The interpreter warned us about getting into East Berlin. “They’ll probably hold you an hour,” he predicted. “Normally, it would be a half hour but they’re in a bad mood because of Brezhnev.”
The Soviet leader had died just two days before and bleak predictions circulated about how the shock, along with West German Chancellor Schmidt’s fall from power, would affect East-West relations. None of this changed our minds. A meeting would be starting at an obscure church on the other side of the Berlin Wall in a little more than an hour. We didn’t have the exact address and knew only a few German phrases. But it seemed worth the risk.
An East German journalist had mentioned it earlier that day. “You can only see the peace movement when people assemble,” he teased. The meeting was one of about 2,000 to be held during a ten-day period called the annual “Peace Decade.” All of the gatherings were taking place in churches, the unlikely hosts of a new movement.
In response to the militarization of daily life, thousands of East Germans were mobilizing. Many had signed the Berliner Appeal, a public letter calling for an end to military training and a peace curriculum in the schools. Others wore pacifist armbands — even after they were banned by the state and replaced with government-circulated anti-NATO emblems.
The East German government showed open disdain for the pacifist drift of the activities, according to the journalist who gave us the tip. "In the GDR," he said, "the official meaning of peace is 'peace must be armed'." Yet after the 1979 NATO decision to deploy more than 100 Pershing missiles in West Germany, both East and West Germans recognized the threat.
On the west side of the Wall, many Berliners were quite concerned about the "tough words from the White House," reported Alex Langolios, deputy speaker of the West Berlin Parliament, during an interview. "We're nervous when we hear about winning a nuclear war," the Social Democrat said.
But Walter Bruckmann believed that "the best social security against a Soviet invasion is a strong military." At first paying lip service to the good intentions of peace activists, the Deputy Speaker of the Christian Democratic Party was soon criticizing their "illusions" and pointing out subversive tendencies -- things like pacifism and communism --that undermined national security.
In the end, he even defended the blacklisting of radicals. "We have to protect democracy against our enemies," he said.
A generation gap haunted the country, east and west. There wasn’t much room for dialogue between eco-radicals and Christian conservatives. Not even the peace movement transcended the divide between older Germans, trapped in a fortress mentality, and a younger generation for whom power itself was part of the problem.
Getting through customs turned out to be no problem. The East Berlin officials barely glanced at our passports before issuing temporary visas and collecting a five mark entry fee. Minutes later we were on a windy street looking for directions to Auferstehung Kirchengemeinde, the Church of the Resurrection
Flags were at half-mast in honor of Brezhnev. Otherwise it felt like a “normal” night as we hailed a cab. For five marks the driver took us out of the neon-lit central district, past a 20-foot portrait of Lenin, to a dark street, and pointed to a barely visible building across the wide road.
Inside, in a modest chapel, about 70 people were listening to a dialogue between a young pacifist churchman and a burly spokesman for the Christian Democratic Party – an East German satellite of the Communist Party hoping to appeal to the religious. After a while my traveling companion, Robin Lloyd, stood up to deliver a short speech in German. She offered good wishes, a peace button and a photo collection chronicling the massive disarmament march and rally in New York the previous June.
When we explained that we couldn’t really follow the discussion, a young man volunteered to translate. Ret was a garrulous, worldly rebel, a self-described “anarchist not a terrorist,” and admirer of the guru Rajneesh. His main complaint about life under socialism was the inability to obtain books about his favorite topics.
Chiding the speakers for speaking too long, members of the audience eventually brought up the need to incorporate an ecological perspective in the peace movement and break down “ideological blocks.” One person urged a “revolution of Christians, without weapons, a non-aggressive approach to break the circle.” In the midst of the Cold War, behind the "iron curtain," it was inspiring talk to hear.
The churchman at the head table tried to be supportive. “There are many ways to the goal,” he said. “We must try to see every possibility. There are many faces of pacifism in this city.” But the Party spokesman objected, and played the fear card. “The situation is too dangerous," he warned. "We must work together, for there will be no weeping after a nuclear war."
The dialogue gradually revealed an underlying frustration with official resistance to the peace movement. Most people were in their twenties and thirties, sober-looking men and women in work clothes. Sitting across from us, however, was a young woman who looked as if she had been airlifted from downtown West Berlin. Chains and safety-pins decorated her blue jeans, going well with the orange hairdo. Her jacket featured a handmade version of the banned symbol of the pacifist peace movement, a man hammering a sword into a plowshare.
Decked out in denim and a collection of Western buttons, she and her boyfriend were reminders of the influence of Western media. But their wardrobes were also statements of revolt that could provoke police persecution. In East Berlin, there was no acceptable "youth culture" to provide cover for their defiance.
