31 October 2009

Reformation and Revolution in Wittenberg

Today marks the 492nd anniversary of Martin Luther's 95 Theses, which he is reputed to have nailed to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, thus setting in train what has been described as the Protestant revolution. 20 years ago in this town about 90 kilometres south of Berlin, Christians organized the fourth of their "prayers for renewal" ("Gebet um Erneuerung") calling for civic rights and reform in East Germany. For the first time, the service since the "prayers for renewal" began, was followed by a "demonstrative procession" from the Schlosskirche to the Marktplatz, where 7 theses were stuck onto the door of the Town Hall. Jane was then studying at Wittenberg and she wrote in her diary:
The Gebet um Erneuerung in the evening was preceded by a certain amount of tension - what if there was violence, how would we cope? ... It went well. Over an hour before the start, the church was full and the courtyard outside was packed. Hans Treu, the dean of Wittenberg, had written a very good meditation and hand led the intercessions so there was no clapping of speechifying. As we sang the Kyrie, suddenly he atmosphere changed and in the gallery, people started lighting their candles. It was very moving. The demonstration was terribly orderly. I was one of two people carrying a banner reading, "You can't fill a hungry soul with prosperity". We were very near the back. I felt rather uncomfortable that I and not a GDR person was carrying something. Our candles dribbles wax everywhere, of course, making weird and wonderful sculptures on our hands.

In the distance it looked as if a small group of police were watching the demonstration from the corner, but as we got closer it turned out to be a group of Soviet soldiers who had turned up to watch us. Someone had even handed one of them a candles. One of the students greeted them in Russian and they returned the greeting with a smile. It was a small sign of the kingdom of God.

The market place was full, the local council had supplied (spontaneously) a proper P.A. system. It was all a bit calm, still a church service really. People no doubt expected a bit more. Some shouting at the town hall, "Come out". We sang a bit more, things were read about Luther and Melanchthon. Demokratischer Aufbruch and Demokratie Jetzt read their programmes out. DA sees socialism as the dominant force in the GDR. DJ sees no role for socialism except with a (modern) democratic set-up. DA is like a left wing Social Democratic Party and DJ like a left wing Dree Democratic Party. It's all really weird. No doubt they will all start splitting rather than merging in the coming years. There's supposedly a meeting of the United Left coming off soon, which really of course means a meeting of the Un-United Left. Once everyone had finished talking and it was agreed that we'd meet again next week and invite the Burgermeister as well. The market place was covered in candles, really very pretty. Many were on the steps of the Rathaus where the 7 Theses (thank goodness not 95!) had been attached to the door as a reminder of Luther.

It was stressed throughout the evening that this was not a church/state conflict but a people/state conflict. Quite an important difference but for how much longer can the church speak for the people, will it be able to give up that role? ...

