On Keeping People In: The Berlin Wall and the Shortness of Political Memory | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight
On Keeping People In: The Berlin Wall and the Shortness of Political Memory | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight
"And so, at the end of the twentieth century there burst
forth a sequence of events, expected by many of my countrymen but catching many
in the West by surprise: Communism collapsed due to its inherent lack of
viability and from the weight of the accumulated rot within. It collapsed with
incredible speed, and in a dozen countries at once. The nuclear threat suddenly
was no more. And then? A few short months of joyful relief swept over the world
(while some bemoaned the death of the earthly Utopia, of the Socialist Paradise
on earth). It passed, but somehow the planet did not grow calmer; it seems
instead that with a greater frequency something flares up here or explodes
there, even scraping together enough UN forces for peacekeeping has become no
easy task." -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Address to International Academy
of Philosophy. 
"We must lead a right life to reach the goal of a life of
felicity: and this right kind of life exhibits all those emotions in the right
way, and a misdirected life in a misdirected way. ... The city, that is, the
society, of the ungodly consists of those who live by the standards not of God
but of man; of those who follow the doctrines of men or demons in their worship
of false divinity and their contempt for the true Godhead." -- St. Augustine, The
City of God, XIV. Ch. 9.
Augustine speaks of leading a "right life to reach the goal
of a life of felicity." He suggests there is a right and wrong way to do this.
There are "standards" that are not of God. We can live by them. There are
"doctrines of men" which are nothing but that. They are not discovered to be
already existent in nature but made up by ourselves to allow us to lead a
"misdirected life in a misdirected way." It is quite possible to "worship" a
"false divinity" and to show "contempt for the true Godhead." The life of
"felicity" is not one lived according to the "standards of men." These
"standards" show this contempt because they substitute a "false divinity" for
the "true Godhead." Such words, we think, are from the ancient "religion."
They have litter pertinence to the great events of our time. Yet, when we spell
out the true nature of our time, such "standards" of God and of men seem to be
precisely what is at issue in the events of our time.
Twenty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the most
remarkable thing about it today is that it is largely forgotten. The Walls of
Troy we might remember from Homer, the Walls of Jericho we sing about from the
Bible, but the Berlin Wall, only the vaguest clue remains in our collective
consciousness. Not merely are the reasons forgotten why the Berlin Wall was
initially erected by the Marxists, but also the reasons for its unexpected
collapse have evaporated as if no lesson is to be learned from the once
The period of "joyful relief" at fall of this Wall, as
Solzhenitsyn remarked, was strikingly brief. The energy and enthusiasm
associated with this counter "revolution" that brought the Wall down now seem
to be utterly dissipated. The only place where Marxism still exists, the cynics
say, is in the backwaters called academia. And yet, in 2009, after the world economic
crisis, it is said that German editions of Das Kapital are selling well. The stage is set to repeat the old
errors. But this assumes that nothing radically different is on the scene. We
are reluctant to believe that goals set in motion centuries and centuries ago
can still operate with renewed vigor.
The two figures most responsible for the destruction of the
Wall were Ronald Reagan and John Paul II. Both manifested what few if any
social scientists possessed, namely, an inner spiritual understanding. For
them, the Wall was not inevitable—something could be done about it. Many
politicians and scholars would be perfectly content if the Wall were still
standing. It was not "prudent" to have attacked it, so they thought before it
actually fell. Their hunches and their learning gave scholars and politicians
no grounds for thinking it anything but inevitable.
Their "science" did not take free will into consideration.
What most experts expected to change was not communism but the rest of the
world that would become ever more like it. It they had a concept of history, it
was out of the "utopian" tradition from which Marxism itself arose. The
"history" of the world judged the world, that is, approved whatever happened
simply because it happened.
Immediately following the unanticipated fall of communism,
however, some scholars began to worry about the "end of history." Reviving an
old notion from the Romans, not a few worried that their destruction of the
modern Carthage surrounding Berlin would leave free societies with no enemy,
the threatening existence of which made a certain virtue, self-discipline, and
courage incumbent on their polity's citizenry if they wished to survive. The
"end of history" promised an unmitigated boredom in which men perished.
The Soviets had performed for our time, from the end of
World War II, what Carthage provided for the Romans. After it disappeared,
there was only "bread and circuses," the worst kind of moral climate. The world
needed for its own good a "balance of power," a balance of "terror," as it came
to be called after the Soviets also acquired its own nuclear capacity. The most
sober discourse before the fall of the Wall had to do with the morality of
"mutually assured destruction." Such philosophical scruples almost seemed to
mandate capitulation rather than reasonable defense. Then suddenly, as
Solzhenitsyn said, the issue died.
