In Gitanjali, Nobel Laureate and poet Rabindranath Tagore famously wrote:
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls…”
Human folly is limitless. Also limitless is the human capacity to undo the follies. But let us not rejoice too much over the truth contained in the second affirmation. For no sooner we rectify one folly, we commit another, in some other form, in some other place. Then we wrack our brains on how to set it right. We do manage to set it right, only to hurtle into the next, smaller or bigger, folly.
So it goes on, and on, in the unending cycles of time we call human history. The great Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder, who wrote poignantly about the immense suffering caused by India’s bloody Partition, was right when she said, “History is another name for humanity’s inability to learn its lessons.”
Wars provide some of the most useful lessons to humanity on how to, and how not to, conduct our affairs. But wars also show humanity’s inability, indeed dogged unwillingness, to learn them. There has never been a war that did not bring calamity, distress and grief. Yet, when a war ends, it never proves to be the last war.
Moreover, in the modern era, there is a large, highly specialised and increasingly hi-tech weapons industry that constantly enhances its own lethal power and has even become the mainstay of the economies of several so-called developed countries. This industry, which preys on dead bodies, survives only if wars and violent conflicts break out periodically in different parts of the globe.
Indeed, the foreign policies of these countries, which thrive on export of such killing machines, have a hidden agenda to cause divisions and hostilities. Their governments masquerade as champions of peace, stability and freedom but, in reality, their militarism is the principal creator and sustainer of conflicts.
Berlin, is a city at the centre of world-changing developments. My mind was filled with these dark musings as I stood in front of the Berlin Wall on a sunny afternoon in mid-September. I had come to the German capital to participate in an inter-religious conference for world peace hosted by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Vatican-inspired organisation.
Over 500 religious leaders representing all faiths of the world, cultural figures, political leaders and intellectuals had assembled here for three days of deliberations on major challenges before the planet and its people – the Russia-Ukraine war, the climate crisis, the development divide in the world, religious bigotry and extremism, and much more.
The Wall was built in 1961 by the communist-ruled German Democratic Republic (better known as East Germany) to completely isolate the eastern part of the city from West Berlin and from the rest of West Germany, officially known as the Federal Republic of Germany. Self-isolation had become necessary because tens of thousands of East Germans had been fleeing to West Germany in search of freedom and better jobs.
As an anti-war activist in my teen years, I grew up reading about all the momentous events associated with Berlin and its infamous Wall before, during and after the Second World War – how Adolf Hitler orchestrated an arson attack on the Reichstag, the German parliament, in 1933 to consolidate his power and set the stage for the rise of Nazi Germany; how the city was reduced to rubble during the war; how soldiers of the victorious Soviet Army unfurled the Red Flag over the ruins of the Reichstag; and how the Wall became a visible symbol of the division of Germany and also the most hated symbol of the Cold War between the two rival blocs of the United States and the now extinct Soviet Union.
The Berlin Wall remained intact for 28 years, before being pulled down on November 9, 1989, by tens of thousands of peace-loving Germans on both sides. As I strolled around the place, I went down memory lane and revisited several milestones in world history. The second half of the decade of the 1980s was full of dramatic and world-changing developments. I covered some of them, and wrote about many more, as a young journalist with The Daily newspaper (a sister publication of Blitz weekly) and The Sunday Observer in Mumbai.
Mikhail Gorbachev became the supreme leader of the Soviet Union in 1984 and embarked on a bold path of reforms known as glastnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) that ultimately led to the collapse of communism and the disintegration of his country. On a parallel track, communist regimes in Eastern Europe, all of them Soviet allies, disappeared one after another. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a natural corollary of these developments. It led to the reunification of Germany in 1990, thus marking the end of the Iron Curtain that the Soviet Union and its communist-run allies in Eastern Europe had created to separate themselves from the US-led Western alliance.
The fall of the Berlin Wall brought the Cold War to an end, and hence became a source of optimism and inspiration for a world weary of enmity, violence and destruction. There was also a corresponding hope that East-West cooperation, combined with the rapidly increasing productive power of science and technology, would spur inclusive global development. Expectations also rose that globalisation would help remove the scourge of poverty, hunger and disease that has degraded the lives of millions around the world.
Sadly, those hopes were belied by the wars that followed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, and many conflicts in the continent of Africa. Europe seemed immune to such conflicts, but the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has belied this myth. Now, Poland has built a wall on its border with Belarus to prevent illegal immigration.
Furthermore, the spectre of a new Cold War between the United States and China is looming large. Asia seemed safe from the toxic logic of military blocs and the wasteful arms race it produces. But now the global weapons industry is vigorously pushing the idea of an Asian NATO, which refers to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to contain the alleged threat from China.
