“What will become of a country…when a mother cannot trust her own children, and they, in turn, cannot trust their own families?” – Forty Autumns, Nina Willner
I was born in 1984. The Cold War was still in full swing, however, the winds of change were starting to blow. Growing up in school, the Cold War was very recent history. Most of my education focused on history that was at least 50 years old. The American Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I & II were all staples year after year in my history classes. More recent wars such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War had barely made it into the textbooks. In some cases, they were completely omitted.
“Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall,” by Nina Willner was a brand new education for me. Maybe I was sheltered, maybe I was naive, but for whatever reason my understanding of the Cold War, and the history of Berlin and East/West Germany was very limited. I knew that Berlin was divided among the US, the British and the Russians, and that a wall was erected dividing the American and British zones from the Russian zone. I knew there had been such a thing as East Germany. The globe of the world I had as a child showed the country as separate from West Germany.
I didn’t understand communism.
I didn’t understand what it meant to live in a place where you are forced to join a political party and live in constant fear of what you might say or do that could come back to haunt you and limit your future opportunities. I didn’t understand what it meant to live somewhere that builds walls to keep people in under the guise of security. I didn’t understand living in a society where you have neighbors spying on you, ready to turn you in if you speak out against that political party, which could mean imprisonment, re-education in a psychiatric hospital, or execution depending on the nature of the offense, or the state’s feelings towards you on that particular day. I didn’t understand risking your life, being shot at, leaping for your freedom with the hope and prayer that you make it because you feel like you would rather die than spend the rest of your life trapped in a place where all of your thoughts are repressed, your movements are restricted, and the food you consume is meted out by the state without further discussion.
No, “Forty Autumns” is not a dystopian novel you read in high school, this was nonfiction. There were parts of this book where I was weeping. This book broke my heart for the people, the families who were torn apart, the lives destroyed by this ruthless, heartless, and evil communist regime in East Germany and the Soviet Union.
Communism in theory might seem like a good idea, however, communism in practice is pure evil.
The problem with it is that a select few, oftentimes corrupt, are in charge, and the only way to sustain it is to manipulate and control people: what they do, what they buy, where they go, what things they have access to, and the select few maintain a god-like power over the people that they aim to take care of and provide for, and improve the people’s lives. The main tool to manipulate and control people is fear. Other diabolical tools like coercion, force, threats, isolation, withholding, and many other evil practices are commonplace.
The overarching theme of the book that stood out to me was freedom. The main contrast between East and West Germany was the complete freedom of those in the West versus the prison the citizens of East Germany were held in for forty years under communist rule.
It was sad as the author tells the story of the separation of her mother, Hanna, who was successful escaping East Germany in the early years of communist occupation, and her parents and siblings left behind the Iron Curtain in the oppressive, totalitarian society. Hanna doesn’t know what kind of conditions her parents and siblings live in. She only has limited censored letters, sometimes packages that make it through to her family. What she receives back are meaningless notes that are “coded” with language to avoid reprisals from their ever-watching government.
In most cases, humans tend to avoid pain. We don’t want to experience it. We try to ignore the pain of others around us. Historical accounts such as this family’s story though needs to be heard, no matter how painful it is. It needs to be told because we need to learn from history. We need to make different decisions in future generations. We tried this theory of government and it was an absolute failure. It was not sustainable and it led to lots of death, pain, and evil in this world.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. -Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence
All of mankind deserves to be free. Free to make their own decisions and choices. Free to go where they please. Free to pursue whatever career path they want. Freedom is something we often take for granted in Western society. Freedom is an important need that we should fight to give to others in every other part of the world. Freedom is an important thing to protect and safeguard for generations who come after us to enjoy the same as we have enjoyed it.
Reading “Forty Autumns” was a beautiful reminder of all that I do have. All of the wonderful freedoms I enjoy every day here in America. We have our problems. We have a long way to go on true equality for every person. But we are so blessed by what we do have and I am so thankful.
I highly recommend anyone interested in history, specifically the Cold War, to read this book. It will change your life and your perspective on life in a good way.
You can get a copy of “Forty Autumns” by Nina Willner on Amazon here.
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