11 October 2009

1989 in Global Perspective

20 years ago, Leipzig became the place famous for demonstrations, which have been perceived as the decisive breakthrough to the end of the communist regime in East Germany. However, when looking back to the event, we become aware that 1989 is not only of local or national importance, but it also marks a global caesura. To mark the 20th anniversary, the Global and European Studies Institute of the University of Leipzig [I imagine it is not the KMU any longer] is organizing a conference from 14 to 16 October to examine the synchronisation of challenges to existing regimes and transformations happening all around the world, from China to South Africa, from Central America to the Soviet Union, and to discuss the causes of this coincidence which made 1989 the signature of epochal changes. The programme can be found here. For those who like me will unfortunately not be able to attend a number of the papers have already been posted to the Internet.

The conference is a salutary reminder that it was not only in Europe that epochal changes took place in 1989. Te ecumenical movement has always very strongly emphasised that the Cold War affected not only Europe but the world as a whole. The moderator of the World Council of Churches, Walter Altmann, alluded to this in his report to the WCC central committee this year:
From 1961 to 1989 a wall 154 kilometres long made out of fortified concrete divided Berlin in two. It came to symbolise the division of the world into two conflicting systems. There is a large piece of that wall here in the garden of the ecumenical centre. It was a gift from the first freely elected GDR government to CEC as a sign of recognition for the role the churches played in the peaceful changes in Eastern Europe. In that process the churches had the chance to bring their commitment to peace, justice and the integrity of creation, their commitment to democratic processes, their commitment to the inalienable dignity of human beings to bear on civil society and to do so in a peaceful way. We remember with gratitude those days and can still see in our mind’s eye the impressive pictures of the rejoicing people, climbing the wall and celebrating its end. Yet we do not forget either that many other walls, be they of concrete or of prejudices or of laws which discriminate foreigners, persist or are being raised, dividing peoples and causing great suffering, in many parts of the world. We also remember those who lost their lives in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, China, 20 years ago. The late 1980s were marked also by the move to the end of apartheid in South Africa. In 1989 Namibia began its transition to independence that was sealed the following year, becoming the last country in Africa to leave behind colonialism. In Latin America the end of the Pinochet regime in Chile marked the symbolic end of military dictatorships on that continent. The recent military coup in Honduras has evoked sad memories of the past; let us hope that it will also pass into history books as an anachronistic episode which will not endanger in any way the strengthening of democracy in the region.

Churches also played a role in this transition, something examined in a recent book edited by Christine Lienemann-Perrin and Wolfgang Lienemann, Kirche und Öffentlichkeit in Transformationsgesellschaften (Church and the public space in societies of transition). Their case studies are from Asia, Africa and Latin America, but the general section also discusses eastern Europe.


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