Heeding The Warnings Of History
Wednesday - March 29, 2006
I watched a fascinating program called Megastructures on the National Geographic Channel with my beautiful wife over the weekend. The premise of the show is to document the concept, construction and utilization of various feats of engineering. The episode we saw was about the Berlin Wall.
The story of the Berlin Wall is grim. Post-World War II expansionism by Stalin’s Soviet Union was troubling to the West. Satellite occupied territories evolved into East Germany while the remainder became West Germany. The confrontational relationship between the West and Stalin culminated in Berlin where the city was divided into four zones: the French, British and American in the West and the Soviets in the East.
Interzone travel allowed those from the East to cross into the West to work, shop, recreate or just visit. But in 1961, East German and Soviet leaders outlawed travel to the West, shut down the access gates and constructed barriers around East Berlin. Why? The increasing oppression of the East was forcing people to relocate to the West. This depletion of the talent and labor pool was so great, it was threatening the viability of the East.
There were several generations of the Berlin Wall. It began with wooden stakes and barbed wire, eventually becoming the engineering marvel analyzed in the Megastructures TV show. Not only did the program effectively present the technical accomplishments, but it presented poignant stories of those individuals and families who dared to beat the wall.
Escape from the East was a necessity for survival in the minds of many. The decrepit conditions were unbearable. Government mandated communal jobs generated no personal income. Long food lines for a pittance of supplies proved frustratingly insufficient. Desperate people fleeing the bleakness of the East would be gunned down in broad daylight trying to scale the wall. Secret police would roust families, including children, from their beds in search of any evidence of disloyalty.
It was moving to hear the stories of those who succeeded in escaping the brutality. A group of Western students constructed a tunnel where they helped scores of people escape before being captured themselves. A man who fortified his car and braved the checkpoints ferrying in one escapee at a time. He vowed one more run to save his sister when they were caught and imprisoned. The two brothers who devised a plan to rescue their baby brother by using ultra-light aircraft and the enemy’s insignia to spirit him to safety. These stories leave you breathless.
The program concludes with the demise of the Berlin Wall in 1989, President Reagan is standing in front of the most enduring symbol of the Cold War saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The succeeding images showed families reunited, the wall tumbling down, and modern day Berlin stirring.
It was a stark reminder of how fortunate we are to live in freedom. The false promise of communism, the abject cruelty of total-itarianism and the oppressiveness of a government run amok is personified by the construction and eventual destruction of the Berlin Wall.
It is our vigilance and participation which will prevent our political system from devolving into darkness. But if we relent in our responsibility to demand democracy at its finest, we will not only lose the freedom we cherish, but we will deserve to.
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