Germany opened on Monday a week of festivities marking three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but a hint of a return of the Cold War and the rise of nationalism is dampening the mood.
Leaders of former Cold War powers will be absent from anniversary festivities, as Donald Trump”s America First, Britain”s Brexit and Russia”s resurgence put a strain on ties.
Gone, too, is the euphoric optimism for liberal democracy and freedom that characterised the momentous event on November 9, 1989, as Germany grapples with a surge in far-right support in its former communist states.
“The spirit of optimism” seen 30 years ago, or even five or 10 years ago, “is not perceivable” today, noted Berlin official Klaus Lederer, whose office spearheaded the festivities.
Issuing a warning against “the current situation in the world” as he launched the week of celebrations, Berlin mayor Michael Mueller said the German capital must show it stands for freedom.
“We fight against all forms of exclusion,” he said.
As a sign of the tense times, Germany is putting on a sober political programme to mark the epochal event that led to reunification and brought down the Iron Curtain dividing a communist East from a capitalist West.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the anniversary was also a chance to remind Europe it needs to stay united in the face of rising geopolitical tensions around the world.
“Exhortations from individual European capitals fall on deaf ears in Moscow, Beijing and, unfortunately, to an increasing extent also in Washington DC,” he wrote in an op-ed carried in newspapers across the EU on Saturday.
“It is only Europe”s voice that carries decisive weight. This is why unilateral action at the national level must finally be taboo in Europe.” While the spotlight five years ago was on world leaders from Barack Obama to Mikhail Gorbachev, this time round, the central focus is on Europe itself.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen will set the tone on the eve of the anniversary with a speech on the state of Europe, in the presence of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On November 9, central European presidents will headline the official ceremonies.
Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will be joined by his Polish, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian counterparts, to mark “the contribution of the central European countries to the peaceful revolution” that led to the collapse of the communist regime.
Merkel will speak at the Chapel of Reconciliation, which stands on the former Berlin Wall border strip.
Steinmeier will also make a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in the evening, before a series of concerts including by the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
And US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was stationed in Germany as a young soldier in 1989, will be visiting from Wednesday but is to wrap up his trip on the eve of the anniversary.
He meets Merkel and members of her cabinet on Friday, in meetings expected to underline the growing divisions across the globe.
Pompeo”s office said talks with his counterpart Maas will “discuss the importance of our Transatlantic partnership and the need for strengthened engagement in the face of growing threats from Russia, China, and Iran.” While the fall of the Iron Curtain that divided post-war Europe had led to hopes of a liberal democratic era and disarmament three decades ago, the mood has soured today.
Within the EU, cracks have appeared as former eastern bloc countries like Hungary and Poland are accused by Brussels of challenging the rule of law.
In a broader arena, Trump”s go-it-alone stance that has seen him reject world treaties including on climate change and a nuclear disarmament deal with Iran has deeply shaken longtime allies in Europe.
Russia is consolidating its foothold in the Middle East, while the US is also increasingly at odds with China.
For UN chief Antonio Guterres, “the Cold War is back — with a vengeance, but with a difference. The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present.” Gorbachev, who chose to stand aside instead of stopping the Wall from falling 30 years back, was also more pessimistic today.
The world is in “colossal” danger from nuclear weapons held by global powers amid continued tensions since the end of the Cold War, he warned in an interview with the BBC