Wednesday, November 11, 2009

St. Nicholas Church Leipzig

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St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig was ground zero and the first domino in the protest movement that ultimately resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

St. Nicholas Leipzig October 1989

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In Berlin on November 9, 2009 - the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, they used giant dominoes falling in a line to illustrate the chain of events that led to the opening of the wall and end of the Cold War.

In that case, the first domino was St. Nicholas Church in Liepsig, East Berlin, where the daily Monday Prayers for Peace sessions grew from a few dozen people to tens of thousands of people, and spread to other churches in other cities.

Of course you won't read about it or hear about it in the mainstream media for some reason, and I have found only a few references to it on the internet, but with the 20th anniversary more people are being reminded of what really happened over those revolutionary days in Communist East Germany.

I first heard about it from an East German Intourist guide in Berlin in July, 1990, who explained the amazing story of how the Liepsig Church became a refuge for street musicians being harassed by the police and the Church prayer group that was harrased by the Stassi secret police.

Before I get into how I got to Berlin in the summer of 1990, and what happened there, here's a few articles I found that tell the story of St. Nichs.

Instead of Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev and Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it should have gone to the Pastor at St. Nichs Christian Fuhrer, who instigated the Monday Prayer for Peace sessions, and told the developing crowds to "put down your rocks," and sing, "We shall overcome," in English.

"We were prepared for anything, except prayers and candles."
- Leipzig Security Chief

City of Heroes'

Of course the city, dating from the 11th Century, is no stranger to change.

Back in 1989, the Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas's Church) in Leipzig was the focus for the first protests against the communist regime, with thousands of people gathering to march after Monday prayers.

As other cities followed their lead, the Monday demonstrations became the centre of a call for freedom that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Since the reunification of former East and West Germany in 1990, the city has seen rapid economic growth for many and a boom in construction.

Its streets, bombed during World War II, now present a striking mix of stark Soviet-era buildings, Baroque, Art Nouveau and modernist architecture.

But, as Leipzig's Mayor Burkhard Jung told the BBC News website, the courage that earned Leipzig the name "City of Heroes" is far from forgotten.

"The events of 1989 have left an indelible mark in the hearts and minds of all Leipzigers. And they are still visible," he said.

Visitors can take in a monument to the peaceful protests in the square next to Nikolaikirche, he says.

"But above all it is the people that matter. Ask any of our citizens who are old enough to remember and they will tell you their story."

Reuters Blogs

Some east German Protestants feel overlooked as Wall Recalled

Posted by: Tom Heneghan

As Germany celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, some Protestants feel the crucial role their church played in shepharding the democracy movement to success is quietly being overlooked. This seems strange to someone like myself who reported on those eventsback then. 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. But the idea that this was fading from public view came up during my recent visit to Leipzig when, at an organ recital in Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche), the pastor mentioned the point in a sermon.

When I later went up to Berlin, I ran the idea past a leading east German Protestant theologian and a pastor and two parish council members from the Gethsemane Church (Gethsemanekirche). That church in eastern Berlin was one of the most active centres of protest in the tense months before demonstrators forced open the Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. They all agreed.

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. Films and photos of dissidents packed into the Gethsemane Church in East Berlin or Leipzig’sSt. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche), the leading houses of worship that sheltered them until the Wall opened , are among the trademark images. But those crowded “peace prayer” evenings were only the tip of the iceberg of behind-the-scenes work by pastors and lay people who considered it their Christian duty to promote civil rights and human dignity in a rigid communist society.

At the organ recital, Rev. Christian Wolff illustrated the point by mentioning a recent commemoration in Leipzig attended by German President Horst Köhler, Chancellor Angela Merkel and other dignitaries. “At the ceremony, Werner Schulz spoke of the role of the churches — nobody else did,” he noted, referring to a former East German dissident who is now a European Parliament deputy. Köhler didn’t go into it in his speech, the main address of the day. While the Protestant churches didn’t claim all the credit for the success of the protests, Wolff said, “it wasn’t just a quirk of history that Christians took leading roles in the late 1980s.” They acted out of their religious convictions that each person had God-given dignity and rights that the communists were denying them.

