REVOLUTIONS OF 1989—Part 2: CONTEXTUALIZATION of CHURCH’S ROLE
By Kevin Stoda, Germany
NOTE: This is the second part in a series on conctextualizing the Revolutions of 1989. The first part can be found at: http://the-teacher.blogspot.com/2009/04/revolutions-of-1989part-1-tiananmen.html
It was early June 1984 as I found myself working in strawberry fields in the western end of Rhineland Palatinate in Germany, i.e. the part of Germany directly north of Alsace and Lorraine, a part of France that two world wars were fought over. I was there as part of an exchange program between Europeans and North Americans dating back to the end of the second world war.
After WWII, Mennonite churchmen in the USA had begun to bring Germans and other Europeans over to work in the USA for a year internship in hospitals, on farms, in schools etc.
The purpose of the trainee program was part of a trend in the USA after WWII to build friendship around the globe and to help obtain a more stable world peace through people-to-people exchanges on both sides of the war’s landscape. These face-to-face work or trainee exchanges have continued into this decade of the 21st century.
European Mennonites reciprocated and created a program called the Intermenno Trainee program to bring young peoples from other lands to live and work in Europe starting in the early 1960s.
In other words, the reason I found myself working on European Mennonite family farms in 1983-1984 was because I was an Intermenno Trainee myself for a twelve-month period between my junior and senior year in university.
As a trainee, therefore, I was working in various strawberry fields that spring in 1984 as fairly huge earth-moving machines announced that they intended to plow through one of tour strawberry fields.
You see. The European Union had agreed over five years earlier to the building of the first large gas pipeline extending from the Soviet Union through Eastern Europe, Germany, and on to France. It was this pipeline that was to go underneath the humble strawberry patch in Rhineland-Palatinate, where the Mennonite Church family Ernst, whom I stayed with and worked for, had planted strawberries over a three year period already.
Even as the Cold War Pershing missile crises created a great cultural and political conflict in the 1979-1983 period in Germany, the Central European lands, and Eastern European states, this trans-Siberian pipeline connecting and anchoring East and West Europe economically, continued to be put into place—and extended itself right through (and underneath) the Strawberry fields a few kilometers southwest of the American military base and airport named Ramstein.
In short, just under the noses of the U.S. military and the rise of America’s national defense in the 1980s, Western Europe was looking to tie itself eve- more peacefully into economic, political and cultural exchange with peoples on various continents—even with stronger relations to Reagan’s evil empire, the Soviet Union.
This meant that exchanges in terms of know-how and economy would be increased throughout the decade of the 1980s.
SOVIET UNION-TO-FRANCE GAS PIPELINE COMES THROUGH NOW
The Trans-Siberian Pipeline is still one of the main arteries of natural gas from Siberia to Western Europe. It was therefore inevitable that this pipeline of interdependence in Europe with Russia would be at times a source of grave concern.
For example, this very January 2009, 25 years after the completion of the Trans-Siberian Pipeline to France, a new threat to the peaceful coexistence between Eastern and Western Europe would arise after a series of tit-for-tat gas pipeline shutdowns in Russia and the Ukraine had seen gas stoppages taking place on both the Russian side of the border, in neighboring Ukraine, and on through southeastern and western Europe.
Back in 1984 though, the Mennonite farmer for whom I was an Intermenno , Georg Ernst in Rhineland Palatinate, would soon be generously reimbursed by the state of Germany and regional governments. Nonetheless, it is always sad when one has to stand by and watch three years of hard labor plowed up in the name of progress (of a pipeline).
In fact, 1984 eventually saw the natural gas begin to flow from East to West—right through our strawberry field to France .
Personally, I have an enduring image of the Trans-Siberian pipe-laying workers stopping for a few hours to pick strawberries in our humble field near Mittelbrunn village.
This memory has remained with me for decades.
