The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is undeniably a happy occasion—not only because the fall of the Wall was good in itself, but because it presaged the collapse of communist tyranny throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. But the history of the Wall also carries some important lessons that we have not fully learned even today—lessons about the nature of communism, but also about the importance of freedom of movement across international boundaries.
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 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 fact that many East Germans and others fled 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, and mass executions of "kulaks" and "class enemies."
The Berlin Wall wasn't even the worst communist atrocity in East Germany. As historian Norman Naimark has documented, Soviet occupation troops in East Germany raped some 2 million German women, executed thousands of political prisoners (only a minority of whom were Nazis or guilty of war crimes), and imposed extensive forced labor on much of the population. It is true, of course, that German troops committed comparable, and often even greater, atrocities in the USSR. But the one set of wrongs in no way justifies the other. Forced labor and concentration camps continued on a substantial scale even after the Soviets established an "independent" East German state in 1949.
Terrible though the Berlin Wall was, focusing on it as the main example of communist injustice may actually lead people to underestimate how awful that system truly was. It is a bit like portraying Kristallnacht or the Night of the Long Knives (both atrocities had death tolls roughly comparable to that of the Berlin Wall) as the main example of Nazi oppression, rather than the Holocaust.
It is right to commemorate the fall of the Wall, and to mourn its victims. But we should also remember that it was just the tip of a much larger iceberg of communist oppression. Indeed, those other oppressive policies were the main reason why so many Germans (and others) sought to flee communism in the first place. The true lesson of the Berlin Wall is not merely that the Wall itself was unjust, but that it was meant to perpetuate other, far more severe injustices by making it impossible to escape them. That lesson remains relevant today, as socialist dictatorships continue to oppress millions in Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela.
In western nations, the lessons of the Berlin Wall also remain relevant because of the way "democratic socialism" has gained ground in recent years. While most of its advocates do not want to go as far as the communists did, the two ideologies nonetheless share a great deal of dangerous common ground.
In addition to overlooking the broader significance of the Wall for the nature of communism, too many people are also inclined to ignore its broader implications for the value of international freedom of movement. For millions of people around the world today, like for East Germans until 1989, international migration is the only realistic way to escape a lifetime of poverty and oppression. Yet governments—including those of liberal democracies—routinely use coercion to stop them from "voting with their feet."
That coercion sometimes includes literal walls—like the one President Trump hopes to build on the US border with Mexico—and brutality like that which is all too common at immigration detention centers right here in the land of the free. To top it off, building Trump's wall would require seizing the property of thousands of Americans who live along the border—a disdain for private property rights that the communist rulers of East Germany would surely find congenial.
Many try to differentiate Western immigration restrictions from the Berlin Wall on the grounds that there is a crucial difference between locking people in their homeland, and locking them out from some particular destination. Alternatively, it could be argued that East Germans were trapped in a more oppressive system than most migrants today. But these distinctions break down upon inspection. I summarized some of the reasons why here:
[Some] argue that there is a distinction between locking people in completely and "merely" preventing them from leaving for a specific destination (such as the US). But surely we would still condemn the Berlin Wall if the East German government had said its purpose was to block its citizens from moving to the West, but they were still free to leave for other communist nations. As a practical matter, moreover, the US border is Mexico's longest and most significant land boundary, by far, and blocking exit rights through that border is a major restriction on Mexicans' ability to go anywhere by land.
Another possible distinction between the two cases is that East Germans were locked into a far more oppressive regime than Mexicans would be. But Mexico's corrupt and often deeply unjust government is far from wonderful, and being confined there would force many potential migrants to endure what may well be a lifetime of poverty and exposure to violence. Moreover, the right to exit is not limited only to citizens of the most oppressive regimes. If Canada or the United States were to block their citizens from leaving, that would surely be a gross violation of human rights, even though Canada and the US are substantially freer and wealthier societies than Mexico. Forcibly confining people to the US or Canada is less unjust than confining them to Mexico. But it would be a grave injustice nonetheless.
Another possible way to justify the distinction is to analogize national governments to private homeowners or clubs, who have the right to keep people out for virtually any reason they want. But that theory has deeply illiberal implications for natives, as well as potential immigrants. If taken seriously, it would justify giving government almost as much totalitarian control over our lives as the government of East Germany once wielded over its people.
Economist Bryan Caplan has some additional criticisms of the distinction between "locking in" would-be migrants and "locking out." Among other things, he explains how the East German policy could easily have fallen within the latter category, if the communists had been willing to make a few modest modifications. Ultimately, both types of policies represent massive coercive government intervention to prevent people from taking advantage of opportunities offered by free markets and civil society.
I would add that some of the people forcibly kept out by US and other western nations' immigration policies are indeed fleeing East German-like levels of oppression. Consider, for instance, Venezuelans fleeing the horrifically oppressive socialist government of that nation, or Cuban refugees fleeing communism, who are now often barred from staying in the US, thanks to a cruel policy reversal by President Obama, which Trump has kept in place.
The oppression facilitated by Western governments' immigration restrictions is, at least in most cases, not nearly as great as that perpetuated by the Berlin Wall. But the two injustices are nonetheless similar in kind, even if—usually—different in degree. Our governments' policies are not nearly as bad as those of the East German communists. But we should aspire to a higher standard than that.
We should celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Wall. But, at the same time, we should make a commitment to ending similar injustices that remain all too common today.