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Angela Siebold on the global dimensions of 1989, gaps in historical memory, and contemporary crisis narratives

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[Translate to en:] Angela Siebold, Zeithistorikerin an der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Private collection.

TS: You were born in Freiburg, which is quite deep in the west. Do you remember the autumn of change in 1989, the period of upheaval in the GDR?

AS: Freiburg was really far away from the Wall and the events there. In 1989 I was eight years old, and we had no relatives or friends in the GDR. But I can remember the television coverage of the fall of the Wall, and also the discussions about what would change. But it is the subsequent years, the 1990s, that I have more clearly in mind.

Angela Siebold is a contemporary historian at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. She researches and teaches on the relations between Western and Eastern Europe, the history of European migration in the 20th century, and the history of European integration. Her publications have covered German-Polish relations, the history of the Schengen Agreement, and the history of the idea of freedom. In this interview she spoke with Tom Strohschneider for maldekstra #6. Translated by Lindsay Parkhowell & Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

When did you discover 1989 as a research topic?

I went to Poland for the first time in 1999, and then later, through my studies in history, I came across the issue of German-Polish relations. This became a major point of focus for me and one I continued to work on. As a result, I arrived at European history, which brought me back to German history. 

What was it that interested you in this topic?

Many things. For one thing, as a historical event it held a biographical interest for me, because I could still remember it well. This was not the case with other topics. And from an academic point of view, the idea of working on something that had not already been heavily researched was appealing. Most historical accounts tended to end with 1989–90, with German reunification or the fall of the Iron Curtain. They didn’t continue after that. But precisely what interested me were the repercussions of these events. There were many exciting topics, such as the social consequences of the transformation, the issue of memory, cultural changes. The broad geographical scope was also fascinating; I had to consider not only the West, but also a region the West had taken little interest in: the huge area behind the Iron Curtain. There was also a methodological appeal: how can one actually look at a story that is barely over, that has, in fact, not yet concluded?

Thirty years after the fall of the wall, the history of 1989 plays a major public role as an anniversary. How do you experience memorialization in this country?

Anniversaries and jubilees say less about the past and more about the present. We can see very clearly how perspectives on 1989 have changed time and again in the following years. Now they are changing again. Recent years have seen an increasing distance from the transformative politics of the time. This also changes the discourse concerning dieWende (“the turning point”) itself.

How do you explain this?

One factor is the time interval. New questions have emerged and new research results are available. We are also seeing a pluralization of interpretations throughout Europe. That often occurs when a certain remove from the historical events has been achieved, when cultural memory changes or is in dispute—as is currently the case with the time of dieWende. In many countries there are also more attempts to instrumentalize the topic politically than there previously were. But this too has undergone changes: in the 1990s, 1989 was often interpreted as proof of the success of the Western model of democracy, as a kind of closure. Today, remembrance is often used in the opposite sense, to call into question and to change the existing model of democracy.

Eight Days That Changed the World is the title of a book about dieWende in the GDR. It recalls the title of John Reed’s 1919 book about the October Revolution. Could we call this a typical German view of history, in which “we” constitute the centre?

Absolutely. It took a very long time for German politics, journalism, and academia to even take notice of the international preconditions for the transformation and of the global situation. This is all the more astonishing as the demonstrators in the GDR were very much aware of events elsewhere. Either they had personal contacts or they related 1989 to what was had been happening in other countries. This has received little attention in the cultural memory of Germany to date.

In this way, the predecessors in other countries are overlooked.

The Solidarność movement in Poland and Gorbachov’s reforms were fundamental prerequisites for the changes in the GDR. The destabilization of the GDR regime was not only driven by the Monday demonstrations, it was also a consequence of Moscow’s turning away from East Berlin. Since then, as can be seen from the present commemorations, German politicians now see it as good practice to mention the role played by other countries in the fall of the Wall. Yet a nationalistic view prevails in our cultural memory, as is the case in many other Eastern Central European states. The focus is on the country’s own “efforts”, and what it achieved. There is also a certain kind of competition over which country receives the most attention. At the same time, we see very strong domestic conflicts over historical interpretation. In Poland, as well, there are now discussions over the course taken by the transformative politics in the early 1990s, whether it was right or should have been done differently.

Your colleague Philipp Ther has spoken of national self-centredness, which has led to the particular nature of the transformations in other Eastern European countries not being considered at all.

