The Fall of the Berlin Wall and its meaning for the Ecumenical Movement

The Fall of the Berlin Wall and its meaning for the Ecumenical Movement

The Fall of the Berlin Wall and its meaning for the Ecumenical Movement By Konrad Raiser

The opening or fall of the Berlin Wall was an unexpected event for the people most directly affected, but even more so for the world at large. The ecumenical movement was no exception. However, the events in 1989 East Germany were to have a wide and long lasting impact on it that can still be felt today.

To be sure, large numbers of people from the former German Democratic Republic had left the country since the opening of the border between Hungary and Austria in the summer of 1989. Also, a growing network of civic groups, struggling for fundamental social and political change in the country, had emerged. They had benefited from the protection by the churches and were inspired by the ecumenical assemblies earlier in the year at Magdeburg and Dresden as part of the conciliar process on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.

Similar groups and movements had been operating in neighbouring countries already for some time. All of this had created a dynamic pushing for change, especially after the large, explicitly non-violent demonstration in Leipzig on Monday, 9 October 1989. But even then, few people expected that the wall would come down so soon, preparing the way for the end of communist rule not only in East Germany but in the entire region of central and eastern Europe and eventually overcoming the division of Germany and of Europe.

The series of events taking place in Europe from the summer of 1989 continuing well into the year 1990 and complemented by radical changes in South Africa and in other parts of the world had profound implications for the ecumenical movement. During the four decades following the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam 1948, ecumenical efforts for justice and peace had been conditioned by the antagonism of the two major power-blocks and its consequences for countries in the southern hemisphere.

Ecumenical organizations, especially the WCC and the Conference of European Churches had tried to maintain links with the churches in the countries under Communist rule. Their witness for peace under the threat of nuclear confrontation had finally borne fruit. The 1990 Paris Charter for a “new Europe” appeared to herald in a new world order of peace and justice and a process of genuine disarmament began to take shape.

But the transformations in Europe and in other parts of the world had come so suddenly that neither governments nor the churches were sufficiently prepared for the new situation. The countries and churches, liberated from oppressive ideological and political constraints, had to find a new identity. In many instances this led to sharp internal struggles, especially between those involved in or complicit with the former system and those who had struggled for liberty, justice and human rights.

Ecumenical organizations came under scrutiny as well in view of their relationships with representatives of the former system and their lack of effective support for the struggles of dissident movements. In some cases, “ecumenism” even became a term to be avoided. Internal tensions developed particularly in many of the Orthodox churches leading to the withdrawal of the Orthodox churches in Georgia and Bulgaria from membership in the WCC.

Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall the second Gulf war in 1991, the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia as well the rapid progression of the process of globalization presented the ecumenical witness for justice and peace with unprecedented new challenges. The fragile order of the “cold war” years had been replaced by a new “world disorder”.

In recognition of the important, and in some cases decisive ways in which the churches had contributed to the peaceful revolution in central and eastern Europe as well as to the ending of the apartheid regime in southern Africa, the ecumenical movement accepted the challenge to overcome violence as its special vocation. That the Decade to Overcome Violence should have been officially inaugurated in February 2001 in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was therefore a symbolic tribute to the peaceful revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall.

*The Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, a Lutheran theologian from Germany, is a former WCC general secretary (1993-2003).

See also:
WCC general secretary’s comment on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall
Feature story: “The Berlin Wall fell in many places”