Sunday, November 9, 2014

Leipzig and the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that came to symbolize the rapid, peaceful downfall of Communism in East Germany. In today's Chicago Tribune German Kanzlerin Angela  Merkel, who grew up in that Communist-bloc country, where her father was a Lutheran pastor and where she became a research scientist in physics, remarked that the fall of the wall, the result of peaceful, popular protests, would be remembered as a triumph of the human spirit. "The fall of the Berlin Wall showed us that dreams can come true--and that nothing has to stay the way it is, no matter how high the hurdles might seem to be... It showed that we have the power to shape our destiny and make things better... It was a victory of freedom over bondage and it's a message of faith for today's, and future, generations that can tear down the walls--the walls of dictators, violence and ideologies." (To read the rest of her comments, click here.) 

Given Germany's twentieth-century past, the fall of the wall offers contemporary Germans an historical turning point that can rightly be celebrated and shown to the world as a positive example of peaceful change.

A few years ago I remarked here on my blog that I have long been interested in the roles that Christians in East Germany played in the 1989 Revolution. 

Something that has not been widely reported in today's news media, at least not here in the U.S., is the fact that that peaceful revolution did not begin in Berlin. Its origins can be partly traced to regular Monday prayer meetings at the Nikolaikirche [St. Nicholas Lutheran Church] in Leipzig. 

Those Monday prayer meetings became the center for what followed in the fall of the 1989. Someone closely connected to the events of those days later observed: "There was no head of the revolution. The head was the Nicholas Church and the body, the center of the city. There was only one leadership: Monday, 5 pm, St. Nicholas Church." The goal: to pray for peace in a world gone wild with weapons and hate.

Part of the 70,000+ protesters in Leipzig, Oct  9, 1989

One of the pastors at St. Nicholas, Pr. Fuehrer, had this to say about those days:

"Nikolaikirche - open to all" became a reality in the autumn of 1989 and surprised us all. After all, it united people from the whole of the former GDR [German Democratic Republic, otherwise known as East Germany]: those who wanted to leave the country and those who were curious, regime critics and Stasi [State Security Police] personnel, church staff and SED members [members of the German Socialist Party], Christians and Non-Christians beneath the outspread arms of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. In view of the political reality between 1949 and 1989, this defies all imagination. It became reality. Exactly 450 years after the introduction of the Reformation in Leipzig, 176 years after the Battle of Nations in Leipzig. Now it was Leipzig once more. From 8 May 1989, the driveways to the church were blocked by the police. Later the driveways and motorway exits were subject to large-scale checks or even closed during the prayers-for-peace period. The state authorities exerted greater pressure on us to cancel the peace prayers or at least to transfer them to the city limits. Monday after Monday there were arrests or "temporary detentions" in connection with the peace prayers. Even so, the number of visitors flocking to the church continued to grow to a point where the 2.000 seats were no longer sufficient. Then came the all-deciding 9 October 1989. And what a day it was!
There was a hideous show of force by soldiers, industrial militia, police and plain-clothes officers. But the opening scene had taken place two days before on 7 October, the 40th anniversary of the GDR, which entered into GDR history as Remembrance Day. On this day, for 10 long hours, uniformed police battered defenseless people who made no attempt to fight back and took them away in trucks. Hundreds of them were locked up in stables in Markkleeberg. In due course, an article was published in the press saying that it was high time to put an end to what they called "counter-revolution, if necessary by armed forces". That was what the situation was like on 9 October 1989.
Moreover, some 1.000 SED party members had been ordered to go to the St. Nicholas Church. 600 of them had already filled up the church nave by 2 p.m. They had a job to perform like the numerous Stasi personnel who were on hand regularly at the peace prayers. What has not been considered was the fact, that these people were exposed to the word, the gospel and its impact! I always appreciated that the Stasi members heard the Beatitudes from the Sermon from the Mount every Monday. Where else would they hear these?
Thus, these people and Stasi members heard Jesus Christ's gospel which they didn't know, in a church they could not do anything with. They heard from Jesus who said: "Blessed are the poor!" And not: Wealthy people are happy.
Jesus said: "Love your enemies!" And not: Down with your opponent.
Jesus said: "Many who now are first will be last!" And not: Everything stays the same.
Jesus said: "For whoever will save his life shall lose it and whoever 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.
Thus, 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. The solidarity between church and art, music and the gospel was of importance in the threatening situation of those days.
The prayers for peace ended with the bishop's blessing and the urgent call for non-violence. More than 2.000 people leaving the church were welcomed by ten thousands waiting outside with candles in their hands - an unforgettable moment. Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing so that you can not carry stones or clubs at the same time. The miracle occurred.
Jesus' spirit of non-violence seized the masses and became a material, peaceful power. Troops, (military) brigade 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 winners and no defeated, nobody triumphed over the other, nobody lost his face. There was just a tremendous feeling of relief.
This non-violent movement only lasted a few weeks. But it caused the party and ideological dictatorship to collapse.
"He dethrones the mighty ones and enthrones the weak ones." - "You will succeed, not by military power or by your own strength, but by my spirit, says the Lord", is what we experienced. There were thousands in the churches. Hundreds of thousands in the streets around the city center. But: Not a single shattered shop window. This was the incredible experience of the power of non-violence.
Horst 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."
The prayers for peace continue. An initiative for the unemployed developed at the St. Nicholas Church.
Thus, the St. Nicholas Church remains what it was: A house of Jesus, a house of hope, a place and a source for a new beginning.

What began in Leipzig came to fruition in Berlin. Eventually, the wall came down.

BTW, Paul Doellinger, who is an LCMS pastor in Monmouth, Oregon, reminded me today that his son, David Doellinger, has recently re-worked and published his doctoral dissertation on "religious-based activism and its challenge to state power in Socialist Slovakia and East Germany prior to 1989." The book is Turning Prayers into Protests (Central European University Press, 2013). David is a professor at Western Oregon University. He's also a Valpo alumnus! 

The exterior of St. Nicholas Church, Leipzig
The outside pillar, shown here, is identical to the pillars on the inside. It represents the thousands of people who were unable to enter the church during the evening protests, since the church was filled to its capacity, but who shared and manifested the same spirit of protest of those praying and speaking inside.

No comments:

Post a Comment