Discussion over supper indicates that the local newspaper carried pictures and a full article about yesterday's demonstration, over 8000 people they reckon. In Prague many arrests have been made in the past fortnight. Havel is in jail again. If the world markets are about to go through a sticks patch then it's really worrying to think what the effect on Glasnost and Perestroika might be.
The German theologian Kay-Ulrich Bronk has written about the Gebete um Erneuerung in Wittenberg in autumn 1989 in his book, "The flight of the dove and the fall of the Wall", in which he quotes from Propst Treu's meditation:
Martin Luther did not discuss his theses with a small group of his students and colleagues but published them on 31 October 1517 so that they would be known to all and so bring renewal to church and society. We want to reconstruct this move to the outside world. We want to take renewal from the church through the streets of our town to the market place and from their to our homes and families, to where we work and - especially importantly - into the schools of our town (applause) ... This is the way we are going, creating conditions that have been renewedl relationships through people who have been renewed ... I want to mention something that has been mentioned in the previous three Tuesday evenings ... We have been brought to our current crisis and plight because a single party has claims the monopoly of power and truth, that must be changed (long protracted applause, stamping of feet) Dear friends, the Bible says: only people who have been renewed have the power to create conditions that have been renewed.
Bronk then continues himself:
The prayers for renewal ... were oriented towards specific issues like the political worship of the 1968 generation and inductive like the ecumenical assemblies of the conciliar process ... Before the people leave the church and move through the streets of Wittenberg in a "demonstrative procession", the final hymn of the prayers for renewal is sung, "Bewahre uns Gott" ("La paz del Señor"). I have already noted how this song had the character of a a song for sending out. But on no other evening did it have this character as on this occasion. Many of the participants probaby understood the refrain, "Sei um uns auf unsern Wegen", was probably understood by many of the participants as a direct reference to the march through the streets to the Marktplatz in front of the Rathaus. Then although the walk had been agreed with the town bosses, it was without any precedent ..,The demonstrations in other towns that had passed off peacefully could serve as an encouragement, but the first step from the protective space of the church had to be done anew in each town, and as such was accompanied by uncertainty ... As the people left the Schlosskirche and the Stadkirche the bells of both churches were rung. This had not only a liturgical but also a psychological function: a psychological in that this helped to overcome inner anxiety, a liturgical function in that it signalled that the move out of the church was not simply a political affair, but was a consequence of what had happened inside the church. Noah's dove had found dry land. The people left the Ark.
This year the Reformation celebration is going to be marked by a tree planting ceremony in Wittenberg, as the first trees are planted for the Luther Garden, in which churches worldwide are to be encouraged to adopt one of the 500 trees that are planned for the Luther Garden and also to plant a tree themselves to denote a link with the birthplace of the Reformation.

Meanwhile, over on the StranzBlog, Jane is blogging about the prayers for renewal being a spirituality of civil society.

(Photo is from Friedrich Schorlemmer's book, "Die Wende in Wittenberg")

28 October 2009

Church calls for DDR Reform

This is an article published in the Ecumenical Press Service from 31 October 1989. Ironically that issue of EPS was dated 1-9 November, a period during which the perspectives for the future of the GDR would change yet again.

Ecumenical Press Service

ECUVIEW: 'Church Calls for DDR Reform' (by Stephen Brown)

EPS 89.11.46 ::: As one of his first official engagements, Egon Krenz, new leader of the ruling communist party (SED) in the DDR (East Germany), met leaders of the Federation of Evangelical Churches (BEK) in the DDR (19 October). And in his first speech to the nation on DDR tv, Krenz told 'all religious citizens' that 'socialist society needs and wants your contribution. More unites us than divides us.'

About half the 17 million people in the DDR are counted as Christians, and most of them belong to one of the eight Landeskirchen (regional churches).
Krenz was elected SED general secretary (18 October) in succession to Erich Honecker, 78. Citing 'health grounds', he stepped down after thousands of DDR citizens left the country illegally for the BRD (West Germany), and tens of thousands more demonstrated in the streets calling for political change.

It is the most serious crisis in the history of the DDR, which recently marked (7 October) the 40th anniversary of its existence. The presence of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev only encouraged protesters calling for Soviet-style reforms in the DDR as well. He indirectly criticised his hosts by saying 'life will punish those who react too late'.

Evangelical churches all over the DDR have been the focus for demonstrations and protest meetings. These have continued, and increased in size, since Krenz was chosen. Unlike those in previous years, the current protests are not limited to independent peace-and-human-rights activists, and they are no longer confined to the relatively safe protection of church buildings.
Nevertheless, churches still provide a focus for protests. Up to 300 000 people demonstrated in Leipzig (23 October), after the weekly 'prayers for peace1 in the Evangelical churches there, the largest mass demonstration ever seen in DDR history. Little more than a month before, a similar demonstration attracted only 300 people.

In Berlin, the red-brick Gethsemane church in the working class district of Prenzlauer Berg offered refuge to demonstrators being pursued by police after protests outside the parliament building on 7 October where Gorbachev was warning the SED politburo, then still led by Honecker, not to delay reforms.

According to the official DDR news agency ADN, the Krenz-Leich meeting was a 'free and open dialogue in a businesslike atmosphere’. They agreed to work for a 'new chapter of constructive cooperation' , and said it was in both their interests 'to promote changes in our society'. Leich said he urged Krenz to 'give quick and clear signals of a new beginning' - starting with 'open dialogue with the people'.

In Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, and other cities, church representatives have played a key role in starting discussions between the authorities and protesters. But such talks have not silenced increasingly open criticism from DDR church leaders.

Three days after Krenz and Leich met, Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hempel of Saxony told a church synod of allegations of police brutality against protesters. Meanwhile, United Bishop Gottfried Forck of Berlin-Brandenburg, called on DDR Prime Minister Willi Stoph to condemn the 'brutal actions of the security organs' in suppressing pre-anniversary demonstrations.

For two decades, BEK leaders have characterised their situation as that of a 'church within socialism'. They have followed a path of 'critical solidarity', willing to support the humanitarian aims of socialism, but ready to speak out and criticise specific areas of state policy.

Well before Gorbachev, church people were promoting a sort of glasnost in the DDR, drawing attention to social and political problems the state ignored or tried to suppress. Leaders like Heino Falcke of Erfurt, made no secret of their demands for greater democratisation and participation within socialism.

The churches became, in effect, an umbrella for groups marginalised in official society - independent peace activists wanting to criticise Soviet, as well as US, nuclear weapons; human rights groups; ecologists and environmentalists; punks and rockers; even gay and lesbian groups. A result has sometimes been tension, if not conflict, between parishes and groups. But church synods have generally supported the demands the groups have been making.

Ironically, it was Honecker, who came to power in 1971, who gave the DDR church freedom to engage in these activities. At the time, such freedom could only be dreamed of in many other eastern European countries. He initiated the first summit meeting with BELK leaders in March 1978, and gave them permission to build new churches, and produce tv and radio programmes. The then state secretary for church affairs, Klaus Gysi, spoke of an 'historic experiment' between Christians and Marxists.

However, the Gorbachev reforms have long since overtaken the Honecker approach. For months, the DDR has been seething with discontent because of lack of reforms. DDR leaders distanced themselves increasingly stridently from the Soviet Union. As one DDR citizen quipped, 'Gorbachev now seems to be more popular within the churches than inside the communist party'.

A number of opposition groups have been founded in the DDR. New Forum is probably the best known. Others include the movements Democracy Now, and Democratic Breakthrough. There is even a new Social Democratic Party. In this, BELK pastors and other church workers often play key roles. A third of the members of the SDP Executive Committee are pastors; many leading figures in Democracy Now have been active previously in the church-related Aktion Siihnezeichen (Action Reconciliation).

Change has even come to the Christian Democratic Union, a heretofore loyal SED ally, which aims to win Christians for official DDR policies. Last September, some CDU members published an open letter urging change in the electoral system, more intra-CDU democracy, more possibilities to travel, and more media openness [EPS 89.10.18]. At the time, CDU leaders criticised the letter.

However, in recent weeks the CDU daily newspaper Neue Zeit has become increasingly outspoken in favour of reform. It ran an interview (13 October) with Manfred Stolpe, BELK deputy chair. In it, he urged 'genuine elections and secret ballots' and a 'strategy plan for the future cooperation of the Germans in two states in a Europe of détente’.. A number of CDU members of parliament even voted against Krenz when he was elected head of state, unprecedented for the DDR, where parliamentary votes are normally unanimous.
Future DDR developments are still uncertain. But if glasnost-style reforms take root, determined DDR church efforts will have played a big role. [EPS]

[Brown, a journalist based in Brussels, is the author of the chapter on the DDR in a book recently published by the British Council of Churches.]

19 October 2009

East Germany Removes Honecker And His Protege Takes His Place

From the New York Times, 19 October 1989

Confronted with increasing demands for change, the East German Communist Party today ousted Erich Honecker, its hard-line leader of 18 years, and named his 52-year-old protege to replace him. The new leader, Egon Krenz, had been the Politburo member charged with security and youth affairs. He was named to Mr. Honecker's three positions - party chief, head of state and chairman of the Defense Council -granting him the broad powers Mr. Honecker spent years accumulating. Though the youngest member of the Politburo, Mr. Krenz is generally regarded as a tough and conservative leader in Mr. Honecker's mold but 25 years younger, more sophisticated and probably better aware of the scope and sources of popular discontent. Mr. Honecker, in his message of resignation, said that his illness and gall-bladder surgery ''no longer allow me to devote the power and energy demanded today,'' and he proposed Mr. Krenz as his successor, describing him as ''able and decisive.' Mr. Krenz underscored his difference in style from Mr. Honecker, who usually restricted his public appearances to stiff, formal rituals, with an appearance on television shortly after his appointment. Smiling, Mr. Krenz said: ''My motto remains work, work, work and more work, but work that should be pleasant and serve all the people.'' 'A Great Loss of Blood'. More >>

