The lesson of the Berlin Wall is that all systems are fragile, but some more than others

Liberal democracy contains the seeds of its own destruction - but also of its own salvation. 

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It was evocative to move with the crowds in Berlin last night, through Potsdamer Platz, along the dark pathways of the Tiergarten Park and onto the Straße des 17. Juni in front of the Brandenburg Gate. The commemorations of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall recalled elements of that very night of 9 November 1989: the masses striding purposefully through the Berlin streets, the echo of footsteps, the excited chatter, the breath condensing in the cold air. 

There were also big differences, of course. The way was lit by the glow of smartphones. The voices were German but also an international babel: English (American and British), Spanish, Polish, Danish and more. Some had already visited other parts of the Wall’s route; a German couple said had they just come from the commemorations at the Bornholmer Straße, the first crossing to be opened on that night three decades ago. 

From far down the avenue the speeches from the stage were hard to hear, but people streamed them on their phones. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s federal president, warned that “tonight is not just about yesterday’s memories” but also “about us, here and now.” In comments nodding to the persistent divide between the former west and former east, to the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), to the debates raging about German identity in a globalised age, he argued that Germany and Europe could not simultaneously celebrate the heroes of 1989 while standing by as “everything that they fought for is being forgotten.” The applause rippled down the Straße des 17. Juni as he insisted: “We cannot accept democracy being derided or the unity of this country being destroyed.” 

There seemed to be a tension between the two halves of the scene: the relaxed jubilation on the streets and the ominous warnings from the stage. How to explain it?  

On the one hand was a celebration of the end of the dictatorship in East Germany, a system that had collapsed under its own contradictions. In 1989 the Soviet military and economic behemoth standing behind the regime was crumbling. The gap between the restrictions, corruption, injustice and autocracy of life in the GDR and its leaders' rhetoric (“[socialism’s] existence gives hope, not only to our people, but to all of humankind” waxed a deluded Erich Honecker on 6 October 1989) drove protesters onto the streets. The communist leadership was clapped out, tired and clueless. Last night German television streamed, 30 years later to the minute, the press conference at which Günter Schabowski, an East German official, stumbled his way through a statement and, effectively by accident, declared the borders open with immediate effect. The system deflated at speed: within a year, Germany had been reunited under democratic leadership and the “end of history” had been declared. 

Yet on the other hand, yesterday’s events were about the internal contradictions damaging liberal democracy; about the non-end of history. As has been charted extensively in the build up to the anniversary, the promise of a reunited Germany and a reunited Europe has been met only patchily. The “new federal states” in Germany still lag behind the former west and a sizeable minority of voters there, as recent state elections in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia showed, support the AfD. Europe too is divided, with liberal democracy injured or worse in states like Poland, Hungary and Romania (which in December will mark 30 years since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu). The transatlantic alliance is fracturing, with Emmanuel Macron declaring Nato “brain-dead” and Turkey, a pivotal member of Nato, increasingly turning towards Russia.  

Living standards have improved across almost the entire former Soviet bloc, but not always as much or, crucially, as evenly as voters hoped. Gaps have opened between those who had the connections and skills to take advantage of the post-Wall world and those disproportionately old and male citizens who lacked them; between life in booming cities like Berlin or Leipzig, Bratislava or Warsaw, and life in the often depopulated provinces. Meanwhile, societies west of the old line of the Wall, for all their snobbism about the easterners’ under-developed institutions and democratic culture, have proven susceptible to similar trends. Trump and Salvini may have been born on different sides of the old divide from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or the AfD’s Björn Höcke, but all serve a similar cocktail of resentment, nationalism and simplistic solutions, turning the vulnerabilities and injustices of life under the post-1989 settlement against that settlement itself.  

It turns out that open and free societies are vulnerable to destabilising social divides, to complacent and self-indulgent elites, to excess and injustice and grievance and internal contradiction. They too can produce populists and demagogues. They too, like the authoritarian communism that failed in 1989, contain the seeds of their own destruction. If their tensions are allowed to grow, this system may gradually fall apart like the pre-Wall world behind the Iron Curtain did in its time. 

That might happen in all sorts of ways. In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warn of the cumulative effects of norm-erosion, inequality, the gradual dilution of democratic oversight, the scapegoating of minorities and the political opposition. David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends warns against watching out for the symptoms of the Weimar Republic (yesterday also marked 101 years since its proclamation) and predicts that today’s or tomorrow’s democracy will fail in very different ways from that of yesterday. Such nightmares loomed over Steinmeier’s timely message to the crowd in Berlin last night.  

But to be there among the cheerful crowds yesterday, moving freely through a city brutally divided and now reunited, was also to witness the fallacy of any equivalence between the two systems. The big difference between liberal democracy, messy and imperfect and frail though it can be, and autocracy is that the former has a vastly greater capacity to change and improve. It is no surprise that so many of the world’s autocrats rely on natural resources bonanzas, unsustainable economic growth or the backing of bigger autocrats for the survival of their regimes. Some are fortunate and go on and on. Others run out of luck. 

Liberal democracy, however, can exist comfortably without these things. Its leaderships can be challenged and removed from office without bringing the system down with them. Its institutions and openness are pressure gauges and safety valves helping to prevent the machine from exploding. Its electorates can be led astray but can also correct a wrong course and can take collective ownership of and responsibility for the system. Its elites can be challenged into the sort of self-awareness contained in Steinmeier’s warnings. Liberal democracy may, like the dictatorships behind the wall, contain the seeds of its own destruction. But to orders of magnitude greater than them, it also contains the seeds of its own salvation. 

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.