On a driving trip through Scandinavia I got my first view of aurora borealis, the Northern Lights. In Finland, just twenty miles from the Russian border, I stood shivering in the cold and watched as waves of luminous color arced across the sky, covering perhaps one-seventh of the dark dome above. Tendrils of green light pulsed and slid together like the interlocking teeth of a giant comb, blocking the stars. It seemed at once ominous and magical.
An hour later, after checking into a cheap motel, I turned on the tiny black-and-white television and saw images of what looked like a riot. Crowds of young people in blue jeans were smashing something with sledgehammers, obviously trying to destroy it. Not knowing Finnish, I did not learn until the next day what had happened the night before: on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.
For 28 years the wall had snaked across the landscape of a divided Germany. Quite possibly the ugliest construction in history—concrete posts laced with miles of barbed wire, bunkers slotted for machine guns, watchtowers and searchlights mounted on steel scaffolds—this barrier was built to keep people inside, not out. It was communism’s last redoubt.
You would have had to live through the 1960s to realize the enormity of what took place in 1989. Whereas today’s students practice “active shooter” drills, kids in that era practiced “Duck and Cover.” When an alarm sounded, we moved away from windows and climbed under our desks with our arms over our heads. Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier, had promised, “We will bury you,” and we had no better defense against an imminent nuclear attack.
Communism was ascendant in those days, ruling over a third of humanity. Time magazine regularly printed a map showing its global advance and each time, it seemed, the red stain on the page grew in size. Many universities in the West had taken on a Marxist tilt, and most of Europe was at risk. In 1968, French Communists and Socialists formed an alliance, and workers began a nationwide strike that virtually shut down the country.
Flash forward two decades. In 1989, shockingly, not just the Berlin Wall but the entire system of communism began to collapse. Within months, almost 600 million people would throw off its yoke.
In the thirty years since that momentous day in November, historians have had a field day analyzing what prompted a revolution no one had predicted. Some credit the arms race driven by Ronald Reagan, which helped bankrupt an already shaky Soviet economy. The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall details a series of blunders by East German bureaucrats that led to the surprise decision to allow free movement to the West.
Behind the wall, East German churches played a key role. According to Sam Nunn, then Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, the Cold War ended “not in a nuclear inferno, but in a blaze of candles in the churches of Eastern Europe.” Church was the one place where the communist state allowed freedom of assembly, and throughout 1989 four churches in Leipzig, East Germany, (including Bach’s Thomaskirche) held weekly prayer meetings. The pastors conducted the old Lutheran hymns, addressed their congregations with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other, and led rounds of prayer.
At first, a handful of Christians, a few dozen at most, assembled. Gradually, though, the congregations for these prayer meetings began to swell, attracting not just believers but also political dissidents and ordinary citizens. After each meeting the groups would join together and walk through the dark streets of Leipzig, singing hymns and holding candles and banners—a most benign form of political protest. Similar demonstrations spread across the country, most of them beginning in this way, with worship.
News media from the West soon picked up the story. Alarmed, the communist hierarchy debated how to stamp out the peaceful marches. Secret police surrounded the churches, sometimes roughing up the demonstrators as they took to the streets. They arrested 3,500 marchers and injured many others. Yet crowds in Leipzig kept growing: hundreds, thousands, then 50,000 protesters.
On October 9, nearly everyone expected the political pressure to reach a critical mass. East Berlin was celebrating the forty-year anniversary of the communist state, and authorities viewed the marches in Leipzig as a provocation. Police and army units moved into the city, with instructions from East German leader Erich Honecker to fire on the demonstrators. The nation braced for a replay of Tiananmen Square, the tragedy in China only four months before. Leipzig’s Lutheran bishop warned of a massacre, hospitals cleared emergency rooms, and churches and concert halls agreed to open their doors in case people needed a place of refuge.
No one knows for sure why the military held their fire that night. Some theorize that Mikhail Gorbachev himself telephoned a warning to Honecker. Others believe the army was simply cowed by the huge crowds. But everyone credits the prayer vigils in Leipzig for kindling the peaceful revolution. Despite the threat, 70,000 people made an orderly march through downtown Leipzig on October 9. The following Monday, 120,000 showed up. A week later, 500,000 turned out—nearly the entire population of Leipzig.