But all through this early period of relief after the
collapse of the Wall we were blinded by our own theories. The geo-political
stage did not merely include the West and Communism. In spite of Tiananmen
Square, China did not collapse. The torch of ideological Utopia still burned
there, even though China, out of necessity, decided to imitate some aspects of
capitalism. It became, in fact, the chief source of labor and the workplace of
the world. The world was convinced that only one true super-power remained to
handle the lesser wars that inevitably arose among men with conflicting hearts.
Undermine this superpower, however, and the world order could radically be
changed. The shrewdest observers to learn this lesson of change were not the
Russians, the Europeans, or the Chinese.
Europe proved to be a non-factor in most of the crises
following the end of World War II. Its role in the fall of communism itself and
subsequent crises was that of a client state, often reluctant, largely a
spectator, not an actor. No one thought Europe had much to do with the collapse
of the Wall except perhaps as a refuge for those who could manage to escape
from it. It became a living example that there was another way possible.
Europe's recently forged "covenant" still lacks unity of
purpose and credible force. It has lost or denied most of its roots,
particularly the Christian ones, the ones that formed it in the first place.
Indeed, it has more often deliberately rejected them in the name of secularism.
Its present population is aging and dying. Traditional European citizenry are
being replaced by the next world-historic movement who bring their own law and
Before the actual fall of the Wall, the Soviet-Afghan War
(1979-89) was fought. More than any other event, this Afghan war not only
convinced many of the vincibility of the Soviet system, but portended an
unanticipated future. The battles of Tours and Vienna, which once saved the
Europe we know, suddenly were relevant again. It was here in the Afghan war
that a dormant but seething Islam realized it could defeat modern armies not
directly or head on but through the force of fanaticism and numbers. To confront
the Christian and heathen, Islam did not have to "modernize" itself, contrary
to what it thought during most of the modern era. In fact, modernization, as
the West understood it, would be an impediment. Such modernization was seen in
Islam as largely a sign of decadence. What counted was a new seizing of an
older faith, along with a philosophical voluntarism that made ethical standards
irrelevant in achieving its end. In his book on The Crusades, in the 1930s, Belloc wrote that if Islam ever
acquired the power again, it would do exactly as it did before. He seems
prophetic, in retrospect.
While historically most walls were designed to keep enemies
out, the Berlin Wall was designed to keep citizens in. There was to be no
voting with feet. Rather what "voting with feet" there was, the exodus out of
Marxist lands was put a stop to by the Wall with the fences and machine guns
that went along with it. For its own plausibility, the totalitarian government
allowed no escape. Once people realize they cannot flee, they have to "adjust"
to the system that encloses them, however dispiriting.
The computer was said to be one of the causes of the turmoil
within the Soviet system. With it, control of information from the outside
which contradicted the lies of the state and party became difficult. It
provided an ungovernable access to the outside world bypassing the Wall.
However, more sophisticated countries like China and the Muslim world have
largely managed to control this access or render it much less effective.
The world today is, more or less, divided into five parts.
The Western world includes Europe, Russia, Latin and North America. This area
composes about a fifth of the world's population. The Chinese and the Indian
worlds each comprise their own fifth. The Muslim world constitutes the next
fifth of world population. Africa and rest of the world make up the remaining
fifth, for a total population of around seven or eight billion. At the moment,
the most aggressive and assertive of these worlds is that of Islam. Islam has
world-historic ideas. Its theology requires the entire world eventually be
Muslim. All are destined to worship Allah in its way and no other. It sees the
West as decadent, unable to rouse itself beyond its own well-being, content
with the status quo in a way that Islam is not.
In the history of the world, Islam has been the most
effective force ever developed whereby it might "keep its people in." It does
not do this with walls but with law and custom, though these are enforced,
often ruthlessly. Conversions from Islam are not allowed, under penalty of
death. Those few non-Muslims within Muslim lands are subject to second-class
citizenship, or worse. The state, the religion, and the customs are one.
What is different about Islam, however, is that it is not a
modern "ideology." It is a religion. It is not an offshoot of modern western
thought. It has a theology. This theology is missionary, probably inspired by
the Christian notion. It proposes an inner-worldly utopia of believers to take
place in time. All the world, it is claimed, was originally Muslim. Those who
are not have fallen away from what they ought to be. The focus of Islam is not
modernization or civil peace or tolerance, but strict worship of Allah. Muslim
states are content to be "backward" at the price of being spheres in which
Allah can be worshiped as the Qur'an sets down..
