On Keeping People In: The Berlin Wall and the Shortness of Political Memory | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius InsightOn 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. [1]

"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 riveting event.

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 religion.

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." [2]

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." [3] 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 belong. [4]
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 world.


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. [5]
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 Identity, wrote:
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 nations. [6]
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.
Hope was 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." [7]
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 revelation.

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 Salvi.

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.


[1] 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

[2] See James V. Schall, The Regensburg Lecture (South Bend: St. Augustine's Press, 2008).

[3] John Paul II, Memory and Identity (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), 48.

[4] Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Image, 1958), 14.

[5] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Turning Point for Europe? Translated by Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 136-37.

[6] John Paul II, Memory and Identity, ibid., 77-78.

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, translated by Michael Waldstein (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, [1977] 1988), xviii.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:

Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Will To Truth: On the Death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• The Comprehensive Claim of Marxism | Peter Kreeft
• Pope Benedict XVI, Theologian of Joy | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | An interview with the author of Christ, Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
Spe Salvi and Vatican II | Brian A. Graebe
• Vatican II and the Ecclesiology of Joseph Ratzinger | Maximilian Heinrich Heim | Introduction to Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology.
An excerpt from "Christianity and the History of Culture" | Christopher Dawson
The Vision and Principles of Christopher Dawson | David Knowles
Rediscovering Christopher Dawson | An interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer

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 website.

Visit 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!