Twentieth anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall bring back memories of my visit there shortly after that momentous event.
Collapse of the wall was not so much a testament to the power of America’s overwhelming military might, but the compelling attraction of life in a free society.
Seeing the bondage millions of East Germans had been living under, literally just steps away from the freedoms of West Berlin, was a shock.
Seeing how time under communist rule stopped the growth of a society over four decades earlier was a lesson in the importance of individual freedoms I’ll never forget.
For the generation growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, President Ronald Reagan’s famous words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” marked the beginning of the end of a communist spectre that had cast a shadow over our lives since birth.
President Reagan spoke those words to the people of West Berlin, near the wall, at the base of the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987. His words were heard just across the border in communist East Germany and echoed around the world.
Reagan gets most of the credit for the push that tore open the Iron Curtain but freedom in East Germany and other Soviet-dominated countries in Eastern Europe came primarily from many years of watching the example of freedom set here in America. The people bound by Communist dictators simply wanted what we have: Freedom to move, speak — live as we please.
Conservatives who dominate our state’s politics today worship at the altar of former President Reagan. The man known as “the Gipper” for one of his most famous movie roles is deserving of admiration for many reasons, but the one often cited by this latest brand of right-wingers — fiscal conservatism — is off the mark.
Reagan was one of our nation’s biggest-spending presidents. The record proves it.
Today’s conservatives, seemingly bent on restricting the rights of individuals with whom they disagree, hold Reagan in awe as the fiscal idol he never was, but blindly overlook Reagan’s commitment to freedom and individual rights. He famously said:
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”
The Great Communicator didn’t necessarily mean that loss would come from outside.
Many in today’s so-called conservative movement who lionize Reagan seem unsure all Americans need as much freedom as our Constitution guarantees. They rant over imaginary loss of freedoms, like prayer in school, (It’s there. But it has to be voluntary, not dictated.) They see no contradiction in telling others how to live their lives, even in the privacy of the home.
Broken pieces of the Berlin Wall sit on my desk at home, a token of that visit, but also a reminder of how those small pieces, put together, enslaved millions.
Small fears, put into laws, can do the same.
Another Republican President — my personal favorite — got it right in this area. President George H.W. Bush said: “A president is neither prince nor pope, and I don’t seek a window on men’s souls. In fact, I yearn for a greater tolerance, an easy-goingness about each other’s attitudes and way of life.”
Maybe these words, also from Bush the elder, make the point clearer.
“I’m conservative, but I’m not a nut about it.”
It was noted 20 years ago that communism’s most visible symbol, the Berlin Wall, was toppled without a shot being fired. That happened, ultimately, because the power of freedom’s ideals overcomes man’s tendency to want to control the lives of others.
It’s a lesson some seem to have forgotten.
Robert M. Williams Jr. is an Effingham native who publishes weekly newspapers in Blackshear, Alma, Folkston, McRae and Forsyth. E-mail him at email@example.com.