Friday, November 9, 2018

The Berlin Wall: The Horrific Deaths, the Great Escapes and the Prison House of Communism

Richard Ebeling emails:

Dear Bob,

I have a new article on the website of “The Epoch Times” newspaper on, “The Berlin Wall and Prison House of Communism.”

It is now almost 30 years since people in both East and West Berlin breached the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, bringing to an end to one of the leading symbols of the Cold War and the prison house that Soviet communism imposed over Eastern Europe.

Is it worth recalling the history of the Berlin Wall – why the Soviet Union built it, what it represented in denying people the right of freedom of movement, its cost in human lives
during the more than the quarter of a century that it existed – and its relevance in our world today in terms of those who wanted liberty so badly that they risked everything to try to go under, over or through that wall to reach a better future for themselves.



The Berlin Wall and the Prison House of Communism
By Richard Ebeling

The Berlin Wall symbolized the struggle between Western democracy and
communist tyranny for nearly 30 years. This year, on Nov. 9, marks 29 years since
both West and East Berliners breached the wall in 1989 with the determination to
bring down this barrier to human freedom.

The wall separated a tyrannical society from a free society in which people were at
liberty to come and go as they peacefully pleased. The Soviet-imposed totalitarian
regime was so fearful of its own people’s desire to leave that it brutally did all in its
power to keep them prisoners within the borders of the Marxist state.

It is worth recalling how and why the Berlin Wall was constructed in the first place,
and what it meant in the great struggle between freedom and tyranny in the stream
of 20th-century political events.

Sealing People Behind a Wall of Tyranny

On Aug.10,1961, Nikita S. Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union, attended a
birthday party in Moscow for Sergei S. Verentsov, the Soviet marshal in charge of
the missile program of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Khrushchev
informed the celebrating assembly of leading Soviet military and political
dignitaries that something momentous was about to occur.

“We are going to close Berlin,” Khrushchev announced.“We’ll just put up serpentine
barbed wire and the West will stand there like dumb sheep. And while they’re
standing there, we’ll finish a wall.” The crowd broke into an enthusiastic applause.

The city of Berlin had been divided into four Allied occupation zones at the end of
World War II in Europe. The eastern half of the city was the Soviet zone. The
Western half was divided into American, British, and French zones, surrounded by
the Soviet zone of occupation in Eastern Germany.

The closest British or American zone of occupation in western Germany was 110
miles to the west. The Soviets had established a “people’s republic”in their zone—
the German Democratic Republic, with East Berlin as its capital.

Between the late 1940s and 1961, more than 4 million East Germans and East
Berliners took advantage of the relative ease of crossing from the Soviet zone in
Berlin to one of the Western zones to “vote with their feet” and leave the “workers’
paradise”that Moscow had imposed upon them. This mass exodus was a huge
embarrassment to both the Soviet and the East German governments. It also
represented a huge loss in skilled labor and in many of the professional occupations.

The Soviets were almost completely successful in keeping the secret that West
Berlin was to be sealed. Two days later, on Aug.12,1,573 East Germans crossed the
line separating East and West Berlin and registered as refugees desiring to live in
the West. They were the last group to be allowed to freely depart. The Soviets
stretched barbed wire across the Brandenburg Gate facing the Western zones in the
center of the city. And at 2:30 a.m. on Aug.13, the border between East and West
Berlin was closed.

‘Successes’ and ‘Failures’ of the Wall

Two days later, on Aug.15, work began on the Berlin Wall; it was made of brick and
concrete and took two years to complete. It was 28 miles long and 9 feet high with
barbed wire at the top when finished.

East German guards armed with machine guns fired upon any who attempted to cross it. There was also a 200-yard area leading up to the wall covered with landmines and patrolled by police dogs.
Yet, in spite of this, during the 28 years of the wall’s existence, between 1961 and 1989, an estimated 5,000 people managed to escape either over, under, or through it.

Some escaped through the sewer system. Others dug tunnels; the longest was 500
feet long, and 57 people used it to make their getaway to West Berlin in 1964.

One woman sewed Soviet military uniforms for three male friends, who drove
through one of the wall’s border checkpoints with her crammed under the front
seat. An archer used an arrow to shoot a cable over the wall from a building in East
Berlin and slid along it to freedom.

Some constructed hot-air balloons and crude flying machines using bicycle motors
to power their flight over the wall. Others swam across canals or rivers that
separated parts of East and West Berlin.

