FAITH MATTERS: The Berlin Wall and the laughing God
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the Berlin Wall story, which I covered for the Associated Press 50 years ago, is its spiritual dimension. I did not realize this then, on Aug. 13, 1961, when the East Germans began building this monstrous structure to stop the mass exodus of its citizens to the West.
I was a lukewarm Christian at best and had therefore little hope that this abomination would disappear in my lifetime. That God is the ultimate Lord of history is not something I fully understood when I was a 24-year old junior reporter.
The Wall that split not just the city of Berlin but also its Catholic diocese and territorial Protestant Church into two halves reduced the flow of fugitives to a trickle. But by then 2.6 million people had already fled from the Communist-run part of Germany. By and large they represented its elite – “elite” in the sense of skill and education. They were highly qualified craftsmen, scientists, engineers, professionals and farmers. Such was the impact of their flight on the economy that entire branches of East German industry had ceased to function.
On the other hand, these refugees generally belonged to the social strata that had been the mainstay of the Christian Church in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and their disappearance suited party leader Walter Ulbricht’s ideological ends. Ulbricht was intent on establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and the proletariat had long been alienated from the Church, especially its highbrow Lutheran branch whose very cradle this part of the country was. By relegating the former upper and middle classes to an inferior status and driving them out, Ulbricht created the main cause for the decline of church membership from some 95 percent of the population in 1945 to one quarter at the time of the GDR’s collapse in 1989.
The persecution of Christians began well before the GDR was established in the Soviet zone of occupation in 1949. I remember it well from my childhood in Leipzig. A Marxist teacher had taken over our class. Every morning he admonished his 80 pupils: “There are three Christian swine among you who still go to church. Go beat some sense into them after school”. The three of us, one Catholic and two Lutherans, learned to outrun our roused classmates; eventually my mother had me smuggled across the border to the British zone of occupation, where I ended up in a boarding school.
In the East Germany, young Christians were denied access to higher education, unless they joined the Communist youth movement and subjected themselves to a ceremony called Jugendweihe, a Marxist substitute for confirmation. Some did this, for example Angela Merkel, a pastor’s daughter, who was allowed to study physics and later became chancellor of reunified Germany. Others made no such concessions. They fled or accepted discrimination at school and work in order to live a life of faith.
The three daughters of my uncle Horst Persing, a Lutheran minister, accepted this fate. In 1976, Rev. Oskar Brüsewitz made an even greater sacrifice. He immolated himself in front of the parish church of Zeitz in protest against “the suppression of our children in school.” His sacrifice was one of the first steps toward the popular protest movement that eventually brought down the Wall in 1989.
One day as I was covering the Berlin crisis in the autumn of 1961, East German police stopped me at the Heinrich Heine Strasse border crossing to question me about the source of a highly sensitive story of mine they had read on the AP wire. I did not give them her name. A few weeks later my grandmother sent me a poppy seed cake from Leipzig. Inside I found an aluminium tube with a message warning me against travelling again to the GDR. A well-meaning neighbour who was a “people’s prosecutor” had tipped her off that I would be arrested for espionage if I tried to do so.
I was now cut off from my East German relatives forever, or so I feared. “Eternity” turned out to be short, though. In 1975, the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe ended many travel restrictions in Germany. To my amazement the GDR granted me an unrestricted six-month visa. I drove to my uncle’s parsonage near Leipzig where I first found out about of an awakening among young East Germans. One of its many centres was the Church of St. Nicholas (Nikolaikirche) in Leipzig, which later became the fount of the peaceful revolution that toppled Communism.
For weeks I travelled from church to church, monastery to monastery, parsonage to parsonage, trailed by secret police. Later I discovered that they considered me a religious crackpot, albeit a harmless one, which still perplexes me because the focus of my research should have troubled them: a large ecumenical movement luring thousands, including soldiers in uniform, to youth services and eventually providing an umbrella also for non-Christian opposition groups against the East German dictatorship.
