Episode 09: Legacy of the “Hinge” Years: 1990 to Today
Divided Germany was a microcosm of the standoff between West and East, and the Berlin Wall was the iconic symbol of the Iron Curtain (listen to Episode 2 with Mary Sarotte for more on this), but the division of Europe went deeper, and its effects are visible today. This episode of The Zeitgeist considers the successes and failures in the post-Cold War construction of a new European political and economic order, in which Germany played a central role.
As changes rippled through Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, citizens in Soviet-bloc eastern Europe were motivated by two things: popular discontent with the mismanagement and corruption in their calcified communist structures, and national aspirations that had been suppressed through coercion and, at times, bloodshed for four decades since the end of the Second World War. From the Baltic to the Adriatic to the Black Seas, decades of discontent boiled over, and disaffected people found their voice.
One result was the reunification of Germany. But to balance the concerns of France and other West European leaders, German chancellor Helmut Kohl agreed to an even closer European integration, in order to ensure that a unified Germany would not dominate Europe alone. Another result was persistent pressure from Central and Eastern European countries to join the West. To open paths to prosperity and to ensure their security, they sought to become members of the European Union and NATO. Both organizations during the 1990s established frameworks for reform and a process toward membership. Germany, again, was central to this change of the European political and economic landscape.
Russia was half-in, half-out of this new European framework. Increasingly connected economically with Europe, it was at first ambivalent and later antagonistic toward the EU, with its rules, democratic protections, and subordination to the rule of law. In security terms, Russia has been unwilling to be just another European country, aspiring instead to reestablish a zone of privileged interest over its neighbors, as the wars in Georgia and Ukraine remind us.
How did leaders at the time see the challenges they faced? Did they overlook the seeds of the difficulties we now confront, or were they invisible to the political decisionmakers at the time? In this episode of The Zeitgeist, Jeff Rathke talks with Dr. Kristina Spohr, a scholar of this period, and author of the forthcoming book “Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World after 1989.”
Jeff Rathke, President, AICGS
Kristina Spohr, Helmut Schmidt Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, at the Henry Kissinger Center for Global Affairs
Support for this episode is provided in part by the Steven Muller New Initiatives Fund.