Smugglers for Freedom

There also emerged a smuggling business that ran ads in West German newspapers.
One such company, Aramco, with headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, gave out
press releases referring to their “most modern technical methods.” The company’s
prices were not that unreasonable: $10,000 to $12,000 per person, with “quantity
discounts”for families, payable into a numbered account in a Swiss bank. If an
escape attempt failed, the company refunded most of the money to the Westerner
financially sponsoring the breakout.

The East German government issued “wanted” posters on the East Berlin side of
Checkpoint Charlie, offering 500,000 German marks for the director of Aramco,
Hans Ulrich Lenzlinger. The posters negatively referred to him as a “trader in
people.”In February 1979, someone collected the bounty on Lenzlinger’s head, after
he was shot repeatedly in the chest and killed at his home in Zurich.

He was not the only victim of escape attempts. During those 28 years of the wall’s
existence, 80 people lost their lives trying to get to the western side of the wall. More
than 100 others lost their lives trying to escape along other points of the highly fortified
East German border.

One of the most inhumane border killings happened in August1962. Peter Fechter,
an 18-year-old bricklayer, was shot while attempting to climb over the wall. For 50
minutes, he begged for help as he slowly bled to death from his wounds in sight of
soldiers and journalists watching from one of the western border checkpoints. Only
after he died did the East German guards retrieve his body.

The Berlin Wall came to symbolize the Cold War and its division of the world into
halves, one half still relatively free and the other half under the most brutal and
comprehensive tyranny ever experienced in modern history. Nothing was supposed
to cross the Iron Curtain of barbed-wire fences, land-mined farm fields,
and machine-gun watchtowers that cut across central Europe from the Baltic to the
Adriatic Sea, without the permission of the Soviet masters in Moscow.

The Wall Versus the Right to Move

What the Berlin Wall epitomized was the 20th-century idea of the individual as the
property of the state. Behind that wall, the East German government told the people
where to live and work, what goods they could consume, and what enjoyments and
entertainments they would be permitted.

The state determined what they read and watched and said. If anyone attempted to
leave without permission, they could be shot and left to die, alone and helpless, with
others forced to stand by as horried observers.

In the 19th century, the great triumph of classical liberalism had been the abolition
of the last of the ancient restrictions on the right of the individual to his life, liberty,
and honestly acquired property. This had included the right of people to freely travel
without undue government interference or control.

In earlier times, it was not only the physical difficulties of transportation that
prevented people from moving from one region or continent to another. Matching
these physical barriers were the legal barriers of taxes, tolls, passports, and serfdom,
which bound the vast majority of people to the land owned by the privileged and
titled political castes.

Classical liberals and classical economists of the early 19th century argued for the
removal of such restraints on people’s freedom. The guiding principle was that a
man has a property right in himself, that is, he owns himself. As the classical
economist John R. McCulloch expressed it in the 1820s,
“Of all the species of property which a man can possess, the faculties of his mind
and the powers of his body are the most particularly his own; and these he should
be permitted to enjoy, that is, to use and exert, at his discretion … in any way, not
injurious to others, [as] he considers most benecial
for himself.”
A logical extension of the right of self-ownership over one’s mind and body, and its
use to further his personal and peaceful purposes, was the right to move to where he
believed he could best improve his circumstances.

As the 19th century progressed, the various restrictions on the freedom to move
were removed. Passports were virtually eliminated throughout the major countries
of Europe and North America, and legal barriers to both emigration and
immigration were almost completely abolished in these same nations.

Tens of millions of people, on their own personal account and with private funding,
left their places of birth in pursuit of better lives and fortunes in countries and on
continents of their own choice. The freedom to travel matched the increasingly free
trade in goods and capital. About 60 million people took advantage of the greater
freedom of movement between 1840 and 1914 before World War I began, with more
than half of those 60 million coming to the United States to start a new life in a
society of liberty.