I learned that this had begun in 1968 when Ulbricht had the Gothic University Church on Leipzig’s Karl Marx Platz (now Augustusplatz) blown up. It stood an a square that was designated to be a socialist parade ground, and Ulbricht did not want it to be “blighted” by a gracile sanctuary, where both Lutherans and Catholics worshipped.
Twenty days later, an international Bach contest took place in Leipzig. Suddenly in the presence of VIPs from all over the world and of East German party bigwigs an automatic mechanism unrolled a huge yellow banner showing the contours of the murdered church flanked by the dates of its consecration and its death, 1240 and 1968, plus the inscription “Wir fordern Wiederaufbau” (We demand reconstruction).
The authors of this act of defiance were five young physicists and science students. They were captured and imprisoned. But they inspired sympathizers throughout GDR to form what became the nucleus of a “peace movement”, which gradually snowballed into the avalanche that swept away Communism two decades later.
The Nikolaikirche is only a few steps away from where the University Church stood. It became known worldwide as the epicentre of this ecumenical enterprise, arguably one of the most impressive in post-Reformation history. Admonished by Protestant and Catholic clergymen not to resort to violence, tens of thousands marched on Monday evenings quietly around Leipzig’s city centre. Their most momentous demonstration occurred on Oct. 9, 1989.
On that evening, pastors and priests had preached on Proverbs 25:15: “With patience a ruler will be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” Then a crowd of 70,000, chanting hymns, set off on a procession that softly felled a 40-year tyranny. Had they given the Communist authorities the slightest provocation, it might have resulted in a Peking-style massacre. The regime was certainly ready.
From the side streets their workers’ militia had their guns trained on the protesters. Local hospitals cancelled the leaves of their medical staffs. Ample amounts of coffins and body bags had been brought into town. A concentration camp had been set up in Markkleeberg, south of Leipzig. Later lists with the names of intended inmates were found. They included pastors, priests and Kurt Masur, the conductor of Leipzig’s famed Gewandhaus orchestra.
But the demonstrators remained peaceful, as did the peace marchers who emulated them in many parts of the GDR. We know what happened next: The Wall opened in the following month. The GDR ceased to exist one year later. In the interim, Christians temporarily assumed positions of power in East Germany. Rainer Eppelmann, a Lutheran pastor and pacifist from Berlin who had done time in a Communist prison, became the GDR’s last minister of defence.
It is now 50 years since I saw the Wall go up and 22 since it came down. The Christian movement in eastern Germany seems to have collapsed. When Germany was reunited on Oct. 3, 1990, most Protestant churches did not even ring their bells in gratitude, in contrast to Catholic churches, which did. Once again, eastern Germans are turning their backs on the Christian faith in droves. Next to the Czech Republic, the former GDR is the most secularized region in Europe, and Berlin is its most godless capital.
What happened here is a phenomenon well knwn from Scripture – the continuum of human ingrates forgetfulness of God’s mercy. Theologically speaking, this was a manifest expression of Original Sin in the sense of man’s innate inability to believe and trust in God; but at the same time it confirmed of Martin Luther’s brilliant insight about cloudbursts of the Holy Spirit that suddenly soak one area richly, and then inexplicably move on. This is what we have witnessed after the collapse of the Wall.
But it would be foolish to believe that this is the end of the story. History is always open to the future and the Holy Spirit, the creator of life and faith, always good for surprises. There is also an amusing side to this drama about this interface between faith and politics. To prove to the world that he was the greatest, Ulbricht had built the tallest structure in Berlin, a 1,200-foot television tower with a glass bubble containing a rotating restaurant at its top.
When the tower was finished in 1969, it turned out that the sun reflected on this bubble in the shape of a huge cross. Ulbricht was so furious that he refused to invite the tower’s architects to its inauguration. His regime spent huge sums of money to remove this symbol of the Christian faith – in vain: Regardless of whether you approach Berlin from the East, the West or the South, the first thing you can see from afar on a clear day will be the Cross.
The God Christians believe in is the God of Israel, and if they have read their Bible well they know that He is a God with a Jewish sense of irony about whom we read in Psalm 2:4: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.”
Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.