Fighting for democratic rights: what can we learn from 1989 in 2019?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Accusations of electoral fraud. Popular protest. Struggles over the meaning of democracy. A mistrusted government failing to maintain legitimacy. All these things might be familiar to someone living in the UK right now.”  

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East Germany. 7 May 1989. Independent citizens groups monitor the vote counting in polling stations. They are able to prove that the regime has committed electoral fraud; that the number of votes they counted does not tally with the results announced by the Party. From that point forward, East German citizens take to the streets to protest against the fraud on the 7th of every month. The protests grow. By 7 October, 10,000 demonstrators gather in the Saxon town of Plauen alone. On the 8th, 20,000 gather in Dresden. On the 9th, 70,000 protesters march in Leipzig. A month later, the Berlin Wall falls. It is the beginning of the end of communism in Central and Eastern Europe.

How much of that story is remembered in Britain today? If a country’s “cultural memory” is made up of the past that its citizens consider crucial to their collective identity, what role does communism, the Cold War and its end play in the cultural memory of the UK? Beyond the popularity of spy thrillers such as Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86, to what extent do British people think of this part of European history as our history?If discussions around the referendum on Britain’s decision to leave the UK are any measure, the answer seems to be “not much”. When history is invoked in these debates it is the history of World War II: either as evidence of Britain’s supposed resilience, or as a reminder of the EU’s purported origins in the intention to secure peace in Europe. The lasting impact of the conflict on those countries that found themselves on the other side of the Iron Curtain is largely forgotten.

Accusations of electoral fraud. Popular protest. Struggles over the meaning of democracy. A mistrusted government failing to maintain legitimacy. All these things might be familiar to someone living in the UK right now. Britain is not of course East Germany and the fierce debates around “Brexit” attest to a well-established public sphere and democratic rights that those in the UK take for granted. Indeed, the 30th anniversary of the 7 May is the deadline for UK residents to vote in what may well be the last and most significant European parliamentary elections in the history of Britain’s membership of the EU.

It is nonetheless legitimate to ask what we might learn from those who fought for such democratic rights thirty years ago. Yet we don’t often ask. And what we forget is just as important as what we remember. If we don’t actively remember that half of Europe lived under authoritarianism for more than four decades after the end of World War II and that – at least in part – it was the ordinary people in those countries who brought an end to dictatorship, then we view contemporary Europe differently. If we don’t remember Britain’s role in the Cold War, we forget that the expansion of the EU in 2004 was not only driven by economic and political imperatives, but also by moral and ethical ones – the desire to reintegrate Europe, to make good the hardship endured by those Europeans who lived under Stalinism and post-Stalinism. And what of the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe, particularly those who have chosen since 1989 to make their lives in the UK? Among Central and Eastern Europeans that I have been working with in the context of the AHRC-funded project Testimony in Practice, there is frustration that there is so little knowledge about or even interest in the culture and history of their home countries. That frustration can fuel feelings of exclusion and marginalisation, which contribute further to social divisions.

This is where we hope to make a difference with Testimony in Practice. My book on testimony and the East German Stasi, has shown that bringing disparate voices together in what I term “mediated remembering communities” – groups who remember together through a particular medium, be it film, text, video, online etc. – can be a powerful way of helping those individual voices have an impact on what and how we remember. In Testimony in Practice, we are doing this through theatre. An innovative piece produced by Catalan theatre company La Conquesta del Pol Sud stages the testimony of Romanian and German dissident Carmen-Francesca Banciu. And we do it through art. We’ve launched a campaign to gather in an online exhibition the memories, reflections, and anecdotes of Central and Eastern Europeans living in the UK. In co-operation with project partners, Centrala/Polish Expats Association and the Romanian Cultural Institute, the testimonies will be transformed into an art installation, displayed in Birmingham and London in autumn 2019. In these ways, Testimony in Practice makes a contribution to re-remembering the significance of 1989 on the 30th anniversary of the revolutions that brought a (provisional?) end to the division of Europe.

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