Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Before the Fall: The Fall of the Berlin Wall Was a Dramatic Moment in Time. in the Minds of Many East Germans, It Was Years in the Making

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Before the Fall: The Fall of the Berlin Wall Was a Dramatic Moment in Time. in the Minds of Many East Germans, It Was Years in the Making

Article excerpt

WE REMEMBER THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL in 1989 because it was such a perfect metaphor--joyful Germans running into each other's arms as an entire system crumbled, lighting the night with relief and exhilaration. On November 9, the world celebrates the end of communism and the liberation of millions from decades of oppression.

Today, few remember the years of patient effort by dissidents and activists from Warsaw to Budapest that set the stage for that momentous night. Even in the German Democratic Republic (GDR)--commonly known as East Germany--the beginning of the end happened not in the divided capital of Berlin but in lesser-known cities such as Leipzig, Dresden, and Plauen. In the tumultuous 20 years since the end of communism in Germany and Eastern Europe, the focus on the images of that single night has made it hard to recognize just how much work is necessary for a democracy movement to succeed.

In East Germany, more than in almost any other country in the communist bloc, the events that became synonymous with the end of communism were the fruit of a protest movement that began years before with no hope of toppling the regime. There was no great symbolism or strategy. The movement's greatest ambition was to force East Germany--which became one of the communist bloc's most hardcore regimes after its founding in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany in 1949--to live up to its own ideals. No one imagined bringing down the Communist Party, much less reunifying Germany.

If you had to put your finger on one thing that opened the first cracks in the wall, it might be the American Pershing II missile. When in 1978 NATO announced plans to deploy midrange nuclear missiles in Europe in response to the Soviet nuclear buildup, activists on both sides of the divided country protested the idea of nuclear weapons on German soil. While hundreds of thousands signed petitions and rallied in the West, in the East the protests were used for propaganda purposes by the communist regime, which was happy to see people spontaneously protesting against the United States.

But as the peace movement in the GDR grew, it began asking hard questions about the situation at home. Protestant churches were officially tolerated, though cut off from their counterparts in the West and under constant scrutiny by the authorities. Nonetheless, the church became a safe space for the peace movement, and many ministers organized prayers for peace and rallies against militarization, military classes in grade schools, and mandatory army service.


In 1982, Rainer Eppelmann--a pastor well known for organizing blues festivals for disaffected youth at his church in a working-class East Berlin neighborhood--cowrote a call for disarmament that was distributed illegally in East Germany and passed to Western reporters. The "Berlin Appeal" earned him the enmity of the feared East German secret police, known as the Stasi. (After the wall fell, Eppelmann's Stasi file revealed that for years he had been the target of bugging, surveillance, and a rumor campaign designed to destroy his marriage and his ministry. A plan was even hatched to "eliminate" him in a staged traffic accident.)

"The government told us Pershings and cruise missiles were the tools of the devil, but [Soviet] SS-13s were doves of peace," Eppelmann says. "It was a chance for us, as people in the GDR, to stand up and say something about the course of GDR polities and the nuclear arms race." Peace protesters turned propaganda on its head. "Swords into plowshares"--the subject of a sculpture given as a gift to the United Nations by the Soviet Union--became a slogan. Teenagers sewed patches bearing a stylized image of the sculpture onto their jackets, only to be threatened by teachers and police.

Once the peace movement turned critical of the GDR, it had outlived its welcome, and activists found themselves watched and persecuted. …

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