I vacationed in Europe during the latter half of July, and I’m glad to be back in Wyoming for what I hope will be another two months of summer. Although my trip abroad was personal rather than professional, I anticipate various experiences will affect the latter profoundly as well.
My days in Berlin were the most disconcerting yet inspiring for a staffer at a liberty group.
In Berlin, there is no shortage of museums and monuments commemorating World War II and the subsequent division of the city and nation following Germany’s defeat. For visitors, I highly recommend the Stasi Museum, the Gestapo Museum (which rests atop the site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and Shutzstaffel – Hitler’s notorious SS) and the Reichstag. Throughout my stay I was simultaneously overwhelmed by how much progress Germany has made since reunification in 1990, and yet how rooted the nation—and, particularly, Berlin—remains in its fading but all-too-recent past.
As I discussed on the radio yesterday, it’s particularly chilling just how effectively the Stasi, the East German secret police, monitored and suppressed the populace during its existence, answering only to the single-party rulers in the Socialist Unity Party. This history is central to the film The Lives of Others, and I hope you’ll join us tonight here at WyLiberty for a free screening of the film.
The Stasi and the “order” they enforced, however, couldn’t go far beyond East Germany’s borders, and estimates between 1950 and 1990 show that the population of East Germany shrunk by more than two million people. This happened despite a strong border and, in Berlin, a wall to prevent citizens from leaving. The wall was dotted with 302 watch towers, where pairs of guards served shifts with the duty of shooting anyone who attempted to escape to the West. Presently, estimates state that 136 to more than 200 citizens were murdered trying to escape East Berlin.
Only one last watchtower remains, tucked away on a side street and almost impossible to spot:
Indeed, I was right next to it before I looked up and saw it between trees:
Although most of the old wall has been torn down, and property developed in its place, the last tower still has a view of part of an area it was meant to cover:
Standing inside this tower on a hot summer day, imagining the duty assigned to soldiers standing guard, I could also imagine the fear instilled into Germans stuck on the East side. Yet in that small concrete box I felt victory far more viscerally than at any museum or other monument.
While here in Wyoming and across America we’re fighting battles in free speech, gun rights, property rights and other fronts, we must not forget that mankind has overcome even far more dire circumstances than any of these conflicts. We’re blessed that our concerns are petty compared to the darkest days in East Berlin. This is not to say our fights are unimportant or that our vigilance is misguided, but that our earnestness must be balanced with thankfulness for the freedom we maintain.
Sitting in a beer garden in what was once East Berlin on a hot summer evening enjoying a glass of Berliner Weisse, I realized it’s a thankfulness that can be shared universally.