Twenty years ago this Sunday, East and West Germany reunited, capping one of the most extraordinary transformations in modern history. Communism in the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites had collapsed; the oppressed nations of Europe rejoined the “free world.”
My generation was the last to straddle the two worlds, pre- and post-Soviet Union. When I was in elementary and high school, fear of atomic annihilation was real. The USSR was the great, looming adversary on the world stage. Debate over the strategy of “mutually assured destruction” was the ominous focus of international policy discussions.
Suddenly, everything changed. Both grizzled Cold Warriors—understandably skeptical of claims of glasnost and perestroika—and dreamy utopians—never quite abandoning hope that the Soviet Union would be the realization of a communitarian heaven-on-earth—were amazed when free elections in Poland in 1989 pulled the thread that rapidly unraveled the entire Communist political structure in Eastern Europe.
August 1961: East German soldier Hans Conrad Schumann leaps over a barbed wire barricade at the Bernauer Street sector into West Berlin.
A late teenager at the time, I was not fully aware of the epochal proportions of these historical changes, but the impressions of those events left a lasting mark. In 1991, I was in college, studying abroad, and rode a train across the recently reunified Germany, west to east, destination Berlin. The economic and moral devastation of Communism was apparent as more than just a theory. The stark contrast between west and east was visibly manifested in the difference between a bustling, prosperous society on one side of the divide and a gloomy, forlorn landscape on the other. I encountered one of the many ironies in this episode of history: The iconic symbol of Communist ideology, the Berlin Wall, had become a tool of entrepreneurial Germans. Vendors were hawking (alleged) pieces of the wall to gullible tourists. I bought one.
The wall was gone, but “no man’s land” remained—a barren strip a hundred yards wide, across which East Germans who climbed the wall had to scramble before they reached West German soil, safety, and freedom. Many were shot before they got there. No one died trying to go the other way. The lesson was pretty clear to everyone other than western intellectuals, who needed to marshal all of their impressive intelligence to devise explanations of why the communist system was superior to the free economies of the West.
Yet, in ringing contradiction to the apocalyptic claims of some, history did not end in 1990. The choice laid before societies—freedom or serfdom—remains. The “anthropological error” at the heart of socialism, as Pope John Paul II described it, has not disappeared. Many who hold positions of power still believe “that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil” (Centesimus Annus, n. 13). A society’s political and economic structure will permit to greater or lesser degree the self-determination of its citizens. Human beings will grasp and act upon their responsibilities in ways that respect who they are as human persons; or they will gradually sacrifice their freedom and its attendant obligations in return for an existence characterized by moral decadence, lassitude, and mistrust.
Nations continue to move in both directions. Since 1990, China has inched toward liberty, though the Party’s unyielding hold on religious and intellectual control keeps its successful transition to freedom in doubt. Even that historic citadel of Communism, Cuba, has begun breaking free of its socialist chains: Earlier this month, the government announced the layoffs of a half-million of its employees, the island’s “biggest shift to the private sector since the 1960s.”
Meanwhile, the American state expands mercilessly, hedging our lives with a forest of restrictions so dense that it is almost impossible to know and follow the rule of law to which we still pay lip service. Unwillingness to abandon any program, no matter how wasteful or ineffective, expedites the mounting of public debt to unprecedented and unsustainable levels. Polling suggests that younger Americans, oblivious to the historical record, are developing increasingly positive views of socialism. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, the United States and Cuba may pass each other going opposite directions, the latter lifting toward freedom and prosperity while the former falls into collectivist decay. Unbelievable? So was the reunification of a democratic Germany, just before it happened.