It’s becoming increasingly clear that the world is going through an economic event that is more like the Great Depression than any other economic downturn since WWII. The system has become unsustainable and there will never be a return to “normalcy” as it was defined before 2007. Yet glimpses of a solution can be seen in thinking about the changes of the last twenty years, including a Polish border town named Sublice.
I first visited Sublice in January 1992, accompanying a group of students from St. Olaf College who came to Berlin as part of their “Global Semester” led by Dr. Rod Grubb. A bus took us to the border, and we crossed the Oder river into Poland. We had to get our passports stamped, answer questions, and then pass through a narrow passageway into Poland. Along the east bank of the Oder tents spread out for as far as we could see — Poles came to the border, waiting for the chance to swim across and evade the overstretched German security forces.
In Berlin East Europeans were selling cigarettes below market value in every piazza. Berlin had become the auto theft capital of the world, as cars would be taken the short distance to Poland, repainted and resold on the German market. Right wing violence was rising in Germany as well.
Article 16 of the German constitution vowed that no one claiming to be fleeing political persecution would be sent back until an investigation of that claim was completed. This was a response to how Jews were often sent back from countries they escaped to before WWII, only to be killed in the holocaust. With the fall of the iron curtain East Europeans were rushing to rich Germany in droves, and when caught they claimed political persecution. That required that the German government give them food and shelter until a hearing on their case could be held. With the massive influx, the courts were years behind schedule with former East German bases converted to hold all the refugees claiming persecution.
To many East Germans this was absurd — money was spent to feed and house foreigners while East Germans were unemployed and losing out. Ultimately they changed the law to limit the countries where political persecution existed, but in early 1992 the situation was tense. The situation in Eastern Europe was dire; Germany was the gateway to the West.
In Sublice we saw horse drawn carriages and poverty was extreme. Our Deutschmarks could go far, but there was nothing to buy. Even the meal we had tasted as if the meat wasn’t exactly fresh. The roads were potted or unpaved, the houses in disrepair. When we crossed back to Frankfort an der Oder (not to be confused with the huge western city of Frankfurt am Main) it felt like we were going back to the first world.
This year Frankfort an der Oder was almost indistinguishable from the West. I could recognize and point out the East German architectural, city layout, and the like, but to the students it was a clean modern little city — nicer than many in the US.
Sublice is a step below Frankfurt/Oder still, but so much different than twenty years ago. It is clearly a border down, with signs in German. 20 years ago when we went to the town flea market it was punctuated by people selling off their possessions in a chaotic maze of stands and sellers. It’s still there, now with a nice sign labeling it the “Bazar” and clearly defined rows of shops selling quality items and, of course, Spargel. Spargel (white asperagus) is in season and being sold everywhere during the trip. As we walked by the people running the stands switched into German to try to get us to purchase fresh ‘just picked’ Spargel.
Poland is still obviously behind Germany, and towns far from the border lack the influx of German Euros. But the success since 1992 hints at the solution to our economic woes today. After the nationalist reaction to the East European “invasion” after the end of the Cold War, Germany and the EU chose to embrace the East and welcome them into the EU. To succeed we need to resist knee jerk nationalist reactions and recognize the power of integration and cooperation.
The reason Europe grew after World War II and the reason Poland is growing now is because of openness to trade and cross border investment. Simply, when humans cooperate peacefully and work together, we succeed. When we close ourselves off, fear losing what we have and see life as a zero sum game, we end up with war and stagnation.
The EU, despite current problems, is an undeniable success story as countries once at war with each other have achieved new levels of prosperity thanks to trade and integration. Indeed, Americans skeptical of the EU often don’t get how integrated these economies are; there is no turning back to the obsolete order of fully separate and sovereign independent states.
For all the particulars of the current economic crisis, the big issue is that we have a globalized economy that has outgrown the institutions, rules and norms of a system based on sovereign states. Big money can evade regulations, democracy is weakened by how the global economy forces states to make particular choices – whether it’s Greek austerity or German tax payers bailing out failing economies. This is true for China and the US, as interdependence enforces harsh limits on government efficacy, even as people expect governments to provide solutions.
Standing at the Oder river, thinking about the past and trying to glimpse into the future, one thing was clear: we need to look beyond the political institutions of the past era. Sovereignty based on independent states and the Westphalian order has become obsolete. Humans need community but they don’t need the state. Governance is essential, but can come in many forms. Just as Berlin and Sublice are changing, so is the whole planet. We need to let go of old thinking and use imagination and logic to think of a way to come together and reconceptualize politics for the future.