The Day the Wall Came Down
Back on November 9, 1989 I lived in Auburn, Alabama. On that morning I looked at the front page of my daily paper and to my amazement a cut out map was shown on the front page with the name "Nickelsdorf" in big letters above a dot indicating a little town in Austria, about 7 miles from the Hungarian border.
I was amazed because in 1953, in mid-October, I escaped from Hungary at that spot, leaving behind one half of my family to join the other half in the West. I was smuggled out of there by a professional, someone TIME magazine would later deprecatingly call a "flesh peddler."
I have never forgotten his good works! The newspaper explained that the Hungarian government did something extraordinary. Some East Germans who came to Hungary wanted to visit their families in West Germany and for the first time the Hungarian government would permit this, contrary to all expectations, allowing them to leave through Austria.
That was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union's rule over Eastern Europe. It ended with the eventual demolition of that gross symbol of Soviet tyranny, the Berlin Wall.
The Iron Curtain, as it was dubbed by Winston Churchill, had turned out to be an embarrassment of Soviet socialism. It was a dividing line between what the Soviets had convinced themselves would be the haven of humanity, in contrast to the decrepid, decadent, and, yes, impoverished West their leadership had bene desperately denouncing for all sorts of reasons for over 70 years.
Soviet socialism was established on the basis of Lenin's belief that one could hurry up history. Karl Marx, Lenin's philosophical teacher, had believed that after capitalism had run its course, socialism would emerge and after that communism would be reached as the final stage of humanity's development. All this was supposed to happen of historically necessity, inevitably.
But there was a problem. Russia had never experienced capitalism, only bits and pieces of it here and there. So how could the Soviet Union then be the leader of the march toward socialism and after that communism?
Marx gave a clue, in his preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto. He said that if the change to socialism in Russia were to be exported to other parts of the world -- parts where capitalism had taken a hold -- then the impossible could be achieved and Russia could become the next step toward communism.
Out of this came the efforts of the Soviet leaders to export their socialist system to all parts of the world, including much of Europe. Their first step was to make the Poles, Hungarians, East Germans, Rumanians, Czechs, Bulgarians, Albanians and Yugoslavians all into dutiful socialists. The next step would be to subvert the countries of Africa, Latin America and even Western Europe. But to get this going the Eastern Europeans had to be cut off from Western Europe.
It is not clear whether the Soviet leaders realized early on that the Marxist story of humanity's progress toward Communism is a ruse or whether most of them believed in it. In any case, they certainly saw in this story a way to secure for themselves the tyrannical powers that they had insisted on wielding over millions of people for several decades, seven in the USSR and four in the rest of Europe.
In 1961 there was ample evidence that contact with the West would lead Eastern Europeans to lose any semblance of confidence in the Soviet myth of the march toward a prosperous communist society. That is when the Berlin Wall was built, as a way to keep East Germans from finding out how miserable their fate had become.
A lot of East Germans were fooled but hundreds were not, many of them risking and some losing their lives to attempt to climb over the wall and seek refuge in the West.
Finally, once it became abundantly evident that Soviet socialism is a complete flop, no measure of credibility was left for the countries behind the Iron Curtain. And it was the Hungarian officials who seemed to have recognized this first. Michael Gorbachov, the last tyrant of the Evil Empire, contributed, of course, because in a desperate effort to revitalize the socialist experiment, he started Glasnost, the policy of easing up on government regimentation of the Soviet economy. As soon as he did this, he could kiss the socialist dream good bye.
Without the strong arm of the government, socialism becomes a hopeless dream for anyone who has lived through some of it. But it was the Hungarian government's policy of finally recognizing the insanity of keeping the German families apart that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The Berlin Wall's demolition was the punctuation of that momentous decision. Many in the West are upset that once the wall came tumbling down, the Soviet region didn't immediately become a heaven of capitalist development and various other free institutions.
This is like expecting a dysfunctional family to be able to recover immediately after a tragedy awakens its members to how badly they have been managing their lives. The simple fact is that it will take several decades before the people of the former Soviet empire will recoup. They were injured in hundreds of different ways and some of them who have survived the ordeal have not even begun to get back on their feet.
Still, now, once the Soviet empire has decomposed, there is a chance for the people there to start living as free men and women, to organize their lives as they see fit, and perhaps even to begin to prosper. To do all this much needs to be accomplished -- most importantly, a legal infrastructure must be established that firmly establishes and protects the principles of private property rights and the integrity of contracts. Once that is achieved, the gradual rebuilding of the region can commence.
For now it is enough to simply celebrate ten years of life without the Soviet tyrants. In anyone's book that should be a promising beginning.