I first visited West Berlin in June 1981. I took the closed American military train through the 112-mile-long corridor through hostile communist East Germany that offered access to that city from the free world. I was told not to take photos out the closed and covered windows along the way. Peeking out the window I could see armed communist guards along the route making sure that the prohibition was enforced.
West Berlin was an island of freedom in the middle of a communist country, protected by the occupying powers of the United States, Britain, and France. It was a bright and vibrant city. Kurfürstendamm, the main boulevard, was lined with restaurants, shops, and hotels. Crowds sought good food, good entertainment, and a good time. At the end of Ku’damm stood the remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, destroyed during World War II, its spire looking like melted wax, a reminder of a past never again to be repeated.
But I wanted to see the Wall. In 1961 the Soviet Union, which occupied its part of Berlin and Germany after the war, ordered its East German puppet regime to build a wall to stem the flood of East German individuals who were voting with their feet and escaping to the West.
West Berlin was ringed at many points by a double wall. The two walls were separated by several hundred yards of no-mans-land with guards, look-out towers, machine guns, barbed wire, anti-tank barricades, helicopter and armored vehicle patrols, everything necessary to prevent escape.
At various points along the wall on the West Berlin side stood crosses marking the spots where, on the other side in no-mans-land, those who would not sit quietly and be slaves were gunned down and died in their bids to escape to freedom.
I went into East Berlin through CheckPointCharlie, the military gate that was the only way to get from one side of the divided city to the other. I was required by the communists to purchase about 25 East German Ostmarks—$12.00—in order to pass through. I figured I’d use the money to buy some postcards and souvenirs. But in East Berlin there were none to be found. The city was sterile. Some big, Soviet-style buildings stood along the mostly-deserted thoroughfare, in stark contrast to the West and Ku’damm. I managed to buy an ice cream cone, but it wasn’t very good ice cream.
After some hours there I did what no East Berliner could do. I walked back to CheckPointCharlie, showed my American passport to the communist guards, and was allowed to return to the West and freedom.
In 1987 Ronald Reagan would stand at that infamous border between freedom and oppression and demand of the Soviet Premier, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall !” On November 9, 1989, the wall fell as the communist government of East Germany, like those in the rest of the Soviet bloc, could no longer hold back their subjects’ demands for liberty.
The Soviet Union itself lasted a few more years but it too was doomed. When I visited Berlin in 1990 at the Brandenburg Gate, where Reagan had stood before the wall (by then demolished), Soviet soldiers still stationed in East Berlin had set up a make-shift bazaar selling military hats, coats, uniforms, medals—and probably weapons if you wanted them—to earn hard currency so they could go to the shops on Ku’damm and purchase all the goods they couldn’t secure in their own impoverished country.
The Red army had disintegrated.
The wall was a breathtaking moral obscenity, a concrete manifestation of the philosophy on which it was built. The communists held that the good of society took priority over the interests of selfish individuals. They maintained that individuals must be required to work for society. Of course, the will of “society” was to be divined and carried out by a small ruling elite who would have the exclusive right to force all to serve whether they wanted to or not.
And no one could be allowed to opt out and leave, to escape his duty to serve. The reality of this philosophy was most starkly on display in East Berlin. Communist countries were giant prison camps holding the slaves in bondage and shooting them if they tried to escape.
Today there are only a few regimes, like North Korea, that are literal prison camps along the lines of the Soviet bloc. But the philosophy, and its manifestation in culture, that gave rise to the Berlin Wall are still very much alive.
We see the philosophy in declarations by American politicians that we all have a duty to serve our community, to put the interests of society ahead of our own interests. But “society” is not some abstraction opposed to individuals. Rather, society is nothing but the flesh and blood individuals who compose it. And the interests of individuals don’t conflict if they deal with one another based on reason and mutual consent. Conflicts arise only when some individuals and groups desire the irrational and the unearned, when they want to extract something for nothing from their neighbors. Conflict most often arises at the point of a gun, whether held by a common criminal, by a pampered interest group, or by government elites.
We see the philosophy in the politicians who think they can run our lives better than we can and who will use the force of government to impose their will on us. Look at almost any major initiative before Congress today.
And we see the philosophy in America’s paternalist political elites who want a globalization not based on the freedom of individuals in all countries to trade with one another without the interference from their respective governments but who rather want to join with the elites of other governments to control more effectively the lives of their respective subjects. They want to wipe out so-called “tax havens” so that no one can secure their earnings from the hands of rapacious governments. They want to “coordinate” regulatory policies, that is, make certain that no country is too free and that all governments are free to place as many restrictions as they want on their subjects. They want to leave no West Berlins to which the East Berliners of all countries can flee.
The Cold War crystallized the battle between two philosophies, one of individualism and freedom, the other of collectivism and repression. The Soviet bloc collapsed under the burden of its own contradictions and in the face of Western diligence and military might.
Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall it is difficult for many young people—and older people who were confused to begin with—to appreciate that the moral philosophy on which the wall was built lives on and threatens us still. Those who value their lives and liberty must tear down that false philosophy lest new walls rise to separate us from our freedom.
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Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.