– November 4, 2019
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This November marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On November 9, 1989, as the shaky East German communist government resigned, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Large crowds formed on both sides of the Wall. East and West Berliners climbed on top, and then people began using sledgehammers and pickaxes to cut holes in it. Large numbers of East and West Berliners started to move back and forth through the Wall, capturing the spirit of a freedom to move without political barriers standing in the way.

It is worth recalling how and why the Berlin Wall was constructed in the first place, and what it meant for an individual to be viewed as the property of the state in the stream of 20th-century political events.

Barb Wire and Bricks Stop People From “Voting With Their Feet” 

On August 10, 1961, Nikita S. Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union, attended a birthday party in Moscow for Sergei S. Verentsov, the Soviet marshal in charge of the missile program of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Khrushchev informed the celebrating assembly of leading Soviet military and political dignitaries that something momentous was about to occur.

“We are going to close Berlin,” Khrushchev announced. “We’ll just put up serpentine barbed wire and the West will stand there like dumb sheep. And while they’re standing there, we’ll finish a wall.” The crowd broke into an enthusiastic applause.

The city of Berlin had been divided into four Allied occupation zones at the end of the Second World War in Europe. The eastern half of the city was the Soviet zone. The western half was divided into American, British, and French zones, surrounded by the Soviet zone of occupation in eastern Germany. The closest British or American zone of occupation in western Germany was 110 miles to the west. The Soviets had established a “people’s republic” in their zone — the German Democratic Republic, with East Berlin as its capital.

Between the late 1940s and 1961, more than 4 million East Germans and East Berliners took advantage of the relative ease of crossing from the Soviet zone in Berlin to one of the Western zones to “vote with their feet” not to live in the “workers’ paradise” that Moscow had been generous enough to impose upon them. This mass exodus was a huge embarrassment to both the Soviet and the East German governments. It also represented a major loss in skilled labor and in many of the professional occupations.

The Soviets had been almost completely successful in keeping secret that West Berlin was to be sealed. On Saturday, August 12, 1961, 1,573 East Germans crossed the line separating East and West Berlin and registered as refugees desiring to live in the West. They were the last group to be allowed to freely depart. The Soviets stretched barbed wire across the Brandenburg Gate facing the Western zones in the center of the city. And at 2:30 on the morning of August 13, the border between East and West Berlin was closed.

“Successes” and “Failures” of the Wall

Two days later, on August 15, work began on the Berlin Wall; it was made of brick and concrete and took two years to complete. When finished, it was 28 miles long and nine feet high, with barbed wire at the top. East German guards armed with machine guns fired upon any who attempted to cross it. There was also a 200-yard area leading up to the Wall covered with land mines and patrolled by police dogs.

Yet, in spite of this, during the 28 years of the Wall’s existence, between 1961 and 1989, an estimated 5,000 people managed to escape either over, under, or through the Wall. Some escaped through the sewer system under the Wall. Others dug tunnels — the longest one was 500 feet long, through which 57 people made their getaway to West Berlin in 1964.

One woman sewed Soviet military uniforms for three male friends, who drove through one of the Wall’s border checkpoints with her crammed under the front seat. An archer used an arrow to shoot a cable over the Wall from a building in East Berlin and slid along it to freedom.

Some constructed hot-air balloons and crude flying machines using bicycle motors to power their flight over the Wall. Others swam across canals or rivers that separated parts of East and West Berlin.

The Costs of Trying to Escape to Freedom

There also emerged a smuggling business that ran ads in West German newspapers. One such company, Aramco, with headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, gave out press releases referring to their “most modern technical methods.” The company’s prices were not that unreasonable: $10,000 to $12,000 per person, with “quantity discounts” for families, payable into a numbered account in a Swiss bank. If an escape attempt failed, the company refunded most of the money to the person financially sponsoring the breakout.

The East German government issued “wanted” posters on the East Berlin side of Checkpoint Charlie, offering 500,000 East German marks for the director of Aramco, Hans Ulrich Lenzlinger (about $25,000 at the black market exchange rate in the 1970s). The “wanted” posters negatively referred to him as a “trader in people.” In February 1979, someone collected the bounty on Lenzlinger’s head, after he was shot repeatedly in the chest and killed at his home in Zurich.

He was not the only victim of escape attempts. During those 28 years of the Wall’s existence, 80 people lost their lives trying to get to the western side of the Wall. And more than 100 others lost their lives trying to escape along other points of the highly fortified East German border with West Germany.

One of the most inhuman border killings happened in August 1962. Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old bricklayer, was shot and wounded while attempting to climb over the Wall. For 50 minutes he begged for help as he slowly bled to death in sight of soldiers and journalists looking over the Wall from one of the western border checkpoints. Only after he died did the East German guards retrieve his body.

The Berlin Wall came to symbolize the Cold War and its division of the world into halves, one half still relatively free and the other half under the most brutal and comprehensive tyranny ever experienced by man in modern history. Nothing was supposed to cross the Iron Curtain of barb wire fences, landmined farm fields, and machine-gun watchtowers that cut across central Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea, without the permission of the Marxist masters in Moscow.

