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The Fall of the Berlin Wall: Reminiscence and Reflection

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Excerpts from remarks delivered at the Acton Institute annual dinner in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Oct. 29, 2009:

Twenty years ago today, a growing tide of men and women in Eastern Europe and northern Asia were shaking off the miasma that had led so many to imagine that central economic planning could work. The socialist regimes of Eastern and Central Europe—accepted as ontological realities whose existence could not be questioned—were, well, being questioned.

On November 4th, 1989, a million anti-Communist demonstrators took to the street in East Berlin. Three days later the entire East German Politburo resigned. In short order — the sort of event that television journalists live for — a hole appeared in the Berlin Wall, a hole big enough for hope to pour through. The East German borders opened and by Christmas, thousands were dancing atop the dead body of the Leviathan wall, that hideous symbol, tearing at it with bare hands, champagne bottles, hammer and sickles—anything that was available.

How could we in the West have tolerated that Wall in Germany for so long? From our perspective today it is obvious that the wall would eventually fall, but remember that in 1987 when Ronald Reagan called upon Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the international media either ignored his words or criticized them as the simplistic bravado of a Hollywood cowboy. The President’s own advisors were divided, with his National Security Adviser, Colin Powell, objecting to what Reagan planned to say.

It was only after 1989 that President Reagan’s words became iconic. Reagan understood something that many of the Beltway experts had somehow forgotten or never learned — there is, in the human heart, an innate thirst for liberty. I suppose this is so because it is so closely tied to our very nature as creatures fashioned in the image of a free, rational and creative God: We thirst for freedom because we are created for, and called to, freedom and its complement, personal responsibility.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of Soviet Communism, was a great triumph, but the danger has been and remains that this grand victory some 20 years ago will render complacent the free peoples of the West. The threat today is not a physical wall through the heart of Berlin but walls no mason ever dreamed about or touched.

The American founders understood this: They warned that freedom cannot long endure without virtue, without vigilance. Because our choices are those to be made by intelligent beings who were designed by Intelligence, these choices are not the result of mere instincts like those of animals. They are choices, furthermore, that should be appropriate to creatures whose beginning is purposeful and not random, oriented to the truth of all things.

And that is the scandal of the Berlin Wall — and every barrier like it against liberty. Some are great and others are small, some obvious and others discreet — yet all of them seek to wall us off from our own humanity, to alienate us from the very part of ourselves that cannot be slotted into some planner’s tidy equations, or reduced to the arithmetic of animal appetite.

We are blessed not to live behind walls that would force us to swim shark infested waters, or race through border guard crossings to the sound of bullets striking all around us. And yet the planners, those builders of walls, haven’t given up planning, haven’t given up laying brick upon brick upon brick.

I’m not talking about some secret conspiracy. I’m talking about more mundane things — mundane because they have so long been with us, mundane because—at least until recently — they grew so very gradually, the brick upon brick, the little and now not so little walls rising all around us, innocuously labeled “the mixed economy.”

These walls come in the guise of stimulus packages that distort our markets and our knowledge, that steal away a bit of your future and that of your children by inflationary polices and transgenerational tax liabilities; walls that discourage our charitable impulse and restrict entrepreneurial courage, that encourage fiscal irresponsibility and punish thrift; that encourage vice and envy, that sacrifice liberty for security and, in the devil’s bargain, lose them both.

Last year I noted the frustration and bewilderment that many were experiencing, especially those who believe in and have fought to build the free and virtuous society, a frustration and bewilderment at what we were seeing around us. That was a short time before a whole new political atmosphere took hold. Since then we have seen this breathtaking lurch toward greater centralized planning and redistribution turn into what to many of us feels like a runaway locomotive: Government banks, government mortgage companies, government automobile companies, government healthcare, government religious charities. And all of this is just a warm up for an appropriation of the entire energy sector—cap and trade. Cap and smother would come closer to the truth.

We are compelled to confront the danger of the political-economic scales tipping from productivity to dependency, from business to bureaucracy, from energy to envy, from trade to tariffs, and from creativity and courage to corporate-government collusion, collectivism and cowardice—where more people in society live, not off the noble work of their own hands, but out of the largess of the statist trough.

We might be weary of the struggle, fatigued and discouraged—amazed that people around us just don’t seem to “get it.”

And we would have cause for such pessimism.

Then I remember the years leading up to 1989. The people who brought that victory about were not defeatist or compliant.

