Useful Rubble: What can we learn from the Berlin Wall in 2018?

Where have we been since the wall came down?

Statue of Liberty/ CC
Photograph: 'Statue of Liberty'/ Pexels

Monday 5 February 2018 seemed pretty unremarkable. There were bleary eyed commuters barking coffee orders at hungover baristas, school kids waited for the dreaded bell, and the weekend appeared both in the distant past and future. It may have been like any other damp Monday in February but there was something significant about it for Europe, Eurasia, and the world – because it marked the point at which the Berlin Wall had been down for longer than it had stood.

After it was built, practically overnight, The Wall separated the two halves of the German capital, which was divided between the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic, colloquially called ‘East Germany’, and the Western-allied Federal Republic of Germany, or ‘West Germany’. The structure was the Communist response to the scores of Germans fleeing Communist brutality to take refuge in Western liberty.

However, it was more than just a policy, and far more than just a brutally enforced border; it stood as the physical manifestation of every ‘iron curtain’ metaphor of the Cold War.

The Cold War is now a memory for some, and others may only have studied it or seen in it movies. In the information age of Nando’s and Netflix, when any visitor can scoff a Big Mac in the Red Square McDonald’s, the dark days of the ideological, financial, political, philosophical, technological, and ethical battle between Communism and Liberal Capitalism are over – with the latter claiming a decisive victory.

China and Russia are now corporatist states, with the former only just still wearing the fur coat of Communism but without the matching underwear. Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea – and their obscene Western defenders – are all that stand, diminutively, like a series of unaware parodies, in the scattered ruins of what was global Communism. It would be funny if it hadn’t cost the lives of 94 million people.

Other than for Cold War history buffs, this period of history only enters the popular consciousness when significant anniversaries and other related curiosities, such as the one occupying this article, are pointed out to us by those careful purveyors of recent history. While a lack of historical reverence is understandable, it remains important to remember the lesson of that time and keep it in mind.

That lesson is simple: The Western liberal democratic tradition is not just different to other systems – it is better; especially for the people living in it.

We tend to lack perspective when it comes to scrutinising our own system. Particularly if we live in Britain, or one of the other common law countries. It is untidy, piecemeal, has senseless quirks, and is regularly wasteful, exclusionary, slow, bureaucratic, and directionless. We endure corruption, scandal, and a press transfixed by the lowest common denominator. We’re surrounded by fat, ignorant, selfish, petulant imbeciles who would rather sit on their couches, shovelling pizza down their gullets, chewing mindlessly on both it and the reality TV blaring from one of their many screens, than work to enrich themselves.

However, and this is what this particular pseudo-anniversary should remind us of, I am free to write and publish the sentence that ends the previous paragraph without hesitation or worry.

I don’t fear a nocturnal knock at my door, being taken to a cell and, if I’m lucky, simply being disposed of. Under the Communist regimes, whose mentality was summed up in bricks by that horrible partition, the victims were rarely that fortunate.

I, like most people, have enough to eat, somewhere warm to sleep, time to associate freely with family and friends, the right to read the books I choose, and yes, to sit, double-pepperoni in hand, gradually taking up more of the sofa as I kill off brain cells by mainlining pure, uncut TOWIE – should I choose to.

In a prosperous society, it’s easy to forget about basic principles and philosophy – ironically, when people are poor, they remember them more, in another useful lesson from communism – but we should remember that those of us living in Western, liberal, democratic countries are very fortunate to do so.

We are the healthiest, wealthiest, best provided for, best protected, most educated, most free people that have ever lived; and the good news is that the next generation will continue to improve on this, but only if the free speech, free enterprise, and personal independence of thought, action, and endeavour, on which our societies depend, are embraced, emboldened, and practised enthusiastically.

Being reminded that the Berlin Wall, once thought indestructible, has been down for longer than it was erect presents us with a golden opportunity to refresh our memories.

We owe those who fought, in whatever way, at least that much.


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Alan Grant 2 Articles
Alan is an Edinburgh-based writer with an interest in popular culture, lifestyle, media, politics, and humour and an abhorrence of cliche.

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