27 June 2009

'It wasn't meant to be like this'

In a year of anniversaries, today - 27 June 2009 - marks the 20th anniversary of the ceremony on the Austro-Hungarian border when the foreign ministers of the two countries - Gyula Horn and Alois Mock - took bolt cutters to the wire fence that divided East and West, to symbolise that the postwar division of Europe was coming to an end - this was one of the many events that was both symbol of, and catalyst for, the changes that would sweep the continent later in 1989.

For the first time in almost 20 years, I am in Budapest again, this time at a consultation sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation on "Church and State in Societies in Transformation", 20 years after the system change of 1989. Before the meeting began, I met up with an old friend who had been active in the civic rights movement and the founding of new, independent, political parties at the end of the 1980s.

Hungary is not in a mood to celebrate the events of 1989, she told me. The country has been hit massively by the global economic crunch, the value of the currency has plummeted and a prime minister has been driven out of office, while the political parties are mired in corruption. The most important thing now to my friend, she told me, is her daughter and her family.

The message was reinforced by the opening welcome from representatives of the Hungarian Lutheran church. In her sermon at the opening worship the deputy bishop of the southern region of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary, the Rev. Marianna Szabó-Mátrai, noted how In today's Hungary, young people believe they need to, "reach the top and become rich". At the same time, "We, here in Eastern Europe feel that in this region and in this culture we need to run more, we need to worry more … than in the northern or western part of our continent."

Professor Tibor Fabiny, in his speech welcoming participants, noted how Hungary has been hard hit by the global economic downturn, he said, leading to the rise of extremist political parties. "The most recent elections for members of the European Union Parliament have not quenched our fears," he said. "The experience of crisis, once again in modern history, have resulted in the sudden emergence and strengthening of populist and dangerous tendencies in the political discourse, the intensification of right-wing radicalism. And this is not what we wanted 20 years ago."

17 June 2009

Five Days in June

Five Days in June is the name of the novel by Stefan Heym about the 1953 workers uprising in the GDR that is commemorated on 17 June. Four years after the founding of the GDR half a million people went on the streets to protest against the raising of the norms. It was also the forst of the periodic uprising that would shake the Eastern Bloc. Thirty-six years later s non-violent protest would bring the government down. To mark the 1953 anniversary, 20 years after the peaceful revolution there are many local reports about the events of 1953, as in this report from the Märkische Allgemeine. Today also marked the publication in The Guardian of the obituary by Misha Glenny of Peter Gowan, an organizer of solidarity with democratic movements in eastern Europe, and the editor of Labour Focus on Eastern Europe.

15 June 2009

Erfurt remembers more than 3 decades of ecumenical peace prayers

Earlier in this blog I wrote about the peace prayers in Leipzig - even older than the prayers in the GDR's second city are the ecumenical prayers for peace in the Lorenzkirche in Erfurt - said to be the oldest prayers of their kind in the former GDR.

The first ecumenical peace prayer took place in December 1978: the reason was the introduction of pre-military education in GDR schools. This militarisation of educational institutions and society unsettled many people in the GDR and a number of Erfurt citizens gathered to pray together, something made possible by the then Catholic bishop of Erfurt, Hugo Aufderbeck who enabled the prayers to take place in the Lorenzkirche.

From these peace prayers in 1978 there is a direct line of continuity to the GDR's Ecumenical Assembly of 1988 and 1989 both in the ecumenical dimension, and the continuing militarisation of society as a catalyst for disaffection and dissent. The peace prayers in Erfurt also highlight another dimension of the Ecumenical Assembly sometimes overlooked - as well as being a de-facto political event it was also a gathering with long standing and deep spiritual roots.

Following the peace prayers on 18 June, "Zeitzeugen" will look back at the prayers as one of the roots of the peaceful revolution on 1989.

"In autumn 1989 the peace prayers became for a for public debate," recalls Aribert Rothe, director of Erfurt's Protestant city academy, "Meister Eckhart". "Many people found them to be a source of encouragement and motivation for their action. This event is intended to recall the impact of the prayers, and the fact this this power still exists. More than ever there is a need for peace prayers."

