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This wall was meant to imprison

Young East Berliners celebrating atop the Berlin Wall

Young East Berliners celebrating atop the Berlin Wall on Nov. 11, 1989. Credit: dpa/AFP via Getty Images/STR

Thirty years ago, on Nov. 9, 1989, the world saw one of the most momentous events in the struggle between tyranny and freedom: the end of the Berlin Wall.

The wall was a unique construction in human history: a 12-foot-high, 27-mile-long concrete barrier that divided a city. In communist East Germany, it was officially known as “the anti-fascist defense rampart.” But that was, like everything else about Soviet-style communism, a brazen lie. The purpose of the wall was not to guard against attacks by fascists but to imprison East Germany’s people, who had been using the West Berlin exit route to circumvent the Eastern bloc’s border controls and flee West in huge numbers.

The wall was a totalitarian monstrosity that demanded human sacrifices. Between 1961 and 1989, at least 136 people, and possibly as many as 200, were shot dead by border guards while trying to flee. (Altogether, more than 100,000 attempted to escape; remarkably, more than 5,000 succeeded.) Today, the Berlin Wall memorial features a wrenching display of black-and-white photos of many of the victims, with empty spaces for those whose images have not been preserved.

The wall provided one of the most memorable moments from the twilight of the Cold War. In 1987, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had launched a new course of reform and greater openness, President Ronald Reagan issued his famous challenge in a speech in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Gorbachev never did. But as the liberalization he started spun out of control, a wave of protests in East Germany in the fall of 1989 forced the decision. Hardline leader Erich Honecker resigned; his successor, Egon Krenz, allowed travel restrictions to be relaxed — and then, on Nov. 9, lifted altogether. Sections of the wall were torn down to open new crossing points, and chunks of concrete with colorful graffiti from the Western side became popular souvenirs. (They still are.) The official demolition of the wall began several months later.

In this time of a resurgent left, the memory of the Berlin Wall should be a strong inoculation against communist sympathies. The fact that Communist rulers had to build a wall to keep people from running — and that all the human traffic went in one direction — surely says something about which system worked better, for all of the West’s flaws. And yet there is no shortage of apologists. In England, the Labor Party’s chief communications strategist, journalist Seumas Milne, has a history of defending East Germany as a system that offered “huge social benefits” to its people.

In the United States, a recent poll shows 36 percent of adults ages 23 to 38 approve of communism (a fact that attests to deficiencies in our educational system). Meanwhile, a new crop of left-wing opinion makers at such outlets as Jacobin magazine and the Chapo Traphouse podcast argue that the view of communism as a totalitarian system is too simplistic and should be balanced with appreciation of its positive aspects. Left-wing pundits use cherry-picked polls to claim that there is widespread communist nostalgia in the Eastern bloc. Yet a Pew Research Center poll released in October shows that nearly 90 percent of people in Eastern Germany approve of German reunification, and their life satisfaction has skyrocketed since 1991.

Those tempted to buy into rosy views of communism should watch the scenes of jubilation when East Germans were finally allowed to get out. For all of history’s complexities and shades of gray, the fall of the Berlin Wall is one moment that counts as an unqualified triumph of good over evil.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.