The Churches and the Wall

Studium: a peaceful, decisive and little known revolution

The twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was solemnly celebrated on 9 November 2009. The fall of the Wall marked a “peaceful revolution”, to which the Christian Churches made a decisive, but often little recognized contribution. The “paradox” of a State “of widespread cultural and practical atheism” involved “in a revolution in which masses largely indifferent to spiritual values participated, but led by religiously motivated leaders”, is reviewed by the journalist Angelo Paoluzi in the March-April number of the Italian cultural journal “Studium”.Nocturnal gatherings and prayer vigils. “A great hope has been born from liberty, responsibility, solidarity and spirituality”, observed John Paul II in 1990, referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a “genuine upheaval” whose “point of departure” and “point of encounter was often a church”. Long before 1989, points out Paoluzi, nocturnal gatherings and prayer vigils had already been held in the Lutheran Nikolaikirche at Leipzig: “silent manifestations of protest broken up in vain by the Volkspolizei”. It was from here that “the silent march of a 100,000 people under the banner ‘We are the people. No to violence’ started out on 9 October 1989”. It was a spontaneous protest movement which “first coalesced around the Protestant church of the Gethsemane in Berlin”, then spread to churches in other districts of the city, and was soon afterwards extended to other cities. The contribution of the Churches to the “peaceful solution of the process of reunification was undoubtedly decisive”, emphasizes Paoluzi. “The fact that the nuclei of resistance to the Communist regime” were consolidated “in general round Evangelical parish churches – he explains – helped to give to the process of transformation a peaceful development, very different from what might have been expected if the police, the army or a dissident faction within the Communist Party had led the protest”.The “paradox”. The author of the article speaks of a “paradox”: that of “a State such as the German Democratic Republic (DDR), which had eliminated all formal ties with religion and maintained only relations of surveillance and control with the last residues of theism in a hard-line Marxist-Leninist state”, but which was involved in a revolution spearheaded by “religiously motivated” leaders. A “paradox” that in the following years gave rise in the former East Germany to “solid majorities in support of a Christian-inspired party, the Christian Democratic Union, which was certainly not indifferent to religious values”. Paoluzi does not omit to recount the “witch hunt” triggered by the opening of the Stasi archives, from which it emerged that the “protagonists of change, often exponents of the Protestant Church, even bishops or authoritative pastors, who sometimes became political leaders after the fall of the Wall”, were tarnished as informers or accomplices of the East German secret service “in exchange for the regime’s tolerance of the ecclesial institution”. Though not excluding the possibility of “systematic falsifications or manipulations”, the journalist emphasizes that “the Protestant Church risked more than the Catholic Church”. The latter, “with its million baptized, found itself in a situation of greater reservation”, yet after reunification “even the Catholic hierarchies opened procedures to verify and throw light on the few, albeit embarrassing cases” of “the active collaboration of priests with the Stasi’s system of espionage”.Still open wounds. What emerges from the volume “Katholische Kirche-Sozialistischer Staat DDR”, published by the German Bishops’ Conference and containing the official documents and pronouncements of the Catholic Church in the DDR from 1945 to 1990, is the “coherence with which the hierarchies tackled, without compromise, the problem of relations with the Communist regime”. It was a “Church of silence” which “defended itself in a period in which fidelity to its values, the strength of prayer and also – insists Paoluzi – the courage of its bishops were put to the test”. “Exemplary in this sense were the homilies, pastoral letters, public statements and protests” of the Church’s leaders, in particular the stance of Alfred Bengsch, Archbishop of Berlin from 1961 to 1979, Cardinal from 1967, “in other words in the period of the regime’s maximum pressure on the Churches”. In 1990 Bishop Joachim Wanke of Erfurt warned of the risks of “meting out too hasty retribution”, urged the overcoming of “mutual prejudices” between the different confessions and admitted: “We Catholics too need to undergo repentance; each of us should reflect on his/her involvement, voluntary or forced, in the general lie of this country”. “The wounds opened” by the Wall “are still far from being healed”, concludes Paoluzi. “Two generations will have to pass before the country will wholly be able to come to terms with itself”, but the fact that “the peaceful revolution began in places of prayer” “is a good sign”.

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