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Hope and Betrayal in Berlin

What I learned while watching the Wall come down 20 years ago.

Twenty years ago, I was there when the Berlin Wall was coming down. What I witnessed about human aspiration in those magic November days in 1989 thrills me even now. But what it showed me about politics may be even more important.

“What is freedom?” I began asking people as I waded through the crowd gathered at the Brandenburg Gate.  

To a middle-aged nurse it meant the flight of her co-workers to the West. There were 17 nurses left on her floor. There had been 50. “It’s bleeding us to death.”

She didn’t blame those who had left for better jobs and a better life in West Germany. The solution was free, multiparty elections in East Germany, an end to the communist dictatorship.

“If we keep working, doing demonstrations, maybe we’ll get them soon. We really do believe in democracy. Let us have a chance.”

She was standing in the rain on this drizzly night as were dozens of other East Germans. Just days before the authorities had allowed some of her countrymen to pass through the Berlin Wall. There was a rumor that they were about to open the Brandenburg Gate, the historic symbol of east-west division.

Hearing my question and her answer, other East Germans began to gather around.

I suppose the sight of an American with an opened notebook and that wide-open question, “Was ist freiheit?” was quite a novelty for those who’d spent decades worried about the secret police, the notorious Stasi.      

A rump town meeting began to form around us. Opinions began to fly.

“I want the freedom to earn what I have worked for and not be forced to do something because I am told to,” said one man.

“We want a socialist country even if we don’t have reunification,” countered another.

A young woman suggested a compromise: Western-style economic freedoms combined with “the caring for the people” of socialist societies.

“We want a united Germany where the people can make the choice,” someone trumped them all.

It was then that I noticed a serious young man in his late twenties. He was wearing an army surplus jacket, very much in the style of an anti-Vietnam war protester of the 1960s.

“This is freiheit,” he declared, “this standing in a public place arguing openly about such things as democracy, capitalism, and socialism.”

"Four weeks ago,” the nurse who had spoken before chimed in, “we couldn’t to it.”

Anyone who doubted the stakes of the Cold War should have been there with me that night of November 15, 1989, to hear those voices suddenly awakened to freedom.

I could feel the enthusiasm they had for the debate, which was totally new to them.

What struck me was failure of communism in the eyes of the true believers. Many spoke with calm contempt for what they called the “sharp-elbowed” society of the capitalist west. I remember the placard at the student rally at Humboldt University in East Berlin. “Ist Das Alles?” it asked over a photo of a Coca Cola can.

But the disgust was directed far more at those who had abused their socialist idealism. A physicist spoke with real anger at the humiliation of being paid in useless East German currency, of being unable to travel abroad.

“You book a flight on Interflug [the East German airliner] weeks in advance, then a West Berlin hitchhiker, someone who has not even bothered to plan the trip, comes around at the last minute with Deutsche marks and you get kicked out of your seat.”

The student leader at the rally at Humboldt University spoke of the university’s corrupt and incompetent administration. “Students ought to have the right to share in decision-making.” He wanted independent student councils instead of the Communist-dominated youth organizations. “I like the word ‘free,’” he said.

A leader of the reform group “New Forum” said he wanted to see the leaders of political parties judged on the basis of performance rather than ideological orthodoxy.For too long, he said, his country had been under the brutal control of the communist party. “The citizens of this country were never authorized to do things on their own without permission of the government.”

It was the true believer, not the cynic or the radical, who had finally had enough of the East German dictatorship. It was the person who worked hard and played by the rules who finally would no longer abide the abuses of the party big shots.

It’s a wake-up call for our own country a generation later. We’re going to see tough times for months, even years. People are going to blame the financial crisis that ushered in this period of high, enduring unemployment. And it’s not the cynics who are most offended by the Wall Street bailouts and the bonanza of huge profits and bonuses going to those who caused the crisis. The cynic always expects people to grab what they can get.

No. The true believers in free enterprise and, yes, capitalism, are the ones who feel the most betrayed by what they’re witnessing. They’ve seen their trust abused, and their accounts drained. And they’re looking for big solutions: sweeping regulations on Wall Street and new leaders who clean things up. The anti-incumbent strain at the voting booth two weeks ago didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from a growing disgust with the cozy collaboration between political and economic elites.

So this week, as we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the human love of freedom that brought it down, we should also remember that it’s the true believer in the system who resents its betrayal most of all. And it’s the true believer who would rally to a political leader who fights to save capitalism from its worst abuses.

Chris Matthews is the host of “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” as well as “The Chris Matthews Show.”