On a recent business trip to Berlin, I stopped by the Berlin Wall Memorial on the corner of Bernauerstrasse and Ackerstrasse.
It’s the longest stretch of the wall (1.4 kilometers) in its actual historical setting, a chilling reminder of what life was like in the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR).
With an Orwellian flourish, the Wall’s creators called it an “anti-fascist protective rampart.”
Nearly 27 miles long, the Wall snaked its way through the heart of Berlin.
Many of the city’s iconic landmarks – including the Brandenburg Gate, the museums of Museum Island, the broad avenue known as the Unter den Linden, Potsdamer Platz, and the Berlin Cathedral – were all locked inside, off limits to tourists and West Germans alike.
Crossing the No Man’s Land
The Wall was actually made up of two concrete barriers up to 15-feet high and often topped by razor-sharp concertina wire.
Between the two barriers lay a vast “no man’s land,” carefully raked to detect footprints, with 302 guard towers, 256 dog runs, thousands of mines, anti-vehicle trenches, floodlights and trip-wire machine guns.
More than 11,000 soldiers constantly patrolled the length of the Wall to keep citizens from escaping the socialist paradise.
Between 1961 (when the wall was first built) and 1989 (when it was torn down following the collapse of the Soviet Union), 139 East German citizens – from grandmothers to high school kids — were shot trying to cross this “death strip.”
Their names, pictures and stories are featured on a special monument located in the preserved “no man’s land” off Bernauerstrasse.
Thus, as westerners in general and Americans in particular debate the costs and benefits of socialism, it’s a good time to remember what socialism in practice actually looks like — and why, to the disappointment of his many fans, Bernie Sanders will never be president of the United States.
Berlin is a good “point of departure,” as the French say, for such a debate.
After World War II, half of the city’s population was left free to pursue its own self-interest in the wild frenzy of sybaritic postwar capitalism.
The other half, occupied by the Soviet Union and relentlessly hectored about its collective duties to the common good, was provided with all the benefits that socialism promises.
Like the “democratic socialists” today, Erich Honecker, general secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and the de facto dictator of East Germany for nearly 20 years, insisted that socialism is simply a more moral path than the grubby striving of the capitalist West.
The Many Promises of Socialism
“The GDR will cross the threshold to the year 2000 with the certainty that the future belongs to socialism,” Honecker said in October 1989, less than one month before his authoritarian regime collapsed. “Mass unemployment, homelessness, lack of social protection – all of which accompany modern technology in [West Germany] – do not exist here now and won’t in the future.”
In the GDR, socialism meant free health care, free child care, free education, government-subsidized housing, guaranteed employment, the liberation of women from the home, and legal abortion.
In exchange, all the citizens of the GDR had to give up was their freedom of choice.
You can get a glimpse of what this meant by visiting the DDR Museum (DDR being the German abbreviation for the GDR) on the bank of the River Spree, behind the Berlin Cathedral.
Everyone Treated the Same
There you can see why some East Germans have a touch of nostalgia for the shared misery of their old way of life – what they call in Germany “Ostalgie.”
There was one car model to choose from – the box-shaped Trabant — not thirty.
There was one health care plan for everyone.
There were no fewer than 39 national newspapers, two television channels and four radio stations – but only one authorized point of view.
Newspapers under socialism could print whatever they wanted – so long as they didn’t contradict the positions taken by Socialist Unity Party.
Everyone was treated the same, paid between 1,000 and 1,500 East German marks monthly whether you were an engineer or a janitor. (Black market conversion was between 5 and 17 East German marks for every West German mark.)
Everyone had the same grim apartment, in identical concrete apartment blocks 30-storeys high, with the same identical living room TV cabinet.
With luck and after a 15-year waiting period, you might even be able to acquire your own car – the box-shaped Trabant.
The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
State planning – even with private companies – meant that often there was too much of one commodity and too little of another.
One of the most common expressions in the GDR was printed on signs (now on T-shirts) that often appeared in store windows: Heute keine Ware, no goods today.
But what you didn’t do under socialism was complain.
The GDR’s omnipresent secret police, the Stasi, monitored citizens’ private conservations through a vast network of secret microphones, listening devices and hidden video cameras.
The Stasi employed 90,000 full-time workers and an estimated 170,000 informers.
The penalties for holding unauthorized political opinions were severe, up to and including solitary confinement. (YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are taking notes.)
Of course, today’s democratic socialists, like Bernie Sanders, insist that what they have in mind has nothing to do with the socialist dictatorship that was the GDR.
They have in mind something else, something more like, say, the social welfare safety net in united Germany or Denmark.
The problem is, there are enough Americans around who still remember the Berlin Wall. They know that the East Germans gave their citizens everything today’s socialists promise – from free education to free abortions – yet they had to build a 27-mile-long wall, and shoot people in the back, to keep people from leaving.
Just something to consider as Bernie Sanders makes his final case in the few remaining US presidential debates.
Socialism, today as in the past, makes many promises. But the reality looks a lot like the Berlin Wall.
Robert J. Hutchinson writes on the intersection of politics and ideas. He is the author of the upcoming book, What Really Happened: The Lincoln Assassination.