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Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 1999/ 10 Kislev, 5760

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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The most important moral battle of our time --
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 openness."

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 naive.

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 time.

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.

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©1999, Cathy Young