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Thirty years After the Fall of the Wall: Socio-ethical Reflections on Today’s Europe

It seems like yesterday – Slovak, Czech and Hungarian small cars streaming into the streets of Vienna. People joyfully waving their national flags. Free at last! Borders opened for the first time in those happy days of November and early December 1989. The annus mirabilis, as it has been aptly called, approached its end.

The nightmare of arbitrary and repressive regimes that had divided the continent since the end of World War II came to an end. We in the West had been mainly bystanders. Not completely, however: I remember crossing borders particularly when I served with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Mongolia: Large numbers of grim looking custom officials, German shepherd dogs to search the cars and trains of refugees, an overall atmosphere of fear and repression. In my memory it was always night when we crossed these checkpoints, though this probably is not true, but daylight did not fit what we saw. We considered ourselves brave smuggling literature (Christian and other forbidden works) and simple stuff for daily use that could not be found in stores, for colleagues and friends. But that was a sport compared to what happened at the other side of the border in this bipolar age. Some days ago I met a Protestant Christian from the former GDR: if you openly admitted to be Christian, she said, you were not allowed to go to a Higher school (Gymnasium), not to think of going university. Intellectuals and bishops worked as street cleaners, in factories, and in the best of cases as low level engineers somewhere in the province. Many disappeared for years in prisons or Soviet gulags, some returned sick others never.

When we visited the Austrian – Slovak border some months ago at a meeting of Justice and Peace Europe, we saw families strolling for a Sunday outing where there had been barbed wire and land mines. It still gives me a thrill and a feeling of gratitude whenever I cross the border freely into a formerly communist state.

However, new walls are being built these days between Eastern and Western Europe. This is one reason why these and other memories are so important. They are part of a European history and of its present, but the experiences gone through are also of global relevance. Misguided ideologies, progressivist anti-humanism, technical and bureaucratic means put to ill use to trample on human lives, inhuman indifference and fear for one’s own life can turn politics at all times and everywhere in a direction most people neither expected nor want.

But how are we to commemorate this history of the continent with its many layers of cruelty and destruction? There is a famous saying of the American philosopher of Spanish origin George Santayana: Whoever does not remember the past is forced to repeat it. This seems rather common sense. The longer, however, I think about this dictum, the less convincing I find it. Any remembered history is not only a construct. It also stands under a prefix and guiding intention. There are different ways to remember the same history and, ethically even more important, there are different conclusions that can be drawn from this remembrance, individual as well as collective. I want to distinguish between three ideal typical world views that see history from other perspectives and thus also deal with it in ways that largely differ from an ethical point of view, anamnetic justice being probably the most difficult of all forms of justice, because we are never able to undo the past.[1] These three models are that of Enlightenment philosophy, that of nationalism and its philosophical underpinnings and that of biblical and theological ethics. Enlightenment philosophy in practically all its forms is coupled with a philosophy of history that sees progress as definite or at least as probable. Humanity, in this worldview, which underpins liberalism as well as Marxism, is in a constant process of improvement and on the way to ever better ends. History thus is seen as a ladder to ever higher levels of achievement or as a storage room of concepts that have been overcome in time or – worse – of past horrors attributed to human backwardness and ignorance. Its victims are to be mourned but they are also regarded as an inevitable byproduct of human progress and advancement. This idea of an inherent progress in history can constitute a strong stimulus for action, but it can also become a source of inhuman acts, “pyramids of sacrifice” being the price of human progress.[2] Already at the beginning of the 19th century in the Romantic age this view of history as permanent betterment was put into question by the idea of national histories as an expression of the “spirits of the peoples” (Volksgeister), more often than not coupled with a nostalgic look at the past, those times before a modernity which only wrought havoc. These national histories abound with stories of the former greatness of a particular people and the apotheosis of primitive vitality. History for this world view, which again is on the rise in Europe and elsewhere, is remembered not in order to turn inward and repent, but to do what Santayana denies may be done, to repeat it and thus revenge the evils, real or imagined, done to one’s own kin, to even out bills and to turn the historic tide when the time is ripe. Historic memory here is a storehouse of the corpses, which can and are unearthed to rekindle conflict, whereby – to cite a Spanish proverb – history is a commons where everybody can make his own hay. Whereas the nationalisms of the nineteenth century were mainly imperialistic, and twentieth century nationalism’s most ugly face was that of racist and religious discrimination, present day nationalisms in Europe are ethno-nationalisms.[3] Their adherents want states that are ethnically and often also religiously homogeneous. The first wave of this new phenomenon was in the 1990s when the multiethnic states of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union fell apart, leading to some very cruel civil wars. There was the fear that this process may continue. It was then held back by European integration. Today, however, we face new nationalistic waves. One of their main tools is historical remembrance, more recent or more ancient, directed against others. Poles and Greeks actually demand reparations from Germany for the evil done during World War II. Other people look back nostalgically to the 1950s and 1960s and follow right wing populist movements, who promise falsely to be able to restore homogeneity and social security: No foreigners, no globalization, secure jobs. Catalans and Scots want to secede from Spain and Britain on the basis of much older historic claims to the detriment of peace and security in Europe.

