6 November 2009

The shock waves of Berlin

The political and social shock waves caused by weeks of pro-democracy protests in East Germany and then the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, were felt around the world.

The South African theologian John de Gruchy recalls how, while spending a sabbatical semester at Union Theological Seminary in New York that year, he had been asked to play host for a few days to the director of an East German institute for Marxist-Leninist studies.

The irony of a Marxist professor from East Germany being hosted by a white Christian theologian from apartheid-ruled South Africa was not lost on de Gruchy, who for many years was active as a theologian in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Sitting together in New York watching the news on television, the East German and the South African saw reports of the growing crisis in East Germany and of the simultaneous escalation of protests against apartheid in Cape Town, de Gruchy's home town.

I knew that "meant the beginning of the end of apartheid. […] For without the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was unlikely that change would have taken place in South Africa," de Gruchy said a few years later in a speech in the eastern German city of Leipzig, one of the centres of the democracy protests in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that followed prayer services in churches.

"Some even claimed that these events were the prelude to a new world order," noted de Gruchy in his speech in Leipzig. "Even if we are somewhat sceptical of this claim today, these events have undoubtedly changed the course of history, no matter how we evaluate them."

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