This problem exists in many countries, including in Western Europe. For example, France and England often discuss the upheaval of 1989 as if it had nothing to do with their own social developments. It is presented as a purely eastern issue. Here the noteworthy difference between East and West is that at the time what happened in the West was well known in the East. But in the West there was very little knowledge of what was happening in the Eastern European states. But this is not a new phenomenon, as back in the 1990s—and indeed even before that—it was said that knowledge of the other party was very unevenly distributed in East–West relations.

How does historical scholarship deal with the international dimension of 1989? For some time now, global-historical perspectives have definitely been popular.

Researching global history does not mean writing a comprehensive world history, as is often mistakenly thought. Instead, it is about considering global relations, of looking at transnational interdependencies that influenced developments—even over great distances. 1989 is a good example of this. Although there have been repeated calls to investigate this topic, they have only rarely been taken up.

What is the reason for this?

There are various reasons. Transnational research projects are very costly because you have to travel to many countries, visit archives, gather sources in other languages, and so on. Apart from the financial issues, such a perspective also requires other proficiencies, a broadened specialist view, as it were. Another reason I can see is that it is more difficult to communicate a transnational history than a merely national one. And perhaps there is also less demand for it. It is particularly true regarding 1989 that a research perspective that went beyond national horizons could show how this historical transformation cannot be described in such simple and unambiguous terms as is often desired.

How should research change?

More exchange among scientists is needed. However, the level of knowledge concerning the interrelations across national borders also needs to improve. This of course requires more knowledge, which means more research and therefore also more funding for research in this area. It would also be helpful if schools and political education programmes took more notice of transnational research perspectives. That would also offer possibilities, for example, if young people whose parents still lived in another country in 1989 could be more deeply involved and tell us about their experiences of the time.

Given the “disciplinary inertia” that you once spoke of, what has been lost sight of concerning “1989”?

A lot. Think of the many personal or political connections that traversed national borders in 1989, or think of the role that protests in one country played in the political awakening of other countries. How could such domino effects emerge? On the one hand there was encouragement, for example in the GDR as a result of events in Poland. But at the same time, there was initially a fear of the so-called “Chinese solution”, that is, the state using violence against the opposition. There is still a lack of systematic research into this. Often there is only anecdotal knowledge, which needs to be academically studied.

On the one hand, “1989” is characterized by similarities between the protest movements. But at the same time there are also strong differences.

None of these national uprisings unfolded in the same way. We are dealing with very different actors in each case. The respective chronological developments are also not necessarily similar, and neither are perceptions of the transitions: the initial euphoria of liberation quickly changed, for example because the economic freedoms not only had positive effects but also brought about new forms of social injustice. But even such risks had different impacts in different countries. That is what makes a clear interpretation of 1989 so difficult.

For example?

Today we usually speak about a peaceful revolution, but of course that only applies to certain regions and groups. Many places saw violence in 1989, for example China or Romania. This is also true after 1989: the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia vividly show why “1989” cannot simply be described as a peaceful transition. It is similar with the end of the Cold War, which was obviously a significant peaceful event. At the same time, the new geopolitical configuration of the 1990s also gave rise to the so-called “new wars” and the emergence of international terrorism. We could also look for the causes of these developments in the upheaval and changes of 1989. Or we could mention the unification of Europe, which is repeatedly cited in connection with 1989—and which has also led to new divisions that regularly feature in debates about the border politics of the EU today.

Timothy Garton Ash once described 1989 as an “annus mirabilis”, a “year of miracles”.

I would rather translate Ash’s term with “miraculous year”. He expresses the fact that many things cannot be explained simply and directly. Why did a spirit of radical change arise in many countries at the same time? There were changes in many European countries, but also in the USA and the Soviet Union—indeed, the whole world was involved, and this unleashed a kind of collective dynamic. But it would be wrong to speak of a great collective revolution—such a historical-political construct is inadequate to the complexity of the situation.

All the same, was there a kind of centre from which the waves reverberated?

No, in my opinion I don’t think we can say that. This does not mean that we should overlook the respective conditions that gave rise to developments in separate countries. Of course, processes such as Gorbachev’s reforms had significant impacts on other countries. But other events from previous decades were of varying importance as well, such as the uprisings in Poznan and the GDR in the 1950s, the Prague Spring and Charter 77, as well as the Helsinki accords and Treaties between the GDR and other Eastern European countries in the 1970s. It is a complex system that triggered a dynamic that is not so easily summarized in a single image.

What role does the economy play in this “global interpretation of 1989”?

