The fall of the Berlin Wall is the greatest political event of my lifetime, but what lessons should we draw from it?
An article in Foreign Policy by Melvyn Leffler suggests that it would be quite wrong to see it as the triumph of capitalism and the American way.
We need, first, to acknowledge the role of the human rights revolution and the agency of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), like Helsinki Watch, the Workers Defense Committee (KOR) in Poland, and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, and many others. These groups, though diverse in ideology and tactics, all clamored for change, openness, free expression, individual opportunity, religious liberty, and human dignity.
Historians are now coming to appreciate the energy and agency of these NGOs in the fall of communism. These groups championed the Helsinki Agreements of 1975, the accords signed by 35 European countries - communist, non-communist, and neutral, as well as the United States and Canada - that outlined the principles to guide East-West relations, including economic, scientific, cultural, and technological cooperation. They inscribed the obligation of all the signatories to respect fundamental rights such as freedom of thought, religion, and conscience.
NGOs arose throughout Europe, east and west, to champion the right to travel, to promote cultural exchanges, to support family reunification, and, most of all, to hold governments accountable for imprisoning dissenters, discriminating against minorities, stifling civil society, thwarting the rights of workers to organize, or infringing on the freedom of religion or the press. These NGOs worked tirelessly to shame transgressors. They nurtured transnational contacts, and their mutual support sustained dissidents throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. As much as anything, this led to the downfall of the repressive communist regimes.He also pays tribute to a generation of political leaders: George Bush the Elder, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterand. (Fairly or not, Margaret Thatcher does not get a mention.)
Today, in a time of multiple international crises, it is hard to have confidence in our leaders. Has there ever been a more lacklustre pair than Philip Hammond and Michael Fallon in charge of foreign affairs and defence?
And the Conservative Party, which had an honourable record of speaking out against tyranny in Eastern Europe now seeks to placate precisely those who are infuriated by the free movement of people in Europe.