Richard Schröder, the East German theologian who was a Social Democratic politician in the transition period and then headed the theology faculty at Berlin’s Humboldt University, agreed the churches’ role was being overlooked. “In the media reporting now, the Wall seems to have fallen without any pre-history,” he told me during an interview at his home south of the capital. “Western German public opinion doesn’t have a clear perception of the churches’ role.” He thought the dynamics of politics and the media in united Germany played a part in changing the public perception of 1989. 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, Schröder said.

The pre-history to the Wall’s fall goes back at least to the early 1980s, when underground groups opposed to the superpower arms race linked up with activist pastors increasingly critical of the regimentation of life under the communists. In 1982, Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church launched weekly “peace prayers” mixing Gospel readings with political debates. Police did not break up church services, so these sessions gave dissidents a freedom of speech and assembly they could find nowhere else.

Similar alliances emerged in many cities, aided by the large network of parishes maintained by the Protestants, who far outnumbered the cautious Catholic minority. By 1988, the Stasi secret police counted 160 such groups, almost all connected to the churches. In the debates, pastors sometimes cited models such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian executed for resisting the Nazis, and the non-violent strategy of U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King. In guidelines for participants at his Monday evening “peace prayers,” St. Nicholas Church pastor Rev. Christian Führer laid down the rule that “participants and their contributions to the debate may not contradict the Gospel of the crucified Christ and its message of reconciliation and must be based on the commandments of God insofar as they aim to preserve life.”

Such activist pastors were a minority among the clergy, but became a majority in the political parties that formed in the autumn of 1989. The speaking and organisational skills developed in their church careers, one of the few areas of East German life not controlled by the communists, clearly helped them to take charge.

As Werner Schulz put it in the speech that Pastor Wolff cited,“the peaceful revolution was, at its core, also a Protestant revolution … Its pioneering motto ‘no violence’ was the essence of the Sermon on the Mount, the most revolutionary passage in the Gospel… Protestant churches were base camps of this revolution… People went from peace prayers to street protests with a serious Protestant manner, disarming reasonableness and discipline.”

The gap in perception of 1989 emerged clearly at a forum I attended in eastern Berlin where the Gethsemane Church showed a film about its role in 1989 and invited comments from audience, which was about 2/3 Ossis (easterners) and 1/3 Wessis(westerners) who’d settled there since the government moved from Bonn in 1999. One Wessi criticised a section on the “Round Table” — a church-moderated public panel that helped oversee the transition to democracy between December 1989 and March 1990 — as not lively enough to show the real drama of that period.

The Ossis promptly and unanimously disagreed. They found it thrilling to see clips of civil rights activists politely grilling once untouchable communist officials, uncovering their corruption and insisting they take responsibility for their misuse of power. This showed the new democracy in action, they said.

The film, Ende der Eiszeit (End of the Ice Age), also showed the central role of the churches in shielding the dissidents and encouraging them to embrace non-violence and transparency. “Without the churches, this openness couldn’t have come about,” said Rev. Heinz-Otto Seidenschnur of the Gethsemane Church. A parish council member there, archeologist Ursula Kästner, said the church stepped into a vacuum to ensure a peaceful transition. “This was the church’s synodal principle at work,” she told me. “Otherwise, we would have had violence like in Romania.”

Dieter Wendland, a graphic designer and veteran member of the parish council, said the phenomenon of packed churches burst like a balloon when the Wall opened. “On the first Sunday, almost all the pews were empty. About 10 people were sitting there and that was it. It was a bit depressing, but I said we’ve achieved what we were struggling for. Now we can do the work we’re called to do, that is, organise church life and preach the Gospel.”

Published: Mon, November 9, 2009 @ 12:00 a.m.

A tale of two walls

EDITOR: Something there is that doesn’t like a wall. Those immortal words from a Robert Frost poem came to full life 20 years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. By then, almost no one still liked that wall, but its sudden fall took just about everyone by great surprise. Everyone, that is, but a small group of devout Christians in the East German city of Leipzig, where this miraculous revolution of our times germinated.

