Sitting on my shelf at home is a small piece of concrete covered on one side in paint. I got it in Berlin in 1990. It's a piece of the Wall: the symbol for decades of the regime it protected, that finally fell 25 years ago today.
Nothing more defined the nature of the regime than the prison wall it was; nothing was more historically significant in the last half-century than its fall.
Behind the Iron Curtain for which the wall was the symbol –”a symbol of the tyranny of the totalitarian state under which the individual was viewed as the property of the state” – “a breathtaking moral obscenity, a manifestation in concrete of the philosophy on which it was built” -- over a hundred million people were enslaved, and hundreds of millions more were threatened by the regime’s bellicosity.
Few opportunities exist in the social sciences to observe what was virtually a controlled experiment on contrasting ideologies. It was individualism versus collectivism, both starting out of the ruins of postwar Germany. On one side of the Wall, the shining socialist state of East Berlin, run “scientifically” by planners with guns; on the other the freedom and individual rights of the capitalist West.
If it had been a properly controlled experiment, it would have been stopped early for being too cruel.
One telling fact tells the whole story: Nobody was ever shot trying to escape into the literal prison camp of East Berlin.
The socialists of all parties had argued that whatever short-term misery might be “necessary” to effect the transformation of Eastern Europe, that scientific socialist planning would soon “bury" the West. Walking along Berlin streets just a year after the fall, you could see that the only thing the socialist east was ever able to produce well. Lined up in car parks along the Unter Den Linden in 1990 were the automotive fruits of the 45-year experiment was misery. BMWs, Audis, Porsches, Mercedes – shining, expertly engineered, and affordable -- and Trabants, which smelled of nothing so much as poverty.
It never changed or improved. It didn’t need to. Like all socialist production, it enjoyed -- quite literally -- a captive market. And it was awful.
The collapse of socialist Eastern Europe – and with it what should have been the utter collapse of the hypothesis that socialism could produce anything other than human misery – came as an utter shock for most learned types in the west. As late as 1989, the author of the best-selling economics textbook by Paul Samuelson, the one still fondly remembered by Prime Minister John Key, declared magisterially that “the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many sceptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.”
It came as no surprise to followers of Ludwig Von Mises, who had explained way back in 1920 that socialism would eat itself and the people whom it enslaved – that it couldn’t plan, it couldn’t produce, that it couldn’t calculate -- that it was and always would be both morally depraved and economically unsustainable. Seven decades later, after all the Eastern Bloc capital had been consumed, he was proved emphatically correct.
(Yet Samuelson’s textbook in revised editions is still both a best-seller and a prescribed texts at many universities. Von Mises by contrast is still largely unknown by today’s intellectuals, and his books are untaught at nearly every major university. Go figure.)
The Eastern Bloc “superpower” was always full of bluster. What was revealed revealed when the Wall came down was that it wasn’t an economic power at all. It was a complete and utter basket case.
It was a basket case economically AND environmentally.
In Moscow, soon after the collapse, I saw old ladies outside Metro stations on the sidewalk selling used soap. That was how bad things were economically. In Magnitogorsk, the soviet engine of steel production, no-one could even see the black ooze that filled streets and rivers because of the smoke. In Dzherzhinsk, the Soviet chemical capital, the toxic waste of dumped chemical weapons were all too visible.
TODAY’S SOCIALISTS LIKE TO either forget or dismiss the results of the twentieth-century’s greatest and most disastrous political experiment, but in the collapse and in the reasons behind its inevitable collapse lie every lesson every student of socialism should have engraved on their soul. If they have one.
The simple lesson is this: "Man's mind is his basic tool of survival,” but “man's mind will not function at the point of a gun.”
Socialism [identified Ayn Rand] is the doctrine that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that his life and his work do not belong to him, but belong to society, that the only justification of his existence is his service to society, and that society may dispose of him in any way it pleases for the sake of whatever it deems to be its own tribal, collective good…
The alleged goals of socialism were: the abolition of poverty, the achievement of general prosperity, progress, peace and human brotherhood. The results have been a terrifying failure—terrifying, that is, if one’s motive is men’s welfare.
Perhaps the single most astonishing result of the collapse is still the reaction of the intellectuals. Anyone over twenty then who doesn’t yet get the lesson is confessing quite frankly that no fact can ever persuade them. They are self-admittedly intellectually dead.
Yet in the twenty-five years since the collapse, today’s intellectuals have evaded every fact that decades of socialism revealed, shunned every moral argument that explains the collective misery, and ignored every “prophet” whose predictions were proven correct.
They’ve wriggled, they’ve lied, and they’ve evaded.
They turned to environmentalism (ironically) to damn the production that proved impossible for socialism.
They turned to ‘multiculturalism’ to damn the west.
And, because “scientific socialism” was supposed to be based on reason (they claimed) they damned reason and embraced post-modernism –which allows them to damn the facts.
Anything to avoid the reality that the Wall’s Fall should have made obvious.
THE POST-COLLAPSE INTELLECTUAL embrace of post-modernism is no accident. The old socialists haven’t disappeared, they’ve mostly morphed into something else. As philosopher Stephen Hicks sagely observes in his book Explaining Postmodernism, “the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary; the collapse of philosophy made it possible.”
