By George Friedman – Nov. 12, 2019 Geopolitical Future
Thirty years ago, on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. This was the beginning of a period that would change the world. When the last remnants of the wall came down in November 1991, it began four months that transformed all that had gone before. On Dec. 31, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist; then on Feb. 7, 1992, the Maastricht Treaty was signed, creating the European Union. Like 1918 or 1945, this four-month period marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. It is 30 years since the beginning of this transition and its meaning is only now becoming visible.
Turning Points of the 20th Century
Europe in the 20th century had four turning points. The first came in 1918 with the end of World War I. It was also the end of Imperial Europe. The German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires all collapsed after the war, and the British Empire was not far behind. Nations like Poland that had been buried within one or more empires emerged as independent republics, some for the first time in centuries. Some were forged together into multinational states, like Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia. The borders of others, like Hungary, were dramatically changed. Defeated Germany survived. Throughout Europe, the republican form of government took hold and, with it, supposedly liberal democracy. Emperors did not reemerge, but liberal democracy took hold only intermittently.
This was an era in which Europe as a whole was in a state of shock over what it had done to itself in World War I. The nations that were shed by the fallen empires clung to national identities from centuries before, but were not at all certain what they were now that they had reemerged into history, frequently with multiple nationalities sharing the same state.
This era ended in 1945. World War I originated in the unification of Germany. This was previously a region of fragmented duchies, which joined together under the management of Prussia and formed an empire under the House of Hohenzollern. From unified Germany’s inception, it was strong economically and militarily, but not strong enough to feel secure. With France on one side and Russia on the other, Germany could not survive a simultaneous attack from east and west, launched at a time of France’s or Russia’s own choosing. Germany was forced to conclude that it would have to launch a war at a time of its own choosing, knocking France or Russia out of the war first, then dealing with the other at its leisure. And, thus, the Schlieffen Plan was executed in 1914. It failed, leading to the end of empires.
During the interregnum between the two world wars, Germany emerged again, going from a cripple in 1932 to the dominant military power on the Continent by 1938. It faced the same strategic problem it had faced before 1914, and was defeated, as it had been in 1918. This ushered in the third epoch in 20th-century Europe: the time of Soviet-American hegemony. World War II ended with the Americans and Soviets meeting on the Elbe River and dividing Europe roughly along the lines they had conquered it. The Soviets held the band of countries from Poland to Bulgaria, and the Americans and their British allies held everything to the west.
The Era of the Iron Curtain
This was the time when Europe as a whole lost control of its fate. For Europe, ever since 1914, its fate had been war, the overriding question was whether, or more truly when, the Soviets and the United States would take Europe into war. The question of war and peace had been decided in London, Paris and Berlin. Now the question was decided in Washington and Moscow. It would be too much to say that Continental Europe constituted colonies. It would be more accurate to say that these were sovereign nations trapped in a geopolitical reality that tied their hands in relation to the world and cost them their empires. Europe was sovereign, but only in a very limited sense. The era of failed or monstrous states had put them in a position where no one, not even they themselves, trusted them to use full sovereignty wisely.
Europe was therefore divided by what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the Iron Curtain. Each side – the American-led NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact – prepared for a war that was fought everywhere except in Europe. As the European empires collapsed, the Americans and Soviets competed over who would inherit these empires. The issue was less who would control a country and more who would be stopped from controlling a country. The U.S. had little interest in Congo or Vietnam themselves; it had an interest in blocking the Soviets, and vice versa.
This diversion bought Europe time to recover, and it was in the interest of the United States to help it to recover. The Soviets were poor but powerful, and they controlled their region with tanks and few economic incentives. The Americans were powerful and rich, and they had far more to offer their zone, from the Marshall Plan to favorable trade relations. With these offerings Europe rebuilt itself, using American money and European intellectual capital. Germany retook its position as the most economically dynamic nation in Europe, this time abandoning strategic interests in favor of a purely economic Germany. Apart from the fear of war, which died down eventually, this was the happiest this part of Europe had been since 1914.
The other Europe, the one to the east, was less happy. Part of it was the ever-present Soviet power; the other and perhaps greater part was the penury in which this part of the Continent lived. The difference between a department store in Warsaw or Budapest and one in Frankfurt or Rome was startling. The simple fact was that the opportunities of life, from travel to luxury, ground on the Eastern Bloc, as much as ideology and freedom did.