The fall of the Berlin Wall

09 November 2004 | Faith & Society

A reflection, and a prayer, about freedom.


A tiny reminder of the relationship between faiths such as Christianity and freedom comes in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, in the scene in which the central character (Winston) stumbles across the upper room with a beautiful mahogany bed and, he believes, no all-seeing telescreen. He is shown the room by the kindly old antique shop owner, Charrington, who tells him that the print fixed to the wall is of a now-ruined church, St Clement Dane’s. Charrington recalls the nursery rhyme

‘‘Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s

You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St Martin’s –‘

there, now that’s as far as I can get. A farthing, that was a small copper coin, looked something like a cent.’

‘Where was St Martin’s?’ said Winston.

‘St Martin’s? That’s still standing. It’s in Victory Square, alongside the picture gallery. A building with a kind of a triangular porch and pillars in front, and a big flight of steps.’

Winston knew the place well. It was a museum used for propaganda displays of various kinds – scale models of rocket bombs and Floating Fortresses, waxwork tableaux illustrating enemy atrocities, and the like.

It is the room in which Winston and Julia are arrested by Charrington, who turns out to be a member of the thought police. The telescreen was concealed behind the picture.

Freedom is such a fundamental part of what makes our life and our faith possible that we risk overlooking it. Christians in several other countries (or for that matter several books in both the Old and New Testaments) could correct us.

When 1984 came around, one of the most powerful symbols of lack of freedom was the Berlin Wall. By then the Wall was in its fourth generation of design and construction, with 106 km of concrete plates, 105 km of anti-vehicle ditches, 127 km of sensor fence, 302 watchtowers and 259 dog runs. The Wall incorporated the ‘death strip’, a strip of land between 6 metres and 15 metres wide with 5 metre high light masts, in which the East German shoot-to-kill policy was enforced vigorously until 3 April 1989.

The ‘fall’ of the Wall on 9 November 1989 was an astonishing moment for freedom in Europe. How the Wall was put up, and how it fell, are like reflecting mirrors which capture between them the struggle between freedom and control. The story is told more fully in ‘Divided City – The Berlin Wall’.

The night of 12 August 1961 was a mild summer night in a tranquil Berlin, and the first hour of 13 August was no different. At 1.10 am East Berlin radio interrupted its ‘Melodies at Night’ programme with an announcement that the Warsaw Pact governments had approached East Germany ‘with the suggestion that measures be taken at the border to effectively remove the subversive activities directed against the countries of the socialist bloc and to secure reliable surveillance of the entire territory of West Berlin.’ At 1.54 am train service across the city’s border stopped without warning.

By 2.20 am the reports coming in to West Berlin police headquarters were grim: ‘Fifteen military trucks with Vopos (People’s Police) at the Oberbaum Bridge.’ ‘Armoured scout cars at Sonnenallee.’ ‘Hundreds of Vopos and border guards armed with machine guns at Brandenburg Gate.’ 8,000 East German soldiers are deployed with tanks. By 3.53 am the German press agency reports, ‘Vopo putting up barbed wire.’ The Wall had begun, unveiled at night in a ruthlessly effective display of planning and discipline.

It fell in a collapse of the same qualities of planning and control which had given it birth. On 4 November 1989, almost half a million East Berliners had gathered at Alexanderplatz to demand free elections and freedom to travel. The East German Government reformed itself on 7 November, and an international press conference was held on the evening of 9 November. At 6.53 pm the party spokesman Günter Schabowski was handed a piece of paper and announced that travel restrictions across the East German border were to be relaxed. Immediately the journalists asked, ‘Does this apply to West Berlin as well?’ Schabowski was at a loss and fumbled in his papers. ‘Well (pause) – yes, yes.’ ‘When does this take effect?’ Making up an answer, Schabowski said ‘To my knowledge, it is to take effect immediately, without delay.’

By 8.30 pm crowds were assembling at the Wall crossing points, and growing rapidly. The border guards were unable to obtain instructions from their headquarters and ministries. At Bornholmer Strasse, the checkpoint supervisor First Lieutenant Jäger was unable to obtain instructions from the State Security Service. At 10.30 pm, facing a tumultuous crowd and fearing for the lives of the guards, he took his own initiative and opened the border. By midnight people were pouring freely eastwards and westwards across all the crossing points, ecstatic, searching for relations and family.

This is part of Eckard Löhde’s account, who ran across from West Berlin to the East. 

We are in East Berlin, in the capital of the GDR. In front of us stands the most heavily guarded gate in the world. No-one else around for miles, an unusual quietness. … Is it really true? Is the border really open? Or maybe it is closed again?

The first ones climb over the barrier. A few have difficulty and are slow to climb the 110 cm high fence. A few want to discuss it first and feel we have gone far enough. But those of us in front are getting louder: ‘Come on, let’s go!’ We reach a second barrier. And we’re over it. We look around. Fortunately the others are following behind …

All of a sudden about fifty soldiers appear out of nowhere and are running towards us. In no time at all they have formed a massive human barrier with linked arms. We bounce back, shocked by our own courage …

… a stream of water hits me. People’s Policemen are hunting us down, the border violators, with water hoses. Their last remaining weapon. They spray passionately, even aim at the people on the Wall. But then at some point they give up. They bow to history and soldiers remove their helmets. This is the moment that people come down from the Wall, they fill up the cordoned plaza, they speak with the border guards, share a smoke. It feels like a festival.

If the central ethical teaching of Christianity is to love your neighbour as yourself, its central teaching about God is that He hungers and dies and rises to lead us out of slavery. The first covenant is made with the Jews on their journey of faith out of slavery. They commemorate this journey in the Passover. Jesus is killed at the Passover and institutes the Eucharist, a new Passover meal which celebrates our God-won freedom. For St Paul, this was freedom from the slavery of sin and death. For the writer of John’s Gospel, ‘you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (John 8: 32).

For us, from what shall we choose to be free?



Almighty God

Freedom is your self-revealing gift, offered to all in creation.

Through Jesus you invite us to make that place our home

where freedom lives in the divine heart.

Awake us from our dreams to celebrate our freedom

Teach us how to use freedom

Strengthen us to defend it

And hand victory to all those who are denied it.


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