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Monday, November 9, 2009

Berlin, August 1961: An Anniversary We Should Never Forget

[This essay originally appeared in the National Review Online in 2001. ]

August marks the anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall that for 28 years thereafter, divided the city of Berlin and closed off the only remaining escape hatch for people in the communist East who wanted freedom in the West. It was a shocking surprise when it happened because no warning was given before East German soldiers and police first stretched barbed wire and then began planting the infamous wall, guard towers, dog runs, and landmines behind it.

By one estimate, a total of 254 people died at the wall during those 28 years—shot by police, ensnared by the barbed wire, mauled by dogs, or blown to bits by land mines as the “Workers’ Paradise” sought to keep them imprisoned in a statist hell.

In my office hangs a copy of a famous photo of a poignant moment from that sad day in 1961. With obvious apprehension, a young East German soldier glances about as he prepares to let a small boy pass through the emerging barrier. No doubt the boy spent the night with friends and found himself the next morning on the opposite side of the Wall from his family. But the communist government ordered its men to let no one pass. The inscription below the photo explains that at this very moment, the soldier was seen by a superior officer who immediately detached him from his unit. “No one,” reads the inscription, “knows what became of him.” Only the most despicable tyrants could punish a man for letting a child get to his loved ones but in the Evil Empire, that and much worse happened all the time.

We should never forget this awful chapter in history. Nor should we ever forget that it was done in the name of a vicious system that declared its “solidarity with the working class,” professed its devotion to “the people,” and enjoyed the tacit or explicit support of tens of thousands of Western academics and intellectuals who, often at taxpayer expense, championed socialism over capitalism. The wall was the inevitable iron fist within the velvet glove, the public manifestation of an elitist political philosophy with an arrogant and destructive premise: in the name of “equality,” a few have the right to wield total power over the lives of all others.

We believers in freedom and free markets are often attacked by socialists as obsessed with self-interest. They like to remind us of every shortcoming or every problem that hasn’t yet been solved, no matter the degree to which freedom has already worked to solve it. But we don’t believe in shooting people because they don’t conform, and that is ultimately what socialism is all about. We don’t plan other people’s lives because we’re too busy at the full-time job of reforming and improving our own. We believe in persuasion, not coercion. We solve problems at penpoint, not gunpoint. Unlike the socialists of the old East, or homespun statists like Sen. Edward Kennedy, we’re never so smugly self-righteous in our beliefs that we’re ready at the drop of a hat to dragoon the rest of society into our schemes.

All this is why so many of us get a rush every time we think of Ronald Reagan standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 1987 and boldly declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!” This is why we were brought to tears in the heady days of fall 1989 when thousands of Berliners scaled the wall with their hammers, picks, and fists and pummeled into the dustbin of history that terrible wall and the Marxist vision that fostered it. That was a “Kodak moment” if ever there was one! For today’s young people who have no concept of what it was like for millions to live under socialism behind walls and barbed wire, or who have no appreciation for the blood, sweat, tears, and treasure spent by millions here and abroad to combat it, this anniversary is an opportunity to learn a little history.

On this anniversary of the most vivid illustration of what happens when busybodies, know-it-alls, petty tyrants, and other common thugs with a statist mission get in charge, let us remember the 254 whose only crime was that they wanted to live free. And let’s recharge our batteries on behalf of spreading the good word everywhere about freedom and free markets.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is