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An awful experiment

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A watch tower at the Berlin Wall Memorial in Berlin, Germany.

A watch tower at the Berlin Wall Memorial in Berlin, Germany.


This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall, one of the most hated symbols of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Like so much of communism, the wall was an awful experiment in social engineering with decidedly different results from what its masterminds intended.

In the predawn hours of Sunday, Aug. 13, 1961, with little warning, the East German National People's Army closed off all access from East Germany to the western sectors of Berlin.

With the border closed, East German workers (organized into Combat Groups of the Working Class) tore up the many streets that had previously connected the inhabitants of Berlin. They then laid down over 100 miles of barbed wire and makeshift fences to surround the western sectors of the city.

The stated reason for this barrier was to protect East Germany from a fascist threat. But as the makeshift physical barricade soon turned into a massive concrete wall with guard towers and other deadly defenses facing back toward East Germany, it was clear that the sole purpose for the wall was to prevent defection from East Germany.

And East Germany had a terrible defection problem. Conservative estimates suggest that between the end of World War II and 1961, about one in six East Germans, or 2.8 million people, had fled their country.

Following World War II, the Allied forces had occupied Germany by zones with the Allied command in the capital city of Berlin. Berlin was also divided into zones for the different allies, even though it was located deep within the Soviet zone of occupation.

When cooperation between the western allies (United Kingdom, United States and France) and the Soviet Union collapsed after the war, Germany formally divided into the communist east and the democratic west.

Berlin, deep inside Soviet-dominated East Germany, remained under a shared Allied control that provided for surprisingly free movement throughout the city. Although East Germany had instituted a system of internal passports and strict border controls elsewhere, Berlin's freedoms afforded the easiest point of emigration to the West.

That is, until August of 1961.

The Berlin Wall vivisected a city, and in so doing it provided an almost perfect (albeit unethical) controlled experiment about the power of ideas.

In the mid-20th-century the world was warring over ideology. One worldview held that the human condition would improve through comprehensive central planning and allocation of resources, with emphasis on material equality and directed moral betterment. The other contended that human flourishing was best achieved by honoring the dignity and worth of individuals to pursue their own aims, thoughts and associations under a uniformly applied rule of law.

How could one empirically test such vastly different ideas? An evil social scientist might suggest taking an ancient city with common language and culture, raze it to the ground and then, — just as its people began to rebuild it from rubble — cut it in half. On one side, allow for the spontaneous growth of self-government and on the other the centrally directed path of equality and improvement. Then, after a generation or two, take down the barrier and see whose lives were better.

Vivisected Berlin gave us precisely that awful experiment. For nearly 30 years, people who sprang from a common history, language, culture and geography, were divided not just by a wall, but by ideology. And when the wall came down, the results were incontestable.

In East Berlin, where associational life was forcibly restricted to what was deemed appropriate by the government and where the means of production were socialized, the result was stifled initiative, crippled creativity, scarcity and despair.

In West Berlin, however, those Germans who had been left to their own devices under an ethic of free association and thought were enjoying unprecedented material abundance and vibrant cultural resources.

On this anniversary of the Berlin Wall, we should mourn the lost freedoms and dignity of those millions whose lives were needlessly caught for so long in the grip of communist totalitarianism. But we might also be grateful that this bizarre history has given a definitive answer to what ideas and institutions best ensure human flourishing. That answer — that liberty and law pave the way to prosperity — is one we cannot afford to forget.