Uwe Siemon-Netto, a journalist and Lutheran theologian, reflects on the upcoming half-century anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, “And the wall fell down flat.” He relates the story of the Christian peace movement and its role in tearing down the spiritual walls that helped to hold up the Berlin Wall.
He talks about the social and spiritual consequences of the flight of so many from East Germany to West Germany: “By the time East German leader Walter Ulbricht ordered the Western sectors of Berlin sealed off, up to 2,500 left his country every day. Its economy was about to collapse. Entire branches of industry no longer functioned because their skilled workforce had run away.”
But there were much more than economic effects, as he notes:
Ironically, the flight of highly qualified craftsmen, of scientists, engineers, professionals and farmers, was not just a catastrophic loss to the Communists but also had a religious dimension. These refugees belonged primarily to the social strata that had been the Christian Church’s mainstay. Ulbricht’s regime was intent on establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, relegating the former upper and middle classes to an inferior status, and driving them out. This was the main cause for the decline of church membership from some 95 percent of the population in 1945 to one quarter at the time of East Germany’s collapse in 1989.
But even so that one-quarter of the population was behind the Christian peace movement that helped to “tear down this Wall,” in the words of Ronald Reagan.
Siemon-Netto describes the contours of the movement, including its “most momentous demonstration,” which “occurred on 9 October 1989.” But following that massive public expression of faith, the religious dimensions of these eastern areas of Germany have continued to diminish. Political and economic freedom in itself has not sparked religious revival.
It is now 50 years since I saw the Wall go up and 22 since it came down. The Christian movement in eastern Germany seems to have collapsed. When Germany was reunited on 3 October 1990, most Protestant churches did not even ring their bells in gratitude, in contrast to Catholic churches, which did. Once again, eastern Germans are turning their backs on the Christian faith in droves. Next to the Czech Republic, the former GDR is the most secularized region in Europe, and Berlin is the most godless city.
Let us hope and pray that the spiritual walls too might come tumbling down and that godlessness is not the lasting legacy of the Berlin Wall.
Update: More on the “the spiritual dimension” of the Berlin Wall story today from Siemon-Netto.