The Pankow Peace Group

04/19/2015 09:23 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015

It was one thing to establish an independent peace group in Poland or Hungary during the last decade of the Communist era. Freedom and Peace challenged military service in Poland, where there was a long tradition of independent organizing. In Hungary, perhaps the most liberal country in the region outside of Yugoslavia, Dialogus opposed nuclear weapons on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Both groups experienced their share of surveillance and harassment.

But organizing in East Germany was something else. Dissidents were put on trial, thrown in jail, and often kicked out of the country against their will. The Stasi kept a tight watch on everything.

That's why the story of the Pankow Peace Group is so remarkable. Organized in the Pankow neighborhood of East Berlin in 1981, the group not only took bold positions on nuclear issues but interpreted peace more broadly to include pedagogy, economic development, and environmentalism.

Ruth Misselwitz had just begun to work as a pastor at a church in Pankow in 1981. She, her family, and her friends were very concerned at that time about the growing risk of war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

"Friends of ours wanted to start to do some work here in this church together with others worried about war," she told me in an interview at her home in May 2013. "We wanted this work to be public and open. We did not want to continue to meet at home and discuss these things. We wanted to go public, and in the GDR it was only possible to go public within the churches. I started to work on September 1. Then on October 24, 1981 we held the first big event called: 'In favor of peace, against a deadly security.' We were against those security strategies in which people always wanted to convince us that we will be more secure. We critically questioned those strategies."

The Pankow Peace Group emerged from this meeting. "We circulated a list for people to sign up who had an interest in working in a peace group," Misselwitz continued. "There were hundreds of people in the church. The event was the whole day: we started in the afternoon and it went on until late at night. Many people signed up on the list and included their names and addresses. It was very courageous for so many people to state openly that they were interested in such kind of work. In December, we invited all those who registered on this list to meet for the first time in December 1981. Approximately 30 people came to the first meeting. That's how the work of the Peace Group started."

They knew they were under surveillance. "We would have conversations on the street when we didn't want the Stasi to hear -- not in the flat and of course not on the phone," she remembered. "We had this conviction not to work in the underground. We would work publicly, and we would tell this to every Stasi officer. That was the strategy to fight the fear of thinking all the time of who was the informer. This mistrust was so terrible that it destroyed some groups -- because the mistrust was so strong that nobody trusted anyone anymore. This was also a strategy of the state security to sow mistrust to destroy the groups."

When the changes came in 1989, most independent peace groups disbanded. But not the Pankow Peace Group. "In the beginning there was of course the consideration: Do we continue working together or is it now superfluous? Have we reached the goals we were following?" Misselwitz related. "Many members went into politics. Many groups who had needed the roof of the church did not need that roof anymore. They were able to work somewhere else. But we stayed together. And for me it was clear that I should not be active in a political party. I had to have a neutral attitude. Otherwise it would have been fallen apart."

There was plenty of work to do. "We took in some refugees from Bosnia into our community center," she said. "So we directly heard their stories and reports. And one woman in particularly in the peace group was taking care of the refugees. That was the first time I met Muslims. We didn't have Muslims in the GDR. For me it was a really exciting issue. One woman, Marina Grasse, together with a friend founded an East-West-European network of women that is still working in the Caucasus. So we also heard the news from the Caucasus. My younger daughter also was a student at the university in Belgrade. So the conflicts were always present to us."

We talked about the work with the Muslim community, her experience on the evening the Berlin Wall fell, and the social attitudes of Germans east and west (a topic we covered as well in South Korea when Misselwitz joined a delegation I put together on conflict resolution and reunification). Near the end of the conversation we were joined by her husband, Hans Misselwitz, whom I interviewed in 1990 and who continues to work with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

The Interview

Do you remember what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Ruth Misselwitz: It was November, and every November we had our "peace decade." There were events for 10 days. We came home late and turned on the TV where we heard strange news that we did not understand. Helmut Kohl wanted to stop his journey to Poland and return to Germany. We didn't know what happened.

Then a friend called and said: "You have to go to the Wall immediately. I've just returned from Kuhdamm with my car." And we were very astonished. We couldn't believe it.

And then another friend called and said: "The Wall is open." Just imagine!

So we took our bikes and went to Bornholmer Straße. But it was not yet really open. There were people everywhere and they were talking with the soldiers and saying: "Just let us cross, we will come back. We won't stay there we just want to go and see."