[Naturally, I had to recall this whole episode again and again this winter as Europe discovered again that overdependence on the Russian bear for energy may not be in the best interest of her citizens.]
As these rugged looking Trans-Siberian pipeline-layers chewed down on buckets of strawberries, I recall that they stated over and over: “Schade auf den Erdbeeren.”
That means in English: “Too bad for those strawberries”.
These same strong-looking construction workers repeated this over and over. “Too bad for those strawberries”.
Then a few minutes later these very same workers of heavy machinery took buckets and baskets and picked a few more strawberries, i.e. before plowing through the foliage a few moments later. [Some might call that collateral damage to progress for peace and interdepence or globalization.]
“Too bad for those strawberries”—perhaps –but historical events were happening across Europe in the 1980s, and as each year went by, more tolerance was showing up on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
MY FIRST PEAK BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN
I visited Hungary myself a few years later and found unbelievable new freedoms for the Magyar citizens to find work abroad and return each year. I stayed with a Hungarian of Jewish ancestry named Gyorgy who told of his being sent to by his company to study business in France as part of an educational exchange program.
Gyorgy had taken to the learning opportunity with great seriousness. He spent his time in Paris learning how a western company functioned and solved problems, but his state-owned company colleagues simply spent their time in Paris partying and celebrating their days in the West.
In short, Gyorgy saw potential in what the West had to offer and wanted to bring back the knowledge and customer-service orientation to his homeland, especially in the area of communications and technology in which he was already skilled. In contrast, his Hungarian colleagues did not have such a long term vision and saw an educational trip simply as a vacation in the west, i.e. not as something that could be implemented back in their homeland.
During this same era, there were many new political and educational exchanges between East and West. For example, my alma mater friend, Mark Jantzen went to the Humboldt University in East Berlin to study theology in the late 1980s.
The West German Green Party sent a delegation to visit East Germany’s Erich Honecker and had criticized him and human rights publicly on TV seen in both East and West Germany. [The Green party openly kept relations with both the Communist Chairman Erick Honecker’s, party and many dissidents in the East German Republic.]
To various other degrees, many other parties, peace groups, churches and student groups encouraged east and west exchanges, too.
Similarly, the West German courts became more and more lenient on West German peace protestors as the Pershing Missile Crisis of 1983 enfolded. This was a marked change from their treatment in 1968 and through most of the 1970s.
As NATO stationed missiles and other weapons tipped with nuclear warheads that could land across the iron curtain in East Germany and neighboring states, millions of Germans and West Europeans protested. The Warsaw Pact saw it in its own interest to support such protests.
In short, peace protests against remilitarization and the further militarization of Germany in the West was often mirrored in East Germany.
According to various East German researchers, “The roots of the organized opposition involving the independent peace movement go back to the early 1960s, when considerable resistance emerged to East Germany’s remilitarization, especially in Protestant circles. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Protestant activists objected to the introduction, in the summer of 1978, of compulsory pre-military training for fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds. Soldiers, who had fulfilled their military obligation through work in special military construction units, pressured Lutheran Church leaders to support nonviolence and disarmament. In February 1982, the term peace movement began to be used in connection with peace initiatives that originated outside official party or government circles. The initiatives stemmed from a forum organized by the Lutheran Church that challenged the official government view that peace can be maintained only through armed strength. In the mid1980s , the independent peace movement has sought the formation of a civilian peace service as an alternate to military service and the demilitarization of East German society.”
Peace researcher, John Bacher, noted several decades ago, “The first independent peace activity in the GDR was a response to the introduction of conscription in 1962. Some 3000 persons refused service on the grounds of conscientious objection~ Less than a dozen were actually imprisoned. The national Lutheran church took up their cause, and its pressure resulted in the creation in 1964 of special army ‘Construction Units’ (Bausoldaten) for conscientious objectors. This remains the most liberal provision for conscientious objection in any of the Warsaw Pact states. Popular pressures against militarization since 1975 have increased the civilian quality of this construction corps. Former members of the Bausoldaten have become prominent in the independent peace movement. They have kept in touch with each other and have organized peace seminars. Their distinctive clothes have been called “a uniform for a division of the peace movement, an East Germany speciality.”
Lazarus observed, too, “In the 1980s, work for peace began to be decentralized and extended to areas outside East Germany’s major urban centers. For example, by the mid-1980s the Protestant student community in Rostock had organized a monthly Peace Worship Service. Every six months a ‘Retreat and Meditation Day’ on the theme of peace took place in the Land-church of Mecklenburg. Standing workshops for peace were formed in numerous student communities, and peace seminars, often attended by hundreds of people, were held in Karl-Marx-Stadt, Meissen, Waldheim, Zittau, Kessin, and elsewhere.”
BIBLES, CHURCH AND TOLERANCE IN EASTERN EUROPE IN 1980s
The churches over several decades had come to be a safe-haven, particularly for those East of the Iron Curtain. Historian Stephen Lazarus writes that “definitely, the mass engagement of East German citizens with strong connections to the church helped assure the success and peaceful nature of the Revolution. One can safely say that the East German Protestant Church was at the forefront of the Revolution, initiating and propelling many of the historical political changes that collectively known as the ‘Friedliche Revolution’ or Peaceful Revolution of 1989.”
Historian Mark Jantzen who studied at Humboldt University in East Berlin and worked with the Mennonite Churches of East Germany in the 1980s tells of his journey with East German theological students and their faculty from East Berlin to Russia at the end of that decade.
These East German students and faculty quite openly took Russian language Bibles (and Bibles of other languages) eastwards into the Evil Empire, i.e. the Soviet Union.
From this example, it seems that the Russian Bear had given up hopes of converting its own masses to atheism or agnosticism by the time the 1980s rolled around.
Similarly, other European borders had been opened to evangelism over recent decades. Poland was an obvious case throughout the 1980s—especially due to the recent appointment of a Polish-born pope, John Paul II, to head the Vatican.
Meanwhile, other Eastern European borders seemed to be open to building links between churches between East and West. I recall that at least one young Intermenno Trainee drove bibles to Hungary and Romania in 1984 without much difficulty. [Yes, the bibles were smuggled in but this was done annually without incident for years by many young Western Europeans without much incident for most.]
Even East Germany, which had tried at times to outdo the Soviet Union in its attempt to have a successful communist-dictated economy, began to show a warmer spot for the role of churches once Honecker replaced Ulbrecht in the late 1960s as communist chair in the German Democratic Republic.
This was first evident in the East German government’s acceptance of conscientious objectors, especially if one’s family included an active minister.
According to Lazarus, “In at least five ways, members of Protestant churches across the country [of East Germany] , most notably in Leipzig and Berlin, but also in smaller rural locales, became engaged in political activity at the grassroots level. Although the Church has had a significant political identity for years, it had never before [the 1980s] fostered as much antigovernment protest as its members did in the final years before the collapse of Communist rule (Burgess. p. 17).”
“The development of special interest activist groups within local congregations is the second indication of its significant political involvement. The base groups were collections of individuals with a variety of social concerns who met to plan events and exchange ideas regarding peace and disarmament issues, human rights, preservation of the environment, and several other concerns (Nielsen, p. 37). They served as a broad umbrella to bring Christians and other activists together into the grassroots organizations that later served as the core of dissent during the Revolution. The church sheltered and defended these groups, who were prohibited from meeting openly. They enjoyed relative safety inside the church walls, although the danger always remained that government informants could also infiltrate the church. John Burgess describes the unique “free space” that these groups provided for activists in contrast to the state-imposed conformity they experienced elsewhere. ‘The church offered a sense of freedom and acceptance,’ he explains, ‘that they did not find elsewhere in society’ Burgess, p.24). The agenda of these groups influenced the Synod’s approach to social issues and helped keep the Church attentive to the political interests of East Germans at the local level (Pierard, p.502),” Lazarus adds.
