Monday, November 09, 2009

The Wall - my memories and thoughts

This is a little more serious than I usually am when posting here, but I feel like it's appropriate today.

20 years ago, when the Berlin Wall ceased to imprison a nation, I was 8 years old. I didn't understand how the Cold War came to be, but the earliest times I remember hearing of the Cold War, Communism, and the wall itself they were facts of life to the adults who talked about them. There wasn't any sense that the situation would ever change, much less that it would do so imminently. Knowing what I do now I think that my family's attitude toward the Cold War was fairly typical.

I was probably aware of the existence of Communism and of the Berlin Wall at some point in 1986 and 1987. I was much too young at the time to understand the ideologies behind the conflict; however my parents vividly imparted to me that behind the Iron Curtain the people had a fundamental lack of the freedom that we Americans enjoyed. They also told me of the Wall, the most prominent symbol of the bondage of millions - and I was happy that I lived in a free country, though I didn't completely understand what made us free and the East Germans not so.

I remember when the Wall was breached, watching the jubilant German people on the evening news, and thinking that those people were now free too, just like me. I still didn't understand entirely what it meant to be free, but I knew that it was better than the alternative - and the people on the TV looked like they thought so too.

I'm asking myself now, what were those people on the TV 20 years ago seeking to be free from? What were they seeking to get away from, and why? What, ultimately, was so bad about Communism that millions would want to escape it, would embarrass its administrators in dozens of nations with this desire, would result in those governments constructing fortifications to keep people who shared their language and cultural heritage from fleeing?

As easy as it would be to think of it as a conflict between good and evil people, I've come to the conclusion that the real battle was, and is, between good and evil systems of government. Not that the systems of government "forced" people to do various good or bad deeds; but that on one side of the Wall 20 years ago was a system that resulted in behavior beneficial to others, and on the other side a system existed that promoted the more undesirable tendencies of humanity.

On one side of the Wall, the system effectively restrained the desire of the people to force their preferences onto others; on the other side the system enabled those harmful desires.

On one side of the Wall, loyalty to one's family was generally treated as a virtue; on the other side, it was more likely an impediment to career advancement.

On one side of the Wall, a candidate winning 60% of the votes in an election was an extraordinary success; on the other, "winning" 90% or more was routine.

On one side of the Wall, goods and services were sold for whatever the market would bear, and the people generally prospered; with time and money for leisure and less basic concerns, many took an interest in the environment and started one of the most prominent Green parties in the world. On the other side, government officials enforced "fair" prices on everyday staple items, which however were frequently unavailable. The environment wasn't nearly as much of a concern for the workers, and it deteriorated to a great extent.

The people on one side of the Wall could cross to the other side almost anytime they wished, unmolested. Relatively few stayed for long.

Those on the other side, until that day 20 years ago, risked being shot for trying to cross to the West, and could never return. Yet they continued to attempt to escape.

I think the Wall was so memorable because it illustrated, like no other barrier in existence, the differences between the Free World (markets, open elections, and relatively limited government) and the Communist world (lacking all of those). This was not a barrier between hostile ethnic groups or nations, imposed by both sides to keep peace. It was built by one side alone, and separated people who shared 1000 years of a common language and an illustrious history in commerce, the arts, and craftsmanship. It showed the failure of one system and the success of another.

We must be constantly vigilant not to forget that lesson.