By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
Otto von Bismarck is quoted as having once said: “What we learn from history is that no one learns from history.” For any scholar or student of the past, such a remark should be disconcerting; for a larger than life presence in modern history claims that the entire field of this endeavour is essentially meaningless; for if one can never learn from the past – what is the point of studying it?
Yet Bismarck’s remark is not meant to be so dismissive. What the Prussian statesman was alluding to, is that the epochs and ages of history come and go, but what is contained in the human person; their drives and passions, these remain timeless, and are bound to show patterns of similarity and repetition – because these character traits are endemic to the human condition. Another side to Bismarck’s adage is that the human person’s capacity to recollect the lessons of history is limited; for the ability to learn and analyse is only as great as a person’s thirst and command for knowledge, in conjunction with that unknown period of life-time they have to collect this information. Thus for some who read this piece, the moon-landing or the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy are major historical events, having been experienced personally by the individual; for others its is the Challenger disaster, or the death of Princess Diana, or September 11, or the Boxing Day tsunami. Every person, through the combination of their particular intellect, senses and memory, filters and perceives history in a unique manner. This individuality sustains Bismarck’s maxim as essentially true – humanity cannot learn perfectly from history, in like manner that with a classroom teacher, on any given day, some students are alert, and others, are anywhere but present in mind and spirit. Yet in their defence, historians can place in opposition to Bismarck’s comment the remark of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“. It is to this vantage point we now move.
So to the past we return, and let us remind once more, or introduce to the reader a name in history, who for a time at least, held the imagination of many in the western world – Peter Fechter. Who was Peter Fechter? Well at the time of his death, Fechter was an 18 year old bricklayer. What was important about this artisan who died so early in life? Fechter was born in Berlin in 1944, one year before World War II was to end. At the close of the war, in 1945, Berlin was divided by the victorious allies. In 1962, Fechter and a friend, Helmut Kulbeik, made a decision to run for freedom, to scale the infamous Berlin Wall. Others had done it; including Conrad Schumann, an East German soldier, who one morning in 1961, while on patrol, complete with uniform and with rifle, jumped the barbed wire and crossed over to West Berlin. On August the 17th, 1962, after hiding in a carpenter’s van, Fechter and Kulbeik, made their attempt. Kulbeik scaled the Wall and ran to West Berlin; Fechter, scrambling, with his hands on the Wall, was shot in the pelvis. In full view of West Berliners and those in East Berlin, Fechter cried out in pain; screaming for help. The East German soldiers stood and watched impassively, hearing Fechter’s cries, until one hour later, the 18 year old young man, ceased his crying, and lay in a crumpled bloodied heap at the base of the Berlin Wall – like a marionette whose puppeteer had forsaken him. Fechter had bled to death. He had risked everything – his whole life, in order to be free. Fechter’s death seemed to give added poignant truth to the words of Patrick Henry, the great American Revolutionary, spoken two hundred years before this tragic event: “Give me Liberty or Give me Death!” The photograph of Fechter’s lifeless body, horrified the world. A nation had built a wall – not to keep enemies out, but to keep its own people in. Today, fifty years after Fechter’s death – few and fewer are left who remember who this young man was. Many who now enter university, don’t even know about the Berlin Wall. Generations that are yet to come, risk repeating the errors of their forefathers; by not learning the events that have gone before. In our somnolence, we in the well-to-do economies of the west, are numbed by ‘things’ we have acquired, and seem to have little or no time, to recollect and ponder critical issues, such as freedom. Goethe’s warning in Faust, applies to us, with sharper immediacy: “He only earns his freedom, who daily strives to conquer it anew”. When the students of my class were asked who among them would make a dash for freedom as did Fechter – none replied in the affirmative. This is not surprising, for what motivated Fechter was a culmination of having lived under political repression mixed with the desire and dream to live in political freedom. When one is born in a free and democratic nation, one can take liberty and political freedoms for granted. It is only when one suffers, or when one has had their basic rights taken from them, that the will to fight and sacrifice is sparked. The choice between liberty or death – is only ever reached when the actual living without liberty, becomes an intolerable reality; and not a whimsical response to a hypothetical dilemma.
Decades after Fechter’s death, in 1997, a German court convicted two East German soldiers for his death. Due to a lack of evidence the court could not establish who fired the fatal shot. But what the court could act on, was that a young man was shot; and called out for an extended period: “Helft mir doch, Helft mir doch” – (trans. “Help me! Help me!) – and no one, who could have come to his aid, helped. A political system had been concocted so as to suffocate human liberty, by strangling human compassion. Sadly some East Germans believed that the Wall had been built so as to keep the West out of their paradise. Fechter, Kulbeik and Schumann, were not of that ilk. Of the total death toll of 136 people, who attempted a run for freedom and were killed in their attempt: 128 were men; eight were women. Of these victims the oldest was 80, and six were under the age of nine.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we find a powerful passage on freedom: “Man can turn to good only in freedom, which God has given to him as one of the highest signs of his image.” (Par. 1706). The Catechism clearly states that ‘freedom’ is a marque of Divinity, each of us being born as a child of God. So innate and great is the yearning for liberty within our Spirits, that people who are oppressed do willingly sacrifice their lives, as did Fechter, in order to be free.
When we turn on our Plasma or LCD television sets, and look at scenes of desperate people risking their own life and limb, and that of their kith and kin so as to run the gauntlet to freedom, we may criticize and condemn. Our responses are deeply personal – and we have every right to own them. However we must always think deeply, as to what motivates such people; and whether we would do any different had we been in their situation. For every individual has inalienable rights – irrespective of the colour of their skin; the words written in their prayer book, and the circumstances they find themselves – and among those rights considered paramount, is whether the human being perceives themselves to be free. For whenever one of the least of our innocent brothers or sisters is chained – then all of us are in some spiritual fashion enslaved.