7 June 2009

The 'peaceful revolution' or the 'revolution of non-violence'

The musings on the history of civil disobedience in the 20th century made me think again about describing the events of 1989 in East Germany as a "peaceful revolution". Peaceful revolution may conjure up images of an ordered transition of power, and yet it was a revolution in which those who were camapigning for change faced the full force and violence - both open and covert - of the state. It's true that what has become to be seen as the turning point of autumn 1989 - the mass demonstration in Leipzig on 9 October - passed off peaecfully. Yet, in September and early October, the GDR police and security forces set about protesters with violence using truncheons, and batons and physical force. And even after the fall of Honecker and the opening of the Berlin Wall, the covert violence of the state continued, despite new freedoms of expression and of movement. As Walter Suss points out, a proposal drawn up on 4 December 1989 by the higher echelons of the now rebaptised Office for National Security postulated the continued surveillance and actions to repulse the "unconstitutional" activities of movements and associations, and using all available possibilities to prevent the "misuse" of churches by such forces. It was the non-violent action to occupy the offices of the state security apparatus that neutralised such attempts to roll back the revolution. Maybe rather than speaking of a "peaceful revolution", it would be better to speak of a "revolution of non-violence" to underline it was a revolution using non-violent methods, rather than an ordered change that faced no real opposition.

Molecular movements

Thanks to sightandsound.com for this article by Karl Schlögel on the "molecular movements that brought down the Berlin Wall". Schlögel's article is about the black marketeers at Bahnhof Zoo, who arrived in West Berlin from Moscow thanks to the special political jurisdiction of this allied island within the GDR, a rehearsal for a new mobility:
First came the Moscow students from the Communist client states - black Africans, Mozambicans, Cubans - and later the Russians themselves, including the "new Russians" with their cafes, real estate, gambling houses, and fashion shops ... They crossed the Wall before it fell. They drove past the border officials when they were still heavily armed and patrolling the area from the Reichstag ruins to the Friedrichstraße station, unaware that the Wall was disintegrating before their eyes. To this day, there is no memorial for the anonymous black marketeers of Patrice Lumumba University at the Zoological Garden railway station.
This phenomenon, writes Schölgel, is an example of a "molecular" event:
Every historical second is based on infinite premises. There is no historical zero point. As true as it is that there are points of no return, it is also true that every point of no return has its own history, and a long process of accretion precedes every caesura. There are no jumps without a run-up and no collapses come out of the blue; that 1989 came for many "out of the blue" speaks only to the limited horizons, quality of vision, sensitivities or insensitivities of people of that time. Moments of success aren't brought about by magic, even if the abundance of puzzling and unexplained aspects make us inclined to speak of a miracle ... The grand moments with which history usually preoccupies itself are inconceivable without the molecular events that make them possible. And the Europeans who make a career out of standing and speaking for Europe are nothing at all without the unknown Europeans whose stories are never told.

