The Volokh Conspiracy

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The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall


Today is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. What I wrote on the 20th anniversary in 2009 is still very much relevant today:

In several ways, the Wall and its collapse are fitting symbols of communism. They demonstrate several truths about that system that we would be wise not to lose sight of.

First and foremost, Cold War-era Berlin was the most visible demonstration of the superiority of capitalism and democracy over communism and dictatorship. Despite the fact that East Germany had one of the highest standards of living in the Soviet bloc, it had to build a wall to keep its people from fleeing to the capitalist West. By contrast, West Germans and other westerners were free to move to the communist world anytime they wanted. Yet only a tiny handful ever did so. Decisions to "vote with your feet" are often even better indicators of peoples' true preferences than ballot box voting, since foot voters have better incentives to become well-informed about the alternatives before them. Even more powerful evidence is the reality that many East Germans and others fled from communism even when doing so meant risking their lives.

Second, the Berlin Wall was an important symbol of the way in which communist governments violated the human right to freedom of movement, one of the most important attributes of a free society. If people are forcibly trapped under the rule of the government in whose territory they happen to be born, they are not truly free; rather, they are hostages of their rulers.

Finally, the sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 vividly demonstrated the extent to which communist totalitarianism relied on coercion to maintain its rule. Some Western scholars and leftists contended that most Russians and Eastern Europeans actually supported communism or at least preferred it to the available alternatives. The events of 1989 gave the lie to this notion… Once the Soviet government and its puppet states in Eastern Europe signalled that they would no longer suppress opposition by force, the Berlin Wall was quickly torn down, and communist governments throughout Eastern Europe collapsed within months….

Despite all of the above, I am somewhat conflicted about the status of the Berlin Wall as the symbol of communist oppression in the popular imagination. My reservations have to do with the underappreciated fact that the Wall was actually one of communism's smaller crimes. Between 1961 and 1989, about 100 East Germans were killed trying to escape to the West through Wall. The Wall also trapped several million more Germans in a repressive totalitarian society. These are grave atrocities. But they pale in comparison to the millions slaughtered in gulags, deliberately created famines in the USSR, China, and Ethiopia, and mass executions of kulaks and "class enemies." The Berlin Wall wasn't even the worst communist atrocity in East Germany….

In 2014, as in 2009, we still have a long way to go before we have fully rectified our relative neglect of the history of communist crimes. The issue is even more significant now than it was five years ago, because the Putin regime in Russia has ramped upits efforts to whitewash the communist past.