15 October 2009

Holy Disorder - Blog Action Day

Today is Blog Action Day, when bloggers are asked to blog on Climate Change. To mark the day I am linking to this paper by Heino Falcke, part of which he read at the symposium in Utrecht where he received the ecumenical prize of the Council of Churches in the Netherlands. In the paper, Falcke is looking back at the Ecumenical Assembly in the GDR, which in many respects was a forerunner of the peaceful revolution of 1989. The assembly was challenged to face the global challenges of justice, peace and creation in the perspective of the GDR. The result was a catalogue of changes for the GDR and which provided a template for the demands of the citizens' movements and new political parties formed in mid-1989. But Heino Falcke points out now that the Ecumenical Assembly was not only directed at political changes in the GDR, but an "Umkehr", a turn to a preferential option for the poor, for non-violence and for the preservation and protection of life in the global context. Climate change was hardly known as a concept back in 1989, but this is what Falcke now has to say about the environment as seen through the texts of the Ecumenical Assembly of 1989:
The ecological situation was particularly dramatic in the GDR. Let me quote from text 11 "Energy for the Future": "The unprecedented high energy consumption in industrialized countries and energy scarcity in the Two Thirds World is leading to regional and global problems. Large-scale efficiency, combined with high risks of accidents and often cross-border pollution characterize the situation in the highly industrialized areas. The acute power shortage in the underdeveloped countries and the often very simple, inefficient burning of wood and dung contribute to desertification and other problems. Global deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels lead to dangerous changes in Earth's atmosphere. Technologies and strategies to meet energy demand have been developed only in the interests of industrialized countries. Factors such as their impact on humans and the environment and the availability in underdeveloped countries has hardly played a role. "Ot states later:" Energy use in the underdeveloped countries will increase significantly in coming decades. The absolute consumption of primary energy can and must be significantly reduced in industrialized countries during this period. This does not necessarily mean a loss of quality of life." At that time, the problem of" connectivity "of the technologies of developed countries to emerging economies had already been noted, something that is now seen as increasingly urgent with rapid economic growth in China and East Asia. These findings of the Ecumenical Assembly,of which I have quoted only examples, were almost completely displaced in the process of German reunification.

11 October 2009

1989 in Global Perspective

20 years ago, Leipzig became the place famous for demonstrations, which have been perceived as the decisive breakthrough to the end of the communist regime in East Germany. However, when looking back to the event, we become aware that 1989 is not only of local or national importance, but it also marks a global caesura. To mark the 20th anniversary, the Global and European Studies Institute of the University of Leipzig [I imagine it is not the KMU any longer] is organizing a conference from 14 to 16 October to examine the synchronisation of challenges to existing regimes and transformations happening all around the world, from China to South Africa, from Central America to the Soviet Union, and to discuss the causes of this coincidence which made 1989 the signature of epochal changes. The programme can be found here. For those who like me will unfortunately not be able to attend a number of the papers have already been posted to the Internet.