Under the prophetic leadership of the pastor of Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church, a humble man with the remarkable name of Christian Fuehrer, a small group of Christians formed a prayer circle called “Swords into Plowshares” a decade before the wall fell. Every Monday beginning at 5 p.m. sharp, members of Swords into Plowshares gathered in the church sanctuary for prayer and discussion. Attendance in the early years remained low, and participation in these prayers was, like everything else in the former German Democratic Republic, monitored by the Stasi (the secret police). Yet since the prayers and discussions were strictly for and about peace, hardly a subversive theme in the GDR, nothing was officially done to stop them, until it was too late.

By fall 1989, it was too late.

Hundreds of people, many in a church for the first time, packed the sanctuary of St. Nicholas every Monday evening during September and October of that historic year. The critical mass was reached on Oct. 25, when the church was packed to capacity and thousands more stood outside holding candles in the night. Also packed, albeit with heavily armed troops and police, was the adjoining Opera Plaza.

A bloody suppression of nonviolent protest, like what happened in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square or on Kent State’s campus, seemed unavoidable. Thousands of participants, singing “We Shall Overcome” in English, took to the streets of Leipzig in an unauthorized demonstration following the prayer service. The order to shoot them was given. It was not followed. No one knows exactly why.

Perhaps it was the courageous intervention of Kurt Masur, the highly respected conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, who passionately pleaded with troops not to open fire. Perhaps it was an intervention of a different and higher sort, one that no army can overcome.

Leipzig, after all, is the city of Bach, who gave life to some of the most divine music every composed. The in-breaking of divine forces through the social ministry of Martin Luther led to the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation not far from Leipzig. That same power was planted, like a mustard seed, in the heart of this heroic city within the confines of that Monday peace prayer circle. It burst out in a nonviolent revolution of candles on that fateful October evening, and within the following weeks it accomplished that which the mightiest armies in human history could not: the Fall of the Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the re-unification of Europe.

Assistant Professor of Sociology
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania
The author was an exchange professor at the University of Leipzig in 1983 and conducted extensive interviews with Leipzig residents during 1990s.

People Power Brought Down the Berlin Wall

Posted by Sarah van Gelder at Nov 09, 2009 09:45 AM | Permalink

Some say it was Ronald Reagan's toughness that forced down the wall. But detente between East and West and grassroots people's movements deserve the credit.

What brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago?

Some argue that it was the Cold War and the escalation of military spending that was justtoo costly for the Soviet empire to maintain.

If that was the case, that should be a cautionary tale for the United States as we struggle to maintain a nuclear arsenal, support over 700 military bases around the world, developexpensive new weapons systems, and, of course, fight two wars - including one in a country where the USSR, also, met its match.

But military over-spending was only part of the reason the people of East Germany were able to bring down the wall, according to an article in Forbes by Konrad H. Jarausch, professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "Ultimately it was the spread of detente, helped by his personal rapport with the U.S. president that allowed [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev to ... set the satellites free," he says.

Another factor was just as important. The wall couldn't have come down without a nonviolent people power uprising.

A recent account from the Geneva-based Ecumenical News International (ENI) tells of thechurch-based protests exactly a month before the Berlin Wall's opening, that followed earlier days of protests:

"After the 9 October services in Leipzig, an estimated 70,000 people poured into thecity centre, connecting in a full circle on a ring road around the downtown area. 'There were too many of us that night to arrest, the prisons were already full,' Jochen Lassig, a Leipzig reporter, told ENI."

According to the article, there had been warnings in the communist-run media that force would be used to suppress demonstrations. "Local doctors and nurses reported that hospitals were building up blood reserves and being put on alert to deal with bullet wounds."

"Pastor Christian Fuhrer of Leipzig's St Nicholas' Church gave this account:
'More than 2,000 people leaving the church were welcomed by tens of 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.'

In front of the Leipzig headquarters of the Stasi—the East German secret police—demonstrators gathered, laid candles on the steps, and sang songs. What few knew at the time was that inside the darkened building, most Stasi members were present and armed with live ammunition. They had orders to defend a strategic building. They had sandbags under the windows, still displayed today as it is now a museum.
Irmtraut Hollitzer, once curator of the museum, said: 'One stone through thewindow would have been enough to set off a bloodbath.'"

