Durham County

Panel considers changes in world after Berlin Wall fell

As a rule, German cinema isn’t famous for light comedies and German history isn’t known for episodes of sweetness and light.

But on Sunday, Konrad Jarausch noted an exception to the rule for a crowd of 200 people gathered at the University of North Carolina.

“This is a rare day for German historians,” said Jarausch, a professor of modern German history. “We have a happy event to discuss.”

The Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago Sunday, an event that redrew the world map, ended the Cold War and fundamentally changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

A panel of experts on modern Europe chewed over questions of how the post-Wall world has changed. Are people in former Communist countries better off? How has the balance of power shifted in Europe? Is the European Union here to stay?

The verdict: It’s complicated.

Jarausch cautioned the audience not to be lulled by the television footage of West Berliners putting out out tables of champagne and bananas – rarities under Communist rule – for the East Germans pouring through breaches in the wall.

A unified Germany meant that East German companies had a hard time competing in a global economy.

“That put a lot of people out of work,” Jarausch said.

And fallout from the event has been mixed, according to political scientist Graeme Robertson.

Countries like Poland, Slovakia and Estonia have seen their democracies and economies expand, he said.

But Russia and many of the Central Asian republics have oppressive governments, and some countries are poorer than they were in 1989, he said.

“The project of democratization is really to a large extent discredited in a lot of places,” Robertson said.

Many in the former Soviet Union think of democracy as a “sick joke.”

“This is a damaging trend going forward,” Robertson said.

Paradoxically, the United States has had less influence in Europe since the fall of Berlin Wall, according to historian Klaus Larres.

America had great influence in Europe during the Cold War, promoting democracy in Europe and pacifism in Germany. That influence has waned, Larres said, as Europe deeply resented and opposed the invasion of Iraq and is ambivalent about the war on terror.

“We all know the story of Angela Merkel’s cell phone, which Obama listened into personally, perhaps,” said Larres, referring only half in jest to one of the many leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. “There was much greater understanding for Edward Snowden in Europe than in the United States, where he is regarded as a traitor.”

Michael Martine, UNC class of 1991, was one of the people in the audience, with a picture taken as an exchange student in Berlin on the night of Nov. 9, 1989: Three East German soldiers, armed with assault rifles, standing atop the Berlin Wall, silhouetted against the brightly lit white columns of the Brandenburg Gate.

Martine said he had no idea that the world was about to change when he arrived in Berlin. He recalled climbing the wall with friends and sitting on it, his legs dangling over the east edge of the wall, looking down at the rifles of East German soldiers.

“It was scary and dangerous,” he said. “We didn’t know what was going on.”

Looking back, the panelists all remarked how quickly events transpired. One day an Iron Curtain divided Europe, and overnight it virtually disappeared.

“It was an avalanche,” Jurausch said. “It gathers speed and wipes out everything in front of it.”

And that was a great thing, Robertson said: “It’s remarkable how close we came to destroying the planet in an ideological debate that just disappeared overnight.”