On 9 November 1989 as senior international officer of the Labour party I was in Warsaw as a member of a delegation of about 10 members of the Socialist International Disarmament Advisory Committee led by Kalevi Sorsa, the former foreign minister and later prime minister of Finland. On 9 November we had a number of meetings including one with an exhausted-looking Solidarity prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. He explained how he was concentrating entirely on economic matters and had not yet visited the defence ministry. He told us he had left all issues of defence and security to the president. I recall a dinner that evening hosted by the British ambassador attended by a cross-section of leading government and opposition figures including the dissident journalist Adam Michnik. One of the issues we discussed was the growing protests led by the Protestant churches in East Germany.
And then overnight the news came through of the opening of the Berlin Wall. The next day we met the leader of the communist Polish United Workers’ party Mieczyslaw Rakowski. We saw him in his big office in the huge party headquarters which later became a major capitalist bank. He was clearly worried about the implications of the collapse of the GDR. He predicted: ‘Germany will be united soon. The GDR will disappear within one year!’ We did not believe him; we preferred and wished for the more cautious, generally held, assessment of a slow managed transition to a united confederation of two German states espoused by Socialist International president Willy Brandt and the German SPD. This assessment was seriously wrong; Rakowski was right. Eleven months later, in October 1990, a United Federal Germany came into being as the west in effect took over the east. It happened rapidly as millions voted with their feet and CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl outflanked the left and introduced the economically ruinous but politically brilliant exchange rate of parity of one Ost Mark for one west DMark
Following our meeting with Rakowski we met President Wojciech Jaruzelski. He had been the man who had imposed martial law and then had presided over the partially democratic transition to power-sharing with Solidarity. He had astutely diffused protest and with the concurrence of Mikhail Gorbachev had cleverly kept the Soviet generals at bay. I can recall him as a surprisingly short, stiff, softly spoken man. Jaruzelski was also clearly worried by events in Berlin. He quoted what he told us was an old Polish proverb: ‘Winds blow from the east and winds blow from the west and Poland suffers’. The Poles were very apprehensive about what would happen.
The transition was tough for the former GDR. Old polluting industries which made the sky yellow with acrid smoke such as those I saw on the road south from Berlin to Leipzig in February 1990 when going to speak for the SPD Ost were soon shut. Millions of young people moved west for jobs and adventure.
The transition for Poland was also initially very tough with hyperinflation and falling living standards. And after Poland joined the European Union in 2004 as one of the A8 accession countries hundreds of thousands of the brightest and best moved to find work in Germany, in Sweden and in Britain which, in my view wisely, did not impose transitional controls and as a result benefitted from much higher economic growth. Many of those Poles have since gone back home. Others have come. Poland today is now a prosperous growing outward looking European democratic country. Other states in the former Communist bloc including Slovakia after its velvet divorce from the Czech Republic, and Romania and Bulgaria after a bumpy ride, are also doing reasonably well. The three small Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, seized by the Soviet Union in 1940, are now vibrant, free, independent democratic nations active in both the EU and Nato. But after an optimistic start and a pivotal role in 1988 when it opened its border to Austria, Hungary has gone backwards and now suffers from a rightwing authoritarian government.
Looking back on the changes in eastern and central Europe 25 years on we should be proud of the role played by the EU, and also by Nato in acting to inspire and assist a peaceful democratic transition. Just imagine how difficult the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact might have been without the economic and political magnet of prosperous democratic Europe and the measured and supportive role played by the EU in those momentous events.
Mike Gapes MP worked for the Labour party from 1977 until 1992. He has been represented Ilford South since 1992, and tweets @MikeGapes
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