Faith and the Berlin wall’s fall

With Bon Jovi, Angela Merkel and Mikhail Gorbachev likely to steal the spotlight at the Berlin wall 20th anniversary celebration, Reuters’ Tom Heneghan says Protestant leaders feel overlooked:

“Any reporter in Berlin in the tense weeks before Nov. 9, 1989 knew the Protestant (mostly Lutheran) churches sheltered dissidents and was working for reform,” he writes.

“The many anniversary celebrations, documentaries and discussions now underway across Germany seem to focus mostly on how fearless street protesters and astute politicians pulled off the ‘peaceful revolution’ that ended communism.”

Heneghan spoke with East German theologian Richard Schroder about the German media’s role for Reuters’ religion blog:

Most politicians and journalists come from western Germany, he said, and had no experience of the underground activity bubbling below East Germany’s calm surface during the 1980s. Because 3/4 of eastern Germans belong to no church, the westerners underestimate the influence the churches had, even among the non-religious. This is the image that is now being repeated in speeches and television documentaries around Germany, Schroder said.

In 1982, Heneghan explains, Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church mixed Gospel readings with political debates in their services, and because police did not break up church services, it offered freedom of speech that dissidents couldn’t find anywhere else. It’s temping to blockquote the entire post, but read for yourself. Heneghan also has a separate post focusing on his interview with Shroder. The Wall Street Journal also offers a look at their archives with the following article headlined “Prayer Services Opened Door for Peaceful Street Protests.”

“Often these protesters were protected by the church. At the Gethsemane Church in a working-class district of East Berlin, recently, the church’s role in the protest was clearly evident: Politics and prayer marked the evening, and the walls of the church were covered with fliers promoting political causes,” the Journal wrote.

berlinwall-sarahReligion & Ethics NewsWeekly reporter Deborah Potter profiles the Rev. Christian Fuhrer who was pastor of St. Nikolai Evangelical Lutheran Church in the 80s.

“(East German officials) said, ‘We were ready for anything, except for candles and prayer,” [Fuhrer said].

Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount were Fuhrer’s primary motivations, but he also drew inspiration from German pastor and Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fuhrer said King “prepared and executed this idea of nonviolence, peaceful resistance, in a wonderful way. Then it became our turn to apply the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount here in Leipzig.”

PBS also has an extended interview with Fuhrer. A month ago, The Independent offered another extensive profile, and the Christian Science Monitor also looks at the church’s influence. The New York Times profiled Fuhrer two years ago, but I find it odd that they don’t include him or mention any church in their extensive coverage of the anniversary.

Among all the coverage of the anniversary celebrations, it’s good to see a nod to the importance of religion in the wall’s fall. Let us know if you see more.

I took the photo of the Berlin wall when I was traveling in September on a journalist’s study tour with Atlantik-Brucke.

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  • Ettore Grillo

    Watching the television I have seen the spotlights on the heads of states and governments. No one mentioned the great Pope Joannes Paulus II who was the main author of the falling of the Berlin wall.
    Often prayers and spiritual influences give rise to the changes of the history, not only men’s enterprises.
    The book I have recently written describes how the spiritual influences happen. I want to draw it to your attention, as you may be interested in it. The title is “Travels of the Mind” and it is available at
    If you have any questions, I am most willing to offer my views on this topic.
    Ettore Grillo

  • ed cyzewski

    It’s inspiring to read that the church played a peaceful, counter-cultural role with the Berlin Wall. This is a great learning experience for Christians worldwide.

  • Jen Kähler

    Hm, seems to me that there is quite a bit of attention given to the churches and to church leaders in the German media these days. There are official church services with almost all of the German government attending and honoring the very churches involved in the peaceful revolution – covered by the media. (Is that thinkable in the U.S.?) Peace medals and other awards are given to Christian activists. Following American religion programs/news and Christian media outlets one gets the impression that prayer was the one thing that brought down the wall, neglecting the many, many other protest forms. This is not to underestimate the role of churches and those active in them. Far from it! But let’s be careful not to take from the powerful, raw reality by turning it into a sentimental narrative. I have too much respect for all the faithful involved for that.

    A recent article in Germany’s most important news magazine, Der Spiegel, is the first one to give space to some activists who lament that actually the churches and their leaders (e.g. Christian Führer) hadn’t been supportive enough and forced them to take on the streets (out of the church leaders’ understandable fear of losing the special freedom that churches enjoyed), away from the prayer meetings. And it was the protest on the streets that brought down the East German government.( Again, prayers and the churches were important and that is rightly celebrated and remembered these days. But some of the more prominent figures were maybe not as courages as they are made out to be by the media. Some of the less remembered activists risked and dared more.

    And as for Bon Jovi and Gorbachev stealing the spotlight (where else can the German chancelor be?)- I guess we Germans still want so much for the world to come and tell us we are o.k. – and to help us put on a good show. And doesn’t Gorbachev deserve some honor when the world remembers the wall coming down without Soviet tanks stopping people?

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thank you for your helpful perspective on the German media. Sadly, I do not understand any German, so I was mostly looking at some of the packages that the NYTimes, LA Times, and CNN had put together. I wasn’t intending to jab at the prominent people at the celebration; I was just hoping that reporters covering the event can dig into the history a bit. Thanks for your input.

  • Jen Kähler

    thanks for responding. My comment war mostly in reference to the quotes from Heneghan’s article and his interview with Richard Schröder. Maybe because I am especially interested in the role of the churches I am noticing the reports on them more. On the other hand, those Christians participating in the civil rights activism 20 years ago feel they are not honored as much as they should be. And they are probably right. I just wanted to clearify that the media do know of and report on the role of the churches in bringing down the wall – even if not enough or in too general terms.

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  • John P.

    The FT also had coverage on the Leipzig church and its role in the fall of the Wall. Pretty dry, but it seems to do the job.