On 9 November 1989 – 25 years ago now – the Berlin Wall began coming down. It was only weeks later that my family and I (when I was only a young lad) went to East Germany and East Berlin. We crossed over from the West to the East through Checkpoint Charlie only a day or two before it shut down for good, and crossing back over to the West we took a hammer and chisel and took a swing at the wall ourselves.
Out of all the trips my family took while I was growing up, I doubt that any have stayed with me as poignantly. In a life dominated by cartoon frivolity, playing at the playground and love of sports, how could seeing the difference in West and East NOT be poignant? How could the stark contrast between freedom and tyranny not imprint itself on a young, impressionable brain? And, thinking about it now, as a man, how could I recall the experience without thanking my parents fervently for the lesson that the sights imbued?
I remember the instructions that my parents gave to us kids as we piled into the family car and began the drive to the East German border: “Remember not to make eye contact with the guards at the checkpoints kids.” “Don’t say anything to anybody because it could be misunderstood and cause problems.” “Don’t smile too much or make sudden movements.” But how could a young kid not smile at the men looking curiously into the small, obviously not eastern-made, light blue Volvo on the main highway to Berlin? And certainly, how could a young kid grasp that the guards were part of the army of an ignoble enemy, bent on philosophical and geographical domination?
The answer to that came when we made the short trip through the last checkpoint (Charlie) in walking from West to East Berlin. Up until then, the Soviet desire to conceal the difference between West and East to both the Western travelers and the Eastern citizens on and around the highway across East Germany, had revealed only farms and woodland. Therefore walking through Checkpoint Charlie from West to East Berlin was the clearest example of the dichotomy between liberty and totalitarianism seen to that point; and even to a young, inexperienced kid, it came as a shock. It was the closest one can get to walking from a world of color to a sepia-toned nightmare. On the West side of the wall were German, American, British and French stores packed to bursting with colorfully marketed products, billboards and advertisements competing for attention, numerous makes and models of cars in a rainbow of hues, all of which defiantly stared at the dismal wall carving its way through the middle of the city. The East on the other hand was a drab mix of abandoned and crumbling old buildings, dirty streets devoid of cars and foot-traffic, stores with bare shelves, and the ubiquitous, crumbling, monochrome (except where rust showed through the flecked paint) Trabbis littering the road.
But the most unadulterated exhibition of the difference between West and East was the difference in the faces of the people on each side of the wall. On the West were the same smiling and friendly-looking faces that could have been found in Bonn, London, Rome, Madrid or Paris (okay, maybe not Paris – crazy Frenchies), while on the East the faces were marked with suspicion, weariness, hopelessness and anxiety – each one etched deep with care, concern and a sickly life. Friendliness was a necessary victim to the tyranny of the East. The lack of affability was a product of the mistrust of strangers that kept one below the radar of the secret police; arousing no interest equaled a longer life.
Presented with such strong evidence, even a young, inexperienced boy could see the effects of tyranny on the populace … tyranny in general. It therefore gave me impetus to walk back over to the Western side of the wall and zestfully take my swing at it. I was only able to dislodge a small piece and the vibration from the metal chisel bit my small hands, but my feeling at doing my part to tear it down was one of elation. An unspoken, unexpected frustration was starting to brew in my young brain – frustration at the fact that so many people lived in such unquestionably unnecessary squalor and frustration at how so many people lived with such horrendous, never-ceasing suspicion and anxiety. That frustration could only partially be assuaged by taking a chunk out of a symbol of that repression because I knew intuitively that a regime which did such things to its own people – destroying hope and a future so recklessly – could not be good or noble in any way!
From that day forward I spent a lot of time reading about the origins and history of communism and it’s watered-down (but still horribly dangerous) cousin socialism. I began by reading about the bloody Bolshevik rebellion before looking through the early years of the USSR. I noted how many of the rising names in the party were snuffed out or sent into exile for crossing the wrong person or for not adhering to orthodoxy. This led me to the stories of the Gulags and the millions of lives taken either through political expediency or through government-created shortages of food and other staples – purposeful mass executions of Ukrainians, Tatars and others. I read about increased industrialization for the purposes of ramping up the militarization of Siberia, the Asian steppe and pressuring more of Eastern Europe to join the Warsaw Pact. I read about increasing dissonance with China AFTER Mao’s revolution, in spite of a common philosophy. I read about the destruction of the wealth of countries like Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. I read about the continued degradation of certain peoples within the borders of the ‘enlightened’ socialist nations. And everywhere I looked, from Russia to China to Korea to Cambodia to Nicaragua, was death and destruction, suffering and evil, repression and depression … all while the commissars lived in grandiose palaces.
But continued reading revealed to me that socialism/communism was not the true source of the pain and evil being forced on such a large swath of the earth’s population. It truly was – and is – a symptom of a parent philosophy that insidiously slithers under the surface of all its totalitarian children; a philosophy born from the first act of defiance in human history. It was only Humanism which could have given birth to such a despicable child as socialism. The same philosophy which said that man could be god with a little help from a bite of fruit also said that man could govern to a point of perfect equity through true enlightenment. It’s no surprise that, looking back on the Soviet experiment – with all its lesser pretenders in China, North Korea, Nicaragua or Vietnam – we see the same result that Adam got when he defied God: back-breaking work culminating in thorns and thistles.
The first lie told in history is the most oft-consumed lie in human history; whether on the macro-level by hubris-blinded social architects or on the micro-level by prideful and selfish relations. You see, the prerequisite to any thought of human power (macro or micro) over life’s ups and downs is arrogance so repugnant that it discounts any source of happiness, success or fulfillment past oneself. And by believing such, it doesn’t just erect a wall that keeps out joy and keeps in despair, it prevents from seeping through it any sort of hope from the faith that there will one day be ultimate justice. How can there be ultimate justice without an ultimate Judge … and how can there be an ultimate Judge if I am the source of all happiness, success and fulfillment?
When Karl Marx penned his pathetic exposition masquerading as a new philosophy, he probably truly thought that it was novel. He may have truly thought that he was doing man a great service by promoting an ideal for which to strive. But in starting from the same, tired, pitiful philosophical foundation of mankind-as-his-own-god, he only tweaked the architecture of countless previous plans for human perfection perpetrated through the millennia … and the results could be predicted by anyone with a firm grasp on the cornerstone principle of all truth: “In the beginning, God …”
After reading what I’ve written above you might ask me, “What do you think then about the breakdown of the Berlin Wall – twenty-five years after the fact?” My reply would be simple: I believe any walls which serve to prevent the freedom God intended for mankind should be broken down and left as dust – whether physical or spiritual. I rejoice with the people of Berlin and I pray that the walls of arrogant sin erected around the hearts of every non-believer is similarly torn down and ground to dust by God’s wonderful, all-consuming, all-powerful grace.