The Wall and me


The twentieth century was a savage struggle between liberal democracy and totalitarian  forces.  During most of that time, liberal democracy was losing – badly.  Even when one monstrous tyranny was defeated – like the Nazis and fascists after World War II – this required the help of equally monstrous despots like Stalin, who also benefited most from the consequences.

The last world war ended before I was born, but I’m plenty old enough to remember the Cold War.  A portion of the human race was free and on the defensive; the vast majority was enslaved by zealots, people who worshipped violence and believed the future belonged to them.  The conflict was “cold” only in the sense that it didn’t blow up the world in a mushroom cloud.  From Korea to Afghanistan, there were plenty of shooting wars, and millions of lives were offered without much regret as the broken eggs for the Marxist omelette.

In August 1961 the Berlin Wall went up.  The reason for its construction was apparent:  if you give people an escape hatch from enslavement, they’ll take it.  The Wall shuttered 18 million Germans into an existential purgatory.  Marxist regimes, which had claimed with some success to be defenders of the weak, suddenly stood exposed as wardens of an immense jailhouse, imprisoning entire populations.

The Wall was never a symbol.  It was a fact, grim and true.

The thing is, I thought the Wall was forever.  That’s something I often reflect on:  I gave up on those millions behind the Wall.  I was being realistic, but I was also gullible.  Soviet propaganda about the workers’ paradise shattered on the hard masonry of the Berlin Wall, but another sort of falsehood became enshrined there, about the inevitability of those brutal regimes.

I hope I remember that, the next time a nation or a group in the grip of tyranny – in Iran, say, or China – are written off as hopeless.

Not that I was alone – just about everyone was realistic back then.  One exception was Ronald Reagan, and when he attacked the tyrants and predicted their demise, his political opponents here at home criticized him for his recklessness.  It was felt to be unrealistic, almost impolite, to call the mass jailers “evil.”

I endorsed Reagan’s rhetorical assault on Marxist tyranny, but found his prediction that it would end in the “ash-heap of history” naïve.  It made the conflict sound too easy.  Even when he went to the Wall and called on Gorbachev to tear it down – even then, in that late hour of Communist decline, I must admit that I considered the whole thing a nice gesture, nothing more.

Of course, the Wall did come down, and with it the German Democratic Republic and all the Marxist regimes in Europe.  People found an escape hatch from enslavement, and took it.  That too is something to remember.  Totalitarianism must rule in fear of its own people, because there are so many doors to freedom.

Somehow the liberal democracies, our own included, won the long war of the twentieth century.

The cause of the Communist collapse is still controversial, probably because it frustrated the expectations of many intellectual trend-setters who lived on the happy side of the Wall.  Yet Reagan surely had something to do with it, as did Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev.

The concert given in Berlin by Pink Floyd shortly after the change, centered around their song “The Wall,” hints at another powerful cause.  The band was composed of artsy Cambridge know-it-alls of the kind who thought Reagan bloodier than Genghis Khan, and their “wall” had to do with loneliness in boarding school.  But the appeal of Western way of life, of the freedom to act in unorthodox and unconventional ways, played a large part in the fall of the real Wall – and rock and roll exemplified all that was forbidden by the jailers.

Twenty years ago almost to the day, Berliners dismantled the Wall, and eighty million people were liberated soon after.  It was a great event to anyone who cherishes freedom – I don’t expect to see the like in my lifetime.

As Gorbachev observes, the fall of the Wall didn’t usher in the end of history.  People have done better or worse, the way people do in all places, at all times.  But Gorbachev’s thesis, that “today’s world is no fairer” than it was during the Cold War, is sour grapes unworthy of a man who has been gracious in defeat.  For the eighty million, it is fairer, in this sense:  that their fate is in their hands.

President Obama, I see, has declined a German invitation to join the anniversary festivities.  I’m perplexed by this decision.  The fall of the Berlin Wall wasn’t a militarist triumph, or a Republican President’s gambit, or a passing event that left the world no fairer than before.  It was a moment of liberation:  a rare expansion of the boundaries of freedom.  Every American – every human being – ought to celebrate it.

Mr. President, please applaud the tearing down of this Wall – return to Berlin, and join the leaders of other liberal democracies in remembering a great triumph for freedom.


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