The political and social shock waves caused by weeks of pro-democracy protests in East Germany followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, were felt around the world.
The South African theologian, John de Gruchy, recalls how, while spending a sabbatical semester at Union Theological Seminary in New York that year, he had been asked to play host for a few days to the director of an East German institute for Marxist-Leninist studies.
The irony of a Marxist professor from East Germany being hosted by a white Christian theologian from apartheid-ruled South Africa was not lost on de Gruchy, who for many years was active as a theologian in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Sitting together in New York and watching the news on television, the East German and the South African saw reports of the growing crisis in East Germany and of the simultaneous escalation of protests against apartheid in Cape Town, de Gruchy's home town.
"I knew that meant the beginning of the end of apartheid. […] For without the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was unlikely that change would have taken place in South Africa," de Gruchy said a few years later in a speech in the eastern German city of Leipzig, one of the centres of the democracy protests in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) which followed prayer services in churches.
"Some even claimed that these events were the prelude to a new world order," noted de Gruchy in his speech in Leipzig. "Even if we are somewhat sceptical of this claim today, these events have undoubtedly changed the course of history, no matter how we evaluate them."
It was not only in Eastern Europe and in South Africa that changes were taking place. In Latin America, preparations were under way in Chile for elections marking the end of the rule of Augusto Pinochet, the last of the continent's military dictators.
Whether in Leipzig or in Cape Town, pastors and church activists were often among the leaders of the protests, de Gruchy noted.
In East Germany, the World Council of Churches (WCC) process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) was a main catalyst for dissent. In advance of the European Ecumenical Assembly in Basel in 1989 and the World Convocation on JPIC in Seoul the following year, the churches in the GDR organized an Ecumenical Assembly for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation in April 1989. The final session of this assembly made unprecedented demands for the reform of the GDR.
For Werner Jarowinsky, then the communist party secretary for church affairs, these demands represented "a complete programme for the installation of a sort of opposition movement". Indeed, the demands of the East German assembly also provided a template for the citizens' movements and for the new political parties founded later in 1989.
Today, two sections of the Berlin Wall stand in the garden of the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, where the WCC and several other ecumenical organizations have their offices. The pieces of the wall were a gift to the Conference of European Churches (CEC) from the first freely-elected government in East Germany as a sign of recognition of the role churches played in the peaceful revolution there.
A different look at epoch-changing events
Still, the East German Protestant theologian Heino Falcke, who played a key role in the churches mobilization which led to the peaceful revolution, noted recently how East Germans themselves had little time after the opening of the Berlin wall to reflect on the significance of these epoch-changing events. Instead, they were fully consumed by the "breathtaking processes" in their own country which led to the unification of Germany, 11 months later, in October 1990.
The events which led to the end of the Cold War in Europe have often been portrayed by Western politicians as a victory of the economically and technologically superior West over the East, said Falcke, now retired. "But there was also another way of looking at them," states the theologian.
"Mikhail Gorbachev in his 'new thinking' said the Cold War needed to be ended because the one humanity could not afford it but needed to learn the art of how to live together," said Falcke. "But this paradigm shift towards global responsibility will not take place if people believe that they are the victors."
The legacy of the Ecumenical Assembly for JPIC in East Germany offers a way forward, suggested Falcke. According to him, the assembly was not meant only to be a gathering calling for political changes in the GDR, nor was it a question of "a change of system from socialism to democracy and the free market, but rather a transformation of both systems within a globalising world".
"In the Ecumenical Assembly", said Falcke, "we faced the profound challenges related to achieving sustainable peace, a global society that promotes social solidarity and an ecological lifestyle, and we saw this as corresponding to the biblical invitation to repentance and conversion."
(c) Stephen Brown is managing editor of Ecumenical News International. He recently completed doctoral research on the role of the WCC's process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation as a catalyst for dissent in East Germany in the 1980s. With Jane Stranz he is author of the blog 'Holy Disorder' (http://holy-disorder.blogspot.com/) which looks at the GDR's peaceful revolution twenty years on.