The modern German state — the vibrant liberal democracy at the heart of a prosperous and peaceful Europe — is one of the marvels of the 21st century, an embodiment of the triumph of liberalism and individual freedoms over tyranny. This openness and liberalism is not without its challenges, especially immigration, but German democracy is remarkably resilient and its society remarkably open and welcoming, especially in contrast to its history.
This political and social triumph is largely an American achievement. In West Germany, we and our allies did not create an emasculated puppet-Germany, as the Soviet Union sought to do in their vassal state in the east. Instead, we set out to create a Germany that was free to become even stronger than it had been when it turned on the world. Behind this creation of a strong, free Germany was a belief in the Enlightenment value of individual freedoms and a belief that basing a government and society on these universal ideals would inoculate the state against a return to tyranny.
The East German state — ironically named the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — was a sort of photo-negative version of the West: a paranoid and unfree society secured in a penitentiary state with absolute control of the media, commerce, and civil discourse, and what people could and could not say. This control was made possible through a myriad of government bodies, civic institutions, and citizen-volunteers that together ensured compliance through fear and suspicion. The apparatus included the infamous secret police (“Stasi”) and its informant networks, with an estimated 180,000 informal collaborators. Even children unwittingly betrayed their parents, spouses informed on spouses, and membership in the Free German Youth and party loyalty were prerequisites for attending university.
For many in the East, life was easy if one accepted (or pretended to accept) the party ideology, joined the Free German Youth, and visibly participated in parades or events that celebrated the “successes” of the GDR. But the system allowed little room for individual expression, much less for open criticism or dissent, leading to self-censorship at the most basic level. Open dissent from the party line was criminal. Even if a dissident avoided imprisonment at Hohenschönhausen or other prisons, one risked “receiving disadvantage” or, worse, losing the ability to work in a chosen professional field, “Berufsverbot,” if one was too outspoken.
Rolf Mainz, who lost his job days after leaving the Socialist Unity Party, might have been able to carry on with life outside of his profession, despite being shamed and unfulfilled. Yet he took an unimaginable risk in writing a letter to the editor of the West German Die Zeit. This got him sentenced to Brandenburg-Görden prison, where he and his brother were held under inhumane conditions. After an occupational ban, as Mr. Mainz wrote, “The delinquent either stops or he does not keep still. If he keeps still, the state’s eye rests on him with reduced benevolence, serving as a living example of deterrence.”
Mainz and other dissidents who went public knew the steep price they would pay, losing what little freedom they had. Yet they did it anyway, because they longed for the freedoms that Americans enjoyed and had fostered in the West, where people had the potential to live as a part of a free society.
Thirty years on, their dissent seems like a distant sacrifice. Commemorations and observances of the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification focus on what has changed in Germany, especially in the East, as it has been incorporated into the modern German state that the United States helped give birth to. But perhaps an equally important focus would be on what has changed in the United States over that period. What would East German dissidents make of today’s American society?
No doubt they would be troubled by the social and political divisions. But I suspect they would be able to see past the fray that dominates the news and point to a more subtle change, where the freedoms that inspired them through decades of oppression are now being questioned. To be sure, today’s American campuses and boardrooms are not the GDR, but the “bias response teams,” the self-censorship, the “speech codes,” the virtue signaling, “cancel culture,” and the expectation of uniformity of opinion have alarming parallels in their effect on individual freedoms and how they are used to shape society, language, and thinking. It is the absolutist inability to tolerate dissent from the expected uniform opinion that former President Obama called out in his brief yet remarkable comments last week, denouncing cancel culture. He surely recognizes the incompatibility in a free society of such illiberalism and intolerance.
It’s not the specific acts of curtailment or censorship that are most troubling, since they are minor compared to those of the GDR and can be challenged in public opinion, lawmaking, and the courts. What would be most troubling to East German dissidents about America today is the fact that our liberal civil society would visit these changes on itself — curtailing its own freedoms through intimidation and shaming of individual expression. They might recognize that bad ideas often have their origin in good intentions of protecting vulnerable groups, but would warn us that curbing individual liberties — no matter how obnoxiously they are exercised — is a dangerous turn for a free society.
As we celebrate the triumph of the freedom we helped create in Germany, we should consider what lessons about freedom Germany might, in turn, provide us.