The party spokesman attempted to steer discussion back to what he called “objective” issues, urging mutual respect and obedience to the law. It just isn’t possible for anyone to simply make a placard and parade in the streets, he warned. This merely increased the anger building in the room.
Sensing that things were careening out of control, the moderator called for a ten-minute recess.
As we headed for the door, a silent observer at the back of the chapel handed me a calling card that read: Lynn J. Turk, Second Secretary and Vice Consul, American Embassy. He said he was a diplomat, assigned to study the East German peace movement, and offered to "fill us in" before providing an escort us back across the border. I was skeptical.
At Turk's comfortable apartment, with his South Korean wife serving drinks and listening silently, he traced the emergence of the East German peace movement to the 1979 NATO “double track” decision. The two so-called “tracks” were a) negotiations for nuclear arms reductions, or b) deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles if those negotiations fell through. After the announcement, churches had geared up to protest.
But the movement didn't fully blossom until 1981, when about 6,000 people met across the street from a bombed out church ruin in Dresden on the anniversary of the devastating 1945 US bombing of that city. West German television recorded the event and beamed it back east. At about the same time Pastor Rainer Eppelmann initiated what became known as the Berliner Appeal.
A radical declaration, the Appeal called for the prohibiting of military toy sales, the outlawing of military training, peace information in the schools — including the study of peaceful solutions to conflict, ecology and psychology, no retaliation against those who refused military service, and no more military demonstrations at festivals or national holidays.
But the campaign was being eroded by government repression, Turk said. The plowshares symbol had been banned and non-Christian activists were being pressured into exile or silence. Fortunately, the crackdown stopped at the doors of the churches. The reason for this tolerance, he theorized, was that “repression here would damage the West German peace movement, confirming the West’s view of the East.”
Although Turk claimed to oppose "first strike" nuclear weapons, he defined the East as an existential military threat and saw East Germany as a totalitarian society whose rulers were only allowing peaceniks to gather for the most cynical of reasons. He meanwhile claimed that the Soviets had stationed tactical nuclear weapons in East Germany, a piece of likely disinformation I was unable to confirm with any government official or activist.
Most likely he was not really a diplomat.
Minutes before the midnight curfew we made it to Checkpoint Charlie. From Turk’s car I could see the eight-foot corrugated fence, and beyond it the cement-covered no man’s land known as the "death strip." Rumor had it that, to make certain no one escaped, the East Germans even checked under the cars with mirrors.
While we waited, Turk challenged us to ask officials why the Berlin Wall was still up. “They’ll say it’s an anti-fascist wall,” he predicted. But the real reason, he implied, was that most people would race across the border if given the chance. When I did question an East German bureaucrat about this, he claimed that the Wall had been erected – and was being maintained – to prevent black market destabilization of the economy, along with an exodus of East German professionals lured by higher pay on the other side. Both explanations sounded reasonable.
A border guard finally returned our passports after 15 minutes. But he chided us for not returning by the same route we had used to enter. Then again, he barely looked inside the vehicle before lifting the metal gate to let us pass.
As far as I could tell, no mirrors were involved.
A few days later, we crossed back into East Germany for a tour of Sachsenhausen, a World War II concentration camp about 30 miles outside Berlin. The trip had been arranged by the Communist government's US Friendship Committee, and our guide was a former inmate, Werner Handler, a "news editor," who recounted the horrors of Hitler fascism. He certainly had the right name for the job.
The camp's grounds were crowded that day with German tourists, but most weren't there to take in the museum's memorabilia. They had come instead for army induction ceremonies. Russian troops stood at attention beside German recruits in an open park where the camp's barracks once stood. Exactly the type of military show the Berliner Appeal sought to end.
At 18-years-old, Handler recounted, he had managed to get out of this camp alive, eventually reached Britain, and joined the Communist Party. But after the war he was expelled from West Germany for his political leanings and, taking a job at the Voice of the GDR radion station, became a true believer in socialism. He'd obviously told this story many times. The subtext was obvious. When I pressed him about the government's crackdown on peace activists and the banning of the Plowshares emblem, he evaded the issue -- but offered me a ride back to town.
In the privacy of his car, Handler was willing to admit that the government may have been too heavy-handed. Pacifists are naive, he insisted, but argument is preferable to police action. At a public gathering just two hours later, however, he reverted to the official line: "For us this pacifist position is an opening for morally disarming education." The ideological wall was back up.
Many East German leaders were once confined in Nazi camps, he reminded us. Then added grimly, "Such men need no pushing to work for peace. Unimaginable things CAN happen."
About seven years later, the Berlin Wall came down. Soon after that Germany was re-united. But deep divisions festered and today the unimaginable is as likely as ever. Both another Wall and another Cold War are possible.