On unceremonious days we either defend our freedoms or we don’t – on memorable ones we either win or lose them

, by Juuso Järviniemi

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On unceremonious days we either defend our freedoms or we don't – on memorable ones we either win or lose them
Mass protests at Alexanderplatz in East Berlin on 4 November, 1989. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1104-437 / Settnik, Bernd / CC-BY-SA 3.0

9 November is a highly symbolic date in the history of the Western world, particularly Germany. In Germany, the date is known as the Schicksalstag or “day of destiny”. 9 November was when the Weimar Republic replaced the monarchy in 1918, when Nazi SA forces attacked Jews on the Kristallnacht in 1938, and when the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989. Two years ago, it was 9 November when Europeans woke up to announcements of Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency on a pro-wall, anti-minority platform.

This date symbolises the Western world’s struggle between different kinds of rule – monarchic, democratic, authoritarian, “illiberal”. 9 November calls us to ask ourselves what kind of a system we want to live in. It also reminds us that the surest way to lose our freedoms is to sit back and do nothing to defend them.

Freedom must be won and defended...

The modern kind of democracy enjoyed by Europe’s freest countries today was never simply given to us. There were violent setbacks along the way, and time and again proponents of fair elections and fundamental rights had to mobilise in defence of their ideas.

Shortly after 9 November 1918 (a day when two alternative republics were proclaimed in Berlin), the communist KPD party continuously sought to subvert the Weimar Republic. Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, an attempted coup, took place from 8 to 9 November 1923. By 9 November 1938 at the latest, it had become evident that the flame of freedom had been suppressed in Germany. Monarchic rule à la Wilhelm II may by now have been consigned to history for good, but democracy was attacked from different extremes. World War I was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”. As it happens, history did not end in November 1918, and neither did wars.

After World War II, half of Europe experienced another four decades of dictatorship. Freedom and democracy had to be won back. The Polish Solidarity movement’s actions are legendary. In East Berlin on 4 November 1989, half a million people demonstrated against authoritarian rule on Alexanderplatz, proclaiming that “we are the people” (“Wir sind das Volk”). Five days later, on 9 November, the iconic moment at the Berlin Wall came. The moment may have come as a result of Günter Schabowski blundering at a press conference, but it was not simply bestowed from above. East Germany would not have won back its freedom if ordinary people had not stood up and spoken out.

After the end of the Cold War, the “end of history” thesis became popular. Now that communism had been defeated, the only possible form of government could be liberal democracy, it was believed. But like World War I was not the war to end all wars, the Cold War was not the ideological battle to end them all. Once freedom is won, it must be defended or you may lose it – whether the year is 1918, 1923, 1938 or 2018.

...in both memorable and unceremonious moments

All the above case examples involved dramatic, non-conventional political actions. It is not every day that you proclaim a new republic, fight off a coup, witness paramilitaries storming little shops, or scale a wall that has become a global symbol of oppression. The danger is that we are left feeling distant from these momentous historical events – that we don’t recognise exceptional circumstances when they’re around us because we don’t see armed fascist troops marching on Rome.

In reality, the defence of freedom and democracy is everyday business. Every dawn marks the start of a new, tacit referendum on whether we should live in a liberal democracy, or some other system. If ordinary, freedom-loving people stop turning out, soon it is the other side who wins. And once that happens, you have to start fighting hard for your right to have that next tacit referendum. Each of the historical events described above was preceded by countless of hours of hard work by activists – in some eras better work was done by democrats, in other eras by anti-democrats.

Sometimes, between “9 November” and a tacit referendum, there is an in-between. In the United States, the 2016 presidential election was not quite as dramatic as Kristallnacht, but there was a greater sense of democratic urgency than in the normal, daily struggle for freedom. This November in the USA, the turnout exceeded 100 million for the first time in the history of midterm elections. For the European Union, the stakes in the 2019 European elections are comparable to these two American elections. It is up to activists and politicians to rouse Europeans to defend their freedoms at the polls.

The upcoming European elections are scarcely “9 November”, and an ordinary spring day in 2019 certainly isn’t. We shouldn’t be fooled, however: if ordinary people do nothing, we may lose our freedoms and way of life sooner than we realise. Normally you never know for sure until it’s too late. The best way to prevent disastrous “9 November” moments from happening is to live every day as if it were 8 November.

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