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The collapse of the Berlin Wall came as the result of social, political and economic pressures that built up over decades behind the Iron Curtain. Its demise has exposed some glaring material differences in post-Communist societies. Social activists say governments cannot narrow those differences in the absence of civic values among ordinary citizens. The civic spirit made possible a key event leading to the collapse of the Wall, and what became of it since.
Hungary recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the so-called Pan-European Picnic, when hundreds of East Germans pushed through Hungarian border guards and fled into Austria during a protest against the Iron Curtain in August 1989. The event sparked a mass exodus of East Germans to Hungary, who crowded into Budapest, overwhelming the West German Embassy in their bid to get to the West.
Hungarian Priest Imre Kozma ran a charity service in the city and was asked to help feed and shelter the East Germans.
Kozma says his organization turned for help to hotels, restaurants and boardinghouses, and they responded everyday with enough food to feed the entire crowd of people. He says the hotels and restaurants gave as much as they could and never asked if they would be paid or otherwise compensated.
Kozma recalls that as the crisis grew, Hungarian authorities did not interfere, and eventually opened the border for the first time since 1948. The event helped bring a quick and peaceful end to a half-century of communist rule.
The most prominent symbols of communism, the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall are gone. But many who lived behind those barriers say an invisible one continues to separate people from one another. Reverend Kozma notes that material concerns have squeezed out some of the civic values that underpinned the material assistance given to East German refugees in 1989.
Kozma says Hungarians are constantly being reminded that they need to take care of financial issues, as a result of which, the interests of the community are shoved aside.
Post-Communist societies have exposed vast differences between haves and have-nots. In the Polish city of Gdansk, Mayor Pawel Adamowicz says government alone cannot address the social problems of any country.
Adamowicz says Communism destroyed the hearts and minds of Poles who now want to rebuild solidarity and social bonds between people in order to enhance their willingness to volunteer and ability support one another.
Civic values were the topic of a recent international seminar in Budapest. Among those participating was John Shattuck, former U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Shattuck says volunteerism in Communist countries was viewed as a form of collaboration with unpopular regimes. He says that genuine civic spirit is something that cannot be imposed.
"If it's done voluntarily and is something that comes from inside of a person who wants to make a change in his or her own life, then it does have a spiritual aspect. But it's not something that can be imposed. It is not an organizational principle and a set of funds that can come from the outside."
Shattuck notes such funds can help groups seeking to foster civic spirit in countries of the former Eastern Bloc, but ultimately it is up to individuals to devote the time and energy needed to restore the community values damaged by Communism.