Professor Jarausch concurs that it was people power that made the difference:
"It took a transnational grass roots movement of courageous Polish workers, Hungarian activists, German refugees and Czech dissidents braving considerable risks in order to revive civil society and regain space for public protest. ... The fall of the Wall was magical because it signaled the peaceful triumph of people's power over a regime that commanded enormous repressive force."

The combination of a leader who understood the need for change—President Gorbachev—with a popular uprising allowed change to proceed without violence, and much more quickly than anyone could have imagined.

So the question this anniversary raises for me: Can we build such a people power movement today, strong enough to overcome the power of global corporations and wise enough to collaborate across our many differences? Because that's what it will take to get on with theurgent business of stopping climate catastrophe, building sustainable economies, reorienting our societies away from violence and militarism and towards a world that works for all.

We have a forward-thinking president, but he—and we—can't get much done without powerful people's movements creating real change.

Pastor honored for role in protests that felled the Berlin Wall

Written by Frauke Brauns
Tuesday, 06 October 2009 00:12

(ENI) — Leipzig Protestant pastor Christian Führer has been honored for his autobiography that recounts how the weekly peace prayers in his parish led to the 1989 protests that contributed to the fall of communism in East Germany.

Führer was awarded a special prize by the Protestant Literature Portal for his book, "Und wir sind dabei gewesen: Die Revolution, die aus der Kirche kam" ("And we were there. The revolution that came from the Church").

On October 9, Leipzig in eastern Germany marks the 20th anniversary of tens of thousands of people taking to the streets after the prayers for what turned out to be a peaceful demonstration for change, despite fears of a Beijing-style Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The peaceful outcome of the Leipzig demonstration marked a turning point in the democracy protests that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall exactly one month later, on November 9, 1989. Führer's autobiography recounts the spirit of optimism people felt during that year and what is left of it today.

Führer was pastor of the church of St Nicholas in Leipzig where the weekly prayers for peace began in 1982 when Europe faced the deployment of nuclear missiles in West and in East and at a time of the growth of an independent peace movement in East Germany

The award was made during a gathering in Kassel organized by the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the country's biggest Protestant grouping.

"The peaceful revolution of 1989/1990 was formed by the Protestant church and has deep roots there," said the EKD's Eckhart von Vietinghoff in his tribute. "Recounting the story of his contribution and exceptional life, Christian Führer, who was for more than 30 years pastor at St Nicholas' in Leipzig, brings this experience back to life."

The meeting in Kassel marked a step in the process that EKD started in January 2007 to prepare for the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation in 2017.

During the meeting, other awards were given to outstanding missionary work.

The "fantasy of faith" award of the Association of Missionary Services (AMD) was given to a small Christian community in Essen called e/motion. The community was founded in 1999 and now has 90 members aged between 20 and 30. They share daily life and organize evening services each Sunday. "E/motion is the answer to the question as to how the Church will look when money is short," said Axel Noack, presenting the award.

The Protestant Youth in Germany (AEJ) presented an award for the "Move your life" project in Laatzen, near Hanover. This encourages young people to use physical exercise and sport in urban settings.

By James M. Wall

Twenty years ago, October 9, 1989, East German citizens marched to a prayer service at Leipzig’s St. Nicholas (Lutheran) Church. In a ritual they had repeated many nights before, they marched to the church holding lighted candles.

There were 70,000 marchers in the streets of Leipzig that night. Communist East German officials waited for the signal from Berlin and Moscow to disperse the crowd by force. The signal never came. Two weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union began its total collapse.

The Leipzig Communist security chief wanted very much to subdue the rebellion. His police force was well armed. Soldiers with machine guns stood on top of nearby buildings.

In a final scene from the East German movie, Nikolaikirche, the security chief stares out at the crowd, his defiance now gone, and says, “We planned everything. We were prepared for everything, except for candles and prayers.”

I attended the premier showing of Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church) at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival. Thirteen years later, Nikolaikircheremains for me one of strongest cinematic demonstrations I have ever seen of the power of peaceful, non violent protest against an occupying force.

I opened my Berlin Film Festival report by placing Leipzig in a religious context:
One could not visit Berlin in the 450th anniversary year of Martin Luther’s death without making a pilgrimage to Wittenberg, the city in which Luther began the Protestant Reformation.

