As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, I want to highlight a story that you won’t see in the mainstream news: how Christian nonviolent action was the lynch pin that set the stage for the wall to come tumbling down.
I remember exactly where I was and who I was with on the day the wall got a hole punched through it. It was the beginning of the collapse of Communism. The Soviet empire imploded. The Cold War that had left millions dead through starvation, poverty, nuclear brinkmanship, and “Red tide” skirmishes began its slow decline. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal notes, what Friedrich von Hayek so aptly called the fatal conceit was in retreat.
Several months ago I came across a remarkable story by Lutheran peace activist Bonnie Block on faith-based peace action in East Germany in the 1980s that set the stage for the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. I asked Bonnie if I could reprint it here. She replied, “Yes, I wrote this article in 2001 and would be delighted to have it distributed. We so often do not hear the stories of nonviolent action and thus it’s easier for the culture to convince us that violence works.”
Amidst a global economic recession and the potential end to U.S. imperial hegemony, I’ll posit that market capitalism is also a fatal conceit that is now in retreat. And the acts of faithful Christians who act out of Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence on behalf of human dignity are and will be the leaders of this revolution too. As the president of the German Democratic Republic said at that time, “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”
Read Bonnie Block’s article below:
In early November 2001, I was one of eighteen members of two Lutheran congregations in the Madison, WI area who visited the former East Germany as part of a 13-day “heritage tour.” I knew that the churches of East Germany had been vital to the nonviolent revolutions which brought down the Communist governments of eastern Europe in 1989. But hearing and reading the stories of people who were involved in this historic time, actually sitting in the pews of one of those churches and lightening a peace candle there, has strengthened my resolve to practice nonviolence.
The place we visited is the Nicolaikirche (St Nicholas Church) built in 1165 in the center of a cobblestone square in the inner city of Leipzig. The story actually begins in the late 1970s or early 1980s when there were huge demonstrations all over Europe to protest the arms race. But in East Germany there was no neutral space to discuss and reflect on public issues except for the churches. It was in this context that a youth group from a congregation in eastern Leipzig started “peace prayers” every Monday at 5 pm at the Nicolaikirche. Soon “Bausoldaten” (people who rendered their compulsory military service by serving in special, unarmed units) came, followed by environmental activists and people interested in third world issues. Together they tried to stir the public’s conscience and encourage action.
That made the Stasi (State Security Police) and SED (the ruling Communist Party) officials come to see what was going on. Soon applicants for emigration and other regime critics came — along with Christian and non-Christian citizens of Leipiz and other parts of East Germany. The government reacted. From the May 8 1989, the access roads to the Nicolaikirche were checked and blocked by the police. Later the autobahn exits to Leipzig were subject to large-scale checks or even closed during the time of the prayers for peace. Monday after Monday there were arrests or “temporary detentions.” Yet the people continued to gather.
By September, the 2000 seats in the church were filled and people coming out of the church were joined by tens of thousands waiting in the Square outside. All held lighted candles in their hands and slowly they began to move toward the ring road that surrounds the city center. Helmut Junghans, a retired professor at the University of Leipzig said: “It started with 5 or 6 but each week there were more of us praying for peace. Eventually we filled the church and then the square around the church and then we spilled onto the ring road surrounding the old part of Leipzig. Eventually there were 300,000 of us marching past the Stasi headquarters. Chants of ‘We are the people’ began and then soon changed to ‘We are one people.’ But there was not one broken shop window and there was no violence.”
October 7, 1989 was the 40th anniversary of the GDR. The authorities cracked down and for ten long hours uniformed police battered defenseless people who made no attempt to fight back and took them away in trucks. Hundreds were locked up in stables in Markkleeberg. The press published an article saying it was high time to put an end to the “counter-revolution,” if need be, by force.
On Monday, October 9, 1989 “everything was at stake” because the order to shoot the protesters had been given. Rev. C. Fuhrer, describes the day as follows:
1,000 SED party members had been ordered to go to the Nicholaikirche. Some 600 of them had already filled up the church nave by 2 pm. They had a job to perform like the Stasi personnel who were on hand regularly and in great numbers at the peace prayers. And so it was that these people, including SED party members, heard from Jesus who said: “Blessed are the poor”! And not: “Anyone with money is happy.”
Jesus said: “Love your enemies”! Instead of: “Down with your opponent.” Jesus said: “Many who are first will be last”! And not: “Everything stays the same.” Jesus said: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”! And not: “Take great care.” Jesus said: “You are the salt”! And not: “You are the cream.”
The prayers for peace took place in unbelievable calm and concentration. Shortly before the end, before the bishop gave his blessing, appeals by Professor Masur, chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and others who supported our call for non-violence, were read out. This mutuality in such a threatening situation is also important, this solidarity between church and art, music and gospel.
And so these prayers for peace ended with the bishop’s blessing and the urgent call for non-violence. And as we–more than 2,000 persons–came out of the church–I’ll never forget the sight–tens of thousands were waiting outside in the Square. They all had candles in their hands. If you carry a candle, you need two hands. You have to prevent the candle from going out. You cannot hold a stone or a club in your hand. And the miracle came to pass. Jesus’ spirit of nonviolence seized the masses and became a material, peaceful power. Troops, industrial militia groups, and the police were drawn in, became engaged in conversations, then withdrew. It was an evening in the spirit of our Lord Jesus for there were no victors or vanquished, no one triumphed over the other, and no one lost face.
Not a shot was fired. On Monday, October 16, the peace prayers continued (as they do to this day) and 120,000 people were in the streets of Leipzig demanding democracy and free elections. On October 18, Erich Honecker, the leader of the ruling SED party resigned. Nonviolent protests were held all over Germany, including one with one half million people in East Berlin on November 4th. On November 7, 1989 the entire government of the GDR resigned. On November 9th the crossing points of the Wall in East Berlin opened. Seven months later the entire border regime of the GDR (symbolized by Checkpoint Charlie) came to an end. On October 3, 1990 Germany was reunified.
Sindermann, who was a member of the Central Committee of the GDR, said before his death: “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”
Block lives in Madison, WI, and was the national coordinator of Lutheran Peace Fellowship during the early 1990s and chair of the National Council of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1995. She would like to thank Herb Brokering for his reflections on the pilgrimages he made to the Eastern Germany before the fall of the Wall and which were available for reading on the bus during our journey in 2001.