World in ‘colossal danger’, says Nobel winner

Cold War II: The Berlin Wall falls in 1989 (left), and Michael Gorbachev (right). © Alamy

Where did it all go wrong? Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Michael Gorbachev, one of the great leaders of the 20th century, warns that we are facing Armageddon once again.

Today, he is 88 and moves with difficulty.

But there’s little doubt as we watch the former president of the Soviet Union speaking on camera yesterday, that the man with the trademark map-of-the-world birthmark on his domed forehead, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Cold War, is a giant of geopolitics.

Asked how serious the current confrontation between Russia and the West is, the words are slow, deliberate and chilling. “As long as weapons of mass destruction exist — primarily, nuclear weapons — the world is in colossal danger,” he says.

“All nations should declare that nuclear weapons must be destroyed. This is to save ourselves and our planet.”

One of Gorbachev’s biggest achievements was ending the arms race with the US. He and President Reagan agreed a deal to slash their nuclear arsenals.

But as the arms race has reignited, recently both the US and Russia have pulled out of that treaty

Asked by the BBC about the legacy of the Cold War and how he would describe present relations between Russia and the West, Gorbachev says with a wry smile, “Chilly, but still a war.”

“Look at what’s happening. In different places there are skirmishes, there is shooting. Aircraft and ships are being sent here, there and everywhere. This is not the situation that we want.”

Germany marks three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall this week, but a hint of a return of the Cold War and the rise of nationalism is dampening the mood.

Leaders of former Cold War powers will be absent from anniversary festivities, as Donald Trump’s nationalism, Britain’s Brexit and Russia’s resurgence put a strain on ties.

Gone, too, is the euphoric optimism for liberal democracy and freedom that marked the momentous event on 9 November 1989, as Germany grapples with a surge in far-right support in its former communist states.

As a sign of the tense times, Germany will put on a sober political programme to mark the epochal event that led to reunification and brought down the Iron Curtain dividing a communist East from a capitalist West.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 there were 16 militarised border fences in the world. Now, there are 65 fortified perimeters either completed or under construction.

“How did the great liberal hopes of 1989 lead to ‘post-democratic’ revolutions in eastern Europe, a new autocracy in Russia and the Trump phenomenon in America?” says award-winning historian Victor Sebestyen, reviewing a new book on the subject, The Light That Failed by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes.

Where did it all go wrong?

The imitation game

Triumphalism,” say Krastev and Holmes. After 1989, Hungarians, Poles and others who survived decades of communism were desperate to imitate the West. They wanted to join western institutions, but were made to feel second-class. They were told that liberal capitalism was the greatest system in history. But when the benefits they were expecting failed to materialise it caused huge “resentment of the imitators towards the imitated”.

Emigration,” goes another argument. There is a dread of demographic collapse in eastern Europe as populations fall alarmingly due to low birth rates and high emigration, particularly among the better educated. Around half of Hungarian graduates, for example, have left the country in the past six years. This is a post-democratic choice of people voting with their feet, an added reason why an open society has lost its lustre.

You Decide

  1. Do you feel that we live in dangerous times?
  2. Are old presidents worth listening to?

Activities

  1. Use the Expert Links to research the fall of the Berlin Wall. Make a list of 10 interesting facts about the wall.
  2. “Nuclear weapons keep the world safe.” Hold a class debate on this fascinating topic. You need a proposer and seconder for and against the motion. And a vote at the end, of course. Your class teacher will help explain.

Some People Say...

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history.”

Francis Fukuyama, American economist and historian, writing in 1992

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The facts are that the Berlin Wall, which had divided the Communist East from the Liberal West for 28 years, was torn down peacefully 30 years ago this week. We know that it was celebrated as a turning point in global history, and the beginning of a new era of freedom and wealth for all.
What do we not know?
Whether Gorbachev’s grim warning is too pessimistic. We take it seriously, of course. But does it really feel like we are at the brink of nuclear war? Or that free societies are about to collapse? These are stories that politicians tell in order to express a point of view or gain power. The deeper story might be that the vast majority of humanity is indeed more content, wealthier and healthier than ever before.

Word Watch

Soviet Union
In 1922, Russia along with countries under its control formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR) — better known as the Soviet Union. It was a communist group and did not agree with western, capitalist countries or their way of ruling.
Cold War
A division between Russia and western countries (the US and its allies, like Britain), which started in the 1940s and lasted until 1991.
Geopolitics
Analysis of the geographic influences on power relationships in international relations.
Deal
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was an arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty on 8 December 1987.
Berlin Wall
A guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989.
9 November 1989
After several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced on 9 November 1989 that all its citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the Wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere.
Epochal
Significant.
Reunification
Restoration of political unity between a divided territory.
Iron Curtain
A term famously used by Winston Churchill, who said “an iron curtain has descended” across Europe. It refers to an imaginary line between Western Europe (with political freedom) and Eastern Europe under communist rule.
Triumphalism
The attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others.
Emigration
The act of leaving a country with the intent to settle elsewhere.
Demographic
The statistical study of populations, especially human beings.

Subjects

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