“The biggest surprise of my life was freedom,” explained Angela Merkel after taking over as chancellor of Germany. “I expected the (Berlin) wall. I did not expect freedom,” she said in her first major address to the Bundestag.
Chancellor Merkel has gone from a physicist in communist East Germany in 1989 to the head of government of united Germany in 2005. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall she, along with millions of oppressed people throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, could only yearn to be free.
Being able to expect liberty, as we always have in the United States is an obvious blessing. But it is easy to forget how often people have had to die to win freedom.
For nearly four decades the Berlin Wall was the supreme symbol of totalitarianism, man’s utter inhumanity to man. World War II left Germany divided. The Red Army could conquer territory but not hearts. The result was Republikflucht, or “republic flight.”
Tens and often hundreds of thousands of residents of the East German workers’ paradise fled west every year. The so-called German Democratic Republic closed its border in 1952. But West Berlin, deep inside the GDR, remained open, allowing East Germans to continue to escape.
On Aug. 13, 1961, East Germany began stretching 96 miles of barbed wire around the island of freedom. Concrete barriers, death strips, and automatic firing mechanisms were added over time.
The Wall was no bluff. On Aug. 24, 1961, an attempted escapee was the first to be shot. Many did not survive.
On Aug. 17, 1962, Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old bricklayer, was left to bleed to death, his pitiable cries for help heard in the West.
At least 254 died trying to breach the Berlin Wall; another 700 were killed elsewhere along the GDR’s boundary. On Feb. 5, 1989, nine months before the Wall fell, 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy was the last person murdered while trying to escape.
No surprise, then, that Angela Merkel did not expect freedom. Although communist systems varied in some ways, all yielded repression and poverty. Many delivered assembly-line murder.
Stephane Courtois in “The Black Book of Communism” and R.J. Rummel in “Death By Government” paint pictures of endless horror.
Although casualty figures are uncertain and some estimates vary widely, as many as 75 million people were murdered by Mao Zedong and his criminal gang; Soviet dictators, led by the monstrous Joseph Stalin, killed at least 20 million and perhaps 60 million.
Millions died in North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. One can quibble about the details, but not the essentials. The Soviet Union truly was an evil empire, in President Ronald Reagan’s words.
The entire hideous system imploded in 1989. Communism was dead as a competitor for men’s souls.
Today, communism’s collapse seems to have been inevitable. But that was not obvious at the time.
Historical forces were working against totalitarian collectivism. The transformational power of capitalism was passing by the communist world.
Equally important, many courageous people fought for freedom, often at enormous personal risk. An electrician named Lech Walesa in Poland. A playwright named Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. A novelist named Alexander Solzhenitsyn and physicist named Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union.
There were other essential players. Pope John Paul II. Ronald Reagan. And reform communist Mikhail Gorbachev.
Most important were the millions who resisted in innumerable ways year after year. By 1989, communism no longer motivated even its chief beneficiaries, the nomenklatura, to fight on its behalf.
Change occurred throughout Eastern Europe, but it was the opening of the Berlin Wall – stained with the blood of those killed while seeking freedom – on the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, that dramatically demonstrated that the contest between individual liberty and totalitarian collectivism was over. All peoples could now expect freedom.
Not everything has gone smoothly over the following 16 years. And a few outposts of communism continue to oppress.
China is nominally communist, though the political elite’s embrace of capitalism makes the system look more fascist in character. Cuba fills its prisons with dissidents while its people languish in poverty. North Korea murders and oppresses on an enormous scale.
Yet increasingly people in even these countries are coming to expect liberty.
The desire for freedom runs deep in all people. But those who lack liberty usually most appreciate it.
Like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She didn’t expect freedom, but said that “once you’ve had such a wonderful surprise in your life, then you think anything is possible.”
Americans long ago stopped being surprised by liberty. But we should never forget that so many others died attempting to be free.