I participated today in the celebration of 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The event was organized by the Alumni Office of the Eureka College. Here’s my talk.
Thank you, Mrs Shellie Schwanke, and thank you, Dr. Jamel Wright, for giving me the occasion to be with you on such an important event. As all of you, I look forward to hearing John Morris’s remarks, so I will be brief.
It is an honor to participate in the celebration of 30 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I speak to you as someone who spent his childhood behind the Wall, in one of the countries that belonged to the Warsaw Treaty. I am a former “enemy.” As such, I will begin with recollecting these early days of November 30 years ago, in my hometown, Fagaras, Romania. As always when there were important news coming from the West or news that demonstrated some unrest among people in the East, we were glued to two radio stations, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. At times, the phone we had in the house were covered with pillows, so that “they,” as we called them, would not be able to listen to what we were doing in the house. We lived in a paranoid state, in which we were not afraid of those people who were beyond the Berlin wall, but rather of “them,” the unnamed multitude who could decide on a whim your entire existence. Those who lived during communism, in East Germany, Romania, the Soviet Union, or elsewhere, know that we always talked about them—an impersonal them, but a powerful one, for all the aspects of our lives seemed to be dependent on it. They listened to everything you said; they were giving potatoes at the grocery store; they could put you in prison; they could turn you to the secret police; they were the secret police. They were the “bad guys.” But somehow theywere also us.
In fact, this separation between them and us, between friends and enemies is, perhaps, one of the main problems with communism. For a society that claims to unite all people, to unite all proletarians, it is surprising that it begins with a wall. But a communist society needs walls because it is based on a notion that divides people on moral grounds. If you think in a different way than the establishment, you are an “enemy of the people,” and as such you need to be deported, imprisoned, or simply murdered. These objectified enemies could change: wealthy peasants, intellectuals, priests, but they all shared one characteristic: by freedom of thought. In any case, as Anne Applebaum says in her Gulag: A History, “people were arrested not for what they had done, but for who they were.” They were objects that did not fit the new order.
The Berlin Wall was not only a physical entity, but it also was a metaphysical one. The enemies that the communist regime wanted to keep out were ideas expressed in freedom. But the communists also wanted to keep their internal enemies in, to persecute them, to change their souls and, if all of this were not possible, to take them out of existence. The regime established a wall that did not separate nations, but people who had different ways of perceiving the world. Instead of protecting its own people, the regime built a wall so that they could not escape persecution. I do not know of people attempting to run away from the West to an Eastern communist society. And so the celebration of 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall is important because it also celebrates the fall of a regime that persecuted its own people.
But all of this can be interpreted wrongly, with the same approach the communist regime had when dealing with human beings. “Let us eliminate the communists,” some may say, “build a wall between them and us, so that we would never be corrupted by their way of thinking.” This would mean that we replace an evil wall with what we may consider a new and improved moral wall. If we are, however, to truly follow these words, ‘tear down that wall,’ then we may remember, in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Price Laureate and a victim of deportations to the Gulag in Siberia, that the line between good and evil does not separate people. I quote:
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.”
Indeed, many memories of people who have gone through communist persecution emphasized precisely this: that the fight against evil does not presuppose fighting other human beings, annihilating their ideas, or building walls between them and us, but rather fighting precisely against the temptation of the heart to see in one’s adversary an enemy.
Now, 30 years after the tearing down of this wall, let us remember the words of pastor Ferenc Visky, who was imprisoned in Communist Romania for his beliefs: “The source of cruelty is always fear,” he says. “Whoever tortures you has a great fear inside of him. He is more afraid than the one being tortured. And you have to understand his state, because if you do not understand, then you have lost, and the torturer has lost also. This is the problem of suffering, that you will see that the man who tortures you is more afflicted than you who are being tortured.” Let us also remember the words of Fr. George Calciu, who spent 24 years in a Romanian communist prison because he believed in God and openly spoke against the communist regime: “Slavery to ideas is as serious a form of slavery as any other.” Let us not allow our own slavery to ideas to build walls against others within our hearts and let us tear down the walls that still harm us by accepting all within our souls.
Anne Applebaum. Gulag: A History. New York: Anchor Books, 2003, p. xxxvi.
Archipelago Gulag. Vol II, New Work: Harper Perennial, 2007, p. 615.