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What Berlin Wall propaganda can teach us about freedom

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By the time the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989 — not with intent, but with a bungled press conference — East German propagandists had spent decades trying to convince the world that the wall was an instrument of freedom. 

Referring to the Berlin Wall as an “antifascist protective rampart” (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall), officials claimed the wall was necessary to protect citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from the exploitation and oppression inherent to the West. 

A 1962 GDR pamphlet titled “What You Should Know About the Wall” explained: “We no longer wanted to stand by passively and see how doctors, engineers, and skilled workers were induced by refined methods unworthy of the dignity of man to give up their secure existence in the GDR and work in West Germany or West Berlin.”

“Who is threatening humanity, who is misusing science, and where are culture and morality decaying?” asked a GDR 10th grade textbook. “Only under imperialism,” i.e., only in bourgeois capitalist societies.

“Our state is irrevocably anchored in the world of socialism, the world of true freedom, democracy and human dignity,” General Secretary Erich Honecker assured East Germans in a 1984 speech.

In other words, the Berlin Wall — guarded by armed soldiers who killed at least 140 would-be defectors — was keeping East Germans in “the world of true freedom” by forcibly separating them from a less dignified existence in the non-socialist world. It’s as though the General Secretary had mistaken George Orwell’s Appendix to “Nineteen Eighty-Four,: “The Principles of Newspeak,” as his talking points.

The Berlin Wall came down 30 years ago, but people around the world are still employing the elusive concept of “true freedom” to rally against liberalism.

We are not truly free until we are freed from the vicious logic of the marketplace, they say. We are not truly free until we are freed from the cultural decay of bourgeois society, they say. We are not truly free until a shared collective vision supersedes individual wants and desires, they say.

These are not fringe views. A recent YouGov/Victims of Communism poll found that 19 percent of millennials — almost one in five — believe the Communist Manifesto “better guarantees freedom and equality for all” than the Declaration of Independence.

For a generation that came of age somewhere between Sept. 11 and the global recession, millennials’ rejection of liberal freedom is understandable. Why resign yourself to a freedom that brings uncertainty and instability when instead you could believe in a different, true version of freedom that awaits? 

In “Jacobin,” a Brooklyn-based magazine that “offer[s] socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture,” a June article on the presidential race carried the headline, “Winning Socialism Is About Winning Freedom.” 

“It is simply not enough to be free from arbitrary coercion by other people or the state,” author Luke Savage wrote. “[T]rue freedom also means independence from the dictates of the market: its bosses, its tycoons, its profiteers, its expropriation of the wealth workers collectively create.” 

This contrast sharply with the liberal philosophy of J.S. Mill who wrote in “On Liberty,” “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” 

For those of us who still believe in the liberal concept of human freedom — that is, freedom from coercion, freedom to engage others as they voluntarily choose to engage with us, and the freedom to think for oneself — any attempt to define “freedom” as something entirely different will always ring false. 

Here is a difficult truth about liberalism: It does not promise that there will be no problems. But the problem-free social order is not on the menu of options.

What liberalism promises is that a free society has within it the ability to adapt to change; that if people are free to experiment and learn, new solutions will be found. In other words, disruption is not a bug, it’s a feature of a dynamic society that’s capable of adapting to new cultural and economic circumstances.

We can (and should) have a vigorous, good-faith debate about the extent to which government power can achieve better outcomes than individuals, neighborhoods, civic and religious organizations, and self-organized communities can voluntarily achieve on their own. 

But when state power overrides individual plans and purposes to achieve a “shared collective vision,” let’s not use the word “freedom” to describe what is going on. If it was really a shared vision, coercion would likely not have been necessary.

Freedom means being able to publish poetry without being stripped of citizenship, as East German poet Wolf Biermann was.

It means being able to work as a pastor without being surveilled and harassed by the police, as East German pastor-turned-politician Joachim Gauck was.

And it means being able to travel from East Berlin to West Berlin without being killed by guards, as 24-year-old ailor Gunter Litfin was.

Freedom means not having to check one’s plans and purposes against a collective goal that was not of one’s choosing.

Emily Chamlee-Wright Ph.D is the president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies, supporting university scholars working within the classical liberal tradition.

Tags Berlin Wall East Germany Eastern Bloc Economic ideologies liberty Social philosophy

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