Freedom is not a given and requires constant vigilance - Business Day

Sep 17, 2018
17 September 2018 - "You cannot achieve justice without freedom. Any free society is a huge social experiment. It brings problems with it. But its problems can only be solved in freedom."

Michael Morris

In the compact geography of central Berlin, there is hardly a block that does not bear a telling trace of one or another extreme of human possibility.

Of all nations, Germany’s experience is distinctive, incorporating as it does not only what is commonly referred to as the "catastrophe" of Nazism and the eviscerating East-West schism that followed over the wintry course of the Cold War, but also the remarkable post-war and post-Wall renovation.

Confidence, innovation, accomplishment and success are everywhere evident in the broad, rebuilt streets streaming with cyclists and traffic, no less than in the ubiquity of remembrance and the memorialisation of atrocity and error.

Just how inescapable the perpetual shadow of history is, was brought home to me when I joined a group of fellow South Africans early in September on a visit to the German capital as a guest of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, a leading agent of the democratic consensus and the elaboration of freedom as a bulwark against tyranny.

Once, on a solitary walk, I paused on Wilhelmstrasse to contemplate a setting that encompassed at once the torment and the triumph; behind me, the Topography of Terror centre built on the site of the razed Gestapo headquarters and notorious Reich security main office; to my left, a several hundred metre-long remnant of the Berlin Wall, the grim concrete hacked away in places to reveal its stubborn skeleton of thick reinforcing rods; and, in the next block, the severe edifice of the former Reich air ministry in whose shadow, when it served as a centre of the East German administration, the doomed protesters of June 1953 were mercilessly suppressed by Soviet armour.

On the opposite side of the road, however, an unmistakably redemptive image provided the counterpoint – two abutting eateries, warmly lit and filled with patrons. On the left, Typisch Berlin offered curry wurst, Wi-Fi, coffee, cake, sandwiches; next door, the Yarok restaurant promised "fine cuisine from Damascus".

Wasn’t this the proof of German consensus, a country generous and inclusive in its democratic freedoms and unassailably convinced of them?

Yet, of course, in September 2018, another counterpoint is the resurgence of extreme nationalism displayed in the massed events in Chemnitz, sponsored by the baldly anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which nurtures links with neo-Nazi groups even as it exploits the opportunities for influence that German democracy offers.

It’s little wonder German democrats are chilled by the AfD’s electoral appeal. For many, "what if?" and "could it really be?" are the nagging if unspoken questions.

The lesson – which is an SA lesson, too – is crisply captured by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s Wolfgang Gerhardt’s recent observation: "Too many people in Germany seem to view freedom as a given, something that requires no further attention."

Generations have grown up after "the great German catastrophe" believing that "the level of social security and liberal order … are their birthright". The overriding task is "to make it clear that we live in a country where you cannot assume that everything is guaranteed". This at a time when "authoritarian systems are on the advance, populists are being voted into parliaments and there are people who believe that anything goes if you’re in the majority".

Attacks from the margins, he warned, cannot be lightly discounted. People have to be convinced that "they have to read the package insert to find out about side-effects and the expiry dates of political offerings".

Ultimately, freedom itself is the priority.

Gerhardt might have been addressing an SA audience when he noted that "justice advocates … are increasingly confusing justice with equality".

This is a muddle that presses reason to the margin in our own striving to overcome past errors and atrocities. We would be wise to heed Gerhardt’s warning: "You cannot achieve justice without freedom. Any free society is a huge social experiment. It brings problems with it. But its problems can only be solved in freedom."

• Morris is head of the media at the Institute of Race Relations.

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