In short, in East Germany, “The Church served as the key meeting place for dissenters during the Revolution [and before it] and fostered the development of core activist groups. Members of these close-knit pockets of political dissent became instrumental as leaders during the weeks of mass protest.”
In addition, Lazarus and other researchers have noted, “The central role of church leaders and members is[was] evident in their political engagement before and during the Revolution in (1) conducting dialogue between citizens and government leaders; (2) in organizing mass protests; (3) and in providing a safe meeting place for diverse activist groups, which united some of the most vocal dissenting elements in society that challenged the government’s authority.”
PROTEST, DISILLUSION AND BAD ECONOMY IN THE WEST & EAST
One interesting thing to note is that economically speaking, the Western economies, including Japan, were not doing that well prior to the collapse of the Iron Curtain in Central Europe in 1989.
For example, throughout the six years, I lived in Germany and France at the end of the 1980s, unemployment was unusually high, i.e. similar to what these same countries face in our current global economic crisis to date.
Japan was getting reading to face nearly a decade and a half of recession as the Revolution of 1989 rolled around in Eastern Europe.
From 1986 onwards, the U.S. Congress forced a decrease in long-term U.S. defense spending due to the economic hazards–including one major stock market collapse, Moreover, there was a continued lack of increase in standard of living by many Americans throughout the decade. A lot of jobs were being outsourced for the first time, so that companies would have to pay less concern to the social and health benefits to the great masses of American workers.
In the U.S.A., under Ronald Reagan, the social welfare system afforded for 3 generations was being dismantled in the name of free market capitalism—and western employees were getting nervous about what globalism posed for the working class majority.
In short, free market capitalism as such, was not showcasing nearly as much success–in terms of improving the quality of peoples lives–as many writers and western historians and government leaders portrayed to be the case in the 1990s through 2005.
WHAT DID EASTERN EUROPEANS EXPECT AND WANT?
The obvious thing for Eastern Europeans was that in the West, people had it better.
First, those in the West could protest more easily, e.g. they didn’t have to hide within the sanctuary of the church or risk imprisonment for voicing their criticism of the system. East Europeans had been astounded that so many in the West stood up against their own government’s decision to deploy the Pershing missiles in 1983.
Eastern Europeans, too, wanted a future for themselves and their children where they had political space to speak up when something in society is unfair, dangerous or too limiting.
Many already did bypass East European laws against squatting illegally to obtain housing or property and in undertaking illegal renting and subletting apartments all over East Berlin. [Jantzen describes this in detail in his book about East Germany: THE WRONG SIDE OF THE WALL.]
Second and probably more importantly to Eastern Europeans, Western Europeans had access to a greater variety of prices and to a variety of producers of a greater variety of goods.
This was for many even more appealing than any particular new political system that many young East Europeans sought or envisioned in the run-up to the Peaceful Revolutions of 1989.
Anecdotally, Mark Jantzen in THE WRONG SIDE OF THE WALL: AN AMERICAN IN EAST BERLIN DURING THE TIME OF THE PEACEFUL REVOLUTION, records that once he visited a theater in East Berlin. That evening, he noted that for no-obvious reason a shopping cart had been placed to the left of the actors on stage.
The play was “One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest”.
Jantzen had wondered at the time whether the shopping cart signaled the need for much more consumer choice (or some other call for opening up trade or relations with the West.] Perhaps the lack of choice in a society where everyone’s basic needs were taken care of leads to people feeling like locked up crazies, i.e. like someone locked up in an insane asylum.
In short, on the one hand the western ideology of freedom of speech was appealing. On the other hand, it was the western opportunity to choose a lifestyle which East Germans came to the West to join by the thousands before the Wall suddenly opened up on November 9, 1989 (and in the months thereafter).
