Some Observations At the Iron Curtain

Dr. Harper is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Here one may compare life in the planned society with that of comparatively free people.

Berlin, Germany, August 31—Today I visited East Berlin. and there hangs an interesting and tragic story, in the opinion of this observer at least.

The trip was made with ease and seeming safety. Occasionally we would be greeted, in passing, by a Russian soldier on guard, but little more. At least I was not invited to be a “guest” for twenty-five years or so in the salt mines of Siberia.

Anyone can tour East Berlin if he chooses. The real danger in passing beyond the Iron Curtain is the extreme unpredictability of a planned society and of the police state. This may seem to be a paradox. For the proponents of a planned society claim that foresight and planning will bring stability, security, and the removal of all those uncertainties they charge against a free society.

On the contrary, in a command society of this sort where authority is centralized, the whims and uncertainties of the single top commander of the entire system are substituted for and prevail over the whims and uncertainties of individuals operating their own limited and separate affairs in a free society. It is a simple fact that any one person is less predictable than an average of many persons—a principle by which insurance companies operate.

And so the great danger of a visit to East Berlin seemed to be that one might enter without restraint at 1:00 p.m., intending to return, likewise without restraint, several hours later, but that the rules might be changed while he is there. Due to this universal unpredictability of a planned society, there is therefore the risk that the orders might be changed at 2:00 p.m. while one is still there, thus preventing his return for some reason he could not have foreseen. That is the risk one must take in such a visit.

For the first time in my life I clearly felt this sort of uncertainty which permeates everything in an extremely planned, authoritarian society—the “ordered society.” One does not know at 1:00 o’clock what will be “planned” for him at 2:00 o’clock. And if such a constant threat be security, I do not know what the word means.

The Division of Berlin

Speaking only as one private person, unofficially and admittedly without all the facts which then confronted the Allied High Command, the division of Berlin always seemed to me to be a tragedy of the first order. Visiting both the East and West Zones of the city and making observations at first hand further confirms that opinion.

Imagine, if you will, attempting to resolve a conflict between the Marxian socialists and the lovers of traditional liberalism in the City of New York by dividing the east from the west—say at Fifth Avenue. The east sector would be given to the Marxians and the west sector to the anti-Marxians.

To make the parallel more accurate, one must assume that the political administrations of the two sectors had recently been in mortal combat; that suspicions, distrust, and antipathy were still acute between the two regimes.

Try as I may, I can hardly conceive of a setting more threatening of continuous conflict. It would seem like a house divided within itself, in the worst sense, with a division that is political. What was previously an integrated whole so far as trade, transportation, and communication are concerned, becomes one oriented around chronic conflict with a rigid separation geographically.

An Exhibit of the Planned Society

But perhaps one may find some usefulness in what seems to be the tragedy of this division of Berlin, for here is an interesting experiment. In East Berlin we have a sector ruled by a regime that is presumed to be devoted to the welfare of “the common man.” It is the kind of society which the socialists claim will free the ordinary person from the insecurity and poverty of the “dog-eat-dog” world of a free society. He is to be secured against the alleged evils of a competitive economy of private enterprise and personal ownership of property. The political rule of East Berlin is claimed to be a “liberation” of the people from the insecurities and “robber economy” of laissez faire.

Across the line in West Berlin, on the contrary, there prevails to a high degree the free economy with its incentive system of free markets. These are the so-called evils of a free society, against which East Berlin is supposed to protect the common man.

Against this background, please note these significant facts: Today’s Der Tagesspiegel newspaper reports that during the past month 15,200 persons officially migrated from East Berlin to West Berlin. This is 1,000 more than in August 1955.

During the first eight months of 1956 the total was 115,000 persons. This compares with 85,000 during the same months of 1955, or an increase of one-third. There is only a slight movement from West to East.

At this rate, the equivalent of the entire population of East Berlin would go to West Germany in seven and one-half years. Such a rate must be something of historical note for any area other than in the throes of active combat. Not all of the migrants, of course, were from East Berlin originally. Many came from elsewhere in East Germany, simply using East Berlin as the best gateway to be found along the long border between East Germany and West Germany.

