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As the Berlin Wall fell, then-foreign correspondent Chris Matthews asked dozens of Germans to define freedom | Perspective

Was ist Freiheit?

FILE - In this Friday, Nov. 10, 1989 file photo, Germans from East and West stand on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this Friday, Nov. 10, 1989 file photo, Germans from East and West stand on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. (AP Photo, File)Read moreAP

“What is freedom,” I asked a young East German with the Berlin Wall falling slowly before us.

He said it was standing right there in the open talking to me.

It was the night of November 15, 1989. I was standing on the East Berlin side of Brandenburg Gate interviewing those waiting for it to open. Having heard the East German government’s call of six days earlier for open travel, they were waiting to see it fulfilled.

All day long the crowd had been gathering after rumors had spread that the historic gate was to cease dividing the city. They were a haggard bunch, showing in demeanor and dress what 30 years of Communism had done to them. The cold drizzle didn’t help.

Yet I quickly discovered a quiet hope among those down beaten faces. I had my own.

My goal was that of foreign correspondent trying to read a crowd. I wanted to hear them, as many as I could, say what this all meant, this historic fall of the Berlin Wall. “Was ist Freiheit?” I began asking in my limited German. What is freedom?

A crowd began to gather around me. What began as a series of sidewalk interviews grew quickly into an impromptu town meeting. I found myself soon surrounded by about 50 East Berliners all chiming in with their opinions.

Some spoke of “freedom” as a workaday matter. It was stanching the flow of fellow workers to the west. “It’s bleeding us to death,” said a woman who identified as a nurse. Two-thirds of the nurses on her floor had exited the country looking for better lives.

Did people want capitalism or socialism? I asked. “We want a united Germany where the people can make the choice,” someone argued. Another voice disagreed with merging with West Germany. “We know we cannot have what they have over there without having such a sharp-elbowed society like it does.” Still another suggested a compromise: Western-style economic freedoms combined with “the caring of the people” of socialist societies.

“I want the freedom to earn what I have worked for and not be forced to do something because I am told to,” said yet another man.

Finally, it came, the words I will never forget, what I may have been seeking from the moment I waded into that rained-on crowd of somewhat hopeful East Berliners.

“This is Freiheit!” A serious young man in an army surplus jacket spoke up. He was talking about the conversation we were having. To him, freedom meant talking to me. “This standing in a public place arguing openly about such things as democracy, capitalism, and socialism.”

“Four weeks ago, we couldn’t have done it,” said the nurse I’d been talking with.

So freedom, in the view of that young man that drizzly night 30 years ago, was the simple fact of talking to me, a reporter from the west. It was something he’d never experienced in his life. It was the basic human ability to speak his mind, and listen to the thinking of others, for all to hear.

In all my years of asking questions about politics, that night in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate stands out.

From the earliest days of the Cold War, we had come to believe in the essential stakes. It was the ability to argue politics out in the open, not simply ask questions of who should attain power to govern, but what form of government it should be.

That following Saturday, I stood on a hill overlooking an opening in the Berlin Wall as people poured through. They looked for all the world like black-and-white figures walking into a Technicolor movie. They were drab but hopeful, quick to take advantage of what the west had to offer.

I watched them line up instinctively at a truck offering free biscuits. Not far away were British soldiers in fatigues ladling out hot coffee.

But what they also wanted, I had gotten good reason to believe, was a chance to open their mouths and speak without fear.

Chris Matthews, a native Philadelphian, is the host of Hardball on MSNBC.