When ConservativeHome asked me to write a piece on the 20th anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall was opened, I decided on two things. First, especially given the number of reminiscing articles in recent days from leaders and politicians from the time who were necessarily looking at the issue from above, that my piece would view things from the bottom. It will also be personal, however. All of the photos here are taken with my camera. Second, so much attention has been given to how the Wall was opened on this day, that we are in danger of overlooking what happened in the preceding 40 years of East German communism. In other words, the fall of the Wall has become too much an event in itself, and not enough the demise of a four-decade long system.
Between March 23rd 1985 and its abolition on 3rd October 1990, I visited the GDR (East Germany) 48 times. I also lived in Prague for a summer, but for much of those five years, I lived in West Berlin, which was a remarkable place for reasons many readers will be familiar with. Perhaps its most striking feature was the ability of a visitor to cross from our free market, democratic system, to a Communist dictatorship within the short space of about 20 minutes, by walking perhaps 20 metres across a border, in a way which in 2009 is simply not possible. The Korean Demarcation Line probably comes closest, but there it is only a very selected few who can cross.
In those years, I did work from time to time for the West Berlin based “Arbeitsgemeinschaft 13. August” and the Frankfurt-based, “International Society for Human Rights”. My role was to meet dissidents, generally people who had no international recognition, often very ordinary people. Like Heiko in East Berlin, who was a cook, with a Berlin accent so strong as to be almost incomprehensible, who had spent time in the notorious East German jail in Bautzen, and remained defiant faced with Stasi-sponsored break-ins to his flat on almost a weekly basis. His crime? Making a legal application to leave the country.
Or Eva in Prague, who lost her job at the theatre for rehearsing for an unauthorised play. Or a man whose name I forget in Romania, who was ethnically German, and had undergone electrode treatment, which had left him brain-damaged, after criticising the regime of Nicolai Ceausescu, a leader who was feted in the West. After the Wall came down, I received letters from very many of these people, pouring out their hearts, one of more than 17 pages describing in great detail what had happened to him.
I was fined numerous times (click to enlarge the one shown here on the right, for “failing to adhere to the legal requirements for a stay in Berlin, the capital of the GDR”), various times I wasn’t allowed in, twice I was expelled, and once I was beaten. I was, however, lucky. Being a Western European (especially in the case of East Berlin, a citizen of one of the official Berlin occupying powers), I was actually in a very privileged position, and that, as such, I was almost certainly right that nothing serious would happen to me.
Despite my sometimes reckless adventuring in those years, my favourite pastime was not so much the work with the dissidents, but was more simply just travelling around the GDR or Czechoslovakia, just talking with people (I studied German, Czech and Slovak all to university level). These were curious places. Materially, their economies functioned adequately most of the time. Staples were plentiful and cheap, unlike in, say, Poland or the USSR. Consumer goods like fridges, TVs, HiFis, etc, were available, but of a lesser quality and more expensive than those in the West. The biggest problem for consumers was often the lack of choice and individuality in the consumer goods available. Boredom was as common a sentiment as opposition.
Domestically, the GDR and Czechoslovakia were in trouble, but not yet in crisis. Numbers applying to leave were rising slowly, but were manageable. Church attendance was up. Even between 1985 and 1989, I could tell that critics were emboldened and more vocal. The quality of material goods was falling further behind the West. Nevertheless, with the exception of the rise of Gorbachev, there were few obvious signs of the storm ahead. Despite the cruelties of the political system, there was a level of material well-being which a great many found to be satisfactory.
And that leads me to the two political points I want to make.
The first is this: in 2009 political freedom is very closely correlated with economic wellbeing. This is the case almost everywhere. China might be the most extreme counter case today, where prosperity is becoming more pervasive, whilst political freedoms are still too few. Generally, however, prosperity and freedom are well-correlated. This wasn’t the case in 1989. Today it is obvious to most observers that democracy, economic advancement and personal wealth all go hand-in-hand. In 1989, this was still open to argument. Many, especially Ronald Reagan, saw the connection clearly, but it was still debated.
The great effect of the Communist collapse has been the spread of both the free market and democracy in the last twenty years. There really hasn’t been another model to follow. Whilst an occasional Hugo Chavez, Taliban or Vladimir Putin tries to buck the trend, not even the global economic crisis of the last two years has called that model into question. Indeed, I would not have been able twenty years ago to predict that almost all of the Eastern European countries liberated in 1989/1990 would have chosen to become free-market democracies. It would have seemed certain that some would have regressed to their pre-1939 condition of mixed economies, led by a nationalist strong man.
The second point is this. How can one show new generations today so visibly the evils of communism and totalitarianism? Compared with my twenty minutes to cross into East Berlin, the way to Pyongyang is both long and expensive. As time elapses, and memory is replaced by history, we need to be careful to remind ourselves that liberty and prosperity were not the inevitable victors.
I am proud and actually very lucky to have been there for the three big revolutions in the GDR, in Czechoslovakia and in Romania (The picture on the right is me with some Romanian revolutionary soldiers in Bucharest in January 1990). Nevertheless, I have a special gratitude that I was able to see what had come before them. It was Reagan who said that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction”. We can be thankful that today, as we celebrate the arrival of freedom to millions twenty years ago, repressive, totalitarian regimes are always far less than one generation away from freedom.