Remembering Cold War Lessons: 'Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall'

In the historical and the contemporary context, then, Hungary's response is disturbing. Regrettably, Hungary's credentials as a reformist leader have recently been besmirched by a disturbing authoritarian turn.
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What a difference 26 years makes. In May of 1989, the Hungarian government decided to dismantle the barbed wire along its border with Austria. Those wire cutters opened the way to a flow of humanity from all over East Central Europe that ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism. In 2004, many of those newly democratic states became members of the European Union. And now, in response to the refugees streaming into their country, Hungary has sought to stem the tide by building fences.

Arguably, one of the most important lessons from Cold War Europe, then, was "[s]omething there is that doesn't love a wall." That opening line from a Robert Frost poem refers to rural New England. There, early European settlers built stone walls to demarcate their holdings from those of their neighbors. But it also applies to Cold War Europe where for 45 years, enormous fences "protected" citizens of communist states from the temptations and decadence of the West. The Berlin Wall (as well as other Cold War barricades), however, did not stop people from seeking to cross; while an agreed total of deaths is hard to find, estimates suggest that more than 100 people perished there. From the perspective of the US-Soviet rivalry, however, there was some truth to Frost's other famous line in that poem - the last - that "good fences make good neighbors." Once Berlin had its barrier and the snipers were deployed, that divided city was no longer the source of superpower crises.

But Frost's narrator clearly lacks faith in walling off, noting that the neighbors have no need to be divided because they own no animals that might trample on and hurt the other's land. And therein lays the complexity for today's Europe: those receiving the refugees worry about the damage the immigrants will do to their societies, economies and politics. While Europe is one of the richest places on earth, parts of it have suffered greatly through the global financial crisis, and Europeans have been battling about how to share burdens among themselves. In other words, the community that in 2004 prided itself on its newfound unity and commitment to rebuilding the lands of those who lived under repression during the Cold War has been suffering deep strains.

And now come those seeking safety and a new life on the continent. Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed forward plans for accepting the refugees, welcoming huge numbers to Germany and also encouraging others to help take pressure off the southern European states that have been bearing the brunt of the human tide. President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, tried to play upon memories of Europe's own past. Last week, he recalled the early years after World War II when sixty million Europeans were displaced and asked his fellow citizens to embrace the hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, and others fleeing strife, persecution, and horrendous living conditions back home. Pope Francis, too, sought to reach the hearts and the consciences of the faithful throughout Europe urging each parish to take in one family and committing Vatican City to two.

In the historical and the contemporary context, then, Hungary's response is disturbing. Regrettably, Hungary's credentials as a reformist leader have recently been besmirched by a disturbing authoritarian turn. Still, that country's past behavior puts it in a special place. It is the state that asserted its right to be linked to the outside world in 1956 only to have its people crushed, and as already noted, by taking down its fence with Austria in 1989, Hungary started the human tidal wave that ended the division of Europe. But now this country is building walls to keep the foreigners out, and Hungary seeks to create fences not only on its border with Serbia, but also with Romania, another E.U. state, flouting the longstanding European project of making the barriers between the states and societies of Union members easily permeable.

Clearly, Hungary and others on the frontline of the migration crisis have been overwhelmed and need help in coping with the refugees. Moreover, the security threats from terrorists seeking to take advantage of open borders and infiltrate are real. Finally, the numbers of people in and the level of their need are extraordinary. Thus, the refugees provide an enormous challenge to Hungary and the rest of Europe. But, the irony is remarkable. Hungary, the original wall buster, is now in the position of heartily claiming "good fences make good neighbors." Moreover, what is worrisome is that over time more Europeans might agree, first walling out the refugees and then further rethinking the European integration project itself. Clearly, Europe itself has been deeply challenged over the last seven years, and the concern is that the refugee crisis will unleash more centrifugal forces that will tear the Union apart and ultimately lead to dislocation and conflict.

But perhaps this crisis, a word that in medicine means a turning point, can offer a chance for positive change. For decades now, Europe has been experiencing a demographic challenge, with birthrates below replacement. The economic and social effects of this population pattern are exacerbated by extremely generous safety nets. Some European economies, too, have suffered from high levels of unemployment and stagnation which hit young adults especially hard. Thus, while not denying that the refugees offer a challenge, Europeans could also see them as an opportunity for revitalizing their society, by shifting the demographic balance, creating the impetus for overdue social and economic reforms, and providing new sources of innovation that come from the influx of people desperately seeking a better life.

Thus, as more Europeans begin to think about the wisdom of barriers, let the lessons of their own past and Robert Frost's words resound: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

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