DECONSTRUCTION OF A SOCIAL WELFARE STATE?
Over the two decades since 1989, many from Eastern Germany and their offspring have become dissatisfied with what the Western-so-called Capitalist democracies have had to offer them in terms of a better life.
Naturally, they did not know that all then.
Many East Germans, in the wake of the Tiananmen Massacre in early June 1989, felt that either they should now protest or flee from their homeland. In a way, the world of East Germany—after decades of totalitarian excess and bad economics—had left many East Germans with a fairly simple identification of what Western Freedom was. Like in the “Billy McGee” song of Janice Joplin: “Freedom is just another word for ‘nothing else to lose’.”
All that the masses knew before the wall-crumbled was that winds of change (or the river of history was flowing) stood against the totalitarian-run state economies that were not able to keep up with the Western smorgasbord of choices.
Once the Wall came down, many discontented East Germans ran faster than their peers in the Church-centered protests of 1989, i.e. those who had led to the toppling of the Honecker regime so quickly after Gorbachev’s visit there—and the realization of the communist bigwigs that (1) Russian wasn’t in the mood any more too make enemies with the West and put down dozens of East European rebellions and (2) the realization that so many East Germans were still ready to flee the system on a moments notice. Finally, these same communist leaders and followers had realized that it was their own offspring who were leading the demonstrations.
The Tiananmen solution was dropped as an option in October-November 1989 by those who took over after Honecker, and East Germany was allowed to spin out of Soviet orbit.
This was followed by the fall of the leaders of Czechoslovakia and Romania by the end of the year.
For two decades the West has tried to embrace the run of Eastern humanity to its borders.
What will the West do now that the mythical neo-liberal free-market system in 2009 appears widely to have been a fraud?
Luckily, Germany has always offered the West a variety of political economic options. Some have been disastrous and some have been productive in many facets. The attempt by Western Germany to build a Social Market economy since 1949 has been embraced by many in Central Europe as a step towards an alternative path to development.
It is more than likely it was the social market economy of Western Germany and the socialism of Scandinavian countries and France which had appealed to East Germans and other Eastern Europeans who sought and succeeded between 1990 and 2009 in joining the European Union. It was not the neo-liberal shock doctrine economy forced on Chile in the 1970s and on Russia in the 1990s, which most Eastern Europeans had rushed to join in a market union.
Sadly, as fate would have it, sitting at the seat of government in West Germany in 1989 was Helmut Kohl and a coalition of free market liberals who would demand that an even stronger market path be followed in subsequent decades in Germany. In short, over the past decade even less social concern has dominated the political discourse in German than had occurred prior to the end of Communism.
In summary, these sort of neo-liberal leaders and political economists have run Germany through 2009, and they have wiped out much alternative dialogue with opposition groups from the left (i.e. some of whom spear-headed change in the late 1980s in East Germany). Eventually, with Hartz IV and other legislative and administrative changes to Germany’s welfare state, these neo-liberals pushed through market reforms that Ronald Reagan, George Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and others have admired.
In 1980s East Germany, Churches had played a role in change. These ” members of Christian churches – Protestant and Catholic — became key political actors in these historical events. In the case of East Germany, the Church conducted dialogue between citizens and the government, assuming the role of speaking up for the voiceless in the former Volksrepublik or ‘People’s Republic.’ Church and lay leaders also organized mass demonstrations, emphasizing the necessity of non—violent protest and the virtue in following Christ’s example. Churches also sheltered diverse activist groups, who later led protests, developed, and articulated the ideological basis of the people’s protests. The Church was the main institution to provide an alternative worldview to the Marxist ideology that the Communists preached in the schools, in the workplace and in mandatory indoctrination sessions.”
Will the churches ever again play such a role? This is not certain.
I believe that the great many of those intimately involved in change and involved in East German churches in the 1980s had never anticipated a swing to the West as pulled off by the Kohl government in the early 1990s.
