In June 1948, President Truman initiated the Berlin Airlift, signaling that the free world would not abandon West Berlin to the Soviets, who had imposed a total land and water blockade. In June 1953, East German workers revolted against their communist oppressors, foreshadowing the later Hungarian, Czech and Polish uprisings. In August 1961, the communist regime, alarmed by the escalating waves of refugees, erected a 96-mile-long wall between East and West Berlin — a concrete and metal version of Churchill’s “iron curtain.”
Despite observation towers, bunkers, dog-runs, and armed soldiers, several thousand people successfully escaped over the ensuing years, tunneling under the Wall, hiding in tiny cars, and even floating to freedom in a hot-air balloon. Almost 1,000 died trying to cross the border — attesting to the fierce desire of the human spirit to be free.
In June 1987, President Reagan, speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate, directly challenged the leader of the Soviet Union: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Eighteen months later, on November 9, 1989, the wall did come down, and by the end of the year — the year of miracles — communism had collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe.
On Aug. 13, 2001 there will be festivities in and around Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, once the most famous border crossing between east and west. There will be speeches and toasts and acknowledgments of the infamy of the Wall and the bravery of those who scaled it to obtain freedom.
What won’t be acknowledged, I’m sure, is a fateful political development which will create new fissures in a city just beginning to recover from decades of division.
I’m referring to the almost certain coalition that will emerge from the October municipal elections between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the communists (PDS). For the SPD, apparently, it’s simply a matter of arithmetic. The communists receive about 40 percent of the vote in east Berlin, and the SPD needs those votes to govern the capital of Germany.
And so, only 12 years after the Wall came down and communism was seemingly laid to rest, the communists will hold power in the most important city in the most important nation of Europe.
This is deeply troubling — and for more than just historical reasons.
Leaders of the German Left are insisting that the once-secret files of the stasi (the German secret police) about some six million German citizens be closed to further inquiry. The director of the stasi documentation center, who happens to be a member of the Green Party, is fighting in the courts to keep the files available to the public. She knows that if the stasi records are sealed, the SPD-PDS coalition might well be encouraged to expand this Orwellian campaign to change the culture and the public’s attitude about communism.
There might, for example, be moves to close down the secret stasi prison for political prisoners that I visited, or create problems for the privately-run Check Point Charlie Museum, or eliminate critical references to communism in school textbooks. The communists might even begin suggesting that the Gulag never existed and the Berlin Wall was a mirage. (Communist history certainly shows there’s a precedent for this sort of “revision.”)
To prevent such historical perversions, people committed to the truth must do to communism what our Jewish brothers and sisters have done to Nazism — expose its intrinsic evil and horror so convincingly as to make its return impossible.
And that can best be done through oral histories of its victims, carefully detailed textbooks, compelling movies, special holidays, Web sites, and, yes, an international memorial in Washington, D.C., to the 100 million victims of communism — a memorial which Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary calls “the most important thing” that can be done in the ongoing struggle for freedom and democracy in Central and Eastern Europe.
In short, we must keep future generations from doing what the communists would so dearly like to see us do: Forget.