Bringing down the walls

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It’s one of life’s great ironies that the people who would derive most satisfaction from anniversary celebrations are rarely around to enjoy them. So, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel took ex-Polish President Lech Walesa and former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev by the hand for a walk through a unified Berlin on Monday to mark 20 years since the fall of the Wall, several key figures were absent.

Late US President John F. Kennedy, who made it clear that America would stand by West Berlin with his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963 is an obvious absentee. But perhaps the person that would have enjoyed Monday’s proceedings most was a man who shared the platform with Kennedy on that June afternoon: the late mayor of West Berlin and subsequent Chancellor of Germany Willy Brandt.

Brandt was one of the architects behind the wall’s collapse. As mayor he ensured his city was a beacon of freedom, as chancellor he used this freedom to unite people. Upon being elected West German leader in 1969, he embarked on a policy of “Ostpolitik,” which sought closer relations with East Germany, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries. While some of his compatriots and many in the West saw this as appeasement of totalitarian regimes, Brandt realized that bringing people closer together would help obliterate the barriers, the walls, between them.

One of Brandt’s defining moments came in 1970 when he spontaneously knelt at a memorial to victims of the Second World War’s Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The gesture didn’t go down well with some Germans but won him many friends in Poland. “His courage was his biggest political asset, his greatest personal characteristic, and was based on deep moral and political convictions,” says Jens Bastian, senior economic research fellow for southeast Europe at ELIAMEP (Hellenic Foundation for Foreign and European Policy). “Such politicians don’t grow on trees, neither in Germany, nor in Greece.”

Brandt’s gesture in Warsaw sent a clear message: we must embrace our past but not let it hold us back. “The future will not be mastered by those who dwell on the past,” he said. His comment came to mind this week when switching attention from events in Berlin to those in Greece, where politicians like Brandt certainly don’t grow on trees. Anyone looking at Greece would gain the impression of a country condemned to live in the past rather than looking to the future.

10_okv_The dispute at the port of Piraeus, for example, had on the one side the dockworkers behaving like extras in the Marlon Brando classic “On the Waterfront,” while on the other a government treading on eggshells for fear of triggering a popular revolution – scenes of industrial relations from a bygone era.

At least in the case of the police, Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis was honest enough to admit that the force is “stuck in the 1950s” as he announced a raft of changes. These came as officers made plans for policing the November 17 protest march that marks the 1973 student uprising against the junta. The event epitomizes how Greeks are so obsessed with the past that they want to keep recreating it: each generation of students feels they have to prove themselves like those of 1973 and even teenagers will talk about an oppressive state when they live in what is possibly the most anarchic country in the European Union.

But even if they want to escape the past, they can’t. The media fuel this obsession with history. They say journalism is the first draft of history but in Greece the media serve as history’s photocopying machine, constantly rehashing, regurgitating and reheating the events of the past through features, supplements and DVDs.

At the center of this historical vortex is the country’s political scene. As the New Democracy leadership contest between Dora Bakoyannis and Antonis Samaras becomes closer, what divides them is not the direction in which they will take the country but what happened in the past – namely, Samaras’s decision to quit the ND government in the early 1990s when Bakoyannis’s father was prime minister.

It’s ironic that Greece’s hopes for breaking the chains of history currently rest with George Papandreou, who wouldn’t even be in this position were it not for the legacy of his father and grandfather. Papandreou is no Willy Brandt but following in the German’s footsteps might prevent Greece from slipping further into history’s quicksand. “Brandt’s idea of democratic renewal after he took office in 1969 was to “dare democracy”, in other words to make West German society more tolerant, open, accountable and democratic,” says Bastian.

George Papandreou’s domestic agenda also reflects a desire for more openness. There are similarities in foreign policy as well. “Papandreou’s openings toward Turkey and Skopje are a reflection of his intention to exit from the past, to understand the past, but not be tied by it,” said Bastian. “In other words, Papandreou’s version of Ostpolitik is his foreign policy courage in Greece’s immediate neighborhood – the Balkans, Cyprus and Turkey.”

Papandreou’s efforts to achieve transparency may be arriving a quarter of a century after Gorbachev’s “Glasnost” and his attempts at rapprochement may be a pale imitation of Brandt’s risky diplomacy but they give the impression of the first, tentative steps toward changing the course of history.

Looking back on the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years later, it might appear that it had been inevitable, but that’s just a trick that time plays on us. The Wall’s collapse was more revolution than evolution. As German daily Die Welt wrote on Monday: “The Wall didn’t fall, it was brought down.”

The walls that hold Greece back won’t fall on their own, they too must be brought down. Papandreou has the task of toppling them. We can only hope he has Brandt’s strength of conviction and that he will finally be the one to master the future rather than dwell on the past.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on November 13, 2009.

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