Faith and Religion

An Anniversary to Regret Forever

father dean | Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s 8/14/11

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of what would be one of the ugliest construction projects in all human —or, should we say, un-human— history.


Alarmed that 3,000 of its citizens were escaping daily, knowing in its heart -of-deluded-hearts that Communism was already in its long, protracted last gasps, the powers-that-were in the GDR (ironically called the “Democratic German Republic”) began the desperate measure called the “Berlin Wall”.

“A wall”, said Berliner John F. Kennedy in 1961, “is a hell of a lot better than a war.” Perhaps he was right. But the massive barrier of cement and metal, barbed wire and watchtowers, land mines and armed check-point served less to protect the West (and West Berlin) than it did to shut down the legitimate aspirations of seventeen million human beings. Growing up in the darkest hours of the “Cold War,” six years old when the wall was built, I always perceived this antithesis of democracy as a work of the devil.

Twenty-two years later, detained an hour at Checkpoint Charlie as GDR border agents examined everything I carried with magnifying glasses, I sat, amazed at their dogged-yet-futile determination to crush the human spirit.

We had already crossed, a few weeks before, into the chilling territory in which the “Stasi” (collaborating with the KGB) would employ well over a quarter-million secret police during the forty years of its existence, holding an entire nation hostage. Never were we followed with such precision – not in the Soviet Union, from Moscow to Kiev to Armenia – not in what was once Czechoslovakia, nor in Poland or Hungary. As had been the case during a three-week crossing of Yugoslavia on foot in 1983, my experience in the GDR was thoroughly depressing. Here was the Wall in living color.

At one point, for example, a boy practicing English on the train invited me to his home. His young mother looked up and down the street, then rushed me into her house. After two hours’ conversation and a full jar of peaches – one of only three jars they had canned that year – she snuck me out the back door, whispering: “Don’t tell anyone you came, and…please don’t write.”

The poverty of that woman’s life, and of her entire nation, was driven home from the wall’s east side, as one could see a giant Bundesrepulik flag undulating in the wind beyond the massive grey insult-to-all-that-is-human, guarding West Berlin’s markets replete with a great variety of everything.

So it was. Our delegation had spent two exasperating hours with the GDR Official Peace Committee, listening to them describe, in precise Party lingo, how Communism offers the perfect solution to humanity’s problems, and how utterly content their people are to live in such wonderful security.

We had wanted to scream, at the top of our western lungs, “Bull—-!”, but doing so would have endangered our contacts on both sides of the wall. I, for my part, made that second crossing alone a few weeks later, to leave a very long letter for the committee’s president, Renate Milke. She, in turn, would write me a treatise of the same sanitized double-think, a treasure I would store away like gold…until that day when the GDR would collapse.

In fact, it did, just 29 months after Ronald Reagan’s famous “Tear down this wall” speech in 1987. I was in Vienna at the time (November 9, 1989), having left Croatia in order to renew my Yugoslavian visa. The exultation in the streets was unforgettable. I had, later, the opportunity to witness first -hand some pieces of that hideous wall, now serving as museum pieces and testimonies to how low human beings can sink. But gazing at these relics was nothing like seeing the graffiti-laden wall when it once stood in place.

And it was nothing compared to the sheer dehumanizing reality of that wall for those millions who lived, captive, in that bleak nightmare beyond the Iron Curtain, wasting four decades in a slow, agonizing death – whose braver companions were already martyred, or shuttled off to prison camps and the gulag facilities where torment and brain-washing were the order of the day.

I’ll spare reference, today, to the walls now being built elsewhere in what we call the Free World. Rather, keeping the focus on that Wall in Berlin, and remembering how Christ came to tear down the barriers that divide human from human, brother from sister, and fallen humanity from God, I’ll simply conclude with this famous speech by President Ronald Reagan:

“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, tear down this wall!”

Regan concluded: “As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner, ‘This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.’ Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.”

(Reagan, at the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall, on June 12, 1987)


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