For decades, the Berlin Wall imprisoned a people — then something amazing happened.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the future of freedom. At home, government grows ever larger. The expansion may occasionally slow, but it never stops. Abroad, the state is even more oppressive in such countries as China, Russia, Venezuela, and North Korea.
Yet, sometimes liberty advances with extraordinary speed. Like 25 years ago in Europe.
As 1989 dawned, communism had ruled what was the Russian Empire reborn for seven decades. Eastern Europe and China had suffered under communism for four or more decades. The systems all failed to fulfill their promises of human liberation, but survived with the backing of secret police, gulags, and red armies.
Then, in an instant, it all was swept away.
On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened. One of the most dramatic symbols of human tyranny was gone. Hundreds of millions of people were able to declare: we are finally free!
Go to Berlin today and you wouldn’t know the wall — which ran roughly 100 miles around West Berlin — ever existed. The barrier began as barbed wire, turned into brick walls, then became taller concrete walls with watchtowers and anti-vehicle trenches. Tens of thousands of East Germans were imprisoned for “Republikflucht,” or attempting to flee the East German paradise.
Some 1,000 people, about 200 from Berlin, died trying to escape East Germany. The first was 58-year-old Ida Siekmann, who jumped from her building to the bordering road in West Berlin on August 22, 1961. Two days later, a 24-year-old tailor, Guenter Litfin, was shot and killed while swimming the River Spree. On February 6, 1989, 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy became the last East German to be murdered attempting to escape; he wrongly thought the order to shoot had been dropped. The last person to die seeking freedom was 32-year-old Winfried Freudenberg, an electrical engineer whose homemade balloon crashed on March 8.
As 1989 dawned, unrest was obvious. Hope was rising, but no one could forget that previous popular demands for freedom had always been crushed beneath Soviet tanks: in Poland in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
However, Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika had raised expectations within even the Soviet Union. Soon, what looked like a small current turned into a tsunami.
In 1989, Hungary led the way. The man who betrayed the revolution three decades before, Janos Kadar, had been deposed. The Communist Party split over the reburial of revolutionary leader Imre Nagy. Soon, plans were made for multiparty elections. The Communist Party dissolved.
Most important, the new leadership tore down Hungary’s wall with the West. The Iron Curtain had a huge hole.
Poland’s communist-military regime made a deal with a revived Solidarity Union. Warsaw even organized elections, in which the communist candidates were overwhelmed. But officials accepted the result.
The liberal tide rose in Czechoslovakia, sweeping away the hard-line leadership installed to squelch the Prague Spring of 1968. Playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel became president in the “Velvet Revolution.”
The East German regime sought to remain tough. But a visiting Gorbachev made clear that the Soviet soldiers would remain in their barracks this time. Frustrated East Germans began flooding into Prague, where they filled the grounds of the West German embassy, demanding passage to the West. Others went out through Hungary, with its open border.
Ever larger demonstrations showed that the very name of the German Democratic Republic was an oxymoron. As protests spread, the communist leadership temporized. Stalinist wannabe party boss Erich Honecker proposed to gun down marchers. His colleagues proved squeamish if not moral, and dumped him. Additional marchers turned out, and in more cities. On November 4, a million people gathered in East Berlin. They wanted nothing less than the end of communist rule.
The party struggled to find reforms that would salvage its rule. On November 9, a visibly struggling Politburo member, Guenter Schabowski, declared that East Germans would be free to travel to the West “immediately.” Harald Jaeger, then a lieutenant colonel in the border guards, desperately sought guidance from above as tens of thousands of people gathered in his sector demanding to be let through. Just before midnight, he ordered the 46 men under him to stand aside.
People poured through. The Berlin Wall was open, never to be closed again. The horrid East German regime, which had murdered upwards of a 1,000 of its own people simply for seeking freedom, soon disappeared and was essentially swallowed by the Federal Republic of Germany.
