone must suffer: so much for the rampant prosperity that was advertised as being the result of a wider, freer Europe.

Russia is now going out of its way to make friends with China, a move calculated to ensure Putin gets the last laugh over his detractors in the west and which could yet be the furthest-reaching consequence of the end of the Soviet system. America is in its fortress, isolated and disappointed. Europe is impoverished, financially if not morally. Bloody old Britain, home to so many who longed for the end of communism, ought to be bemused. That the repression ended was wonderful. But is the world really safer now than it was in 1989 and is it inevitably happier? Or will those who write the history of this period in 200 or 300 years’ time conclude that the world had a once-in-a-century chance to start again in 1989 and that through insufficient support to Russia, overambition in Europe and some wild misjudgments in the US, it blew it? 

Simon Heffer is an author and columnist for the Daily Mail

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.