“The biggest surprise of my life was freedom,” explained Angela Merkel after taking over as Germany’s Chancellor. “I expected the [Berlin] wall. I did not expect freedom,” she said in her first major address to the Bundestag.
Although Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats did unexpectedly poorly in the recent election, they defeated the ruling Social Democrats, allowing her to complete the transition from a physicist in communist East Germany in 1989 to the head of government of united Germany in 2005.
Necessary for that transformation was the fall of the Berlin Wall, a seemingly permanent fixture of international life. Until then millions of oppressed people throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe could only yearn for freedom. They could not take it for granted, as in the West.
Being able to expect liberty is an obvious blessing, but in certain ways a dangerous one. For it is easy to forget how essential is freedom, and how many Americans died to win and protect liberty.
FOR NEARLY FOUR DECADES the Berlin Wall was the supreme symbol of totalitarianism, man’s utter inhumanity to man. Its genesis was World War II and the cataclysmic collision of the Nazi and communist tyrannies.
Germany’s defeat left that state divided between East and West. The Red Army could conquer national territory but not win human hearts: workers rose in East Berlin in 1953, only to be ground under Soviet tanks.
The chief alternative to political opposition was Republikflucht, or “republic flight.” Tens and often hundreds of thousands of residents of the workers’ paradise fled west every year. This was not only a supreme embarrassment to the self-proclaimed people’s representatives; it also constituted an economic disaster.
The so-called German Democratic Republic closed its border in 1952. But Berlin remained open under the occupation accords, allowing thousands of East Germans to continue to find freedom.
The GDR, backed by Moscow, finally had enough. On August 13, 1961 armed guards began stretching 96 miles of barbed wire around West Berlin. Over time the communist regime added concrete barriers, death strips, and automatic firing mechanisms.
The Wall was no bluff. The first attempted escapee was shot on August 24th; he was fished out of a canal alive.
Alas, many did not survive. On August 17, 1962 Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old brick-layer — he would now be 61 — was left to bleed to death, his pitiable cries for help heard in the west before East German guards carried his body off nearly an hour later.
Still, hope lived on among East Germans. Although at least 254 died trying to breach the Berlin Wall, with another 700 were killed elsewhere along the GDR’s boundary, more than 5,000 people succeeded in escaping. They used special autos, balloons, tunnels, gliders, and even mini-subs.
There never was a kinder, gentler East Germany. On February 5, 1989, nine months before the Wall fell, 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy was the last person murdered while trying to escape. He would now be 36.
NO SURPRISE, THEN, THAT ANGELA MERKEL did not expect freedom. Although communist systems varied in some ways — the GDR was a bit more prosperous, Hungary was a bit more relaxed, Yugoslavia was a bit more independent — all yielded repression and poverty. Many delivered assembly-line murder.
The picture painted by Stephane Courtois in The Black Book of Communism and R.J. Rummel in Death by Government is one of endless horror. Although casualty figures are uncertain and some estimates vary widely, as many as 75 million people were murdered by Mao Zedong and his criminal gang; Soviet dictators, led by the monstrous Joseph Stalin, killed at least 20 and perhaps 60 million.
Millions died in North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. One can quibble about the details but not the essentials. The Soviet Union, with its de facto colonies in tow, truly was an evil empire, as President Ronald Reagan opined.
Enemies were killed. Competitors were purged. Resisters were starved. And sometimes people were murdered for the same reason that some Americans get traffic tickets: to fill a quota.
In the Soviet Union, reports political scientist R.J. Rummel: “Murder and arrest quotas did not work well. Where to find the ‘enemies of the people’ they were to shoot was a particularly acute problem for the local NKVD, which had been diligent in uncovering ‘plots.’ They had to resort to shooting those arrested for the most minor civil crimes, those previously arrested and released, and even mothers and wives who appeared at NKVD headquarters for information about their arrested loved ones.”
Symbolically, at least, the entire hideous system disappeared in 1989. The transition spawned manifold practical difficulties, but communism lost any moral claim.
Today communism’s collapse seems to have been inevitable. But it was not obvious then.
Certainly historical forces were working against totalitarian collectivism. The transformational power of capitalism was passing by the communist world. Yet any attempt to tap into the power of the market risked political control.
Equally important, many courageous people believed in freedom and demanded change, often at enormous personal risk. An electrician named Lech Walesa in Poland. A playwright named Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. A novelist named Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and physicist named Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union.
There were other essential players. Pope John Paul II. President Ronald Reagan. And reform communist Mikhail Gorbachev.
Most important were the millions who resisted in innumerable ways year after year. Their efforts culminated in 1989. Average people rose up, causing communist elites to lose their nerve and capitulate.
Stalin would have rolled the tanks over protesters. But Communism no longer motivated even its chief beneficiaries, the nomenklatura, to fight on its behalf.
Change stirred in Hungary and Poland, spread to Czechoslovakia, and then enveloped East Germany. The other communist dominoes, most notably the Soviet Union itself, eventually toppled as well.
BUT IT WAS THE OPENING of the Berlin Wall — stained with the blood of hundreds of East Germans killed while seeking freedom — on the evening of November 9 that dramatically demonstrated that the contest between individual liberty and totalitarian collectivism was over. Freedom had won and now could be expected by all peoples.
Not everything has gone smoothly over the following 16 years. Economies have remained controlled and enfeebled. Political systems have stultified and sometimes regressed.
And communism continues to oppress. China is nominally communist, though the political elite’s embrace of capitalism make it look more fascist in character.
Laos keeps its people poor and under tight control. Cuba fills its prisons with dissidents while its people languish in poverty. North Korea murders and oppresses on an enormous scale.
Yet increasingly people in even these countries are coming to expect freedom. Increased personal autonomy is the norm in China. Cubans hoping for liberation expectantly await dictator Fidel Castro’s death. Planes to Laos are filled with tourists. North Koreans increasingly risk arrest and death to flee their supposed paradise.
The desire for freedom runs deep in all people. But those who lack liberty usually most appreciate it.
Like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She didn’t expect freedom, but said that “once you’ve had such a wonderful surprise in your life, then you think anything is possible.”
Americans long ago stopped being surprised by liberty. But the fact that so many others have died while attempting to be free provides us with a lesson that we should never forget.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.
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