The rest of the European communist dictatorships soon fell. For instance, Bulgaria ousted Todor Zhivkov after 35 years. All of these revolutions were peaceful, with no apparatchiks swinging from lampposts, in contrast to Hungary three decades before.
But Romania capped the year with the Christmas Eve execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, the most odious members of communism’s ruling menagerie. Demonstrations caused them to flee the capital. Their pilot reported, “They look as if they were fainting. They were white with terror.” Captured on the run, they were executed by a pickup firing squad. The soldiers didn’t wait for orders before firing.
The transition from totalitarian communism to democratic capitalism turned out to be far harder than anyone expected. West Germans spent a trillion dollars as part of reunification, and only half of them are happy with the results. Corruption and misgovernment remain major problems in Bulgaria and Romania, which many other European Union members believe were inducted prematurely. Yugoslavia, which had been independent of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, imploded into a bloody civil war.
Today, Russia suffers from a slide back to authoritarian rule, though Vladimir Putin is no Leonid Brezhnev, let alone a Joseph Stalin. Despite moving in reverse, the country remains freer than China: I just returned from speaking to a conference organized by the Libertarian Party, for example. The people remain far better off than under communism.
Repression continues in China, though life outside of politics is increasingly free. Only in the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea does communism exist as a truly totalitarian force.
Indeed, it is important not to forget how awful communism really is. Communism’s body count dwarfs that of fascism and even Nazism, though the latter embodied a uniquely hideous attempt to eradicate an entire people. But communism killed tens of millions. The Black Book of Communism figured the overall death toll to be more than 100 million. In Death By Government, the late R.J. Rummel estimated the butcher’s bill to be nearly 160 million.
It wasn’t just the mass slaughter. It was the form of killing. Rummel wrote:
Murder and arrest quotas did not work well. Where to find the “enemies of the people” they were to shoot was a particularly acute problem for the local NKVD, which had been diligent in uncovering “plots.” They had to resort to shooting those arrested for the most minor civil crimes, those previously arrested and released, and even mothers and wives who appeared at NKVD headquarters for information about their arrested loved ones.
In short, we should celebrate a quarter century after the collapse of communism. The events of 1989 represent a massive increase in liberty, a fantastic triumph of the human spirit. With so little bloodshed, everyday people ousted a gaggle of tyrannies. They have given hope for future generations, and themselves, that freedom can emerge against seemingly impossible odds.
There were many heroes in the battle for liberty: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet novelist who documented the horrors of the gulag state; dissident Andrei Sakharov, who denounced Soviet man’s inhumanity to man; Lech Walesa, who went from shipyard electrician to Poland’s president; Alexander Dubcek, who sought to give Czech communism a human face; Vaclav Havel, who went from playwright to president; Hungarian revolutionaries Imre Nagy and Pal Maleter, who died to free their nation; Imre Pozsgay, the Politburo member who in 1989 called the revolution a “popular revolt.”
Also important were Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. The former was a reform communist, not a Western-style democrat, but he ended the Soviet police state and kept the Red Army in its barracks as the Soviet satellites fell out of orbit. Otherwise, 1989 would have looked very different.
Reagan understood that communism was morally evil as well as practically infirm. He viewed the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire,” not an alternate political system. On June 12, 1987, he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But Reagan recognized that Gorbachev was different from previous Soviet leaders and would be willing to accept the opening of the Berlin Wall.
More than two years would pass, but the Brandenburg Gate did open.
There is much today to frustrate those who believe in liberty. The hopes of 1989 remain unfulfilled in Russia and many of the former Soviet republics. At home, the government is more expensive, expansive, and intrusive.
Yet, we must not give up hope. As 1989 dawned, communism was on the defensive but by no means obviously doomed. Tyrannical systems were still supported by parties, militaries, police, and apparatchiks. Talk was of reform, not transformation. By the end of the year, the Marxist-Leninist model had been tossed into the ash heap of history.
May the same spirit of liberty remain strong among us — freedom’s citizens.
ABOUT DOUG BANDOW
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.