Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. In several ways, the Wall and its collapse are fitting symbols of communism. They demonstrate several truths about that system that we would be wise not to lose sight of.

First and foremost, Cold War-era Berlin was the most visible demonstration of the superiority of capitalism and democracy over communism and dictatorship. Despite the fact that East Germany had one of the highest standards of living in the Soviet bloc, it had to build a wall to keep its people from fleeing to the capitalist West. By contrast, West Germans and other westerners were free to move to the communist world anytime they wanted. Yet only a tiny handful ever did so. Decisions to “vote with your feet” are often even better indicators of peoples’ true preferences than ballot box voting, since foot voters have better incentives to become well-informed about the alternatives before them. Even more powerful evidence is the reality that many East Germans and others fled from communism even when doing so meant risking their lives.

Second, the Berlin Wall was an important symbol of the way in which communist governments violated the human right to freedom of movement, one of the most important attributes of a free society. If people are forcibly trapped under the rule of the government in whose territory they happen to be born, they are not truly free; rather, they are hostages of their rulers.

Finally, the sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 vividly demonstrated the extent to which communist totalitarianism relied on coercion to maintain its rule. Some Western scholars and leftists contended that most Russians and Eastern Europeans actually supported communism or at least preferred it to the available alternatives. The events of 1989 gave the lie to this notion, though a few writers still defend it today. Once the Soviet government and its puppet states in Eastern Europe signalled that they would no longer suppress opposition by force, the Berlin Wall was quickly torn down, and communist governments throughout Eastern Europe collapsed within months under a tidal wave of popular hostility. Both the communist rulers themselves and many Western observers had been misled by previous widespread expressions of support for communism. They failed to take full account of the fact that those expressions of support were in large part the result of fear. Once the fear dissipated, so too did most of the support. Unfortunately, many scholars and journalists still haven’t learned this crucial lesson. In analyzing places like Cuba and Iran, they too often take public expressions of support for repressive rulers at face value. This is not to say that communist governments had no popular support at all or that decades of communist indoctrination were completely ineffective; far from it. However, the true level of support for such regimes is likely to be much lower than it seems.

Despite all of the above, I am somewhat conflicted about the status of the Berlin Wall as the symbol of communist oppression in the popular imagination. My reservations have to do with the underappreciated fact that the Wall was actually one of communism’s smaller crimes. Between 1961 and 1989, about 100 East Germans were killed trying to escape to the West through Wall. The Wall also trapped several million more Germans in a repressive totalitarian society. These are grave atrocities. But they pale in comparison to the millions slaughtered in gulags, deliberately created famines in the USSR, China, and Ethiopia, and mass executions of kulaks and “class enemies.” The Berlin Wall wasn’t even the worst communist atrocity in East Germany. As historian Norman Naimark has documented, Soviet occupation troops in East Germany raped some 2 million German women, executed thousands of political prisoners (only a minority of whom were Nazis or guilty of war crimes), and imposed extensive forced labor on much of the population. It is true, of course, that German troops committed comparable, and sometimes even greater, atrocities in the USSR. But the one set of wrongs in no way justifies the other. Forced labor and concentration camps continued on a substantial scale even after the Soviets established an “independent” East German state in 1949.

Terrible as the Berlin Wall was, focusing on it as the main example of communist injustice may actually lead people to underestimate how awful that system truly was. It is a bit like portraying Kristallnacht or the Night of the Long Knives (both atrocities had death tolls comparable that of the Berlin Wall) as the main example of Nazi oppression, rather than the Holocaust.

It is important to remember the Berlin Wall and the lessons it teaches. But doing so is only one small part of the task of rectifying the longstanding neglect of communist crimes.