May 10, 2005

Soviet War Crimes

In response to David Frum's post on remembering Soviet misdeeds at the Huffington Post (linked above) I am doing a rerun of a post from early Octobor of last year. The original is here. I apologize for the errors.

Tag Der Einheit was October 3, I knew it was around but I figured I'd post on it. It means day of unity, but it's usually translated German Reunification Day. The issue of German unity brings up the symbol of disunity: the Berlin Wall.

Walter Ulbricht, an interwar MP in the German Reichstag for the Communist Party and leader of postwar East Germany, had been pushing for closing the border into West Berlin for years. He wanted to clamp down and stop people from basically escaping the horror of East Germany. During the occupation years, the Red Army soldiers had raped in excess of two million women - which Stalin had dismissed as over-worked soldiers having some fun. The Soviets took heavy reparations from the Soviet zone of Germany in compensation for the war. Aside from heavy machinery and currency reserves, the Red Army took cars, watches, pens, knives and furniture from the East Germans. Naturally, many Germans weren't inclined to stick around.

The East German Communists were also quite bad and it's often understated the degree to which communist oppression of East Germany was led, directed and inspired by the German leadership. Stalin tried to slow down the pace of socialization in order to keep open the option for a quick unification, but Ulbricht sped it up.

Some of the policies were smashingly successful, others met with strong popular support. The land reform was loved by most of the East Germans (except those who lost in the process, naturally) and even though Soviet propaganda hailed it as nationalization of land, it usually ended up being more or less sold off or granted to individuals and families. The socialist health care and art subsidy policies were also generally viewed as positive.

However, Ulbricht was no benevolent ruler. He wanted to be able to really crack down and punish people. Following communist policies, food shortages wracked East Germany and eventually food ration cards, used to get better foods and small luxury items, were restricted to workers and peasants. He wanted to really move things along, but any time something got hard the people left through West Berlin, which was perfectly legal.

Over three million Germans escaped communist tyranny through West Berlin in the early years, where they were then flown by the Allies into West Germany. Stalin and the Soviets didn't want to close the borders because they hoped to create a unified, weak, neutral Germany and closing borders would antagonize the Allies. Ulbricht pushed for years to have the border closed and the wall built, even to the point of nearly threatening Khrushchev if he didn't get it. After a rocky summit with JFK in 1961, Khrushchev gave the go-ahead to close travel.

The wall itself developed slowly. At first, it was a guarded border and had barbed wire covering it. As soon as the barbed wire went up, Germans began fleeing in huge numbers. People just jumped right over it for a little while. As it was built up, people went to buildings right on the border and snuck over to the West. The guards sealed up the first floor windows with bricks, so people went to the second floor and jumped to the other side - often into waiting nets held by Westerners. The guards proceeded to brick up each level and the refugees went up a floor every time, jumping whenever they could. Eventually they started jumping off the roof to escape.

The Soviet engineers came in with the Red Army, knocked down the buildings near the border and built a proper wall. This too went by fits and starts, first a wall then other parts, including a no-man's land, several fences, more barbed wire, soldiers with dogs, machine gun emplacements, and floodlights. This is how it ended up:

If you have flash, here is a good animation of the wall, just click at the bottom "The Berlin Wall from East to West" to see it:

Officially, the wall was supposed to stop attacks from West Berlin and prevent infiltration of fascist agents into East Germany (the GDR or 'DDR' in German). This was ludicrous, however, since the barbed wire was very clearly pointed at the East side. Ulbricht laughingly titled the Berlin Wall the "Wall of Freedom" which would probably be accurate if he meant the freedom of the communist leadership to exploit and terrorize the population. Tanks sat near the wall at regular intervals, as did men with automatic weapons.

When it went up, it was like the 1956 Hungarian uprising - everybody expected the US to do something dramatic and heroic and save the Germans from this horrible injustice. Unfortunately, also like 1956, the US did little more than fierce rhetoric. It's unclear what they really could have done short of all-out war, and by this time the Soviets had developed fusion bombs so war could have escalated into nuclear apocalypse.

However, unlike 1956, the Soviet victory was privately a relief for the Kennedy administration. Kennedy, Ulbricht and Khrushchev were all relieved at the wall, since it seemingly calmed down the situation. In that pre-wall summit, Khrushchev tested out the young, new President and actually said to Kennedy, "If you want war, you will get it" in relation to the wall. Both the Soviet and American records had altered the record, however - the Americans softened it slightly and the Soviets switched it out with another sentence altogether. But the leaders knew how close war could have been, and they thought the Berlin Wall brought some stability to the situation.

The obvious effect of course, was that the East Germans got screwed and were now prisoners in their own countries. Travel between Soviet bloc countries was not permitted and travel to West Germany was now closed. The East Germans were trapped within viewing distance of the freedom, luxury and prosperity afforded their friends, cousins and countrymen. Kennedy defiantly pledged 100% support should West Berlin ever be invaded, but he could not promise any immediate support for those unfortunate enough to be stuck on the other side of the wall.

The next dramatic event for the Wall was of course Reagan's speech. Reagan's call for a worldwide democratic revolution and his to-the-point characterization of the Evil Empire is documented as having an effect on Soviet and East German citizens and even gulag prisoners had heard his words from newly arrived prisoners. His dramatic speech came in 1987, amid Gorbachev's leadership and Soviet policies of political openness (glasnost) and economic reform (perestroika). Here is perhaps the most poignant section, and of course the most famous quote.

"In the 1950s, Khrushchev predicted: "We will bury you." But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind--too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself. After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.

"And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control.

"Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.

"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

The story of how the wall fell is at once climactic and anti-climactic. At first, Hungarians opened up the border in 1989. Germans went through Czechoslovakia into Hungary, into free (neutral) Austria and into West Germany. The wall guards became somewhat unmotivated and confused and they just started letting people through. Spreading at lightning pace, within hours and days throngs of people from around Western Europe and East Germany crowded around the wall. Soldiers were unsure what to do but didn't fire or stop people.

The government announced open borders and free travel through the Berlin Wall on November 9th, less than a month after mass demonstrations forced brutal East German dictator Eric Honecker to resign. Families reunite, strangers hug, celebrations are had. Millions of people were in the city, most of them drunk, many of them non-German, all of them ecstatic. East German TV became 100% unregulated, and showed anything from parliamentary speeches and nature documentaries to porno and music videos. The West German government announced a gift of 100 DM to every East German - GDR currency was worthless but 100 DM was two or three months' wages. For several weeks, nearly every East German went into the West to visit friends and relatives, emptying their section of the country.

And a quirky side-note, November 9th, 1918 was the proclamation of the Weimar Republic. November 9th, 1923 was the day of Hitler's failed beer hall putsch. November 9th, 1938 was the date of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass when Nazi riots ransacked the homes and businesses of Jewish Germans. November 9th is the day the Wall opened. Quite a big day for the country.

This was the visible end of the Iron Curtain, the end of communism. Free elections and market reforms came in nearly every Eastern European country in 1989, before and after the Wall fell. It also signaled the end of German division. When crafting the constitution for the West German government, the natives insisted that it was a Basic Law and not a constitution. This very explicitly signaled that they were waiting to unify with the West, and until all of Germany was in the government, they could never have a Constitution.

Tag der Einheit is one of the single most important holidays in history not because the wall fell on that day, but because it represents the day, October 3, 1990, when Germany was unified, Europe was unified, and the communist empire that took the lives, livelihood and happiness of hundreds of millions of people was finally and officially extinguished.


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