For the East-bloc countries and those bordering them, there was a long buildup to November 9, 1989 -- now recognized as the day the Berlin Wall fell. Those of us living in West Berlin were abuzz with anticipation because the cries for freedom began to crack the Iron Curtain.
Still, if you'll pardon the pun, nothing was set in stone. In February of that same year, Chris Gueffroy and Christian Guadian, believing the standing order to shoot those who tried to escape had been lifted, made an attempt to breech the wall. Guadian was captured, and Gueffroy was shot dead. The border guards fired 10 bullets into his chest.
In March, an electrical engineer named Winfried Freudenberg and his wife, Sabine attempted to build a balloon to carry them both across the wall, but when a student reported them to the police before balloon was ready, the Freudenbergs decided to send just Winfried across. The police did not attempt to shoot at Winfried as he crossed, because they feared causing an explosion, since the balloon was filled with natural gas.
The balloon crashed in West Berlin, and Winfried died instantly.
In the course of the Berlin Wall's existence, official records indicate 171 people died trying to escape to freedom, including 18 year old Peter Fetcher, who bled to death after being shot in 1962. You can imagine the impact seeing a grave marker dedicated to him had on me, a 15 year old high school student.
How could they not know it would come to this?
Three days into the wall's construction, East German guard Conrad Schumann, seeing his opportunity to experience freedom coming to an end, famously abandoned his rifle and darted to the West. Now free, he settled in Bavaria and lived a long life separated from his former friends, colleagues and family, but never felt at ease about the entire experience. Said Schumann, "Only since 9 November 1989 have I felt truly free." Sadly, he hanged himself in 1998.
The grass is always greener on the outside of the prison bars, but as the tragic case of Conrad Schumann shows us, being outside of them doesn't guarantee happiness.
The curse of freedom is still superior to the blessings of compulsion
In history we have seen plenty of formidable walls. However, in most cases, they were constructed to keep enemies out and to protect their own citizens and property. Until the Berlin Wall, they were never meant to keep entire peoples prisoners in their own countries.
But in the years since reunification, the people of the East have discovered that freedom isn't easy, and it certainly isn't free. The blessing of freedom is that people may succeed as far as their abilities, will, and not a small amount of luck allow them. However, success is not guaranteed. It's assured, in fact, that some efforts will fail -- and fail miserably. And sometimes it's hard to recover from failure.
Not only that, but there are plenty of fraudulent peddlers, hooligans and ne'er-do-wells willing to separate a fool and his money. Having once been separated of one's life savings, it's natural to be skeptical of one's own judgment -- or the system that doesn't protect ourselves from it.
Without the symbolic -- but tangible -- manifestation of oppression that the Berlin Wall gave us, I fear we may be blind to the invisible barriers erected right before our unseeing eyes.
Yes, being free means we can go from place to place without fear of being shot in the chest and be left to die in a puddle of our own blood.
But that's only part of it.
Freedom also means we may risk everything -- dedicate all of the time we spent learning how to do something and the money we've accumulated in our lives -- for a chance to provide something of value to others -- even if our motivations are self-serving. We have the freedom to succeed, yes. But comparable social reciprocation means that we cannot compel others to keep us from failing. That would infringe on their freedom.
Or so goes the theory. Recent events show us that even countries we consider to be bastions of freedom may contradict the values they claim to aspire to.
What will we do about it? Are we so dedicated to the proposition of freedom that we are willing to face whatever consequences come in its pursuit?
The good news is that we probably don't face the same risks that Chris Gueffroy, Winfried Freudenberg and Peter Fetcher faced.
The bad news is that we still may be compelled to keep others from failing under penalty of imprisonment (try to not pay your taxes that are paying for the bailouts if you doubt me).
But, unlike Conrad Schumann, we have nowhere to run.
Our best hope, then, is to guard the gates of freedom so that we are the place everyone wants to escape to. We must jealously protect our freedoms, which means we must know history well enough to recognize when they might be in jeopardy.
Today, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, is as good a day as any to remind ourselves of that. But instead of wishing you a happy "Freedom Appreciation Day" just to give you another reason to celebrate with fireworks and barbecue, let me wish you a solemn one, instead -- so that we never forget our awesome responsibility. - Cam Beck