Learning the lessons of the fall of the Berlin Wall

Learning the lessons of the fall of the Berlin Wall
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Looking back, senior administration officials recall feeling “horrified” as they listened to the U.S. president unload a taunting broadside about foreign leaders and border walls before an assembled crowd of thousands. The White House chief of staff, who worried that the speech’s tone was “unpresidential,” warned against a needless rattling of international relations. But the commander-in-chief had insisted, ever confident in his unique style of communication. 

“Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe,” Ronald Reagan thundered. “As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind. 

The speech concluded with a now-famous call to the general secretary of the Soviet Union: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

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The history books now unanimously praise President Reagan for that speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Popular unrest had already begun to spread across the Eastern Bloc police states, and it wouldn’t be long before the concrete barrier bisecting free and communist Berlin was opened — exactly thirty years ago this month.

The uprisings of 1989 did not stop with the reunification of Germany, but also resulted in the independence of more than a dozen nations across the continent, from Estonia to Bulgaria. A younger generation that had grown up behind the Iron Curtain enamored with Western fashion, music and cinema entered adolescence at a time of maturing civic links between U.S. and Soviet institutions. 

Universities provided some with the opportunity to live and study on America’s most prestigious campuses, where political ideas took hold, and migrated back across the Atlantic. It should come as no surprise that several former Soviet satellite nations modeled their new forms of government on the democratic principles of the United States.

Today, the long totalitarian winter has thawed across Eastern Europe, where residents are now generally able to live lives free from political coercion or central dictate. The Cato Institute’s annual Human Freedom Index ranks the former Soviet-bloc nations nearly on par with their Western European neighbors — a positive development that was unimaginable just three decades ago. The people of Germany, once held prisoner behind razor wire and guard towers, currently enjoy higher levels of freedom than the United States.

Here in the United States, we can be proud of the role we’ve played in the advancement of liberty. Our political ideals reshaped a continent and the lives of millions for the better. People all around the world now rightfully yearn for the freedom to live and travel to the places of their choosing, the freedom to assemble and the freedom to speak out against the powerful. And economic freedom has gone hand-in-hand with these positive developments. “Prosperity can come about only when the farmer and businessman enjoy economic freedom,” Reagan noted in his Berlin address. “The [West] German leaders reduced tariffs, expanded free trade, and lowered taxes,” which catapulted standards of living for the benefit of all. 

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Yet, we still haven’t reached the so-called end of history. The flourishing of liberal reforms in the many former Soviet bloc states has been offset with unexpected setbacks elsewhere. The recent crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong shows how seemingly progressive tools like social media, smartphones and big data can also be harnessed for totalitarian purposes.

Closer to home, the resurgence of anti-trade, anti-immigrant and big government policies has shown that the forward march of progress is far from an inevitable one. But Reagan knew that America’s greatest achievements have involved the tearing down of walls and the advancement of personal and economic freedoms.

The United States would do well to reflect on the inspirational message that Reagan articulated thirty years ago, and recommit itself to a new birth of freedom here on our own shores.

Roger Ream is president of The Fund for American Studies (TFAS), a nonprofit educational organization that promotes the principles of limited government, free-market economics, and honorable leadership to our nation’s future leaders. Since the early 1990s, TFAS has offered academic and professional development opportunities to students from former Soviet Bloc countries.