6 June 2009

Barack Obama and the power of non-violence

In his speech in Cairo, Barack Obama spoke about the "intolerable" situation of the Palestinians, who, "endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation ... And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own", but then urged Palestinians to eschew violence:
Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end.
All this reminds me of an essay, "We shall overcome", by Stefan Wolle published in 1999 about the 20th century as the century of liberation. Wolle's essay begins in 1987, as a long-haired East Berlin gets stopped by the police on his way to the Zionskirche in East Berlin, shortly after a raid by security forces on the church's cellar where they belived illegal material was being printed. In the church, the pastor is delivering a meditation about the Sermon on the Mount. From the Sermon on the Mount, Wolle traces a line from Gandhi, through his campaign of non-violence in South Africa, then in India, and notes that in the year that Gandhi died, the young black theology student Martin Luther King in Philadelphia listened to a lecture about Gandhi':
His message was so profound and inspiring that I immediately bought half a dozen books on his life and work after the meeting. Like most others, I had heard of Gandhi but had never studied him seriously.
As Wolle notes, in South Africa, where Gandhi first developed his strategy of civil disobedience, the ANC did have a military wing and did engage in an armed struggle, though the transition when it happened did take place largely without violence, with Nelson Mandela at the forefront. In Eastern Europe it was Lech Walesa and Solidarnosc that worked for non-violent change. Wolle notes how the "peaceful revolution" in the GDR was a revolution of non-violence, where peaceful demonstrators faced violence from the security forces - in Berlin, for example, around the Gethsemanekirche on 8 October 1989. The cries of "no violence" shouted by the protesters were directed against the massed ranks of the police, but also a call to people on their own side not to retaliate in kind. Finally the police pulled back, and the crowd started singing, "We shall Overcome".
The tactics of all civil rights movements - whether in Eastern Europe, India, America or South Africa - was based on using the legal or semi-legal possibilities that existed. Despite all the differences between the movements that campaigned for civil rights in the 20th century, there was a line of tradition and many points that coincided as far as strategy anf forms of action were concerned. So it is no coincidence that political change - whether aimed at the independence of India, the recognition of black Americans or South Africans as citizens with full rights, or the right for to organize free trade unions in communist Eastern Europe - had its beginnings in churches, or more precisely in religion: the Hinduism of Gandhi, the Protestantism of Martin Luther King, the GDR civic rights activists, the Catholicism of Lech Walesa.
Obama finished his speech in Cairo by quoting from the three monotheistic religions:

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort -- a sustained effort -- to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It's easier to start wars than to end them. It's easier to blame others than to look inward. It's easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There's one rule that lies at the heart of every religion - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples - a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian or Muslim or Jew. It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world. It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today. We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.

The Holy Koran tells us: "O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another."

The Talmud tells us: "The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace."

The Holy Bible tells us: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."

4 June 2009

Solidarity sweeps the board in Poland

The date of 4 June 1989 was not only the day of the suppression of the Beijing protests but also of the first (semi-)free elections in Poland since 1947 in which the opposition Solidarity movement swept the board.

3 June 2009

The Tiananmen moment

Over on Open Democracy, Kerry Brown has an article on how the crisis of 1989 on Beijing represented a brutal lesson for China's elite in long-term political control.
In some ways, it can be interpreted as the moment when the Communist Party, rather than the government, confronted a play-off between its rhetoric on opening up and what it actually intended to do. For years it had surfed around with the ideas of freeing up civil society, the media, even village elections (which started in early 1988). But when the searching questions were sharply posed in 1989 about how the party (at least for the elder leaders) might respond to proper dissent, there was only one response: the gun. It was a brutal reminder that, for all the warm words and cosmetic changes, the heart of the party was unchanged.
Let it not be forgotten, though, that the events in Beijing were intertwined with the developments in eastern Europe. The movement was sparked in April by the death of pro-market, pro-democracy and anti-corruption official, Hu Yaobang. If it was not a conscious movement of dissent the protests represented nonetheless a widespread disaffection, the seed bed from which dissent springs. If anything the catalyst for the transformation of disaffection into dissent was the visit to the Chinese capital by Mikhail Gorbachev on 15 May, when huge groups of students occupied Tiananmen Square and started a hunger strike. At the same time, the protests in Beijing were being followed avidly in eastern Europe.

Ironically, as Chinese security forces began moving against the demonstrators on the night of 3-4 June 1989, Dr B and Pastor J (he then not a doctor and she not yet a pastor) were at a conference in Oxford about the social movements in eastern Europe. The Sunday schedule was then rapidly rearranged to allow a panel discussion including Tariq Ali and Dan Smith to discuss the implications of the events in China for the movements in eastern Europe. However, if in May 1989 the movement in Beijing had represented a moment of hope for activists in East Germany, by September 1989, the "Tiananmen moment", the suppression of the democracy movement by armed force, was the threat that hung over the mass demonstrations.