These movements are for many as surprising as was the fall of the wall 30 years ago. In a way they are understandable. After the cruel upheavals of the twentieth century many want to take their breath and have no further change. Moreover, having lived there for some time, I may say that the Communist world was petite bourgeois in its own way. If one did not speak up too loudly one could, particularly after the death of Stalin in 1953, live a quiet life. It was simpler and more secure than in the West, though people lacked the freedom of speech, of travel, of religion. The nostalgia for this time is there in parts of the population. And the emerging nationalist narratives here as in many Western states kindle this nostalgia as well as national pride and the search for identity. Ralf Dahrendorf, the great liberal sociologist, once called political as well as economic liberalism “a cold and even icy” project. According to him political and economic freedom lead to a squaring of the circle since the one man/woman one vote principle cannot easily be brought into coherence with the unequal results of economic liberty. In this sense the rise of nationalist populisms is also one of national socialisms. This sounds shocking. One can also turn it around and speak of social nationalisms. Poland and Hungary are on the forefront in propagating this model which might, however, also be attractive for others. Together with nostalgia social motives also strongly influenced the decision for Brexit, which shows all the dilemmas and the havoc this new wave of nationalism can create in Europe. It is true: Questions of social solidarity have stood too much in the back during the past thirty years. They had been discredited by state socialism (or communism) and this was used – often manipulatively – by business actors. But: How does the man who brings me the newspaper every morning really live, where does he come from, is he self-employed, what are his prospects in Austria? The same holds true for workers in the lower segments in all countries. The questions we need to ask concern those who live at the fringes of our societies, finding a good balance between those who consider themselves autochtone and those who have migrated into Europe, more or less recently.

But let me come back to the question of history. The third model of dealing with the past is that of reconciliation in the sense of again forming a concilium, i.e., an organized community.[4] This needs a form of remembrance that, as Pope John Paul II formulated, includes a “purification of memory”.[5] In a history stained by blood and injustice this constitutes an act of interruption and reflection, combined with repentance and forgiveness. Such a worldview has considerable ethical and socio-ethical preconditions. It demands acts of forgiveness, individual as well as collective. It is thus highly demanding for those whose lives (or those of their families) have been injured – and in Europe this was a larger part of the population. It requires – over and above mere material and economic survival – a life perspective that can integrate the injustice done and the evil suffered in one’s own and one’s country’s history. The bible, particularly the New Testament demands remembrance and forgiveness thus it acquires a strong political meaning in the present situation. Hannah Arendt states that the fact that this idea has been brought into the world by Jesus of Nazareth, and that the discovery thus has been made in a religious context does not mean that it is not of high political importance.[6] This was driven home to me again in Kiev a few weeks ago at a conference to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the so called “Revolution of Dignity” 2015 at Maidan square. The photos framed with flowers of about 100 men and women shot in December and January line the streets. A Greek-Catholic priest and professor from Lviv who was there in these winter months told me how he did pastoral work there: liturgies in the open (with priests and faithful from all denominations participating), praying the our father in hourly intervals to keep people from resorting to violence in view of the troops of the Yanukovitch regime. As in other countries with an uncertain future because of their geopolitical status and aspirations, here the past is not gone. Reconciliation thus is not only a key individual question. It is always also political, particularly at a time when past conflicts are unearthed in Europe. Thirty years are a short span of time in history, which as it seems, makes a return the outcome of which is not yet certain. Yet, the end of one nightmare thirty years ago still constitutes a powerful sign of hope. However, vigilance and political engagement are needed, whereby the social ethical notions of a solidarity that transcends national borders and reconciliation must be seen as key guiding principles to be promoted forcefully by theology and the Church.

I am developing these thoughts further in a forthcoming publication „On Reconciliation“.[1] , cf. also Ingeborg Gabriel, Erinnerung und Versöhnung. Zur politischen Renaissance eines theologischen Konzepts, in Ingeborg Gabriel Ingeborg Gabriel / Christa Schnabl / Paul M. Zulehner (Hg.): Einmischungen. Zur politischen Relevanz der Theologie, Ostfildern 2001, S. 25-47.

[2] The famous sociologist  Peter L. Berger, in Pyramids of sacrifice, London 1976, compares the marxist and the liberal economic model with Mexican pyramids and their sacrificial rituals requiring  thousands of victims.

[3] Eric Hobsbawm: Nationen und Nationalismus. Mythos und Realität seit 1780, Frankfurt 1992, 193f  called this the great paradox of our times.


[4] In Greek the term is synchoresis, which also means forgiveness, cf. Ingeborg Gabriel: Communio und Synchoresis. Zur ökumenischen Dimension christlicher Ethik im heutigen Europa, in: Katerelos, Kyrillos (Hrsg.), Festschrift für den Metropoliten von Austria und Exarchen von Ungarn und Mitteleuropa Dr. Michael Staikos, Ekdoseis tu Phoinika: Athen 2011, S. 269-283.

[5]  E. g. in has Ash Wednesday liturgy in 2000 with its recognition of sins of the Catholic Church in the first millenium.

[6] [6] Arendt Hannah, Vita Activa oder Vom tätigen Leben, 4. Aufl., München 1985, 234.