A major one, and not only in relation to the crisis situation in the Eastern European states. One must distinguish the impact of dramatic political events—situational, rapid changes such as the opening of the Wall—from long-term structural developments. “1989” accelerated economic dynamics and, at the same time, changed the economic relations between states. This can be seen in the transformation period that immediately followed. For example, mass unemployment existed in Western Europe since the 1970s and 1980s, and Eastern Europe was not spared it in the 1990s. There are economic connections behind this development. 

And what about beyond Europe? What do you see as the most important features of the internationalism of 1989?

We can ask how developments in South America or in African countries, for example, are connected with the end of the Cold War. There are quite obvious examples where we can establish connections, such as the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, which was very clearly connected to the end of the East-West conflict. But there are also events where it is not possible to be so conclusive, such as the end of apartheid in South Africa. However, there is little systematic research on this topic. Another example would be the Kashmir uprising of separatist groups against the Indian government, which broke out in 1989. We have reports that say that the insurgents there were motivated by images from European television. But there has been no comprehensive investigation.

When we talk about 1989, it is often seen as a development “towards the West”: towards its values, its institutions, as a form of alignment or catching-up. To what extent do such normative preconceptions affect the analysis of the “global 1989”?

They play a major role because they convey a false picture of history. For example, if one examines the fall of the Wall and German reunification, it quickly becomes clear that both events are often regarded as a single phenomenon. What is lost in this is that initially the two did not have much to do with each other. Between November 1989 and October 1990, things were very open: there were calls for a Third Way, a democratic GDR, and proposals for a new joint constitution. The fact that such alternatives did not prevail was due to many factors, for example international time pressure and the politics of Helmut Kohl. But it was by no means inevitable.

History is open.

Yes, one has to keep in mind the openness of historical processes in order not to pose research questions conditioned by normativity. We should also enquire into what changed for the West, where “1989” also set many things in motion, accelerated them, or changed their course. For a long time there was the idea that the West had remained the same and that the East had adapted to the Western model through modernisation and democratisation. But in the process a number of things also collapsed in Western Europe. An old view of the world was destroyed, and this had an impact on our own perception. Although today we often talk about the insecurity of East Germans, insecurity also existed in West Germany. Questions like “Who are we now if we can no longer differentiate ourselves from the East?” While this was not a topic of research for a long time, the situation is slowly changing.

In what way?

Above all by the very fact that Eastern and critical viewpoints concerning 1989 are being taken into consideration. For example, now we increasingly hear about the problems in the period of transformation, the consequences of theTreuhandanstalt (a government agency established to privatize East German enterprises), and so on. As a result, an old, long-lasting and effective narrative— of the successful Western model that remained the same and which the East more or less successfully adapted itself to—collapsed. Today, those affected at the time or those who were contemporaneous witnesses vehemently demand that their different experience be taken into account. Whether or not this will lead to a “new narrative” about 1989 cannot yet be confirmed. If things go well, this growing criticism of the previous, Western-dominated view of 1989 could lead to a new, more nuanced perspective of the issue. This would mean seeing 1989 more as a centre, as the beginning of a very complex dynamic. The fact that developments in many regions were also related to each other across borders would also be more clearly emphasized. However, it is also possible that a new, simplistic and inaccurate viewpoint would take hold, for example that Western elites controlled the process of transformation exclusively for their own benefit and to the detriment of the Eastern population. From a scholarly perspective, it is necessary here to argue for a more nuanced approach—and to allow different, perhaps even contradictory perspectives to be included.

How would you assess the development of the world since 1989?

At the very least, it has become clear that the assertion of an “end of history” in the sense of a victory for Western liberal democracy was completely naive. The hypothesis that the world would become simpler and more manageable because the East–West opposition was over was wrong. Today, we are dealing with new questions and have new problems to solve, some of which also have their roots in the years around 1989 or were accelerated by the complex upheavals of the time.

Are you alluding to new crises?

Today we speak a lot about crises: about the climate crisis, the refugee crisis, the financial crisis, the crisis of democracy, and so on. Crisis narratives control virtually all our perceptions. But 30 years ago there were also crises. Perhaps at that time they did not have the kind of prominence that they have today. Apart from that, it is difficult to say which of our current problems are directly related to the events of 1989. What one can say, however, is that the changes back then have intensified things, the world has “moved closer together”, which often lends problems and developments a greater geographical reach. And today we no longer see many things in the same simplified way as we did in 1989.