In early November the largest demonstration of all took place, almost one million people marching peacefully through the capital city of East Berlin. Police and soldiers with all their weapons seemed powerless against such a force. Erich Honecker resigned, humiliated. And at midnight on November 9, something no one had dared pray for happened: a gap opened up in the Berlin Wall. East Germans streamed through the checkpoints, past guards who had always obeyed their orders to “shoot to kill.” On that night the hated Berlin Wall came tumbling down without a shot being fired.
Not a single life was lost as throngs of people holding candles brought down a government in East Germany. Like a windstorm of pure air driving out pollution, the peaceful revolution spread across the globe. In 1989 alone ten nations comprising more than half a billion people—Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Yugoslavia, Mongolia, the Soviet Union—experienced nonviolent revolutions.
As Bud Bultman, a producer and writer for CNN, wrote: “We in the media watched in astonishment as the walls of totalitarianism came crashing down. But in the rush to cover the cataclysmic events, the story behind the story was overlooked. We trained our cameras on hundreds of thousands of people praying for freedom, votive candles in hand, and yet we missed the transcendent dimension, the explicitly spiritual and religious character of the story. We looked right at it and could not see it.”
A huge banner appeared across a Leipzig street: Wir danken Dir, Kirche (We thank you, church).
Historians still have not sorted out all the reasons for communism’s collapse. As one who lived through the 1960s—a decade when barricades went up in the streets of Paris, when leftists were bombing public buildings in the U.S., and when academics were embracing Marxism—I trace the fault line back to a lone Russian, his courage hardened to steel during eight years in the Gulag, who dared proclaim, “It is a lie.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn released the first volume of his massive book, The Gulag Archipelago, in 1973. His relentless documentation worked like a sledgehammer to destroy the façade of Soviet communism and expose its lies and oppressive terror.
Russian authorities recognized early the threat posed by Solzhenitsyn’s truth-telling. Hoping to silence him, they expelled him from the Union of Writers and refused to let him accept the Nobel Prize in Literature. The KGB sent him envelopes filled with photographs of car accidents, brain surgery, and other frightening illustrations. In an assassination attempt, they poisoned Solzhenitsyn with ricin, leaving him seriously ill. Finally, when The Gulag Archipelago was smuggled out of Russia and published in the West, they deported him and stripped him of Soviet citizenship. The book went on to sell 30 million copies in 35 languages.
As more truth emerged, one by one the elite of Europe abandoned the illusion of Marxist utopia. A decade after the events of 1989, a thick book with the title The Black Book of Communism was published in France, causing a sensation. In its 858 pages, six European scholars (all former communist sympathizers) detail the global crimes of a system based on repression. The authors calculate that communist regimes are responsible for 85 to 100 million deaths worldwide—compared to 25 million victims of the Nazis.
As history’s most violent century came to a close, truth won out over all the propaganda and false news pumped out by communist governments, a living fulfillment of Jesus’ statement, “…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” As one Romanian told a reporter for Time, “I never thought this could happen, this revolution. We are like children waking from a nightmare in the middle of the night. All we want is reassurance that it won’t happen again.”
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Thanks, Mr. Yancey, for a great post. As a boy in the 1950’s, I ducked under the stairs with the rest of my class in grade school. When my dad went to New York on business, he always brought home a Pogo comic book and would read them to me at bedtime. He also explained the political satire. One character was a pig in a suit that looked like Nikita Khrushchev. In about 1955 I asked Dad what was going to happen with the Bomb and the Cold War. He said the Soviet Union would collapse of its own weight. He lived to see it. BTW, I have read The Gulag Archipelago. It is too bad that experience is not hereditary. If it were, Socialism would not be the fad it is today. Socialism is a curious thing: The more of it you have, the less it works.
Thanks for this remembering.
I’ve just read the chapter 4, ‘The Hidden Mission – Promoting the Gospel with our Prayers.’ (in John Dickson’s book, The Best Kept Secret of Christian mission). He quotes Matthew 9:37-38, “..the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few, ask the Lord of the harvest ….” and then goes on to say that “the most basic gospel-promoting task, therefore is not evangelism; it is prayer to the Lord of the harvest.” This is what the people of Leipzip did, and God did the rest.