Kohl’s organization worked well with many East German late-comer protestors and newly formed parties, such as the current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, who joined Democratic Awaking only just as the wall was ready to fall.
With such a swing towards radical free-market liberal leadership pushing the momentum, however, East Germans were eventually bound to be dissatisfied with the results of the changes over the past 20 years.
All polls these days show the vast majority of East Germans do not look on the pre-1989 mostly as the bad old days.
It is time that the totalitarian regime of the GDR be properly studied by students of today. Several babies were thrown out when the two Germanies joined and the God of Free Market Economics took over all of European political economic leadership after 1989.
Many of the protestors in the churches of the East, i.e. who had incubated the collapse of the communist totalitarian system had hoped for a third or alternative way.
However, the East German leadership, elected in March 1990, thought it had been given a mandate to capitulate almost every dream of the free-thinkers to cold-play capitalism.
Soon, the so-called free world leaders in Bonn and Berlin began to jump up and down stating that collapse of the economic system in Germany if East Germany was not absorbed overnight into the West.
SHOCK DOCTRINE: Germany 1990 and again in the World 2008-2009
In retrospect, the hysteria and drumbeating of the political economic wonks of 1990 in Germany, i.e. those leaders and opinion-makers demanding immediate Anschluss of East Germany onto West Germany, now sound all-too-familiar to us today in 2009—especially after watching the world’s largest bankers and financial firms go after governments (again with such a drumbeat and mantra that the world will collapse) in order to gain trillions of dollars in assistance in less than 9 months.
The similarity of assumed global collapse of the economy today if banks and financial firms aren’t bailed is reason enough for historians to go over our historical recollections and narrations concerning the collapse of communism (and the take over of Western Capitalisms form of globalization in the intervening years).
What will be the political economic system that our children and grandchildren live under? Shouldn’t we be demanding appropriate changes to the whole system, in fact, so that the western, central, and eastern European peoples do not collapse into tyranny as has occurred in Russia over the past 18 years?
Part of the rebuilding work that is required includes: (1) honestly looking at the best and worst aspects of the market and social market economies and (2) really learning from what has really worked well and poorly in the past.
For example, East Germany’s commitment to women and child care was much better in many ways than what West Germany had to offer in 1990—and since then.
Then same is true in most of Eastern Europe in the post-communist era.
Similarly, state youth programs, education, and training options were more varied in the East than is the case for far too many youth there after the collapse of communism.
Next, (3) a proper view to the future cannot use as much tunnel-vision as has the neo-liberal approach during this post-cold war era. To reduce this tunnel-vision, I would suggest that the years leading up to the collapse of communism be studied.
In other words, can any of the babies-throw-out-with-the-washout of Communism be rescued and implemented where they serve people and society better than the current system?
Bacher, John, “The Independent Peace Movements in Eastern Europe,” http://archive.peacemagazine.org/v01n9p08.htm
Jantzen, Mark, (1993),THE WRONG SIDE OF THE WALL: AN AMERICAN IN EAST BERLIN DURING THE TIME OF THE PEACEFUL REVOLUTION, Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press.
Lazeras, Stephan, “Pulling the Curtain down: An Introduction to the Role of the East German Protestant Church in the Peaceful Revolution of 1989”, http://thebigpicture.homestead.com/files/m2m3p29.htm
Stoda, Kevin “REVOLUTIONS OF 1989: Tiananmen Square & After Effects in Europe”, http://the-teacher.blogspot.com/2009/04/revolutions-of-1989part-1-tiananmen.html
Wiesenthal, Helmut, 1996: Post-Unification Dissatisfaction. Or: Why Are So Many East Germans Dissatisfied with West German Political Institutions? Arbeitspapiere AG TRAP 96/6. Berlin: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Arbeitsgruppe Transformationsprozesse
–END Part 2 REVOLUTIONS OF 1989: Kevin Stoda