BERLIN — A line of cobblestones in the street marks where the Wall once ran through the middle of town. Just on the East German side of Friedrichstrasse, in an empty lot, is a field of crosses honoring those who died trying to escape the totalitarian rule of East Germany.
A few yards from this memorial was Checkpoint Charlie, the entry point from the Soviet sector of East Berlin to the American sector. A museum there remembers 18-year-old Peter Fechter, who on August 17, 1962, was shot scaling the Berlin Wall in a bid for freedom. The guards let him bleed to death.
The crosses honor dozens of others, who tried climbing the wall or crossing the sea. One cross, easy to spot from Friedrichstrasse, remembers Uwe Joachim, who died crossing the Baltic on August 14, 1987.
On that same day in 1941, Catholic Priest Maximilian Kolbe died in Auschwitz. Guards there had put Kolbe and nine other men in a starvation chamber in retaliation for some other prisoners who had escaped. Kolbe, in fact, volunteered to take the place of a father who had been selected by the guards.
Just yards from Joachim’s cross and the place where Fechter bled to death, tourists can buy kitschy Communist Party paraphernalia, mock uniforms, and Soviet hats, just like the ones worn by the guards on the East German side of Checkpoint Charlie.
You could probably guess that they don’t sell kid-sized Nazi uniforms at Auschwitz.
We know that Nazis are not funny. When are we going to learn this about Soviet Communism?
Josef Stalin was responsible for the deaths of an estimated eight to 20 million people during his rule. You can buy a Stalin poster or tee-shirt at Checkpoint Charlie today — and people do. Tourists from the U.S., Canada, and Europe can be seen on the streets of Berlin sporting their Stalin clothes.
I imagine most of this is ironic humor, mock-celebrating the idols of a failed system. The German reverence (or display of reverence at least) for Adolf Hitler also reached absurd levels, but little German kids don’t sport their Führer gear around the city.
Humor is a necessary outlet of fear and anger. Sometimes the only way to deal with terrible things is to joke about it. We joke about Osama bin Laden even though the thought of September 11 makes me clench my jaw. Mel Brooks’ The Producers is full of Hitler humor.
Dictators and terrorists have a funny aspect: they are ridiculously self-important in a way that deserves mockery. But we also know that joking about mass-murders shows disrespect to the murdered.
You can drink in a trendy bar in West Berlin where exotically dressed attractive women sip $10 martinis that young men in $800 suits bought them, and a mural of Mao Tse-tung covers the back wall. Mao’s “cultural revolution” resulted, too, in countless deaths.
This phenomenon is hardly confined to Berlin. As columnist Bernadette Malone pointed out about New York:
New York City practically invented “sensitivity to victims” and “historical awareness,” yet its elite party the night away in clubs like Pravda in Soho and KGB in the East Village, where Soviet flags and paraphernalia decorate the atmosphere.
We could speculate endlessly about why it is so. Perhaps we can blame this, too, on liberal bias. The New York Times, after all, spilled gallons of ink defending the Soviet system, and so they have trouble putting it on the same plane as Nazism, even after the facts are out.
But even without examining the reasons behind this phenomenon, we should be able to resolve to change our ways and stop pretending that mass murderers are cool or funny. In that way, we can start paying tribute to the men and women who died at the Wall, or anywhere else, at the hands of Communist dictatorship.