It is to be noted that these figures include only those arrivals who register officially in West Berlin. An unknown additional number do not register, so the figures understate the total migration.

The crucial question is this: If socialism by such an authoritarian design really accomplishes its claim of benefiting the common man and protecting him from the cruel hazards of a relatively free society of private ownership and free exchange, why is this intense migration occurring? Why, if it works out that way, is not the migration moving in the opposite direction—from West Berlin to the heaven of “welfare of the common man” in East Berlin? Can it be that 172,500 persons yearly are so ignorant and foolish as to migrate to less welfare, when the two are accessible side by side and can be viewed by anyone who wishes to take a look? They can all talk daily with the common people in both parts, as a basis for their decisions.

A Dying Half City

The unbelievable destruction of central Berlin extends into both sectors. But it is in East Berlin where one has the feeling of traveling through an urban corpse. Few people are wandering around among the ruins there, in sharp contrast to the bustling activity across the line in West Berlin. The migration figures verify the clear impression one gets in visiting the two parts.

In East Berlin the appearance of the people reflects a hopeless and pointless existence, whereas in the West sector there is evidence of some real hope and the driving enthusiasm which this hope brings.

In East Berlin, generally, there is relatively little reconstruction going on. The people are living in the ruins as best they can, without evidence of an attempt to improve their plight under their own hopeful initiative. In West Berlin, on the other hand, there is a beehive of reconstruction activity of all sorts.

I have three distinct impressions of what I saw in East Berlin, so far as structures are concerned. First, from the standpoint of luxury of structure and appearance, was the colossal War Memorial. It was lined with monumental structures inscribed with quotes from Stalin, and the like. One may be full of sympathy, of course, for the victims and their families who suffered privation and death for a cause some of them doubtless disfavored, or who may have been following their duty as they saw it. But beyond that is a dominant feeling that the motivation for the design of this War Memorial was the glorification of the Authoritarian State itself and its dictatorial leaders. How otherwise explain why these luxurious marble structures were built instead of using the materials and effort to provide housing and food for the common man?

Second was the rather impressive front of the structures along one street down which we passed, namely, Stalinallee. Lining both sides of this street are fine masonry buildings several stories high. On the ground floors there commonly are stores. They are all State stores. Only occasionally were people seen doing business in these stores. Since things are rationed strictly and since incomes are so low relative to the rationed necessities of bare existence, how can the “protected common man” buy anything? He just doesn’t have use for this fine appearing line of stores, except as a place to stand outside, yearning.

Lastly, immediately behind this facade facing Stalinallee, and almost everywhere else, we saw only the dull, distressing remnants of destruction. Little was being done except in places some of my friends came to call “Showallee” (Stalin-allee). It brought to mind the joking accusations about a farmer in our community when I was a boy. It was said that the farmer spread all the fertilizer along the few feet of crops adjoining the road. He seemed more concerned about creating untypical impressions of his farming ability among the passersby than about the appetites of the wheat and corn plants in the unlucky rows located more than a few feet from the road.

Such are the impressions of one observer of the experiment created by the seeming tragedy of dividing Berlin. It is a city divided between a relatively free half and a slave half, between the incentive of private initiative as against the “security” of an authoritarian society. It gives the feeling of what it would be like to view a person who had applied a “welfare salve” to half of his body, causing it to rot and waste away, while the other half continues in health and vitality.

My sympathies are deeply with the victims of the half that is a “society for the common man.” One is reminded of the several communist communities started in many parts of the United States a century or more ago, which have all failed due to the errors of their theories of welfare. They served as fine educational experiments for those outside to watch and ponder. In a like manner, all the world should view this experiment of Berlin and ponder its lessons, thoughtfully and prayerfully. For we must all live on performance rather than on promises, on bread and meat rather than on words about security from politicians.

A divided Berlin and the conclusions of those in the experiment—the 172,500 migrants yearly at the present rate, and all others who must be packing their migratory bags—should be evidence above doubt.