I bring this issue of Islam up here because I see it as
precisely an unintended consequence of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The
Soviet Muslim states gained their independence. The Soviet Union was a
"superpower" but it was defeated by Afghani rebels. Russia, moreover, as the
Chechnya turmoil indicates, has its own "Islamic" problem as do China and
India. Indeed most of the military "hot-spots" around the world in recent
decades have Muslim components. If this age has been that of the hegomony of
the American "empire," it has also been the age of the resurgence of Islam.
9/11 was not an isolated act, but the public beginning of a new age long being prepared.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was also, at first, understood
to signify the end of ideology. Ideology was an intellectual construct, the
origin of fascism, communism, and several other "isms." The alternative was a
return to natural law, democracy, prosperity, free market, common sense, and
"rights." Yet, it can be argued that in the West, democracy and rights
themselves quickly became an ideology, usually under the pressure of anti-life
issues. Much attention has been paid to the notion of "totalitarian democracy."
In the classical sense, government was said to be limited. But voluntarism has
become not merely a characteristic of Islam but also of the West, as Benedict
XVI pointed out in the "Regensburg Lecture." 
The old voluntarist notion of Roman law, noted by Aquinas in
his famous treatise (I-II, 90, 1, ob. 3), has become the common understanding
of civil law. The "law" is what the judges, the legislature, the king makes it
to be. It is not limited by reason or by anything but itself. As John Paul II
put it: "To live as if God did not exist means to live outside the parameters
of good and evil, outside the context of values derived from God. It is claimed
that man himself can decide what is good and evil. And this program is widely promoted
in all sorts of ways."  It seems that the dividing line of this move to
voluntarism in western political practice is basically over the question of
human life and its inherent dignity, its begetting, its protection, its
flourishing, and, ultimately, its death.
Thus, far from there having risen even in the West an "end
of ideology" after the Berlin Wall, we found ourselves with a new ideology. In
an incisive essay in City Journal
(Winter 2009), entitled, "The Persistence of Ideology," Theodore Dalrymple wrote:
Who, then, are
ideologists? They are people needy of purpose in life, not in a mundane sense
(earning enough to eat or to pay the mortgage, for example) but in the sense of
transcendence of the personal, of reassurance that there is something more to
existence than existence itself. The desire for transcendence does not occur to
many people struggling for a livelihood.... If this is true, then ideology should
flourish where education is widespread, and especially where opportunities are
limited for the educated to lose themselves in grand projects, or to take
leadership roles in which they believe that their education entitles them.
Ideology, in other words, has spiritual, not material roots.
Education provokes the soul no matter the content of the education. The
"intellectuals" have a "right" to rule, even against the norms of nature and
revelation addressed to them.
Such a situation can already be found anticipated in Aristotle.
In the Politics, he memorably listed the
three famous "cures" for those who did something wrong. For those who justified
stealing because they were hungry, what sufficed was a better distribution of
property or work. For those who disturbed the public order because they were
exuberant or unconcerned, what they needed was virtue. But there are those who
commit crimes because they "desire superfluities in order to enjoy pleasures
unaccompanied with pain.
Aristotle says their only salvation is in philosophy. "The
fact is that the greatest crimes are caused by excess and not by necessity. Men
do not become tyrants in order that they may not suffer cold" (1267a2-15). This
situation was, in fact, Dalrymple's point about the educated. They have a
certain envy addressed to those who do not recognize them. They use their mind,
and it alone, to concoct the world as it "should" be. Most of the great crimes
of modern politics have come from this sort of man.
In his Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Christopher Dawson provided an acute insight into
the difference between ideology and faith. Modern secularism sees all "faith"
as simply another ideology. "An ideology in the modern sense of the word is
very different from a faith, although it is intended to fulfill the same
sociological function," Dawson wrote.
It is the work of
man, an instrument by which the conscious political will attempts to mould the
social tradition to its purpose. But faith looks beyond the world of man and
his works; it introduces man to a higher and more universal range of reality
than the finite and temporal world to which the state and the economic order
What is striking about the observations of Dawson and
Dalrymple is the differing understandings of "transcendence."
For Dawson, transcendence was related to faith, not
ideology. Faith has a good grasp on the limits of the world and of ideas. For
Dalrymple, the ideologue had a longing for some solution to the world's
problems that justified his education, his vision of the world, his
self-importance. The man of faith does not look to the world as a solution to
his transcendent problems, though he does hold there are transcendent issues to
which he is open. But the ideologue who lacks philosophy and revelation does
look to his ideas alone as the source and cure of what is wrong with the world.
