Located next to the prominent border-crossing checkpoint from which it took its name, the museum also became a sort of safe haven for escapees and a place from which escape-helpers monitored movement at the borders. Hildebrandt’s dogged fervor for this cause culminated in the creation of an exhaustive repository of GDR memorabilia that to this day remains open every day of the year at its original location near Checkpoint Charlie. The museum also houses the Czechoslovakian Charter 77 typewriter, the death mask of Elena Bonner’s partner Andrei Sakharov, and Mahatma Gandhi’s diary and sandals, making it certainly one of the first museums of international nonviolent protest.
Hildebrandt’s project, marked by his indefatigable attention to detail, has served as a far more captivating reminder of Soviet cruelty than anything that can be found in the United States or Western Europe.
The best effort in the United States to document Communist history was the formation of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation
. This non-profit was established by an Act of Congress and is chaired by the American equivalent of Rainer Hildebrandt, Lee Edwards, who originally intended to raise $100 million for a memorial and museum with plans to create an exhibit that included statues of notable freedom fighters and a recreation of the gulag, in addition to artifacts of Communist regimes. Regrettably, owing to an unforgivable lack of interest by philanthropists and institutional donors in the United States, the museum project had to be put on hold.
Undefeated, Edwards soldiered on and on June 12, 2007, the 20th anniversary of Pres. Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech in Berlin, a monument was unveiled on Capitol Hill to memorialize the victims of Communism. It is a sculpture of the “Goddess of Democracy,” a bronze replica of the statue constructed by Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 (prior to their being murdered by the government that continues to rule China). I was there with Lee Edwards that day in June, and what made it particularly moving was that it was the late Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, and the only American congressman to have survived the horror of Nazi Germany, who drove the point home about Soviet Communism. Edwards has since focused his efforts on education, founding an online Global Museum of Communism, with an extensive trove of Communist-era remnants, interactive graphics and texts, as well as evidence of Communist atrocities. Arguably, an online museum can reach more people than an actual edifice. Edwards’s foundation is now preparing a curriculum on the history of Communism for use in American secondary education.
November 9, 1989, was the day that Politburo official Gunter Schabowski announced that travel “abroad” from East Germany would be allowed. Immediately, Berliners from the East and West stormed the Berlin Wall, ignoring the caveat that permission still had to be granted for travel. For a few hours, the confused border control attempted to hold the crowd back but was soon overwhelmed by the crowd’s euphoria and began allowing people to pass through freely for the first time in 28 years. This is when the history books tell us that the Berlin Wall “fell.” No, dear reader, it was torn down, mostly by young people with hammers, pickaxes, tractors, pulleys, and a strength of spirit that was made stronger over the years by the peaceful actions of those who stood against, documented, and bore witness to the cruelty and inhumanity of the Communist tyranny.
Recognition and attention should be paid to men like Hildebrandt whose life’s work has affected millions yet who seldom get the recognition they so richly deserve. Tonight in New York City, the Atlas Foundation, a global public-policy think tank focused on “advancing the cause of liberty,” will host a dinner to commemorate the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Let’s hope someone raises a glass to Hildebrandt’s work. Meanwhile, at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, the current curator, Alexandra Hildebrandt, has wasted no time carrying forward her husband’s struggle beyond Berlin: On November 15, the museum will unveil the “Sergei Magnitsky Exhibition.” To be opened by the German justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the exhibit will detail the life and ghastly death of 39-year-old Sergei Magnitsky, tortured to death by Vladimir Putin’s government for blowing the whistle on corruption in modern Russia. The Magnitsky case is a key element in any discussion of human rights in Russia and the exhibit is well worth a visit. The museum previously had an exhibit about the continued imprisonment of Russia’s most egregious political prisoner case in post-Soviet Russia: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another Putin adversary.
Hildebrandt well understands that in places such as Russia, North Korea, Syria, China, Cuba, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and too many African countries to list here, entire peoples are still besieged within their nations by oppressive governments. Lucky for them, there still exists a piece of “the American Sector” in Berlin at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, where they will find allies in the struggle for liberty.
— Thor Halvorssen is president of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum.