Fifty-six years ago, hundreds of thousands of East Germans demonstrated in the streets -- first to demand better working conditions in state-owned businesses, and then to call for free elections in East Germany and oppose the Stalinist regime. The revolt was brutally suppressed, and thousands of people were thrown into prison. Later, the rulers in the East and some intellectuals in the West denounced the events of June 17, 1953 as a reactionary uprising by people stuck in the past. The citizens of East Germany had to wait another 37 years for free elections. Those who choose to fight stand a real chance of losing. But the loss is made all the more bitter when their protests are subsequently vilified.
Notwithstanding the many cultural and political differences, there is a certain similarity between the pluralistic opposition movement we are witnessing in Iran today and what happened in past decades and more recently in Eastern Europe. The focus of these opposition movements has been a protest against government censorship and authoritarianism, as well as the desire for personal freedom devoid of the repressive actions of a regime. Just as the East Germans were on their own in 1953, the Hungarians bravely fought a losing battle three years later. In 1968, the Czechoslovakian attempt to establish "socialism with a human face" within the Soviet sphere of influence was brutally crushed by Russian tanks. Twelve years later, Poland's Solidarity movement fought for human rights and democracy and, with the help of the Catholic Church, created a Polish parallel universe that eventually brought down the communist regime, despite the fact it had declared martial law in 1981. It was allowed to do so in part because the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse in 1989.
The fate of today's Iranian protest movement is completely uncertain. Of course, there are fundamental differences between it and the European opposition movements. Its relationship to the state and religion is subject to different historical and cultural influences, and it is not as deeply infused with secular thought as the uprisings in Leipzig, Warsaw and Prague were 20 years ago. But the fascinating aspect of the dynamics of any mass protest is precisely that it is unpredictable. Perhaps the opposition movement in Iran today is more interested in pluralism than in Western-style democracy. But this concept, too, promises a better life.
Meanwhile, the methods with which the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to quell the unrest are part of the tool kit of any despot: intimidation, censorship, deception and, of course, warnings to other nations not to interfere in Iran's "internal affairs." The same tone was part of the standard rhetoric of all communist dictatorships, and the military dictatorship in Greece, the fascists in Spain and the authoritarian successors of Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar were also fond of resorting to these dangerous clichés, until their regimes were brought down in the 1970s. Indeed, the European West has not been democratic for as long as some believe.
"Internal Affairs" Are Universal
However, these so-called "internal affairs" are not the private matters of power cliques or nations. Instead, these affairs are of a universal nature. Freedom, democracy, pluralism and human rights are at stake in all of these situations, including Iran's. At any rate, the conflict is no longer solely about opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who faithfully served the religiously motivated regime for decades. That's the good news.
Nevertheless, Western leaders have chosen a course of genteel reserve. There are apparently tactical reasons behind US President Barack Obama's cautious remarks. Ahmadinejad would promptly interpret any expression of empathy for the mass protests as evidence that the West is behind the movement.
The White House, unwilling to hand such an opportunity to the Ahmadinejad regime, has kept its tone cool and subdued. Besides, Obama already uttered the crucial words in his address to the Iranian people to mark the Iranian New Year, and in his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo. Anyone who claims that these clear and empathetic sentences were spoken in vain, in light of Ahmadinejad's "election victory," has no understanding of historic dialectics. "You, too, have a choice," he stressed in his address to the people of Iran. The measure of the "greatness of the Iranian people," Obama said, is not the "capacity to destroy," but the "ability to build and create."
These words were an encouragement and invitation to Iranians to take their fate into their own hands, and to demonstrate that they are capable of doing this. Not even a neocon in Washington would currently claim that former President George W. Bush's military attempts at regime change were generally successful.
Shaking Hands with a Holocaust-Denier
In Moscow, on the other hand, no one seems terribly interested in the desire of the Iranian people to assert themselves. Ahmadinejad received a warm welcome in the Russian capital, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's ebullient smile as he shook hands with the Holocaust denier, anti-Semite and despot says more than a thousand words of a speech before the United Nations. Ahmadinejad's official visit to Russia was a political hour of truth, at any rate.
The mass protest in Iran, the scope of which throughout the country can only be surmised, due to the government's strict censorship, was unexpected -- just as hardly anyone anticipated the June 17 uprising in East Germany, the protests in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the demonstrations in Leipzig or the mass protests in Beijing 20 years ago. And there is another thing these events have in common: Every protestor in Iran knows that he cannot expect any help from abroad. "No one will help us," a Tehran artist wrote in a recent e-mail to a Polish friend in Wroclaw. The Poles know all too well -- and more so than the Germans -- what that can mean. However, mass protest cannot come about without the tremendous courage of the individual. It is the precondition for political change, not its outcome.
In Germany, this memory was unfortunately somewhat lost in the frenzy of celebration following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and our memory of the dramatic events leading up to Nov. 9, 1989 lies almost completely buried under the ruins of the toppled "protective wall." A look at Iran could remind us, 20 years later, of how much courage was indeed needed to finally be able to celebrate, in a crystal-clear November night, the biggest party Berlin has ever seen.
We cannot even begin to guess whether similar scenes will unfold in Tehran. An abrupt, bloody end -- like the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing -- cannot be ruled out by any means. Nevertheless, the images and videos that continue to leave the sealed-off country via Twitter and YouTube have already made history. And even if Ahmadinejad were to completely unleash his band of soldiers, it would not spell the end of Iran's history of freedom. June 17, 1953, the uprising in Hungary, Czechoslovakia's attempt to introduce socialism with a human face and the demonstrations on Tiananmen Square in Beijing -- all of these revolts and revolutions showed that a different life and a different history was possible. The same applies to Iran today, and that is something Ahmadinejad will no longer be able to change, no matter how firm the handshake in Moscow was.
But the European countries, as they celebrate, with great pomp and circumstance, the 20th anniversary of their liberation from Soviet dominance and communist control, should also take their own history seriously. We cannot deny the Iranians the solidarity today that the opposition movements in Central and Eastern Europe hoped to find in the West for their struggles for freedom 20 years ago.
This means, in concrete terms, that the governments in Berlin, Warsaw, Prague and other capitals should refuse to grant the despot of Tehran the recognition he desires, they should not recognize the elections and they must demand new elections. This is not interventionism but merely a modicum of political support. At any rate, it is no longer enough to simply wrinkle one's brow and express concern over the course of events.