In the fall of 2000, when I was a German Language and Literature sophomore at the University of Havana, a professor lied to my class. The Berlin Wall, she assured us, had been built by the West Germans.
Then, as if to worsen my dismay, a student raised his hand. What was the Berlin Wall again? he asked.
Things don’t look much better nine years later, as I near the end of my studies in Canada. True, no professor will stand in UTM’s lecture halls, or for that matter, any other Canadian university’s, to insult history the way my former professor in Havana did. And should a professor do that, no student would get expelled or thrown in jail for calling her on it. But, as my very informal survey of seven UTM students shows, their ignorance about the Berlin Wall could rival my former classmate’s.
One of the reasons why is of course their age: if your average UTM student is, say, 20 years old, he or she would have been born precisely the year that the Wall fell. (My Cuban classmate would have been a child). But the remaining reasons for this ignorance couldn’t be more different. Like most other Cubans, my classmate didn’t know what happened on November 9, 1989 because the Cuban press barely covered the end of Communism. My classmate also grew up asphyxiated by oppression, a complete unavailability of foreign news sources, and a fear of asking the wrong questions. Young Canadians, on the other hand, don’t suffer these limitations. They don’t know much about the Wall simply because the world they live in seems to have forgotten about it.
This is unfortunate. Countless people suffered under Communism. Many were tortured and killed. Millions more continue to endure Lenin’s equalitarian dream in China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. To ask me, like many in Toronto have, how come I left tropical Cuba for cold Canada, is to pay their plight a disservice.
Compassion and respect are one thing. But there are also practical reasons why it pays to keep history in mind. The few remaining Communist regimes know this better than anybody else. Realizing that the East Germans who tore the wall with their bare hands did so out of a want for bourgeois goods such as jeans and Coca Cola as much as a want for freedom, the Chinese and Vietnamese governments set about opening their economies to the very market principles they had shun for the past few decades. North Korea went the opposite way, shutting itself from the outside world so tightly that barely anyone knows what goes on there. (It does open up, ever so slightly, when it needs food for its starving population, which it likes to extort out of the international community with threats of nuclear armament).
As for Cuba, it attempted to strike a balance, encouraging tourism, allowing remittances from political exiles (which now account for Cuba’s largest source of income), and very minor forms of private enterprise.
All of these countries, with varying degrees of ruthlessness, continue to persecute, imprison or execute their people.
Unfortunately, outside of these regimes, almost everybody else failed to remember the Berlin Wall, what happened before and after, and what it meant for the world. President Obama might be an exception, which is likely why he’s relaxed the American embargo against Cuba. This is good news, and not jus because it means better lives for those who still live on the island.
It is good news because it will show Cubans that Western democracies are not the enemy they were taught to believe, and that the excuses they were given for the system’s shortcomings were nothing but smoke and mirrors. Economic freedom almost always equals political freedom. The more citizens in Communist countries have a taste of it, the sooner the remaining Walls will fall.
Berlin Wall: A Chronology
- May,1945: the Allied Powers (a coalition of Russian, British and American forces) defeat Nazi Germany and divide it into four occupation zones. The capital, Berlin, is similarly divided. The Soviets disagree with the rest of the Allies on reconstruction plans that would make post-war Germany self-sufficient.
- 1945-1985: the Soviet Union forces Communism onto the nations that it liberated from Nazi Germany. Properties and industries were nationalized. Indoctrination of Marxism-Leninism became mandatory.
- June 5, 1947: the United States establishes the Marshall Plan, an initiative designed to rebuild the American and British-liberated parts of Western Europe and to rein in Soviet control of the Russian-liberated portion.
- 1948: Stalin institutes the Berlin Blockade, which prevents food and supplies from arriving in West Berlin. The United States, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries begin a massive Berlin airlift, supplying West Berlin with food and other supplies.
- May 1949: after 300,000 Berliners demonstrate for the international airlift to continue, Stalin lifts the blockade, permitting the resumption of Western shipments to Berlin.
- October 7, 1949: the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was born. The Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs accorded the East German state administrative authority, but not autonomy, with an unlimited Soviet exercise of the occupation regime and Soviet penetration of administrative, military and secret police structures.
- 1950-1961: 3.5 million East Germans flee into West Berlin.
- August 13, 1961: the police and units of the East German army close the border with West Berlin. East German troops destroy streets running alongside the border and install barbed wire entanglements and fences along the border between West and East Berlin.
- 1961-1989: Around 5,000 East Germans manage to escape to West Berlin, using tunnels, adjacent buildings, aerial wires and even hot air balloons. The Wall is increasingly fortified as years go by, making escapes almost impossible. People killed while trying to cross the wall have been estimated from 100 to over 200.
- 1987-1989: following the Perestroika (reformation process) in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev,East Germans begin fleeing into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which have taken a few first step toward democracy. Protests against the Communist government break out in East Germany.
- November 9,1989: the East German government announces that all GDR citizens can visit West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed the wall.October 3, 1990: the German reunification is formally concluded.