Hungarian Conservative

The Fall of the Berlin Wall — 33 Years Later the Legacy of Communism Still Casts a Shadow

While Eastern and Western Germany do converge with the passing of time, as values are transmitted from generation to generation, the ‘shadow’ of Communism is here to stay for decades to come.

33 years ago, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. People started to gather in front of the Wall after the announcement by the East German leadership that the free movement of people in and out of East Berlin would be allowed. Immediately, a huge crowd assembled at the Wall to cross into West Germany, soon, however, people produced hammers and other tools to knock away chunks of the Wall. The agency of the people in abolishing the symbol of their oppression which had divided families and an entire nation for decades soon made the fall of the Berlin Wall into one of the most memorable and iconic moments of 1989 and of the collapse of Communism. The crumbling of the Wall has come to symbolize the end of the bipolar world order as well as the sealing of the fate of Central Eastern European state socialist one-party regimes.

On the surface, when the Wall collapsed in 1989, and especially later, when the two reunification of Germany was completed on 3 October 1990, all the differences between the Eastern and Western parts of Germany disappeared overnight. However, as recent surveys and studies demonstrate, the former East-West divide still has an impact on a wide range of issues, from civic norms to economic performance, which perpetuates the differences between the two parts of the country. This phenomenon is known as ‘Communism’s Shadow’, a term first used in a book by Grigore Pop-Eleches and Joshua A. Tucker. The book and a number of similar studies demonstrate that the experience of state socialism (i.e., living under a Communist dictatorships) damages the fabric of societies and destroys civic norms. The longer a nation lived under communism, the less its citizens support democracy, the more corrupt and the less trusting these societies are.

In that respect, the differences between Eastern and Western Germany are persistent and quantifiable even today. The lands that used to belong to East Germany are less economically successful than the western part of the country. In 2019, unemployment was 2 per cent higher in the east (6.9 per cent versus 4.6 per cent, while productivity was lower—today in Eastern Germany people earn only 86 per cent of the after-tax income of their western counterparts. Not only economic success but political views also differ between Eastern and the Western Germans—while Westerners are more enthusiastic about the EU (72 per cent of them have a favourable view of Brussels vs. 59 per cent of Easterners), people in the East favour the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland more than those living in the West. In 2019, Easterners were also more likely to have unfavourable views of Muslims than Westerners (36 per cent vs. 22 per cent). While obviously there is convergence between the ‘two Germanies’ as time passes by, values are transmitted from generation to generation, so the ‘shadow’ of Communism is here to stay for decades to come.

The power of the legacy or shadow of Communism in influencing societies, as demonstrated by the case of the ‘two Germanies’, has two important lessons. First, we must reckon with the fact that nations are part of a historic continuum, and formed by their past experiences—therefore, any ideology, such as Communism, that wishes to deprive nations of their past is detrimental. Just as humans build on their personal experiences to mature and get wiser, the development of nations is also informed by their history. Second, given the extensive ideological indoctrination under state socialist regimes, the legacy of communism is particularly pervasive and difficult to dismantle. Keeping in mind how gravely the fabric of post-communist societies was damaged during the state socialist rule is important to understand not only contemporary Central Eastern European politics, but also the Communist dictatorships of the day—from North Korea to China.

While Eastern and Western Germany do converge with the passing of time, as values are transmitted from generation to generation, the ‘shadow’ of Communism is here to stay for decades to come.

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