By John Long
I spent the morning of Nov. 9 taking a chilly hike up Read Mountain. But my mind kept going back 30 years, to a far-off place I’ve never visited: Berlin. Last Saturday was the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
At the time, I was in graduate school studying, of all things, modern European history. I recall chatting with a professor from another department about then and pointing out that everything I had studied was rapidly (and wholly unexpectedly) becoming obsolete. He laughed and said, “There’s an old Chinese blessing that says ‘May you live in interesting times!’” Then he thought a moment, then wondered to himself “Or was that a curse?”
The dismantling of the Berlin Wall, while startling in its abruptness, was not a sudden development. It was the culmination of several forces building in prior years. The reform programs of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, intended not to destroy the tottering old autocracy but to save it; the Solidarity movement in Poland; the pressures of Reagan’s military expansion on the moribund Soviet economy; the moral authority of Reagan’s demand: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The USSR couldn’t rule Eastern Europe with the iron fist it once had employed, and these nations began to take advantage of emerging cracks in the system. The Iron Curtain was rusting. Eventually Hungary opened its border with Austria, creating a portal from east to west.
In East Germany, dissatisfied people similarly began to demand more freedom. Bereft of any other ideas, their government agreed that travel restrictions would be eased. The Berliners responded not by patiently waiting for reform, but by storming the gates on Nov. 9, 1989. They didn’t just gratefully accept a partial opening in the Wall, they took sledgehammers to the global symbol of oppression. To those too young to have witnessed it, it’s hard to convey what buoyant jubilation we saw in those fateful days.
(Not everyone was joyful, of course. I remember hearing of one Marxist professor who was virtually inconsolable as he saw his cherished worldview dissolving before his eyes.)
Within a couple of more years, in dizzying, unpredictable speed, East and West Germany were reunified. The Soviet Union disappeared from the map. The Cold War was over, and though some thought it was impolite to put it this way, our side had won. Perhaps it would be better to put it this way: Freedom had won.
I thought of those halcyon days as I trekked through the yellowed woods. It seemed to me that we’ve largely forgotten some of the lessons. We’ve forgotten what it meant for half the globe to exist under communist oppression. The faces fade from memory of those who died trying to cross that wall in Berlin, making desperate gambles for freedom. We forget the specter of Soviet guns pointed at dissidents and Soviet missiles pointed at our cities. One of my hiking companions hadn’t forgotten: he had visited East Berlin from West Berlin back in the mid-80s. He vividly described the disparities in standards of living and the sense of hopelessness on one side of that wall.
We forget these things to our peril. Just as we instinctively know that the tyranny of Nazism and Fascism must never be forgotten, we also need to recall the totalitarian tyranny of global communism and the millions of victims it consumed. Words like gulag, collectivization, purge, dekulakization, cultural revolution, reeducation — these can’t fade from our vocabulary. Millions paid for these words in blood.
It’s interesting that polls often show an embracing of socialism among millennials. While there’s are obvious differences in degree between Stalinist despotism and more benign socialist ideas, every now and again we need to look back and ponder what it can look like when liberty is curtailed in the name of waging class warfare.
As I reached the top of Read Mountain, I took in the spectacular panorama before me. The bright blue sky and autumnal splendor of the mountains were certainly breathtaking. But I also took a moment to note the manmade: Houses and businesses, cars crossing the landscape, a private plane landing at the airport. Freedom built this, I thought; political freedom, economic freedom, freedom to determine the contours of our own lives. The sort of freedom that was denied to much of the world for decades, freedom that’s still unknown in too many places.
Freedom works. Denial of freedom…well, it doesn’t. These were the lessons I took with me from Nov. 9, 1989.
Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.