by Chris Matthews
Twenty years ago I stood in the rain on the East Berlin side of the great Brandenburg Gate, the grim symbol of division between East and West during the Cold War.
It was a rainy night and it was cold. But people were standing around, just waiting. Word had got out that “the authorities” might be opening the great Gate that the “Vopos,” those notorious East German police, were still guarding.
Change was in the air. As I interviewed one East German after another I kept asking them what “freedom” meant to them. “Was its Freiheit?” I kept asking in my limited German. Soon a crowd gathered around me, a kind of rump town meeting. Attracted by an American with a notepad, people were eager to give me their personal meanings of what this whole thing meant, this coming down of the Berlin Wall, this fall of the Iron Curtain, this ending of their captivity, this first chance to speak their hearts and minds on matters of politics.
For a nurse, it meant free elections with real choices, multi-party elections. Only that would end the drain of her fellow workers to the west for better jobs and better lives.
For some it was free enterprise, capitalism, like in the west. For others it was socialism but of a democratic kind like in Scandinavian countries. For others it was simply the ability to vote and choose what kind of system people wanted.
For one young man, “freedom” meant doing what we were doing right there on that cold rainy night, talking politics in public. “This is Freiheit!” he said, talking without fear about how they were being governed, how they wanted to be governed.
I doubt that I will ever forget that moment.
There was more to it than that, I would discover in the days ahead. While the East Berliners I interviewed that week in November 1989 differed on the question of capitalism or socialism or whether to re-unite with West Germany, they agreed on one thing.
They felt abused, humiliated, and robbed by their communist elite. And the ones that felt it the most were the good people who worked hard and played by the rules
It’s a lesson for us. Watch what’s happening on Wall Street, with all the bail-outs and bonuses. Watch the abuse of the free enterprise system by those at the top. And look at those who are most angry. It’s the true believers in the system who are disgusted at the way the politicians are kowtowing to the money guys who screwed things up in the first place.
So this 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling is a good time to think of our own system: who is working to make it better, who is exploiting and abusing it, who is bringing it down? And who in government is doing the job of really protecting the true believers, you know, the people who work hard and play by the rules and don’t like what they’re seeing these days in this country they love.