In a world scarred by violence, terrorism, and war, it is easy to grow pessimistic. Even the freeist societies, like the United States, seem to move inexorably toward a more expansive and expensive state. No matter who wins next year’s election, Americans are likely to end up less free and in greater danger.
Yet, political liberation is possible.
A few months ago, Iraqis joyously stomped on the ruined icons of Saddam Hussein. Twelve years ago, Soviet citizens pulled down the statue of Felix Dzerhinsky, first head of the hated secret police, in the aftermath of the failed coup.
And, 14 years ago, Germans destroyed the ultimate symbol of political slavery and oppression: the Berlin Wall. Its memories are preserved at the Mauer Museum, also known as the Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie, located near the old border crossing between East and West. It is a must-visit for anyone who doubts the durability of the human spirit.
World War II left Germany divided. The political wreckage that constituted Europe in 1945 was still fresh in August 1961. Although the Soviet Union had imposed an Iron Curtain across Europe, Berlin offered an escape hatch.
Administered and defended by the two contending alliances, Berlin was the one spot on the continent where communist subjects could walk to freedom. And they did, by the thousands.
The best and the brightest, the young and the ambitious, simply walked away from the East German state, the so-called German Democratic Republic. The endless flow of refugees also embarrassed the Soviet Union: Why were people fleeing the communist paradise?
On Aug. 13, 1961, the thugs who ruled the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union decided to wall their people in. Construction of the Berlin Wall started with a string of barbed wire, continued with a wall, and steadily added ever more sophisticated and deadly defenses.
Heavily armed borders to prevent outside invasion would have been nothing new. Unique was communism’s goal of imprisoning its own people. Nearly 70 miles of walls encircled Berlin.
The symbol of Germany’s division was Checkpoint Charlie. U.S. and Soviet tanks confronted each other at this border crossing; nearby bricklayer Peter Fechter died while attempting to escape. In 1963, the Wall Museum was opened yards away.
Museum exhibits include specially designed automobiles to conceal escapees, chairlifts used from buildings adjoining the Wall, tunneling equipment, balloons, a motorized glider, and even a mini submarine. There are stories of those who escaped and examples of those who dedicated their lives to helping people to be free.
There also are accounts of those who failed. All told, 5,075 people are known to have escaped despite the Wall. But 176 died in the attempt; nearly 800 more were killed attempting to flee across the fortified border elsewhere into West Germany.
Some of the photo images will live forever. On Aug. 15, 1961, we see Conrad Schumann, the first border guard to escape, gracefully leaping over a tangled roll of barbed wire. On Aug.17, 1962, 18-year-old Peter Fechter bled to death after being shot down before he could reach sanctuary in the West.
This symbol of brutality and violence continued to divide Europe into the 1980s. Attempts at Republikflucht, or Republic Flight – a crime in East Germany – often ending in arrest, imprisonment, and even death, persisted up into 1989. On Feb. 5, 1989, 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy was shot attempting to escape into West Berlin, the last East German murdered while seeking freedom.
But the East German state was running out of time.
Glasnost and perestroika gutted the totalitarian Soviet state throughout the mid- to late 1980s. By late 1989, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were all slipping out of communism’s grip. The Mauer Museum includes small exhibits on the freedom struggles in each of these nations, in which courageous people risked their lives. Soon demonstrations spiraled out of control in Leipzig, pushing the East German government toward oblivion. The authorities announced that they were relaxing border controls. On Nov. 9, 1989, when thousands of East Germans begin massing on the borders, the guards opened the gates.
The Wall had fallen. People danced on it and chipped pieces from it. It soon was torn down and the two Germanies prepared to reunify.
Checkpoint Charlie was formally demolished the following year. Now all that remains are the memories – and the Mauer Museum.
Of course, the struggle for human liberty did not end with the Berlin Wall. There remain the grotesque tyranny of Kim JongIl in North Korea, the oppressive rule of the Mullahs in Iran, a bevy of African and South Asian dictatorships and more.
But to visit the Mauer Museum is to develop hope anew in the prospect for freedom. Humans have not suddenly become good, neither has evil disappeared from the world. Nevertheless, most humans crave freedom. And the good guys sometimes win.