I first visited East Berlin in 1966. The contrast between that part of the city and the west was stark. West Berlin, part of the free market capitalist Federal Republic of Germany, but guarded by American and British military, was the picture of prosperity in spite of its isolation from the rest of Germany. The east was stark and dismal. We had to exchange 5 marks of West German currency one-for-one for less valuable East German marks to be allowed to visit. The only thing to spend it on was lunch in a small café where the food matched the rest of the city. A forgettable gastronomic experience. The upside was that, unlike those who resided there, we could leave.
My brother and I, thinking it might be interesting to see the land where some of our ancestors came from, visited the then Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in November 1983. We traveled from Vienna to Prague on a train bedecked with red flags through snow covered landscapes – like a scene out of Doctor Zhivago. At the border stations we were confronted by scary looking guards with AK-47s asking for our “papers” (and snorting unintelligible comments about our surname – maybe they had a premonition that the jig would soon be up). From Prague we journeyed to East Berlin where we crossed through the checkpoint into the West minutes before our “transit visa” that cost about $5 expired at midnight. Five years later in January 1989, I rode a train from Gottingen to Hannover in West Germany that skirted the border between east and west. The barbed-wire enclosed no-man’s land and watch towers were evident. Would this Cold War ever end?
The pressure for change builds slowly – like tectonic plates meeting. The actual change happens suddenly – like an earthquake.
The November 3 issue of The New Yorker, which anticipates its newsstand date by over a week, reminds us that the 9th of next month will be the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. On that day in 1989, an East German official made what was supposed to be an innocuous announcement concerning new visa rules, but was taken by Berliners, as well as the rest of the world, that the restrictions on East German citizens crossing the walled border were lifted – immediately.
Thus ended the 38 year imprisonment of people living in the eastern part of Berlin and east Germany. President Ronald Reagan’s call for Gorbachev to tear down the wall was heeded. Actually, Gorbachev did not order the wall dismantled, but he had made it clear that the Soviet Union would not stop its satellite regime from doing so. The Soviet leadership knew well that the Communist bloc was bankrupt – morally, economically, and even militarily. It was about to exit stage right from the world.
Within a year, the oxymoronically named German Democratic Republic was defunct and was totally absorbed into the West German Federal Republic. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed. The Cold War was over; the West won.
Of course, international tensions and conflicts have not disappeared. The rise of China as an economic rival (and potentially a military one), as well as the Islamic jihad movement and its use of world wide terrorism, are troubling. Russia is becoming a geopolitical rival once again, though Putin does not seem inclined to bury us like the former Soviet regime was. North Korea is still a Stalinist state ruled by a nutjob. There is no telling what the next quarter century will bring. It will never be a perfect world.
One thing is clear, if not yet accepted by many of our Utopian idealists. The socialist experiment as practiced by the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist regimes of the Soviet Union and its client states does not work. No matter how powerful a regime is, it cannot make 2 plus 2 equal five, as in Orwell’s fictional Oceania. Looking at the world, the free societies, the ones that value individual freedom, including economic freedom, the most, are the prosperous ones.
For The New Yorker article see