The agency of the former is what is revealed, of the latter what is concocted
by the human mind with nothing left but itself. It is when the ideologue and
the politician become the same man, and form a movement designed to capture
actual states that the most humanly devastating movements arise in the actual
The title of these reflections is: "On Keeping People In."
The difference between faith and modern secularism is the latter wants to keep
us, finally, in this world. It has no place for us other than "the future."
Faith, on the other hand, is not derogatory to the world; it only maintains
that this world is not, in its present form, the ultimate end of man. Indeed,
the most pressing need in the modern intellectual world is to rid itself of
political ideology so that politics can again become politics and not a
substitute metaphysics or theology. It seems ironic to say so, but the only
people who see the world of politics as it is are those who see it without the
veneer of ideology that distorts it in their souls. We could aptly say that
today "It takes faith to see politics." Radical separation of "church" and
"state" ends up with the incapacity of seeing either clearly.
All modern ideology is a reaction to the Christian notion of
eschatology or, better, it is an attempt to achieve a perfectly unending happy
life without the means of faith and grace upon which alone such promises can be
based. In his book Turning Point for Europe? Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:
Even Europe, even
the European culture can perish.... The future always remains open, because human
life lived in common always revolves around human freedom and therefore always
has the possibility of failure. But this means that the field of political
activity is not the future but the present. The politician is not one who
arranges a better world that will arrive at some time or other; rather, his
responsibility is that the world today should be good so that it may also be
good tomorrow. The so-called better world of tomorrow is a mirage that deprives
today of its force and dignity but does not serve tomorrow by so doing.... We
must learn to say good-bye to the myth of inner-worldly eschatologies. We then
serve tomorrow best when we are good today and when we shape today in a spirit
of responsibility for what is good today and tomorrow. 
This is a remarkable passage. It is precisely an explication
of what politics is and is not. It is a reaffirmation of the Socratic
principle, "It is never right to do wrong," the principle on which our
civilization is built. The way to serve the future is not through some
presumably world-shaking movement that will remove all evils, but by knowing, defining,
and living the good in our time and in our place, what is before our very eyes.
We cannot wait until tomorrow to be good. We cannot change
yesterday except in the sense of asking forgiveness for our sins. The crux, in
fact, of the whole anti-life movement is thinking today's evil is tomorrow's
good. It kills today to improve tomorrow. However, "We serve tomorrow best when
we are good today and tomorrow." Benedict XVI, of course, spells out this
thesis in much more detail in Spe Salvi,
one of the very great encyclicals. It is significant that the modern
philosophers who have reoriented thought away from past and present to the
future, have been able, in so doing, to eliminate any need to take what
is into their consideration of how to live.
By placing our stress on a future this-world, we in fact erect walls keeping people in this
world, keeping them from knowing their real destiny. They no longer consider
whether there is a judgment of how they stood before the good in this world
when it was before them.
Our political memory is short. We seldom, if ever, learn
from the past. This is why, morally speaking, most ages are like to others with
similar configurations of virtue and vice. Nations and polities are not
"substances." Within this world, the only thing destined to eternity is man.
The world exists that this eternity may be achieved, but achieved freely, by
every human person created in the image of the triune God. The proposal of a
lesser end is both very ancient and very current. Augustine said, in a famous
book of the City of God (X IX. ch. 3):
"All these philosophers have wished, with amazing folly, to be happy here on
earth and to achieve bliss by their own efforts." No better description of
modernity or modern ideology can be found.
What about the "nations" or states in history, the rise and
fall of empires? If only individual human beings are, in principle, saved; if
only such a being as rational man or angel is offered eternal life, what do we
make of the history of the nations in which the choices of each person work
their way out in time to their chosen destiny? John Paul II, in Memory and
The history of
every individual, and therefore of every people, possesses a markedly
eschatological dimension.... Admittedly, it is people and not nations that have
to face God's judgment, but in the judgment pronounced on individuals, nations
too are in some way judged. Can there be such a thing as an eschatology of the
nations? Nations have an exclusively historical meaning, whereas man's vocation
is eschatological. Yet man's vocation leaves its mark on the history of
These are incisive remarks. Individual people have to face
God in the "judgment of the living and the dead." Yet, each man's "vocation"
leaves its mark on "the history of the nations." This mark will be true both of
those who reject transcendence by their actions and of those who reach it.
Plato, after all, was correct to teach us that the "soul" of
the nation is but a reflection of the soul of the individual. All reform of
nations begins with the reform of the soul of the citizen who is a person. The
fall of the Berlin Wall did indeed open the souls of peoples to new currents.