Barriers to Freedom

But with the coming of World War I, governments reinstituted passport and other
restrictions on the freedom of movement. With the rise of the totalitarian ideologies
in the years following the end of World War I, the freedom to move was abolished.
Communism, fascism, and Nazism all worked from the premise that the individual
was subordinate to and lived and worked only for the advancement of the interests
of the state. As an “object” owned by government, the individual stayed put or was
forcibly removed to some other location under the brutal orders of the political

The German free-market economist Wilhelm Röpke once pointed out:
“Modern nationalism and collectivism have, by the restriction of migration,
perhaps come nearest to the ‘servile state.’ … Man can hardly be reduced more to a
mere wheel in the clockwork of the national collectivist state than being deprived of
the freedom to move. … Feeling that he belongs now to his nation, body and soul, we
will be more easily subdued to the obedient state serf which nationalist and
collectivist governments demand.”
On this soon-to-be 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we should
remember all that it represented as a symbol of tyranny under which the individual
was marked with the label“property of the state.” He was not only controlled in
everything he did and publicly said, but every movement was watched,
commanded, or restricted.

Freedom in all its forms—to speak, write, associate, and worship as we want; to
pursue any occupation, profession, or private enterprise that inclination and
opportunity suggests to us; and to visit, live, and work where our dreams and
desires lead us to look for a better life—are precious things.

The history of the Berlin Wall and the communist ideology behind it should remind
us of how important a loss of any of our freedom can be as we determine in what
direction—toward greater individual freedom and free enterprise or more
government command and control—we wish our country to move in the 21st

Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

He is also the co-editor of When We Are Free (Northwood University Press, 2014), an anthology of essays devoted to the moral, political and economic principles of the free society, and co-author of the seven-volume, In Defense of Capitalism (Northwood University Press, 2010-2016).


  1. All the while this thing existed, there was never a major film or TV show about it from our leftist Hollywood friends. Ever. I think I saw some East German army goose-stepping on the CBS Sunday morning show once around 1987 for about 4 seconds and was fascinated. Ten years ago, I actually bought a DVD of this parade from 1988, a few weeks before the wall fell. They start goose stepping around the 18:00 minute mark. The sign says:

    Es lebe die Deutsche Demokratische Republik - Unser Sozialistisches Vaterland!

    Long live the German Democratic Republic - Our Socialist Fatherland!

    Not that I have any control over it, but I think it is a positive thing that the Democrats are out of the closet as socialists. If libertarians had any competence in the outreach department, we could bury them with this stuff. Berlin 1988. Not 1937.

    1. Re: Bob Roddis,

      ── All the while this thing existed, there was never a major film or TV show about it from our leftist Hollywood friends. ──

      There is a 1982 Disney film called "Night Crossing" with John Hurt about the true story of two families (the Strelzyk's and the Wetzel's) who build together a hot air balloon clandestinely out of pieces of sail cloth, steel scraps and gas tanks in order to escape to West Germany in 1979. They actually built two balloons but the first one failed and crashed. The aeronauts had to wait for things to cool off before they built a second and more successful balloon. The whole story is immensely interesting and worth the watch.

      The movie didn't make a lot of money, though──it actually failed at the box office, but based on the two times I watched it, I think it accurately portrays the oppressive nature of the East German regime even though some of the critics of the time felt it exaggerated the tension which, in their minds, turned the movie into a propaganda piece. I completely disagreed with that assessment, of course, having read about the successful attempt made by these brave families in an old 1980 issue of Popular Mechanics.

      Other than that, you could only count on spy thrillers and maybe some documentaries to show life behind the Iron Curtain. One interesting thing about East Germany which brings irony to the positions taken by many environmentalists who think Capitalism dirties the world: People who visited East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall could not believe how DIRTY and POLLUTED were cities in the former G.D.R.

  2. This may be off topic, but here Lindsay Shepherd explains the wonders of her graduate school experience at a small public Ontario university where EVERYONE in charge is a commie. Why do Republicans and Republican-style Canadians continue to fund these things? Communism (and their handiwork like the wall) always start with radical leftist "intellectuals". Duh.

  3. Fantastic article, thanks for sharing.

  4. ── "In the 19th century, the great triumph of classical liberalism had been the abolition of the last of the ancient restrictions on the right of the individual to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. This had included the right of people to freely travel without undue government interference or control." ──

    Why then so many so-called "libertarians" dishonestly deny or try to obviate this self-evident truth? People have a right to move, to change places, to seek new lands and opportunities. That doesn't mean they have a right to someone else's property or production, but migration per sé is not an attack on property.

    ── The German free-market economist Wilhelm Röpke once pointed out: "Modern nationalism and collectivism have, by the restriction of migration, perhaps come nearest to the 'servile state.'"──

    Keep that in mind every time people, including the president, make the claim that they're 'nationalists'.