The ‘Socialist Kiss’
A small part of the Berlin Wall along the banks of the River Spree is preserved as a reminder of an era that had divided Germany, Europe and pretty much the rest of the world into two rival blocs. It now looks like an open-air museum, with over a hundred murals by artists from across the world. One of them has a painting of the bald head of a man looking down with eyes closed in a moment of intense meditation. A line below that reads: “Danke Andrei Sakharov”. “Danke” in German means “Thank You”. It is a tribute to the renowned nuclear scientist in the Soviet Union who became a courageous voice against communist dictatorship in his country and for an end to the Cold War. Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
The most famous mural on the Wall is that of two men in a lip-lock. It shows Leonid Brezhnev, former president of the Soviet Union, and Gary Honecker, former president of the German Democratic Republic hugging tightly and exchanging a “Socialist Kiss”. The occasion was Brezhnev’s visit in 1979 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the creation of the German Democratic Republic. A photograph of this kiss, which was a special form of greeting between leaders of the Soviet bloc countries, was later converted into a painting by Russian artist Dmitri Vrubel, who titled it My God, Help Me Survive This Deadly Love.
In January 1989, Honecker had predicted that the Berlin Wall would stand for 50 or 100 more years if the conditions that had given birth to it did not change. In October the same year, the growing tide of anti-communism forced him to resign. Within a month, the Wall was demolished by Germans determined to change the conditions of antagonism in which they were forced to live. With the Wall gone, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic also vanished from the world map.
Today, Brezhnev and Honecker are remembered comically. The image of their “Socialist Kiss” is widely used in souvenirs sold across Germany ─ on coffee mugs, postcards, fridge magnets and so on. History truly delivers a harsh verdict on those who rule with the power of violence and deprive their people of freedom and dignity.
Another place in the vicinity memorialises the Berlin Wall: the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Checkpoint Charlie was the most renowned Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War. One section of the museum honours MK Gandhi and his nonviolent struggle for world peace.
Satya, or truth, and ahimsa, or non-violence, were Gandhi’s antidote to the perpetual cycle of wars, for he said: “When a man vowed to nonviolence as the law governing human being dares to refer to war, he can only do it so as to strain every nerve to avoid it.” No wonder, the most famous tribute to Gandhi came from a German-born scientist, Albert Einstein, who too was a votary of peace.
‘The audacity of peace’
An icon of despair. An emblem of hope. This duality of the Wall imparted special significance to the choice of Berlin as the venue of the inter-faith peace conference from September 10-12. “In this city history is not silent. It speaks of great sorrows, those of the world war, of totalitarianism, the Holocaust, the Cold War,” said Professor Andrei Riccardi, in his opening speech. Ricardi is the founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, which has been organising such annual conferences in European cities since 1986.
A renowned Italian historian, he added: “Berlin, however, speaks out strongly in another sense as well. As the renewed capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, it speaks out loudly of the great achievements of freedom: the reunification of Germany, the end of the division of the world in blocks, solidarity and the value of democracy, welcoming of people of other origins. Here the legacy of the war lasted almost half a century after 1945. Such a hard legacy for this city. It was erased – I emphasise – not with another war, but with a movement, which was the peaceful pressure of people (who sacrificed themselves), diplomacy, dialogue, audacity. The audacity of 1989!”
The theme of the conference was “Audacity of Peace”. Pope Francis sent a special message to the conference with a prayer, saying, “We believe there is hope through an audacity of peace.” The fall of the Wall, he observed, “opened up new horizons: freedom for peoples and the reunification of families, but also the hope of a new world peace following the Cold War”.
But the Pope also lamented: “Unfortunately over the years, the promise of such a future was not built on this common hope, but on special interests and mutual mistrust. Thus, instead of tearing down walls, more walls have been erected. And sadly, it is often a short step from wall to trench. Today, war still ravages too many parts of the world. I am thinking of several areas in Africa and the Middle East, but also of many other regions of the planet, including Europe, which is enduring a war in Ukraine. It is a terrible conflict with no end in sight, and which has caused death, injury, pain, exile, and destruction.”
The Pope added: “We cannot resign ourselves to this scenario. Something more is needed. Realism is not enough, political considerations are not enough, the strategic approaches implemented so far are not enough. More is needed, because war continues. What is called for is the audacity of peace – right now, because too many conflicts have lasted far too long, so much so that some never seem to end. In a world where everything speeds by, only the end to war seems slow. It takes courage to know how to move in another direction, despite obstacles and real difficulties.”
