In the summer of 2005, I was an undergraduate student attending the Freie Universität Berlin international summer program. I had long had an interest in German history and was delighted for the first time to visit that beautiful country and its haunting capital city. My primary interest in German history was its participation in the World Wars, and especially the Nazi era. At the time my knowledge of Cold War Berlin covered only the basics.
Certainly I was aware of the Berlin Wall, that seemingly impenetrable barrier dividing the free world from the Communist. I was aware of the German Democratic Republic and its horrible secret police system that in many ways put the Gestapo of World War II to shame. I was vaguely aware that people had risked everything to cross that wall, to leave a system that denied them freedom and to find a better life in the West.
One day walking along Ebertstraße along the Teirgarten near the Brandenburg Gate, several people had posted pictures of loved ones who had taken that risk and failed. While trying to escape to the West, while trying to flee over, under, or through the Wall, they had been killed. Murdered.
There were many faces posted along the sidewalk, several dozen at least. These people varied in age and appearance, and I was struck by just how… ordinary they appeared. They were no different from my friends and family back home in America. I’ve known thousands of faces just like these in my lifetime. By a quirk of fate and the cruelty of an unforgiving geopolitical situation they had no control over, these ordinary people had been slaves to a system that demanded everything from them- their work, their loyalty, even their love. The State was important, and their lives were reduced to mere cogs in a great, dark socialist machine. These men and women understood freedom better than I ever will, precisely because they didn’t have it.
Beneath the photographs were their names, along with the dates that they died chasing the dream of liberty. Looking at these faces and deaths spanning 28 years, I could feel soft tears in my eyes, kept in check by my own self-consciousness and desire not to look like a foolish tourist. Finally, I came upon the photograph of a young woman, beautiful and only eighteen years old at the time of her death. I cannot remember her name, but I remember the date she died. February, 1989. Only a few months later the Wall came down. That great barrier that she gave her life to cross, that division between freedom and slavery, disappeared in November.
Seeing the date of her death, and realizing the horrible tragedy was enough. I cried, for her and the others. Any trace of self-consciousness vanished, and I wept for a minute or two. My tears were my own, without any great cosmic significance. Her death brought into focus for me the true tragedy of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War in general. The Soviet Union and her satellites crushed freedom. By their very nature those regimes were antithetical to human liberty and happiness. It is easy to consider that in grand political terms, but it takes a human tragedy, one death among the millions of victims of Communism, to illustrate this basic truth.