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2014: 25 Years After 1989 or 100 Years After 1914?

Martin Raiser's picture

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.   


Submitted by Mehdi Bhoury on

Thank you Martin for your insights. I share your fears and your hope. Global geopolitical trends are really worrying not only in Europe but all over the world. When the world is struggling to insure financial stability, global integration and global recovery, a shadow of a "cold-economic-driven war" is starting to appear. What I fear most is that the lack of efficient political and technical answers to these global problems, the aspirations of the rising chinese superpower and the surviving memories of Putine would lead to political and even military confrontation in search of a new order !!! Do you think a soft transition to a bipolarized world is possible ???
I hope that the politicians would choose the positive-sum game of integration and cooperation than the negative-sum game of war and confrontation.

Submitted by Martin on

I share your hope. In the end, at least in Europe, we have learned how powerfully beneficial economic integration and the corresponding development of regional institutions can be. It's perhaps the best development policy I know. But the crisis has led to fundamental doubts in this model. We need to remember the achievements of integration, and be mindful of the risks of complacency. To develop the model in order sustain its gains.

Submitted by Julia on

Nice subject.

Everybody should have learnt about wars after World War I, World War II.
My grandmother remembers World War II. She didn't have the childhood. It's horrible and inhuman to do these kind of experiments with people. Many historical books were written. Many stories were recounted. But if 25 years ago you could find headquarters reliable information.
TODAY I'm afraid of fresh looks especially from America.
If winners wrote the history before I was born. Today money rules of this world... Or guns... Or jets... We can see it clearly in real world Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan.

Right now we have to pray FOR PEACE. Because World War III is coming. And it's going to be the worst performance comparing what we know.

And people have "to wake up" and switch their brains because civilians are dying not "great and reach" people...

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