AS MY COLLEAGUE DR RICHARD McGRATH Richard McGrath said this morning, we should not let die the lessons of socialism, nor should we lose the memory of those who died trying to escape the East European slave pens.
They should be remembered, not forgotten.
“’Communism relied on watchtowers, snarling dogs, machine guns, and brick edifices topped with barbed wire,’ he said. ‘The Berlin Wall was the embodiment of this determination to rule by force. Today, twenty years since the wall was torn down, we should remember those East Germans who perished attempting to reach freedom in the West.’
‘The first person shot dead at the Berlin Wall was 24 year old Gunter Litfin, as he tried to swim across the Spree River on August 24, 1961. A year later, East German guards shot 17 year old Peter Fechter as he tried to scale the wall, and left him to bleed to death in that barren and desolate area of open land east of the Wall.”
“The last person known to be killed at the Wall was 20 year old bartender Chris Gueffroy, shot ten times for good measure on February 5, 1989.”
We should remember them, and their many brave confreres.
And perhaps, while remembering them, those who frequent Auckland’s Lenin Bar or Wellington’s Fidel’s Café -- or who wear a red star cap or a Che Guevara T-shirt -- might reflect on how long the authorities behind the Iron Curtain might have tolerated their petulant displays of dissent.
Remember these lessons because, as Richard Ebeling warns:
Unfortunately, the Collectivist mentality did not end with either the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union. It remains alive and well …, with its insistence that the individual lives for and is to be sacrificed to ‘interests’ of the state.
We still have our work cut out for us, to demolish the numerous political "walls" with which the government continues to enslave us through its police power in the growing interventionist-welfare state and the threatening economic fascist order.
And too the shaky philosophical foundations on which those walls are built.
* * LEST WE FORGET. Is there a more fitting reminder of the oppressive nature of communism than the Berlin Wall itself?
UPDATE: Other good commentary around the traps:
- “What is shocking but sadly unsurprising to me is this: after a seventy year experiment that lead to a hundred million deaths, we still have people in our universities and even on our streets who profess to be Marxists…. To this very day, our culture has not yet absorbed the lessons of Marxism, has not come to terms with the fact that it was not a noble experiment that failed, but rather a monstrous calamity that needs to be understood for what it was, lest it happen again.”
A memorable anniversary, and those who would forget it – Perry Metzger, SAMIZDATA
- “A genuine celebration of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall would call for a re-affirmation, not of the immorality of Communism, but of the morality of capitalism. That would help make the event a symbol, not just of Communism's fall, but of freedom's rise.”
Fall of Berlin Wall Does Not Guarantee Freedom – Edwin Locke, AYN RAND INSTITUTE
- “Today marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It did not fall, of course. It was felled. It was felled by ordinary East German men and women who decided they were not willing to spend the rest of their lives in a large prison pretending to be a nation. On the other side of the wall - the free side - far too many westerners were indifferent to the suffering of the east….
“There were three key figures who stood against the détente fetishists, and in large part against the disposition of western electorates. Their names were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II - all heroes in Eastern Europe to this day, yet, as Richard Fernandez notes, all absent from the coverage of today's observances. The A-list guest is Mikhail Gorbachev, whose plan was to preserve Soviet Communism by putting a cosmetic gloss on it. Today, the old passivity has returned: The Wall "fell".”
The Will to Fell – Mark Steyn, STEYN ONLINE
- “Much of the media discussion around the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall will focus on American military politics and the politicians of the time. But to truly understand why the Soviet system in Eastern Europe collapsed, we must look to Mises’s pioneering work on economic planning.”
The Economics Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall – Ryan McMaken, MISES DAILY
- “But in the longer run, the battle between collectivism and a free individualism has been lost, as collectivism at the emoting booth has given every power of snooping and enforcement to the western tax state, short of shooting and torture…”
Section 17: From Berlin Wall to 'The Lives of Others' – Mark Hubbard, LIFE BEHIND THE IRON DRAPE
- “But it was the end of more than a 20th century story. Some of the East German protestors in the streets of Leipzig in early November carried banners that read, “1789-1989.” The storming of the Bastille in 1789 could be said to have marked the beginning of utopian revolutionary politics; now the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked its end. As Timothy Garton Ash observed, “Nineteen eighty-nine also caused, throughout the world, a profound crisis of identity on what had been known since the French revolution of 1789 as ‘the left.’”
The Berlin Wall @25, Take 2 – Steven Hayward, POWER LINE
- “On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ayn Rand Institute’s Yaron Brook gave a talk on the relevance of Ayn Rand’s We the Living. The talk, which was given in Berlin, was part of the “The Triumph of Individual Liberty” gala hosted by the Liberal Institute and European Students for Liberty. The audience received free copies of We the Living. Video of the talk is available here. [How appropriate that these two adaptations of Ayn Rand’s great anti-dictatorship, anti-communist novel be published exactly twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.]”
- “"Remembering the Victims of Communism," produced by Meredith Bragg and Michael C. Moynihan. About 4 minutes. Original release date was November 9, 2009 and original writeup is here:”