His tomb lies in a place of honor in the Schlosskirche, where Luther posted his 95 defiant challenges to the pope’s authority. To reach Wittenberg from Berlin, one travels south on the autobahn past now-empty Soviet army barracks, passing at highway speed through areas where border crossings once delayed travelers for hours.
After an hour and a half on the autobahn, a smaller highway takes the pilgrim to the Elbe River, not far from the spot where American and Soviet troops met in the final days of World War II. One passes outmoded, nearly vacant chemical plants in what was once East Germany’s thriving industrial region. The more efficient factories in the western part of the country have replaced many of these plants.

At one operation near Wittenberg, the number of employees has been cut from 8,000 to 700. Wandering through Luther’s city and reflecting on the strife in Luther’s career, I saw similarities to more recent struggles in Germany that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

In Luther’s life, religion regularly interacted with politics. His initial success in reforming the church was possible in part because he cultivated the support of political leaders who protected him, and who eventually separated their states from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. . . .Nikolaikirche, directed by Frank Beyer and based on a highly respected novel by East German author Erich Loest, records some decisive moments in “Die Wende”, the “turning” from communism to freedom. The movie re-creates events at Leipzig’s St. Nicholas (Lutheran) Church during the peaceful revolution of 1989.

Communist officials in Leipzig came very close to applying the “Chinese solution”–using massive force to put down public demonstrations. Those demonstrations began as prayer meetings across the city. . . .Many if not most of those who prayed in the churches and then walked the streets with lighted candles to express opposition to communist policies were not committed Christians. But they found in the church a place where opposition to oppression could be voiced. The pastor at St. Nicholas acknowledged that the church was open to nonbelievers as well as believers.

On one occasion, the pews were filled with government officials and university students who had been sent to foil the demonstration. But the pastor shrewdly “reserved” the balconies for the demonstrators.

On the night of October 9, 1989, more than 70,000 citizens mobilized in the streets of Leipzig. Before the march, the St. Nicholas pastor admonished the demonstrators to be nonviolent: “Put down your rocks.”

Meanwhile, security officials waited for instructions from Moscow and Berlin on using force to subdue the demonstrators. The orders never came, and the police gave up. A month later the Berlin Wall fell. The security chief who wanted to subdue the rebellion is shown in the film staring out at the crowd in front of his headquarters.
“We planned everything,” he says. “We were prepared for everything, except for candles and prayers.”

Berlin Wall November 9 1989

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Most people remember November 9, 1989, the day they opened the Berlin Wall, by the vision of people climbing on the wall and dancing and cheering, an unbelievable scene and one that few people ever envisioned.

The CIA were caught off guard, not having anticipated such a thing from happening, and even the local news media in Berlin were unprepared and failed to anticipate such a thing from happening.

Eight months later, when I was in Berlin for the Wall concert, me and Jack were hanging out at the hotel bar when two of the rock band the Scorpions came in and sat next to us at the bar. They recalled that they were playing in a club when they saw the scene at the Wall on the bar TV, and everybody began crying.

They had grown up in West Berlin, and lived within a few blocks of the wall, and so it was a very personal experience for them, and thus they were honored to open the concert of the rock opera the Wall in July, 1990.

They were also inspired to write a hit song and made a video of "Changes."

When they released the album of the Wall concert in America, at an album release party on the USS Intrepid in New York City, the Scorpions came into the large, crowded room, and recognized me and Jack and came right up to us, apparently glad to see us.

East Berlin TV Tower

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When we got to Berlin in July, 1990, the gates were open and people were constantly chipping away at the Wall, taking pieces as souveniers, there was still an East and West Germany, though they were collaborating on the concert and other cultural projects.

Jack Snyder, my friend from Ocean City, had met an East German Intourist Guide, who took us over to East Germany and to lunch at the rotating restaurant on top of the TV tower.

Like the rotating tower in Dallas and I presume in the Seatle needle, you sit at a table against the window and the room slowly rotates slowly so that you get to view the entire city 360 degrees within the hour, without even noticing you are moving.

It was there that the Intourist Guide explained to us the events that led to the November 9, 1989 opening of the Wall.

At the Wall Berlin Nov. 9, 1989

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