But it did not necessarily open them to the good that they could do before
them. In this context, to ask John Paul II's question again, "Can there be such
a thing as an eschatology of nations?" If so, how would we conceive it?
Eric Voegelin, in a famous phrase, said modern philosophy
was the "imanentization of the eschaton." He meant by this, following the
Enlightenment, that modernity was not lacking in theological overtones. It did
not reject the notion of the four last things. It relocated them. Heaven, hell,
death, and purgatory became enclosed within this world, within, if you will,
the walls of the world.
In the Republic,
Plato proposed the immortality of the soul as the ultimate guarantee the world
was not created in injustice, as it seemed to be looking at its history. This
consideration meant the sins and virtues that did happen in this world, those
not punished or rewarded, had to be judged after this life, at the cost that
otherwise, the world was not just.
The rejection of the immortality of the soul and its
Christian correlative, the resurrection of the body, does not remove the drive
to achieve a complete or final happiness analogous to everlasting life. What is
does is simply relocate it to a political project. Joseph Ratzinger, in his
Foreword to a new English edition of his Eschatology, wrote that the virtue of hope had, with several
Marxist and existential thinkers, taken on a new orientation, an orientation
that linked it with the ideology of the immanent eschaton.
reconceived to be an active virtue, a deed that could change the world, from
which a new humanity, the so-called better world would emerge. Hope became
political and man himself appeared to be charged with its execution. The
kingdom of God, upon which all depends in Christendom, became man's kingdom,
the "better world" of tomorrow. God is no longer considered to be "above" but
rather "right in front of us." 
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this
observation. It explains how and why the ideologies of our time, those
apparently symbolized by the Wall, remained in place when the Wall fell. The
same eschatological dynamism that charged a secular Marxism remained within the
secular liberalism of the free world and also, from an earlier theology,
characterized the dynamism of Islam, with its military expansion and subsequent
subjugation in the name of the world worshipping Allah.
In conclusion, we are told in Scripture we are here as
"wayfarers and sojourners." This phrase was often used as a charge against
Christians for supposedly neglecting the world, so its dire condition was
attributed to Christianity's lack of enthusiasm for the worldly cities. The
Christian answer to this charge, as already outlined in Augustine, was to point
out that, once they were freed from false gods and immoral practices, Christians
did more for the world and for its cities than anyone else. Indeed, the very
essence of its inner-worldly charge was to love one's neighbor and help the
poor, as well as serving in the army and resisting what was evil.
The only way to get "this world" right, however, is to first
have an accurate understanding that man, though mortal and made in this world, is not made for this world, even though he passes through it to his
final choice in the grace given to him. The political ideologies that have so
surged through the modern world, and still continue to do so in the democracies
that embrace voluntarist legal and political systems, are, when sorted out,
man-made efforts to solve the destiny of man in ways other than those found in
This "enthusiasm" for perfection is no longer present among
us in only economics or politics. It is now in biology, in genetics, in
environmentalism, and in psychology. As Dalrymple put it, "The most popular and
widest-ranging ideology in the West today is environmentalism, replacing not
only Marxism but all the nationalist and xenophobic ideologies...." Whatever we
think of care of the planet, of stewardship, it is in environmentalism where
the rewriting of Genesis is taking place, where man is now subject to the worldly
forces, not vice versa. But these western ideologies are to be played against
the background of China, of Islam and of genetic engineers, of those who want
to clone, to extend our life indefinitely, and to place begetting outside the
family in scientific engineering. These indeed were the subjects of Benedict's Spe
Keeping people in, the shortness of political
memory—the last words are those of Joseph Ratzinger: "We serve
tomorrow best when we are good today...."
Politics has to do with cities of the present, which is the only place in which
we actually choose real good and real evil in our souls, choices for which we
will be judged in the transcendent order, in the order for which we are
ultimately created in the first place.
 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "We Have Ceased to See the
Purpose," Address to the International Academy of Philosophy, Liechtenstein,
September 14, 1993, The Solzhenitsyn Reader,
edited by E. Ericson and Daniel Mahoney (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), 597
 See James V. Schall, The Regensburg Lecture (South Bend: St. Augustine's Press, 2008).
 John Paul II, Memory and Identity (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), 48.
 Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western
Culture (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday
Image, 1958), 14.
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Turning Point for Europe? Translated by Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius
Press, 1994), 136-37.
 John Paul II, Memory and Identity, ibid., 77-78.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, translated by Michael Waldstein (Washington: The
Catholic University of America Press,  1988), xviii.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!