August 14th: A Day That Highlights Contrasts

(From the explanation of this YouTube video):

Conrad Schumann´s “Jump to Freedom”, 1961 (1 minute)

291,109 views  Oct 11, 2016  The 19-year-old, East German police officer Conrad Schumann flees over the barbed wire to West Berlin on 15 August 1961. He is the first one to flee from East Berlin after/during the construction of the Berlin Wall. His jump over the barbed wire is one of the most famous pictures of the Cold War and is referred to as the “Jump to Freedom”. Many follow his example.

In the interview, he reveals that it took him half an hour to make the decision to flee. Out of nervousness, he smoked one cigarette after the next. His concern that something was happening to him in the West was great.

Last week I was struck by how incredibly historic the date August 14th was in terms that give us lessons and warnings for today.

Maybe I am a bit sensitive to the of August 14th because it is (or was) my mother’s birthday. Yet often in our house the celebration for my mother’s birthday was put on a back shelf as my parents would talk more about the end of World War 2. The end of the war was a bigger deal to them than my mom’s birthday. 

My parents were not directly involved in the war. My father had several physical problems that kept him out of the service, yet the horrors of WWII were felt everywhere. The lesson that it seems we must learn over and over is that wars anywhere is felt everywhere. 

The other lesson is that extremism and authoritarian governments are the fertile soil for wars. Once again we see this with the war in Ukraine. An extremist authoritarian in Russia is singularly responsible for that war. We need to be leery of the authoritarian bent of the current radically right Republican Party and their look to violence to solve problems.

Also on August 14th the Social Security Act was signed by President Roosevelt in 1935. Roosevelt’s New Deal with Social Security as the cornerstone program has been considered by many historians and Americans of the day as the savior of democracy. 

Remember that the US as well as the whole world was suffering under the Great Depression in 1933. Both Germany and the United States installed new leaders that year. The Germans had the authoritarian Hitler exploit the various vagaries of the German system to take over leadership. The rest is horrid history.

In the US, Roosevelt overwhelmingly won the election. His government then survived an attempted coup by right wing business leaders. 

  As is often said, history may not repeat, but it often rhymes:

“Today’s Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have nothing on their extremist forbears. In 1933, a diehard core of conservative veterans formed the Khaki Shirts in Philadelphia and recruited pro-Mussolini immigrants. The Silver Shirts was an apocalyptic Christian militia patterned on the notoriously racist Texas Rangers that operated in 46 states and stockpiled weapons.

The Gray Shirts of New York organized to remove “Communist college professors” from the nation’s education system, and the Tennessee-based White Shirts wore a Crusader cross and agitated for the takeover of Washington. JP Morgan Jr, one of the nation’s richest men, had secured a $100m loan to Mussolini’s government. He defiantly refused to pay income tax and implored his peers to join him in undermining FDR.”

Finally, August 14th, 1961 brought us the overnight erection of the Berlin Wall. This was a symbol of the utter failure of the authoritarian regimes that dominated Eastern Europe and Russia. Germany you may recall was divided into sectors to be overseen by the victorious Allies of WWII. The US, France and Great Britain worked together to install democracy in their sectors. Russia established an authoritarian dictatorship in their sector.

The city of Berlin, although deep in Soviet-run East Germany was also divided in a similar way. Thus within the city there was democracy and authoritarian dictatorship governments literally rubbing up against each other. The failure of authoritarian government was easily exposed in this set up. East Germany was losing 10,000 people a week defecting to West Germany. Many such defections took place in Berlin where East Berliners could simply walk across the street.

To put a stop to these defections, the East German government erected a barbed wire fence overnight on August 14th, 1961. From the outset, the barrier did not work. As seen in the video above, the first defection took place on the very next day. Thus the East Germans had to basically turn their section of Berlin into a maximum security prison to keep their citizens in. It still did not stop attempt to leave, many chose death over the confinement.

Today we have the echo in radical Republican red states trying to figure a way to keep women from leaving their states so they can have access to reproductive freedom. It is really disconcerting that we in the US did not learn the lessons that repression will not stop people from doing what they can to assert freedom. Like the Berlin Wall, laws repressing women’s reproductive health care won’t work.

But sadly many will die or be permanently damaged before the lesson is learned once again.

About Dave Bradley

retired in West Liberty
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