thomaskircheAs 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 events back 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. (Photo: St. Thomas Church in Leipzig with Bach statue, 17 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)

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’s St. 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.

nikolaiAt 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. (Photo: St. Nicholas Church, 9 Oct 2009/Steffen Schellhorn)

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.