THE BLOG
11/09/2014 01:17 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2015

To Build or to Destroy: The Berlin Wall and the Future of Europe

On November 9, 1989, I was an exchange student in Sc.Po., Paris. Packed with 2000 fellow students in the Institute's amphitheater, we were listening to a conference about unrest in Eastern Europe. Will Gorbachev's USSR attack at some point as his predecessors had done in 1956 and 1968? Or was there a hope that maybe one day things would change? As the speaker was wrapping up, the school guards came in to announce the unthinkable: the Berlin Wall had fallen. The amphitheater seemed to crumble to pieces: people screaming, hugging each other, all of the Germans crying. Totally, unbelievably, crazy. A new unknown world was suddenly unfolding in front of us.

Today, it is hard to understand what a divided Europe meant in those days. People on the Western side knew little to nothing about the other side, and vice-versa. Save for former Yugoslavia, which was relatively more open than the rest of the block, only Communist party leaders were allowed to travel back and forth. Each side thus developed all sort of tales and stereotypes about the other side.

A similar divide also existed within many Western European countries. In Italy for instance - the Western country with the strongest Communist party - the world was black and white: one was either a Communist or an anticommunist. The two sides were two totally separated worlds. Communists would shop at "Coop", socialize at "Casa del Popolo" or "ARCI", despised mighty America and - if they had political ambitions - learned Russian. Anticommunists would typically shop at "Standa" or "Esselunga", (if catholic) went to Church and joined "ACLI", learned English, admired America as the land of liberty. While progressive anticommunists would normally understand that - contrary to what they had been told - Communists did not eat children, prejudices about each other abounded, at times even ripping families apart.

When, in 1978, the Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro tried to give life to a government of national unity with the Communists in order to defeat the terrorists who were devastating the country, he paid with his life. The whereabouts of his kidnapping and homicide remain one of the great-unsolved Italian mysteries, with many hinting at a possible CIA involvement, opposed to the idea of Communists joining government.

When the Wall came down in Berlin, the tsunami thus also hard-hit domestic politics in many Western countries. It was hence European youth political organizations that took the lead in reaching out to the East. Often pushed by the Finns - the ones that given their geopolitical situation knew more about the other side - they organized field trips, mostly traveling with shaky old Soviet trains, and invited their counterparts over. I was among the many who did the trek. Among my personal souvenirs are a visit to newborn and still hopeful Fidez in Budapest and trying to explain a Georgian youth leader that "Social Europe" was a positive concept, while he continued to repeat: "Social(ist) no good, you understand?".

We discovered Eastern Europe's beauties, the potentials and the flaws, primarily the difference between the poor people and the ruling class, with their Soviet-made technological gadgets. Yet, despite the initial language and ideological barriers, East and West European youth leaders recognized each other as equal, with similar aspirations for their lives and the future.

Thanks to the freedom of circulation brought by European integration, the East/West divide does not exist anymore. The four freedoms (freedom of circulations for good, capitals, men and services) and the Euro made it possible for cheap traveling and easier living abroad. Student exchange programs like ERASMUS shaped a new generation of Europeans. My students find it very difficult, today, to conceptualize what a divided Europe really meant.

Twenty-five years on, those Berlin Wall youth leaders are progressively seizing power in Europe. They are the first generation that has truly benefitted of the dividends of a united Europe, they are the ones that could give life to a European dream similar to the American one. Yet, from David Cameron's "I will not pay", to Matteo Renzi's "European bureaucrats cannot tell us what to do" - not to mention all the parties that consider fighting Europe as their holy war - the nationalist revanchism virus is again spreading across Europe. At the same time, in East/West Transatlantic relations, the mutual trust that 25 years ago helped the unfolding of the events we celebrate today, has given way to renewed confrontational antagonism between U.S. and Russia.

Revanchism and exacerbated nationalism are potentially far more dangerous viruses than Ebola. May the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall - which incidentally coincide with Remembrance days - remind European (and American) leaders that the peace we consider today as normal, is in fact the result of many deaths and wars and, for it to last, it has to be adequately valued and nurtured.