Once again, the lesson of history: Repressing religious belief only makes it grow stronger and deeper.
I wonder how history will look at the portions of the American church that stand in defiance of Christian faith and practice and, instead, stand in complicity with an administration completely opposed to truth. Will there be shame and repentance? I’ve prayed the scales will fall from their eyes. I wonder how God views them. As I read the Lord’s words to the seven churches, Sardis seems apt: “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die. . . .” (Rev 3:1-6)
I was five years old when communism fell in Albania and seven years old when the first missionaries came to share the gospel in our school. Still remember that day when I first heard the name Jesus- You have beautifully portrayed a God who uses the church to break the barriers and display his glory among the nations.
And read again
Thank you so much for sharing! Great article! Hoping you and Janet are well!
When the captives realise their captivity has no real power over them any more, and are willing to walk out of it, whatever the cost, what will their reward be but life from the dead? Are we ready for the millions who will be leaving their captivity in these days, from tribes, tongues, faiths to meet the True Light that shines for all.
When significant world events happen, we always remember where we were on that day. On November 9, 1989, I was in the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. for a policy discussion with a few of my fellow graduates from the Federal Executive Institute. When the news broke about the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of us, including the Israeli embassy staff, were caught by surprise. Needless to say, the subject of our policy discourse changed dramatically from Israel to the political, economic and cultural impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I do not recall any discussion that day about the role of the church and its revolutionary candle prayer vigils, so I’m grateful for your article, Philip, and for shedding more light on the truth behind the wall’s collapse. The Lion of Judah’s roar can sometimes be so quiet that it goes unnoticed by many, but His presence cannot be denied or ignored. The truth shall set us free.
It’s interesting how the church seems to have played a role in this particular political change. The good lesson to learn from history is that it can and should play a role in politics since that is but an extension of a Christian’s engagement with the world around. It seems logical to me as well since one cannot tackle the ills of society without tackling the political systems and ideologies that often directly result in or very often precipitate those very ills. Withdrawal from politics only leaves room for those with a lesser moral compass to enter in and occupy that space.
Thank you Philip for this important and inspiring story. I have most of your books and am currently enjoying your book Grace Notes everyday.
I have all Yancey’s books on a special shelf, waiting to be reread.
Thank you, as always, for your writing.
I recently listened to and can recommend the podcast by the BBC 4 called “Intrigue: Tunnel 29” about East Berlin escapees tunneling back under the wall to let family members escape. Gripping stuff.
I have read all your books usually when I was having a difficult time understanding God’s plans and ways. No other author has been able to reach into my spirit and soul as you have. I was aware of the church’s part in the falling of the Berlin Wall but not in such detail. Your writing and articles are always inspiring. Thank you for sharing.
Excellent article! What an uplifting time and yet, on all too many campuses in the US today, students are still being filled with the lie of a Christless utopia. Still communist in thought, just labeled differently to confuse the naive. Bless you for further exposing the lie!
Excellent article!!! Thanks for writing it as a AWESOME reminder of the whole truth in the power of PRAYER!!!
God is alive and well on planet earth.
His Bride the Church is still His chosen vessel for impacting planet earth.
Excellent article Phillip! This generation should embrace the wisdom of looking back at history with a naked, objective lens instead of a judgmental point of view that either cannot or will not see the hard lessons that an oppressive political system can unleash…hellish, evil, darkened minds.
On a recent visit to Leipzig, I visited Thomaskirche. The pastor spoke of the prayer meetings that began in the 70’s. Someone asked about the continuing ministry of Thomaskirche and if the crowds that came in ’89 remained. He said, “No, but our task is not to preach to thousands, but to be prepared for when the Spirit of God moves on our land. We had prepared for 15 years when God moved in 1989 and we are preparing now for the future when God will once again move among his people.”
Than is not a bad way to look at it at all. I pray that I will see my place in God’s church in the same light.
I too had no idea that the church had been so involved! It’s influence had obviously been overlooked by many commentators. Deliberately or otherwise.
Powerful. I had no idea that the Church was so instrumental in that event. A lesson we should take to heart and honor for we may need that courage and faith in the days to come.
Thank you for reminding me, with details I did not know.
Thank you for this article. You brought to light the power behind the event. A people united in prayer, hope and love. There is no greater power – it brings heaven to earth.