The Wall vs. the Right to Move

What the Berlin Wall epitomized was the 20th-century idea of the individual as the property of the state. Behind that Wall the East German government told the people where to live and work, what goods they could consume, and what enjoyments and entertainments they would be permitted. The state determined what they read and watched and said. And they could not leave the country — either for a visit or forever — unless it served the goals and interests of their political masters. And if anyone attempted to leave without permission, he could be shot and left to die, alone and helpless, with others forced to stand by as horrified observers.

In the 19th century, the great triumph of classical liberalism had been the abolition of the last of the ancient restrictions on the right of the individual to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. This had included the right of people to freely travel without undue government interference or control.

In earlier times, not only the physical difficulties of transportation prevented men from widely moving from one region or continent to another. Matching these physical barriers were the legal barriers of taxes, tolls, passports, and serfdom, which bound the vast majority of people to the land owned by the privileged and titled political castes.

Classical liberals and classical economists of the early 19th century argued for the removal of such restraints on people’s freedom. The guiding principle was that a man has a property right in himself, that he owns himself. As the British classical economist John R. McCulloch expressed it in the 1820s: 

Of all the species of property which a man can possess, the faculties of his mind and the powers of his body are the most particularly his own; and these he should be permitted to enjoy, that is, to use and exert, at his discretion … in any way, not injurious to others, [as] he considers most beneficial for himself.

A logical extension of the right of self-ownership over one’s mind and body and its use to further his personal and peaceful purposes was the right to move to where he believed he could best improve his circumstances. As the 19th century progressed, the various restrictions on the freedom to move were removed. Passports were virtually eliminated throughout the major countries of Europe and North America, and legal barriers to both emigration and immigration were almost completely abolished in these same nations.

Tens of millions of people, on their own personal account and with private funding, left their places of birth in pursuit of better lives and fortunes in countries and on continents of their own choice. Free movement of people matched the increasingly free trade in goods and capital. About 65 million people took advantage of this greater freedom of movement between 1840 and 1914, before the First World War began.

Modern Barriers to the Freedom to Move

But with the coming of the First World War, governments reinstituted passport and other restrictions on the freedom of movement. With the rise of the totalitarian ideologies in the years following the end of the First World War, the freedom to move was increasingly abolished. Communism, fascism, and Nazism all worked from the premise that the individual was subordinate to and lived and worked only for the advancement of the interests of the state. As an “object” owned by government, the individual stayed put or was forcibly removed to some other location under the brutal orders of the political authority.

Even outside the totalitarian systems of the 20th century, barriers to migration have been logical extensions of the emergence and growth of the interventionist-welfare state. When the government influences the direction of production, has responsibility for both the amount and types of employment in the society, and is the paternalistic administrator of a redistribution of wealth and income for retirement, health care, unemployment, housing, and education, it is inevitable that the same government will be concerned about and responsible for the amount, types, and demographics of any individuals or groups desiring to move into a country under that government’s jurisdiction.

The growth and development of the regulated economy, in other words, has provided the rationale for barriers to free migration. They stand as legal and political walls far higher than the Berlin Wall in preventing people from passing freely and unmolested from one part of the world to another. The passport that each and every one of us is forced to apply for and carry on our person whenever traveling outside the territorial jurisdiction of our own country, and which we must present upon our attempt to return to our own land, clearly shows that we are all in fact subjects under — not citizens above — the political authorities controlling our lives.

The German free market economist Wilhelm Röpke once pointed out in an article titled “Barriers to Migration” (1950):f

Modern nationalism and collectivism have, by the restriction of migration, perhaps come nearest to the “servile state.”… Man can hardly be reduced more to a mere wheel in the clockwork of the national collectivist state than being deprived of the freedom to move… Feeling that he belongs now to his nation, body and soul, we will be more easily subdued to the obedient state serf which nationalist and collectivist governments demand.

It has become a cliché that the world, every day, becomes a little smaller. Methods of global transportation improve the quality of travel and reduce the time between any two points around the world. Computer technology — the internet and email — has made virtually everything written, said, or photographed a simple and almost instantaneous “click” away. The expanding worldwide network of business, trade, and capital markets is increasingly making the globe a single market for commerce and culture.

On this 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we should remember all that it represented as a symbol of tyranny under which the individual was marked with the label: property of the state. He not only was controlled in everything he did and publicly said, but his every movement was watched, commanded, or restricted.

Freedom in all its forms — to speak, write, associate, and worship as we want; to pursue any occupation, profession, or private enterprise that inclination and opportunity suggests to us; and to visit, live, and work where our dreams and desires lead us to look for a better life — is a precious thing.

The history of the Berlin Wall and the collectivist ideology behind it should remind us of how important a loss any of our freedoms can be, as we determine in what direction — toward greater individual liberty and free enterprise or more government command and control — we wish our country and the world to move in the 21st century.

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Richard M. Ebeling

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Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina. Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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