The conference is a salutary reminder that it was not only in Europe that epochal changes took place in 1989. Te ecumenical movement has always very strongly emphasised that the Cold War affected not only Europe but the world as a whole. The moderator of the World Council of Churches, Walter Altmann, alluded to this in his report to the WCC central committee this year:
From 1961 to 1989 a wall 154 kilometres long made out of fortified concrete divided Berlin in two. It came to symbolise the division of the world into two conflicting systems. There is a large piece of that wall here in the garden of the ecumenical centre. It was a gift from the first freely elected GDR government to CEC as a sign of recognition for the role the churches played in the peaceful changes in Eastern Europe. In that process the churches had the chance to bring their commitment to peace, justice and the integrity of creation, their commitment to democratic processes, their commitment to the inalienable dignity of human beings to bear on civil society and to do so in a peaceful way. We remember with gratitude those days and can still see in our mind’s eye the impressive pictures of the rejoicing people, climbing the wall and celebrating its end. Yet we do not forget either that many other walls, be they of concrete or of prejudices or of laws which discriminate foreigners, persist or are being raised, dividing peoples and causing great suffering, in many parts of the world. We also remember those who lost their lives in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, China, 20 years ago. The late 1980s were marked also by the move to the end of apartheid in South Africa. In 1989 Namibia began its transition to independence that was sealed the following year, becoming the last country in Africa to leave behind colonialism. In Latin America the end of the Pinochet regime in Chile marked the symbolic end of military dictatorships on that continent. The recent military coup in Honduras has evoked sad memories of the past; let us hope that it will also pass into history books as an anachronistic episode which will not endanger in any way the strengthening of democracy in the region.

Churches also played a role in this transition, something examined in a recent book edited by Christine Lienemann-Perrin and Wolfgang Lienemann, Kirche und Öffentlichkeit in Transformationsgesellschaften (Church and the public space in societies of transition). Their case studies are from Asia, Africa and Latin America, but the general section also discusses eastern Europe.

9 October 2009

Peaceful Revolution 'should have received the Nobel Prize'

Barack Obama was today awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. However, over on evangelisch.de, Henrik Schmitz writes that it should have been the GDR's peaceful revolution
whose turning point was 20 years ago today that should have received the prize.
Wouldn't it have been a great symbol if on 9 October, the day that makred the turning point in Germany, if the acadmey had awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the people who actually managed to start a revolution to promote, and eventaully to accomplish, greater freedom, justice and peace - that is the people who were instrumental to ensure that the revolution in the GDR in 1989 was a peaceful revolution.
Der Spiegel is reporting in English about the peaceful revolution in Leipzig:
In the summer of 1989, East German politicians praised the Chinese decision to use violence against democracy activists camping in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. In September and early October, East German police had cracked down forcefully on protesters in Dresden, Berlin and Plauen. Protesters marching in Leipzig on Oct. 2 were beaten by police. "People had seen pictures from Beijing," Jens Schoene, a historian and author of "The Peaceful Revolution: Berlin 1989/90 -- The Path to German Unity," says. "It wasn't at all clear it would be peaceful. On Monday, Oct. 9, Fuehrer, Wonneberger and the others at the Nicolaikirche decided to go ahead with the scheduled protests. All of East Germany, it seemed, was holding its breath. "We were so worried they would come in and shoot everybody," said Dorothee Kern, then a graduate student in the nearby city of Halle. "We had goosebumps the whole day and the day before. Dissidents prepared for the worst. Couples with kids made sure one parent stayed home, in case there was a police crackdown. Rumors flew around the city: Hospitals had been stocked with extra blood and beds; stadiums were readied to hold masses of arrested demonstrators. On his way home from work at the opera house in the middle of town that day, Leipziger Hans Georg Kluge remembers seeing the city filling with soldiers and police. "Everyone had to reckon with the state suppressing any demonstration," he says. "Violently, if necessary."
And there is also a film on the "miricle of Leipzig"

8 October 2009

The 'peaceful' revolution

Speaking of a 'peaceful' revolution may give the idea of a soft, calm transition from an old regime to institutions based on the rule of law. Yet as this article from The New York Times in 1989 makes clear the autumn uprising in the GDR was a movement in which protesters and demonstrators had to be ready to take on the overt and covert violence of the state:

