This edition of Radio Free Acton features an interview with Larry Schweikart – drummer, history professor, and producer of the documentary “Rockin’ The Wall” – on the power of music and the influence of rock and roll in undermining communism in the Soviet empire. When we think about the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s only natural that names like Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II come to mind, but there were other elements involved in the battle against communism that also played important roles in its downfall, including cultural influences. How did western rock and pop music help to undermine Soviet Communism? Schweikart, former drummer for Rampage, explains how it happened.
A Note to Readers: The Acton Institute is presenting a special screening of the film Rockin’ the Wall on November 20 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The event features a talk by Larry Schweikart, who worked closely with the film’s producers and is featured prominently throughout the documentary. To register, click here.
Back in my college days, my friends and I debated the merits of military spending by the then-current administration. As this was the 1980s, featuring two terms of President Ronald Reagan, we took somewhat opposing views on whether the United States could outspend the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until it – and its odious ideology – collapsed into the dustbin of history. This argument – believe it or not – was adopted by my friend Ron. My friend John – coincidentally named after the president on whose inaugural he was born, John Kennedy – argued that the revolution would come from within the Iron Curtain rather than without. Eastern Europe and the Soviet states wanted Calvin Klein jeans, jazz and rock and roll music, he asserted, and he was convinced that comrades of the Soviet states and its satellites would tear down oppressive regimes to attain artifacts of Western culture. (more…)
This November marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This momentous occasion symbolizing the decline of Soviet Communism is sure to be met with joyous celebration, not only in Germany, but around the world.
While November signifies Soviet Communism’s decline it also commemorates one of its darkest, most horrendous hours. Annually on the fourth Saturday of November, Ukrainians remember the brutal, man-made famine imposed on their country by Joseph Stalin and his Communist regime in the 1930s. The tragedy, which became known as the “Holodomor” (“death by hunger”) resulted from Stalin’s efforts to eliminate Ukraine’s independent farmers in order to collectivize the agricultural process.
Estimated to have claimed, through murder and forced starvation, the lives of almost 7 million Ukrainians, the Holodomor is recognized as a genocide by more than a dozen countries, including the United States.
In an effort to expose this largely unknown chapter of Ukrainian history and the corrupt ideology which caused it, the Acton Institute will host an evening combined lecture and art event on November 6th titled, “The Famine Remembered: Lessons from Ukraine’s Holodomor and Soviet Communism.” The presentation will feature Acton’s director of research, Samuel Gregg, and the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art’s education committee chair, Luba Markewycz. Markewycz will share her exhibit, “Holodomor Through the Eyes of a Child,” composed of artwork created by contemporary children throughout Ukraine. Gregg will discuss the historical context and the ways in which the Holodomor amounted to an assault on human dignity, individual liberty, private property, and religious freedom.
We invite you to come learn about this important part of history and see it depicted through art. For more information and to register, please visit the event webpage.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s stirring speech in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Against the advice of the State Department, the National Security Council and the ranking U.S. diplomat in Berlin, the President challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party, to take his glasnost policy one step further with the demolition of the Berlin Wall.
The speech, which forecasted the wall’s 1989 destruction, remains one of the most iconic moments of Reagan’s presidency and a moment of victory on the path to world freedom.
Below is a video of the speech:
Uwe Siemon-Netto, a journalist and Lutheran theologian, reflects on the upcoming half-century anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, “And the wall fell down flat.” He relates the story of the Christian peace movement and its role in tearing down the spiritual walls that helped to hold up the Berlin Wall.
He talks about the social and spiritual consequences of the flight of so many from East Germany to West Germany: “By the time East German leader Walter Ulbricht ordered the Western sectors of Berlin sealed off, up to 2,500 left his country every day. Its economy was about to collapse. Entire branches of industry no longer functioned because their skilled workforce had run away.”
But there were much more than economic effects, as he notes:
Ironically, the flight of highly qualified craftsmen, of scientists, engineers, professionals and farmers, was not just a catastrophic loss to the Communists but also had a religious dimension. These refugees belonged primarily to the social strata that had been the Christian Church’s mainstay. Ulbricht’s regime was intent on establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, relegating the former upper and middle classes to an inferior status, and driving them out. This was the main cause for the decline of church membership from some 95 percent of the population in 1945 to one quarter at the time of East Germany’s collapse in 1989.
But even so that one-quarter of the population was behind the Christian peace movement that helped to “tear down this Wall,” in the words of Ronald Reagan.
Siemon-Netto describes the contours of the movement, including its “most momentous demonstration,” which “occurred on 9 October 1989.” But following that massive public expression of faith, the religious dimensions of these eastern areas of Germany have continued to diminish. Political and economic freedom in itself has not sparked religious revival.
It is now 50 years since I saw the Wall go up and 22 since it came down. The Christian movement in eastern Germany seems to have collapsed. When Germany was reunited on 3 October 1990, most Protestant churches did not even ring their bells in gratitude, in contrast to Catholic churches, which did. Once again, eastern Germans are turning their backs on the Christian faith in droves. Next to the Czech Republic, the former GDR is the most secularized region in Europe, and Berlin is the most godless city.
Let us hope and pray that the spiritual walls too might come tumbling down and that godlessness is not the lasting legacy of the Berlin Wall.
Update: More on the “the spiritual dimension” of the Berlin Wall story today from Siemon-Netto.
From “The Origin of Russian Communism” by Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev (published by Geoffrey Bles, 1937):
Marxism is not only a doctrine of historical and economic materialism, concerned with the complete dependence of man on economics, it is also a doctrine of deliverance, of the messianic vocation of the proletariat, of the future perfect society in which man will not be dependent on economics, of the power and victory of man over the irrational forces of nature and society. There is the soul of Marxism, not in its economic determinism.
In a capitalist society man is completely determined, and that refers to the past. The complete dependence of man upon economics can be explained as a sin of the past. But the future is otherwise; man can be freed from slavery. And the active agent which frees humanity from slavery and establishes the best life, is the proletariat.
To it are ascribed messianic attributes, to it are transferred the attributes of the chosen people of God; it is the new Israel. This is a secularization of the ancient Hebrew messianic consciousness. The lever with which it will be possible to turn the world upside down has been found. And there Marx’s materialism turns into extreme idealism.
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.
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Acton adjunct scholar and sometime PowerBlog contributor Eric Schansberg links to a bit of background to Ronald Reagan’s remarks at the Brandenburg Gate provided by Anthony Dolan, Reagan’s head speechwriter, in today’s WSJ.
Peter Robinson is credited with the famous utterance, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In his remarks at this year’s Acton Institute Annual Dinner, Rev. Robert A. Sirico recalled that President Reagan’s challenge was derided by the world’s media at the time. As Dolan writes, in this speech it was thought that Reagan “would embarrass himself and the country by asking Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, which was going to be there for decades.” It wasn’t until the Wall fell a mere two years later that the prescience of Reagan’s challenge was validated.
For more on presidential speechwriters, check out the Podium Pundits blog, which “brings together former presidential speechwriters, from both Democratic and Republican administrations, to analyze and comment on major speeches, messaging strategy, and the business of communications.” Also be sure to check out Ray Nothstine’s reflections on this same anniversary from two years ago, in which he relates the views of another Acton Annual Dinner speaker, former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar.