Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 1999/ 10 Kislev, 5760
The most important moral battle of our
FOREIGN POLICY ISSUES these days are a morass of moral ambiguity, where
not only interpretations but the most basic facts are usually in dispute --
such as the true scope of the Serb atrocities cited as the justification for
NATO intervention in Kosovo. That's why it's refreshing to look back 10
years to a clearcut triumph of good over evil: the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Today, that moment remains a powerful symbol for the end of the Iron Curtain
and the collapse of Communism.
Some might say that the good and evil aren't all that unambiguous. The
former citizens of East Germany, and other Eastern Europeans, are said to
miss the social services offered by the old Communist regimes, and to feel
adrift in the new world of everyone for himself and dog-eat-dog competition.
(Never mind that the unified Germany, for instance, is a welfare state rarely
associated with competitive individualism.)
The New York Times, the other
day, ran an article by Bulgarian writer and disillusioned democratic activist
Blagovesta Doncheva lamenting the misery caused by the demise of socialism
and wishing that her country hadn't heeded the siren call of "democracy and
In fact, Communist nostalgia may not be all that widespread; the
nostalgia-mongers may simply be one of the more vocal segments of the
population. In a poll of Germans conducted in September, only 14 percent of
the easterners said that things were better when the wall between East and
West stood intact.
Of course, the transition to a free economy and a free society has not
been easy; if anyone expected the euphoria that followed the collapse of
dictatorship to last indefinitely, such expectations can only be called
A mess left by decades of a totalitarianism that warped social and
economic relations could not be undone painlessly. The debate about methods
of transition -- the pace of reform, the need to preserve social protections,
etc. -- is best left for another time, though it's worth pointing out that
the countries that have taken the most radical steps on the road of
privatization and limited government (the Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia)
have fared best. One could even argue that eastern Germany might have been
better off if it had been absorbed into a country with fewer social programs
and more job growth.
Questions about the present and the future aside, this anniversary is an
occasion to remember what kind of past the Wall stood for. After the
partition of Germany, the population began to vote with its feet against
communism, fleeing from East to West (never in the other direction). In
1961, East Germany's rulers sealed off the only section of the border that
remained open, in East Berlin -- at first only with barbed wire -- and
started building the Wall.
Anyone who saw the CNN series "The Cold War" a
year ago will remember the harrowing story: people watching in helpless anger
as the last bars of a cage were rising around them; families divided;
desperate and sometimes fatal attempts to flee.
In the 28 years that passed before the Wall opened and then crumbled, the
escape attempts continued, sometimes involving dazzling feats of ingenuity
and daring (even flight by air balloon), despite shoot-to-kill orders issued
to the border guards by the East German regime. Between 500 and 900 people
were murdered while trying to cross to the other side. What they were trying
to escape was a state that may have had the highest per capita number of
secret police spies in history.
The quality of East German day care centers is as irrelevant as the
virtues of the highway system built by Hitler's Reich. The Wall represented
an evil empire. Ronald Reagan -- whom it has been gratifying to see in the
old clips on TV uttering the famous words, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this
wall!" -- had it exactly right. In the Cold War, the Western democracies,
whatever their flaws, were fighting the most important moral battle of our
JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.
Cathy Young Archives
©1999, Cathy Young