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

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"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. If 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.

Read Part Two of "On Keeping People In"


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