Nov 11, 2014

Dual Symbols of Self-Determination: The Fall of the Berlin Wall and Vote for Independence in Catalonia

Last Sunday, 9th November, saw two vital, if markedly different, celebrations of self-determination. The first was the  twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; the other was the consultation for independence in Catalonia.

In 1989, the momentum was created after weeks of demonstrations in Leipzig, East Berlin and Dresden where more than half a million protesters were calling for the recognition of their freedom of travel and basic democratic rights. The extraordinary mobilization of people in East Germany was also a consequence of previous rallies in the entire region during spring and summer 1989. Marches in Hungary, as well as strikes encouraged by the opposition party Solidarity in Poland, increased the pressure on governments across eastern Europe. At the heart of these protests lay the simple and fundamental wish of people to choose their own political destiny: namely, self-determination.

The social movement for self-determination in East Germany culminated in a political crisis of the dictatorial regime, which also provoked the dramatic and historic events of 9th November 1989. On that particular day, Günter Schabowski, an official of the GDR, held a press conference during which he stated that East Germans would be allowed to cross the inner German border. It was unclear when this regulation would come into effect and Schabowski specified: Sofort. Unverzüglich (‘As far as I know - effective immediately, without delay’). Consequently, thousands of East Berliners demanded to cross the border at several Berlin checkpoints that same night, and the ensuing non-violent civil resistance resulted in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.  

The twenty-fifth anniversary of such an event of worldwide importance was celebrated last Sunday not only by the German people, re-united to form one country soon after the Wall came down, but by the whole world, for whom that event came to embody not only the end of the Cold War, but freedom itself. The remains of the Berlin Wall are reminders of the energy of public and non-violent resistance in cities, and by oppressed people, around the world.


Nobody could claim that the Catalan people are oppressed in any comparable way to the former citizens of East Berlin or East Germany, but on the same day that the fall of the Berlin Wall was being commemorated, they too performed an act of democratic resistance. Despite repeated attempts by the Spanish Government and High Courts to prohibit it, on 9th November 2014 the Catalonian Government held the symbolic consultation on Catalan independence that it had promised. More than two million people participated, with over 80% endorsing secession. However, the exact figures are not the most important element of this consultation; Madrid had declared the referendum illegal in any case, and the Spanish Government has pledged to pay no attention to it. Rather, the event represents an act of self-expression. Millions of people turned out to give their opinion on a matter of vital importance: that opinion may not change government policy in the short term, but it still matters.


Everyone agrees that the consultation is non-binding; the anti-independence camp dismiss it as a stunt, while the pro-independence camp argues that it must be a springboard for a future, binding referendum in which the people’s word must be final. UNPO reiterates that it takes no view on whether Catalonia should be an independent state or not; but we do insist that people’s voices - and choices - are taken seriously. We congratulate the people who organized the consultation and those who participated in it, no matter how they voted. We hope that if the people of Catalonia demand a binding referendum, they will be permitted to have one, no matter how much the politicians in Madrid may dislike the prospect.


Last week was a reminder that ordinary people can take destiny into their own hands, and with peaceful determination, change the world. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Catalan consultation, though entirely different, nevertheless share one key aspect: they are both manifestations of the desire of millions of people to choose how, where and by whom they are governed. The right to self-determination is often viewed by governments as something to be feared, when in reality it is simply a right to representation - in effect, to democratic choice. Even people living in stable, prosperous democracies, like the Catalans, may be deprived of this key right. The people of Berlin realized this right in 1989 and the years immediately following it; we hope that the Spanish Government might one day afford the Catalan people the same privilege.


Photo Credit: Roberto Maldeno @flickr