A punk from West Berlin helps to tear down the Berlin Wall, Nov. 9, 1989.
Justin Leighton/Redux

Let Me Finish: What the fall of the Berlin Wall teaches us in 2015

Let me finish with this: “People don’t mind being used,” a friend of mine once wisely observed. “They mind being discarded.”

When I was covering the fall of the Berlin Wall, I interviewed a number of East Germans. I asked them why the communist system was failing, why so many people were rushing to the West and so many more hoping for a change.

What struck me is that it wasn’t the theory of communism or socialism that had failed but the actual practices of the East German government. I discovered it was the true believers who were turning against the system.

Cheering people stand on the Berlin Wall at Brandenburg Gate on Nov. 9, 1989.
Why? Because the people who kept the system working (the school principals, the factory managers, the grown-ups in other words) saw how they were being made fools of in their daily lives. The currency they were paid with was a joke. They were not even permitted to enter the major hotels. The hotels didn’t accept local…meaning the currency of East Germany itself.

If they wanted to buy a car, they had to wait 18 months -and even then get a hopeless, smoking junker for their waiting.

If they wanted to travel, they had two countries that would accept their money, Hungary and Poland.

If someone came along with hard currency from the West - like the West Germany mark - they were bumped aside.

“People don’t mind being used,” a friend of mine once wisely observed. “They mind being discarded.”
I learned a lesson in those days of change in Berlin. Don’t humiliate the people who believe in the system. Don’t humiliate, especially, the people who keep the system working.

The United States is hardly in the position of life behind the old Iron Curtain, but there are lessons here: if people have it tough, they don’t like seeing those at the top having it easier and easier.

They believe in free enterprise but only as long as it works to create a decently fair society. People get angry, even rebellious, when they see the system that held their trust serve the interests of the few but not of the many and certainly not their own.