East Berlin ended its 40th anniversary celebrations tonight with clashes between demonstrators demanding change and police troops. Callers to Western news reporters told of other demonstrations, in Leipzig, Potsdam, Halle and other East German cities, but initial details were sketchy. The clashes in East Berlin began under a display of fireworks that lit up the night sky, underscoring the contrast between the state-ordered festivities and the crisis shaped by the flight of more than 45,000 citizens this summer. With the flight curtailed by the closing of the Czechoslovak border earlier this week, the focus of popular frustration seemed to shift to the streets. Large demonstrations and outbursts of violence were reported earlier this week in Leipzig and Dresden. In East Berlin, what began as a clutch of about 100 demonstrators mingling with crowd of holiday-makers at a fair set up on the vast Alexander Square turned into a march of thousands through the center of the city, first toward the Palace of the Republic, where President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union and other visiting Communist chiefs were attending a gala reception, and then through the dark, cobbled streets of the working-class Prenzlauerberg district. Thousands of police officers, plainclothes security forces and volunteer militia ringed the marchers, estimated at about 5,000, and drove them down the side streets of Prenzlauerberg, where the police periodically charged seized individual protesters.

The scene is immortalised at the beginning of the film Goodbye Lenin where Alex's mother, Christiane, who is on her way to the festivities to mark 40 years of the GDR suffers a near fatal heart attack as she sees her son being grabbed by police and taken away in a police lorry.

The Turning Point

A prayer service for peace in an historic Lutheran church in the East German city of Leipzig 20 years ago triggered the chain of events that exactly a month later led to the opening of the Berlin Wall, writes Anli Serfontein for Ecumenical News International. As people gathered after work on the afternoon of 9 October 1989 in the Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas' Church) and three other inner-city churches in Leipzig to pray for peace and democracy, the signs of potential violence were uppermost in most people's minds. Two days earlier, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was in East Berlin for the 40th anniversary celebrations of the East German state, pro-democracy demonstrations there had been put down with force. Before the prayer service took place, however, ominous warnings had appeared in Leipzig's communist-run media suggesting that armed force would be used to suppress demonstrators. Rumours circulated of hospitals building up blood reserves and being put on alert to deal with bullet wounds. Read more here >>

Meanwhile the German Protestant magazine Chrismon has an article on 9 October 1989 as a "day of decision"

Photo: (c) LTM/Andreas Schmidt

7 October 2009

60 years of the GDR

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, which was founded just a few days after the People's Republic of China. Yet while the PRC is a power that is getting ever more important, the GDR ceased to exost in 1990. I first visted the GDR in 1979, the year of its 30th anniversary. Part of an official delegation from the British Youth Council we were shown the forward looking optimistic side of the GDR. Five years later I was a student in East Berlin with friends who were active in peace and human rights groups. In 1989 I was banned from the GDR - even after the opening of the Berlin Wall - and in 2009 I had the great privilege to take part in a symposium with Heino Falcke, one of the precursors of the peaceful revolution. Christoph Dieckmann, a journalist coming from east Germany, once said, "The GDR is a time, not a place".

The 40th anniversary is largely remembered for the civic rights protests that marked the event (and which sets the stage for the opening of Goodbye, Lenin) and the phrase Mikhail Gorbacehv is supposed to have uttered to the leaders of the GDR, "Life punishes thosewho arrive too late".

This is an extract from Time magazine about the 1989 anniversary:

The timing of Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to East Germany could not have been more awkward. On the 40th anniversary of the country's founding as a separate socialist state, the government in East Berlin found itself utterly humiliated. Like storm-besieged dikes, the borders of the country had sprung one leak after another, and thousands of refugees were pouring out. The routine anniversary visit threatened to turn into another diplomatic nightmare for the Soviet President, fraught with the kind of tensions and prodemocracy demonstrations that marred his trip to China last spring. It was Gorbachev's message of change, after all, that had largely inspired the freedom flight.

6 October 2009

Labyrinth of change

The Marienkirche in Frankfurt an der Oder has inaugurated a "Labyrinth of Change" to mark the 20th anniversary of the peaceful revolution. Helmut Kohl promised people in the GDR a blossoming countryside landscapes - but this rarely emerged. Instead this vision represents dashed hopes. The action artist Richard Gigantikow aka Reinhard Zabka - together with international artists - has symbolised this ebb and flow of emotions in a walk-in art installation as a labyrinth of change in the nave of St. Mary's. Just as then nobody knew what the next day would bring, so surprises are awaiting visitors walking through the interactive labyrinth ... Reflect, remember and wonder in and through the labyrinth of change ... .