Few religious leaders in our time have spoken out against wars – including man’s incessant war on Nature that has caused the climate crisis – as passionately as Pope Francis. Being a humble servant of god, he made an appeal that, sadly, one rarely hears from political leaders. “Yes, the audacity of peace challenges believers in a particular way to transform it into prayer, to invoke from heaven what seems impossible on earth. Insistent prayer is the first kind of audacity.” Invoking the Gospel, he said: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. Let us not be afraid to become beggars for peace, joining our sisters and brothers of other religions and all those who do not resign themselves to the inevitability of conflict.”
The Pope has on many occasions condemned the war in Ukraine and praised “brave” Ukrainians for fighting for survival. At the same time, he has also said the situation was not black and white and that the war was “perhaps in some way provoked”, suggesting it is a proxy war between the US-led NATO and Russia. Furthermore, he has observed that the armaments industry provides incentives for war.
Pope Francis is not only a man of prayer, but also a man of action. He sent Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, who is closely associated with the Community of Sant’Egidio, as his special envoy to Washington, Moscow, several European capitals and also to Beijing to seek an end to the war in Ukraine.
I met Cardinal Zuppi before he left for Beijing and wished him well in his mission. After his return, he told the media that he had “a frank discussion” and received “considerable attention from the Chinese government”. He added that all the stakeholders “must push in the same direction, which must be to find the key to a just and secure peace.”
The Pope’s efforts for peace-building have already achieved one tangible success. Three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – now share a common place to worship in the United Arab Emirates. The Abrahamic Family House with a synagogue, church and mosque was opened in Abu Dhabi in February this year. It also has common spaces for gathering and dialogue among followers of all religions in the world.
This unique prayer complex was the outcome of sustained dialogue between Pope Francis and Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azar Mosque in Cairo. In 2019, at an inter-religious conference hosted by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who was then the crown prince of the United Arab Emirate and is now its president, the two leaders signed a historic pledge calling for peace and brotherhood between religions and nations.
How to make our world more peaceful
In my speech at the Berlin conference, I presented five ideas for making our world more peaceful and harmonious.
First: The world we live in is the most inter-dependent and inter-connected in all of human history. Yet, our hearts and minds are not adequately connected. We have erected many invisible walls that separate nations and communities, especially religion-based communities. Therefore, we must uncompromisingly break all the “Berlin Walls” that divide humanity with notions of exclusivism, self-sufficiency, superiority, supremacy and hegemony based on religion, ethnicity or nationality.
Second: The idea of exclusive and non-negotiable national sovereignty has become incompatible with the demands of cooperation in our inter-connected and inter-dependent world. Without maximum international cooperation, it is impossible for the human race to find solutions to either the climate crisis or the multiple crises impeding human development.
Third: Our common human identity must take precedence over all our other identities. This was proclaimed by the Vedas, the sacred scripture of Hinduism, over 5,000 years ago. “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, said the Rig Veda. It means, “The Entire World Is One Single Family”. This recognition that we all belong to one common human family precludes any justification for war, violence or even indifference. Therefore, the world must heed the call of Pope Francis, who has asked the international community to replace the “globalisation of indifference” with the “globalisation of solidarity and charity”.
Fourth: Limiting national sovereignty, and building strong bonds of charity and solidarity within the human family, inevitably point to the need for strengthening global governance that protects justice and human dignity for every human being everywhere. The best way to strengthen global governance is by strengthening the one apex organisation we already have – the United Nations.
The United Nations was created out of the ashes of the two World Wars. Weak and ineffective though it may be, it is the only institution that commands recognition and respect globally. However, the United Nations is in urgent need of radical restructuring and democratisation so that it can respond to the needs of the 21st century. Bigger nations have a greater responsibility to ensure this.
Fifth: Once we recognise that we all belong to one common and indivisible global human family, it follows that the United Nations must declare any war of aggression as illegitimate and a crime against humanity. It also follows that all disputes among nations must be resolved through peaceful and non-military means of dialogue and, therefore, all industries engaged in weapons production – especially, nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction – must be dismantled.
Simultaneously, the attention, resources and energies of the international community must be redirected solely towards removing the developmental disparities around the world, improving the living conditions of all marginalised communities, and protecting the precious and fragile biodiversity on Earth from the looming climate calamity.
The closing ceremony of the conference was held at the historic Brandenburg Gate in the evening of September 12. The Gate had remained closed so long as Berlin was divided by the Wall. It was reopened in December 1989 and has thereafter stood as a proud symbol of the unity of Berlin and Germany.
As the sun set behind the Gate, and as the golden rays of hope and renewal entered through its stately pillars, all the participants solemnly adopted an appeal to the global community that said: “We urgently need to listen to the suffocated cry for peace. Dialogue today, while weapons speak, does not weaken justice, rather it creates the conditions for a new architecture of security for all. Let us start together from dialogue, which is the most effective remedy for the reconciliation of peoples. Peace is always possible.”
The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation. His X handle is @SudheenKulkarni and he welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.