Photo credit: Raphaël Thiémard
For nearly three decades, the Berlin Wall stood as one of the world’s most forbidding symbols of oppression. After years of losing a steady stream of defectors to the West, in 1961 the communist-controlled government of East Germany constructed a heavily guarded barrier that divided an entire city — all in order to prevent their own citizens from escaping to freedom.
Anybody who tried to leave East Germany by crossing over the Berlin Wall was shot and killed on sight, effectively turning half the city into a prison camp. It’s difficult for many of us, who live in relatively free societies, to imagine what it must have been like to be held captive inside a tyrannical system, without hope of escape. A wall that rends an entire city in two would have seemed like a permanent barrier, and few people at the time had any reason to think it would all suddenly come crumbling to the ground.
In 1989, thousands of people began fleeing East Germany through increasingly porous national borders — first through Hungary, then through Czechoslovakia. Widespread protests followed, as people began demanding their right of exit from the country that had so long held them captive. Half a million people gathered in East Berlin to demand their freedom, a groundswell of resistance to authority that East German officials could not contain or ignore.
Then, one day, everything changed. On Nov. 9, 1989, the East German government announced that it was opening its borders. For the first time in decades, Berlin Wall checkpoint gates stood open and unguarded. That night, the people of Berlin began to demolish the wall themselves using any makeshift tools at their disposal — and this enormous, intractable, and deadly barrier between freedom and captivity suddenly lost all its power to oppress.
We rightly commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall every year, and the liberation of millions from a despotic communist regime. The battle for freedom, however, is never finished. The world remains filled with barriers like the Berlin Wall, both literal and figurative, that prevent people from living peaceful lives of their own choosing. And, like the Berlin Wall, obstacles that may seem permanent and hopeless today can, given the right conditions, come crashing to the ground tomorrow.
In 2014, Atlas Network began a project to highlight some of the world’s modern barriers to freedom, titled “Today’s Berlin Walls,” showing how Atlas Network partners across the globe are working to eliminate them. Last year, this project celebrated the efforts of Centro de Divulgación del Conocimiento Económico para la Libertad (CEDICE Freedom) to combat censorship, class warfare, and property rights violations in Venezuela. It also featured the work of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute to dismantle paternalistic systems that have destroyed opportunity and quality of life for 1.4 million aboriginals in Canada. The project also applauded the pioneering efforts of Civil Development Forum (FOR) in Poland to turn public opinion against its government’s seizure of $48 billion from private pension accounts.
These worthy examples are only a few of the countless worldwide barriers to freedom. This year, on Nov. 11–12 in New York City, Atlas Network’s Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner will recognize six more cases in which global partners are finding and dismantling their own figurative Berlin Walls, nominated for the prestigious Templeton Freedom Award:
- The Acton Institute, of Grand Rapids, Mich., explains how western international development has given rise to a vast, multi-billion dollar poverty industry in its Poverty, Inc. documentary.
- CEDICE Freedom has organized a Watchdog for Freedom and Democracy project, which brings together three “observatories” that monitor the state of individual rights in Venezuela.
- The Free Market Foundation, of Johannesburg, South Africa, is bringing about the titling of apartheid-era properties in which black families had and still have occupation rights but have lacked title deeds.
- The Institute for Justice, of Arlington, Va., is making a rigorous data-driven case for its areas of advocacy with its strategic research program, which helps win court cases and sets new legal precedent.
- The Institute of Public Affairs, of Melbourne, Australia, has served as a consistent and leading voice of caution over the idea of a carbon trading scheme or tax, leading to its eventual repeal.
- The Tax Foundation, of Washington, D.C., helps achieve better policy with its State Business Tax Climate Index, which measures the elements of each state’s tax system that are important to all types of business.
There is nothing inevitable about injustice, abuse, or despotism. As Atlas Network partners around the world demonstrate every day, people who are willing to stand up for their individual liberties can recognize, publicize, and dismantle barriers to freedom in every area of life. Like the actual Berlin Wall in 1989, they can be reduced to rubble, one by one, each consigned to history as yet another cautionary tale about the folly of oppression.