On November 9, we got reminded that history paints on a big canvas, sometimes in bold strokes. Exactly 30 years ago, a population trapped by Soviet Socialist oppression in East Germany rose up – with hammers – and tore down the Berlin Wall. Their story is truly gripping.
Although the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a lot preceded German reunification. In May 1945, the defeated Nazi capital was partitioned into four sectors – American, British, French and Soviet. The western three grew into West Germany, with free elections. The Soviet sector disappeared into the Warsaw Bloc – no elections.
By 1949, East Germans were fleeing in droves. By 1952, the Soviets had closed the border. Between 1949 and 1961, another 2.5 million East Germans escaped. The Wall went up in 1961.
As inhumane as trapping people is – stripping them of self-rule, erecting gulags, watching every move, turning them into zoo animals – Soviet brutality was unchecked. That is, until the Wall came down. When it crashed, so did Soviet hegemony over 438 million people.
What caused the collapse? Many attribute the Soviet Union’s disintegration and Berlin Wall’s fall to Ronald Reagan. They are right, but it was more than his famous 1987 speech.
Reagan changed history by relentlessly challenging the legitimacy of Soviet Socialism – boldly calling out inhumane centralization of power, totalitarian control over individual lives, suppression of basic liberties, and expansionist ambitions. Reagan pulled zero punches.
In 1987, he was blunt. “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.” Reagan’s advisors advised against his saying it, but Reagan said it anyway.
Reagan challenged the Soviet leader. “Secretary General Gorbachev, if you seek peace–if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe–if you seek liberalization: come here, to this gate.” Heart punch: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Like saying the emperor had no clothes, Reagan’s challenge condemned the entire Soviet enterprise. He laid bare Soviet Socialism’s suppression of liberties – and lack of legitimacy.
Civilized nations do not destroy individual liberty in the name of Socialist aims; they do not kill, suppress, punish, surveil, or trap citizens for the ideological cause, or to consolidate power.
Between 1961 and 1989, an estimated 1200 people were shot trying to escape over the Wall. The final victim was a 20-year-old. He “died in a hail of bullets … on Feb. 5, 1989.” He was shot ten times. Soviet Socialism was unremitting.
Winding the clock back 35 years, I was in Soviet-dominated Poland and East Germany during summers 1983 and 1984. During month-long visits with families of Oxford friends, I witnessed Soviet Socialist oppression up close and personal.
To get to Poland, Americans parted “the Iron Curtain” at “Check Point Charlie” – going and coming. This was the demarcation line in Berlin, between East and West. With a visitor’s visa, I crossed the massive concrete Wall, the tank traps, tethered shepherds, and machine guns of “no man’s land.” The world suddenly went black and white, almost literally.
On the Soviet side, faces were universally morose, defeated. Spontaneity was dead, fear palpable. No one made eye contact. Children never laughed. Buildings were poorly constructed, gray. Communism sucked liberty from society, life from souls. People existed, but without hope.
In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, individual liberty was everywhere subordinated to the state. Reagan was right in 1983, when he called it an “evil empire.” In the bright light of Reagan’s unremitting challenge to their legitimacy, Soviet leaders recoiled.
In 1983 and 1984, when visiting East Germany, then Poland under martial law, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Soviet Russia, one saw how devasting – in material and spiritual terms – socialism is. Without liberty, the rare soul refuses to give up.
As Saint Bernard of Clairvaux observed a thousand years ago, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And even intentions eventually fall away, leaving just socialist hell.
In 1987, Reagan called the Soviets out. He was uncompromising. Behind panes of bullet-proof glass at the Brandenburg Gate, in range of East German snipers beside the Berlin Wall, Reagan unflinchingly pushed the Soviets – to end their oppression.
On that day, he explained: “We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.” He challenged the Soviets to tear down the Wall.
In 1989, an emboldened East German people did what predecessors dared not. They tore it down. The epiphany? Soviet leaders were powerless to stop them. The entire continent threw off totalitarian domination, demanding freedom to rule themselves. What Reagan trumpeted, what America stood for, what many thought impossible – became real. Hundreds of millions became free.
This is the real significance of the Berlin Wall’s falling – and our remembering 30 years later. Beside me sits a piece of the Wall, bright purple, black and green on the free side, blank on the other, until sprayed red, white and blue in 1989 by newly freed East Germans.
Not a day passes when I do not remember: Freedom is no accident. It is preserved only by awareness and courage. The power of socialism to justify itself – and to mercilessly oppress – is considerable. Freedom is always and everywhere precious.
In 2019, the big question is – what next? At home, Americans must learn again how and why to cherish their liberty, to oppose socialism, and to keep bright the light. Abroad, Socialists and Communists should not be allowed to sleep easy. Reagan was right, we must never forget. And this anniversary reminds us – once again.