A former Hollywood actor, undaunted by ridicule and the compromising lethargy of his own party; a Soviet prisoner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, reaching from the frozen tundra of the Gulags of the Soviet Empire and wounding the omnivorous bear with a simple pen; an iron lady in England, Margaret Thatcher, who didn’t get the memo about the demise of capitalism and the rise of the Marxist dialectic; a rough and crude Polish shipyard worker, Lech Walesa, who led a workers’ revolt against the Worker’s Paradise, encouraged by another Pole, John Paul II, who on his appearance on the world stage bade the world to throw open the doors to Christ and who, without tanks or military resources, stood face to face with Soviet puppets who literally trembled at his calm articulation of the Truth.

It is a remarkable testament to the human thirst for freedom under such hardship and against such odds—in the midst of deprivation and with guns pointed at them—all they were able to achieve, these mothers and fathers of freedom. Their example calls us not to acquiesce to the softer, more insidious and seductive tyranny of our own time, but to redouble our efforts.

Their example also calls us to remember what too many of us today have forgotten: We are beings with a destiny both in and beyond this world—a destiny which can only be worked out in human freedom.

Rev. Robert Sirico Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America, following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London. During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems. As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990. As president of the Acton Institute, Fr. Sirico lectures at colleges, universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published in a variety of journals, including: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the London Financial Times, the Washington Times, the Detroit News, and National Review. Fr. Sirico is often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern, and has provided commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR, and CBS' 60 Minutes, among others. In April of 1999, Fr. Sirico was awarded an honorary doctorate in Christian Ethics from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and in May of 2001, Universidad Francisco Marroquin awarded him an honorary doctorate in Social Sciences. He is a member of the prestigious Mont Pèlerin Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the Philadelphia Society, and is on the Board of Advisors of the Civic Institute in Prague. Father Sirico also served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1994 to 1998. He is also currently serving on the pastoral staff of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fr. Sirico's pastoral ministry has included a chaplaincy to AIDS patients at the National Institute of Health and the recent founding of a new community, St. Philip Neri House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • D.M.

    This Epistle is worthy of canonization.
    Either in the Bible,
    or as a modern addendum to the Federalist Papers.

  • sini ngindu bindanda

    The celebration for the Fallen Berlin’s Wall seems to be a good thinG. But if the fallen Wall is seen just in the simple act of exaltation and triumphalism will not help. All those who where at the front linea to fight the Communism are not necessary those who geographically are near the door of Wall of Berlin. Unfortunalty the story don’t remind them, because only most of them are from South of the World. To fight against the Communist those who are cited are not necessarily those who payed a big price. I think to the poors of the poor countries, whom peoples are oppressed from the violence and of the war. Many of these wars now int these countries are direct or indirectly result of the cold war against the Communism or that attempt due to the famous Berlin Wall. Some can think that my speech is insnsate, but it is not. I know what I am saying, I have seen many thinks during the cold war, it consequences immediate or later on the population, especcially univerities, intellectuals who payed, whom where taxed to be communists and whom were killed without process in my country, Democratic Republic of Congo. Because many countries of the south world who have or had strategic mineral (for essence, uranium, coltan even new scovery), those minerals were and still in the center of disasters these people are facing in a grand day even of the Unites Nations who sometime is complice when entire nations, structures, fauna, flora come to be destroyed or spoiled at the seeing of all who actually could protect.
    There is something to say dealing with this Fallen Wall. There is somthing to say as Boeff Bernado says: “Cry of the Earth, Cry of the people”. There is a cry which rises as describes it VINCENZA, Paglia when he observes saying that: “There is a cry of help which rises either from the East Europeen countries, whom first where oppressed behind the iron curtain and disappointed today and abbandoned by the consumassione society, but also rises from the Opulente Europe: is the voce of millions of poors abbandoned and of the rich whom have made disapear the value on which the same Europe was fundated. Ma Europe-the Cristian Church – must, in their turn, do what did Paul when he fullfilled the mission among other whom sent him a call: “Come over into Maccedonia, and help us” (Acts 16:9).
    Paglia adds: “It’s a need that our Church have a ‘vision’, a world vision, and non be fold around itself and around it’s problems, usually especially of the nature of organization, but for it the church put all the precious time. As the Westernian Churches received help from Paul, the Westernian Church must offer it to many in the world who continue to cry often hearerness. Il messagge of Paul concludes Piglia from the East to the West, must invite all, and especially the rich countries, to not stay dumbs to many Maccedonians of the world who still continue crying “Passe to us and bring us the help”.

    To celebrate the Fallen Berlin Wall is good, but to respond to all aspects of the life of the former Communist countries even the nowadays, particularly because they have been disappointed to all the pretentions, would be better.
    The World has enough with the Speechs and Celebrations, which in themselves also constituite a waste of resources.
    Yeah, the majority people of the iron Wall are disapointed.

    Thank you!