A couple of weeks ago, I was in Warsaw to attend a conference jointly organized by the Polish and Turkish Central Banks (“Polish and Turkish Transitions: Achievements and Challenges Ahead”) on the occasion of 600 years of diplomatic relations between Poland and Turkey. Six centuries of (predominantly friendly) relations is indeed worthy of commemoration, but for our Polish hosts another anniversary was of even greater importance: 25 years ago, Poland was the first country from the former Communist Block to embark on the transition towards democracy and market economy. For Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries that joined it as new members of the European Union 10 years ago, this transition laid the foundation for a remarkable economic, cultural and political revival as Indermit Gill and I have argued in Golden Growth. Indeed, many in Poland would agree with the Economist that Poland has not had it as good as today ever since it was the preeminent Central European power some 500 years ago.
In my own country, Germany, too, we will be commemorating 25 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Just a couple of days before the Warsaw conference, I was with my in-laws in Naumburg, a small historic city in the eastern part of Germany, as they recounted how a quarter of a century ago, civil society suddenly emerged in every village and small town, as people formed the so-called “round tables” to negotiate the peaceful disintegration of the Honecker regime.
But among all the celebration, another commemoration looms large. In August 1914,100 years ago, Europe plunged into World War I; and some have argued that it was this cataclysm and its aftermath that precipitated the horrors of Nazi Germany, World War II, and the rise of Communism in Eastern Europe, and ultimately resulted in a divided continent. In the light of recent geopolitical developments, echoes of this centenary sound both louder and more ominous than the jubilant memories of 1989. For my summer reading, I packed Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 rather than dusting off my Timothy Garton Ash.
Christopher Clark is one among several authors who review how Europe ended up in the catastrophe that was World War I with lessons that may be relevant for today. (Gideon Rachman of the FT provides an excellent overview). What do I take away from Clark’s analysis? For me what is interesting is not so much whether the world may be entering another phase of major geopolitical confrontation and indeed whether this confrontation might end violently – I am no expert in international relations and can only pray that we may be wiser today. Rather, what I find striking and worrying are the similarities between the patterns of domestic politics in Europe at the time and what I observe across a number of countries today: Nationalist rhetoric, often perpetrated through the media, a civilizational discourse, and the importance attached to one’s country's position in the international pecking order.
Contrast this to the politics of by and large peaceful economic and political transition in Poland and Central and Eastern Europe 25 years ago. The international order may be better able to handle global crises today than it was in 1914, as many seem to argue. But there may be a lesson to be learned from the management of domestic politics in the transition to democracy and market economy 25 years ago for politicians today as well. Consensus building and negotiated settlements, focusing on the challenges of developing national competitiveness in the context of international economic integration and interdependency, belief in a free media and the free exchange of ideas. Of course one should not idealize what was a messy, for many, even traumatic, transformation. But I still prefer the memories of 1989 to the parallels of 1914.
Conjuring up the ghosts of nationalism is risky. If Christopher Clark is correct in his analysis, countries can sleepwalk into war. Perhaps the good news about all these anniversaries is that we have ample reason to reflect and stay awake.