The power of place can be compelling. Interiors and buildings can inspire based on design, but can also inspire in a more palpable way when they serve a larger purpose for the people that inhabit the spaces.
This past week, I was in Berlin, where the layers of history from the past century alone are absolutely fascinating. On Saturday evening, I was able to attend a concert in Gethsemane Church in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood of the Pankow borough of Berlin, in what was East Berlin. The program included pieces for orchestra and choir by German masters Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Louis Spohr. While the performance was excellent, knowing the history of the church made the experience far more fascinating for me as a visitor who loves history and architecture.
Built in 1893, this Protestant church is handsome, but not particularly unusual in its design or interior. And today, the interior looks a bit shabby and in need of repairs and paint. What is compelling is the role that this church played in the 1980s, and in particular in fall 1989. This church was an important meeting place for members of the opposition of the GDR regime and the East German peace movement during the 1980s. It played a crucial role before and during the Wende, or peaceful revolution.
In an office of the church, people would meet to be, essentially, a nascent underground press. They would gather information, via telephone line, around the clock about oppositional activities and arrests throughout the country. Remember, this was in an era that was not just before the Internet, but it was in a place and time when the Stasi was monitoring and controlling information and people. Underground newsletters and flyers were printed in this office and then distributed around the country through secret information routes.
Communist opposition tried to shut down the press as early as 1987. The secret police raided the press, confiscated printing equipment, and arrested people. The incident became a media event, and protests began to mount outside the church and throughout the country against the GDR.
The Gethsemane Church became the center of the resistance and a focal point of the revolution in October 1989. Solidarity campaigns called public attention to imprisoned demonstrators, and many information events in the church attracted thousands of people. Gethsemane was filled with people every evening that October and early November. On the national day of the GDR, October 7, 1989, the police of the GDR and Stasi violently crackdowned on demonstrators on nearby Schönhauser Allee. Some demonstrators managed to flee into Gethsemane Church, but about 500 were arrested and kept in captivity for several weeks.
The end of the GDR was near, and the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. A central meeting of the New Forum—the first nationwide opposition movement that created a platform for the public discussion of East Germany’s problems—took place at Gethsemane Church on November 10 and 11. In March 1990, representatives of the first freely elected Volkskammer attended a service in Gethsemane Church on the occasion of their first session.
Knowing this history made the ordinary concert all the more extraordinary. Just 24 years ago, in most of our lifetimes, citizens placed themselves at great personal risk as they peacefully and persistently worked for change. And they did so though maintaining a press in a church office: information exchange by the people and for the people.