3 October 2009

An anniversary in Berlin, or Brasilia on the Spree

Today marks an anniversary in Berlin, no - not the 19th anniversary of German unity, but the inauguration of East Berlin's Fernsehturm (television tower) 20 years earlier in 1969 in time for the 20th anniversary of the GDR on 7 October 1969. Since then - and even more since unification- it has become as much a trademark of Berlin as the Brandenburg Gate. The Fernsehturm was part of an attempt by the GDR's rules, "secure" behind the Berlin Wall, to create a new "socialist" capital for the GDR and demonstrate the superiority of socialism over capitalism. However, as the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung reports, Horst Oehlrich one of the building engineers who made the tower possible was missing from the official reception given by state- and party leader Walter Ulbricht for the engineers, architects and construction workers on 3 October 1969. «I refused to serve in the army because of my Christian convictions», Oehlrich told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. «That was certainly the reason why I could not be present for the the reception with Ulbricht.»

The television tower was just one part of a much wider programme of building a new capital for the GDR which in some respects mirrors the attempts of Brazil to build itself a new capital at Brasilia. Like Brasilia the socialist capital of the GDR was a political statement as much as an architectural ensemble, but while the Brasilian capital was hewn out of the jungle, the socialist GDR capital - on a much smaller scale - was hewn out of the rubble and remains of the centre of Berlin. There is it seems increasing interest in the motifs of modernism in GDR architecture, a couple of books have coined the term Ostmoderne, for example, while a recent book sets out motifs of Brasilia's architect "Oskar Niemeyer -a legend of modernism" - to be found in East Berlin. On the other hand there are also apparently motifs from East Berlin architecture that Niemeyer placed in Brasilia.

For the German speakers among you here is a book on the theme:
Symbolsuche. Die Ost-Berliner Zentrumsplanung zwischen Repräsentation und Agitation
(The search for symbols: Planning and the East Berlin centre between representation and agitation)

The planning of East Berlin's city centre is is like no other construction project of the GDR shows the close links between politics, ideology, economics and architecture. The plans for the "socialist transformation" of the area between Alexanderplatz and Kupfergraben, especially the history of the monumental tower that the SED wanted to erect on "Marx-Engels-Platz as a demonstrazion of their power and prestige demonstrate in an exemplary fashion the possibilities and chasms of political iconography. It was precisely the historic centre of Berlin, which was for more than forty years, the political centre of the GDR, that became the setting for an explosive debate about style in which both 'conservative modernity' as well as the planned city of Brasilia were the inspiration for a socialist symbolic architecture. Selected examples show the the evolution of DDR-representation architecture as an expression of personal and intra-party power struggles that raged particularly between Hermann Henselmann and Gerhard Kosel, between the local level and the state.

For English speakers, there is an
article in English by Peter Müller on "Counter-Architecture and Building Race: Cold War Architecture and the Two Berlins".

PS: The picture shows the Marienkirche in front of the Fernsehturm. Originally the Marienkirche was to be removed from this showcase of socialist planning but it remained, a symbol of the place of the church in the GDR.

1 October 2009

How a BBC journalist remembers 1989

Brian Hanrahan, who covered the 1989 events in eastern Europe for the BBC, has posted to the BBC News site an article of recollections from that time:

It was a baffling year - neither predictable nor inevitable. For those of us in the thick of it, there was a constant struggle to make sense of what we were seeing. Even those with the power to shape events were taken aback. The outcome was not what they had bargained for.

It was a year in which power was transferred away from repressive communist leaders who tolerated no questions or debate about their policies to mass movements which swept away governments and rewrote the map of Europe. Only China resisted the momentum of change by brutally suppressing demonstrations ... But at the beginning there was little to indicate that we were witnessing the collapse of communism, and the end of the Cold War. I have looked back through my notebooks and can find not a mention of the round table talks in Poland which began in February and would eventually lead to Eastern Europe's first non-communist government. Few thought it worth remarking on.

Hat tip to Anli Serfontein