Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How I Experienced The Fall Of The Wall in 1989

What a year it had already been: I had become a follower of Jesus Christ on February 10, traveled to Bulgaria, Hungary and East Germany as they were still a part of the communist, Russian-controlled “Warsaw Pact”, one of the two sides that had dominated the so called “Cold War” ever since my home country had lost the Second World War in 1945. I had made friends with university students and officials in Bulgaria as I led a team of tennis players of my university who participated in sport tournaments there. I had participated in an evangelistic outreach to Hungary that had been organized by Campus Crusade for Christ mainly to reach out to people from East Germany. I had smuggled Christian tapes and literature into East Berlin to a young man whom we had met in Hungary. And, in spite of me studying Political Science, and having had the opportunity to talk to many people behind the “Iron Curtain” who clearly expressed to me that they didn’t support the communist system, I was convinced that East and West Germany would always remain two separate nations. But man, was I mistaken!
As a third year student of Political Science it was my habit to watch one of the main news broadcasts on West-German TV at 7 p.m. every day. But on November 9th, 1989, this turned out to be everything else but routine. In a press conference of the East German government that was broadcast live on East German TV it had just been announced that all border crossings between East (communist) and West (democratic) Germany would be opened, effective immediately. As this announcement was reported in the Western news, me and my father looked at each other in disbelieve and asked each other whether we really heard what we thought we heard: The East German government was about to open all border checkpoints along the border that for 40 years had separated East and West Berlin and the two German nations? The 1,378 Kilometer (856 Miles) long border had been turned into a death zone with wall, barbed wire, mines, and observation towers manned with soldiers instructed to shoot at everybody who tried to cross from East to West. It was practically impossible for people from the East to flee or even only visit their relatives in the West. Between 1949 and 1989, at least 872 people paid with their lives as they were trying to cross this border. And now, with a simple announcement and in a single day, this wall should become a part of the past? Me and my father were not the only ones who were wondering about that. So was everybody – everybody in West Germany, including the government, and everybody in East Germany, including all the border guards, and apparently even the government’s spokesman who made the announcement! 
Well, the rest is history. 
As soon as I had started to consider the implications of this announcement, I hopped on my bicycle and rushed across town to an evangelistic event that was held in a Baptist church in my home town, Braunschweig. As expected, I met many of my Christian friends there, most of all had no clue yet about what was going on. “Braunschweig is only 32 km (20 miles) away from the border”, I explained. “Hundreds of thousands of people from East Germany are going to flood into our city tomorrow, we have to do something!”  So we asked the evangelist and some church staff whether they could give us some tracts to hand out. We hastily made a big banner, declaring in big letters (in German): “There is more than democracy: JESUS CHRIST!”
I slept only a couple hours that night and as I stepped out of our house, I was not disappointed: As our house was only about 100 meters (300 ft) away from one of the main routes from East Germany to Braunschweig’s city center, I could smell the exhaust fumes of thousands of East German “Trabants”, the only car that East Germans had been able to buy in their country. The sad truth was that parents had to order a Trabant soon after birth of a child, if they wanted their child to get a car when he/she turned 18 years old. The car was almost entirely free of any engineering, that had made cars made in West Germany so popular all around the world. A Trabant, or “Trabbi” as they were lovingly called, boasted a simple 2-stroke engine, and thus it wasn’t hard to pick up the different smell of the exhaust fumes right away. I was pumped! Hundreds of thousands had indeed come! What an opportunity… many West Germans used it to sell goods to the visitors that had not been available in East Germany, like bananas and coffee. As in all communist countries, the government in East Germany had fixed prices for all goods, and everything from bread to cars and steel was produced by state owned organizations. Thus the people were not used to compare prices or quality of things they were buying, and many West Germans overcharged their unsuspecting new customers… But that was not our task. As there had been only very few believers in East Germany and most people believed what their atheistic regime had taught them, we simply wanted to let everybody know right away that there is indeed more than political and economical freedom. With our banner, the small group of us set us up right outside city hall, were all visitors from the East stopped by to pick up 100 Deutsch Mark (about 40 US-Dollars) “Welcome money”. The West German government, itself totally taken by surprise by the speed of the events, had not changed a policy that entitled every visitor from East Germany to this amount. Normally there were only a few thousand people per year allowed to visit the West, e.g. for family affairs. But now, with millions flooding into the communities near the border, many towns ran out of money quickly…
News of bankrupt communities made the rounds just as quickly as news about new border crossings that were opened throughout the day, in order to ease the load of the few major crossings that were totally overwhelmed by the multitudes of cars and people. Along the roads from and to these border crossings, people lined up to cheer the visitors coming in to the West, and waving at those who after their first visit returned to their homes in the East. 
My father knew some families in East Germany, that had helped him when he had become very sick at the end of the Second World War. Fleeing from the advancing Russian army in Eastern Prussia (today in Poland), he almost died of typhoid. My father never forgot to show his gratitude to the families of those who had helped him, and had kept in touch by mail, visits and sending Christmas gifts most years. To our great delight one of this families used their new freedom to visit my father. I lived with my dad at that time, but my parents had separated about a year before. When this family drove back to the border on the evening of this historic day (Nov. 10, 1989), I jumped on the co-driver’s seat of their Trabant and enjoyed just as much as our visitors the hundreds of people that had lined up along the route. It was an unforgettable experience, absolutely awesome! 
Well, I don’t know how effective our spontaneous banner-outreach in front of city hall was. Only the Lord knows, and maybe someday we will hear of people being impacted by it. I am confident that the Lord led us to do this, and I am sure thankful that He gave us the opportunity and the means to honor Him in this way. The window of opportunity to reach people in East Germany with the gospel of Jesus Christ was open only a short time. People were hungry for anything that came from the West for a time. “Anything” means just that: bananas, coffee, deodorants, insurances and health care, heating systems and water tanks, shopping windows and smooth roads, political parties, lawyers and religion, too. Of course not only the right guys used the opportunity, but so did the Mormons, the Jehova’s Witnesses, New Agers and what not. It was so much fun to drive over to East Germany with a small group of friends in a station wagon filled with a few thousand evangelistic books a few days after the wall had fallen. We handed them to people along the road, placed them in phone booths and had them literally torn out of our hands after we had sung a few worship songs in the inner city of Magdeburg, outside of the main cathedral there. It was great to see big parts of the body of Christ coming and working together to seize the time. Not to support or fight against political parties (or health care schemes), but to do what only we Christians can do: Proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ; that he died according to the scriptures, rose again on the third day and was seen by many. He is the Lord, and he will survive every movement who tries to deny him or explain him away, even the last and most fierce one… Let’s shout aloud to the nations and declare it everywhere: OUR GOD REIGNS!!!