It was a very peaceful atmosphere. It was not at all aggressive. Then there was the order that the Bornholmer Straße should be opened and all were crossing the border and going to West Berlin. Our children were 12 and 14 years old at the time. And there we were with our bikes in West Berlin! And we said: "We have to go back, we have to get our children. Who knows if they are going to close the Wall again and our kids are at home, sleeping."

So we went back and got our children out of their beds and told them: "You have to get up, the Wall is open."

And the children said: "No, we want to sleep. It's cold and wet outside."

So I said: "This is a historical moment, you have to get up now!"

Then all four of us took the bikes and we went back to Bornholmer Straße. Of course there were now thousands of people. So we crossed the border with our bikes. There was this incredible, happy atmosphere. You really could not believe what was happening right there. Then we went back with the children and I asked them whether they wanted to go to school the next day - because it was late at night. And they said that they want to go to school early because they had to tell everybody what they had just experienced. So this is how November 9 was for us. During the next days and weeks we tried to understand what had happened. Very many friends from Western Germany and from West Berlin came to Berlin. Those days were really an exceptional time.

What do your children say today? Do they remember that day? Obviously they wanted to continue sleeping. But what do they say today about this historical moment?

Ruth Misselwitz: Yes, yes they were very thankful and today they are still thankful that we pulled them out of their beds! They will never forget this night for their whole life.

I want to go back a little bit earlier: to 1981 when the Pankow Peace Community began. Can you tell me how that began?

Ruth Misselwitz: At the end of the 1970s, the society in the GDR became very strongly militarized. In the schools a subject called military expertise was introduced into the curriculum. It was compulsory for all the pupils -- and in the universities for all the students and for all the workers in the companies -- to participate in a military camp for a certain period of time. Students, for example, had to go for three months. So there was this militarization in all segments of society.

We had the impression that we were preparing for another war -- mentally and also in terms of behavior. There were exercises on how to behave when a bomb hits Berlin and so on. It frightened us. On the night of New Year's Eve 1979, we were at a friend's place in Mecklenburg - Markus Meckel - who was a pastor there in a village. He shared with us a scenario from an American general who was retired. It included what would happen in Europe in the case of a nuclear war -- where there will be Soviet troops and American troops and which towns will be bombed and how the troops will move. On this map I saw that Berlin and also the village where I come from were specific targets. I was very frightened. We had two little children. We were afraid that our children would have to experience a war. And we were particularly frightened because this war would be a nuclear war.

It was not only us who were frightened. Many, many people were afraid of a war, too. In 1981, I started to work as a pastor here in Pankow. Friends of ours wanted to start to do some work here in this church together with others worried about war. We wanted this work to be public and open. We did not want to continue to meet at home and discuss these things. We wanted to go public, and in the GDR it was only possible to go public within the churches. I started to work on September 1. Then on October 24, 1981 we held the first big event called: "In favor of peace, against a deadly security." We were against those security strategies in which people always wanted to convince us that we will be more secure. We critically questioned those strategies.

After this event, the Peace Group formed. We circulated a list for people to sign up who had an interest in working in a peace group. There were hundreds of people in the church. The event was the whole day: we started in the afternoon and it went on until late at night. Many people signed up on the list and included their names and addresses. It was very courageous for so many people to state openly that they were interested in such kind of work. In December we invited all those who registered on this list to meet for the first time in December 1981. Approximately 30 people came to the first meeting. That's how the work of the Peace Group started.

We had the three pillars, which were also important for the conciliar process. There was the issue of environment, because the protection of environment was practically non-existent in the GDR. There was the issue of peace, which involved the heightening tensions between the hostile blocs, East and West, the increasing danger of war, and what what we could do against this deterioration.

And finally there was the issue of justice. Right from the beginning we had a global view. We saw the North-South divide. For many years we had a partnership with a hospital in the African country of Benin. A doctor from West Berlin, who was a friend of ours, had worked in Benin, so this is how we got the connection. There was nothing in this hospital. It was really, really poor. We were not allowed to export medicine from here. But what was possible was sending bandages and supplies like that. We went to pharmacies here and asked if they had some leftovers. Then we put together big packages to send to the hospital in Africa. We received a lot of support. And because we could not export medicine, we arranged for a peace group in the Netherlands -- with which we had a very close relationship through the inter-confessional peace movement -- to send medicine to the hospital. So actually it was a partnership of three parties: East-West-South.

We reflected a lot about our schools and what our children were learning there. In the schoolbooks we searched for enemy images taught to our children. For instance, there was the friendly and helpful Soviet soldier and the bad and terrible American soldier. There were many more stereotypes. We had a real group within the Peace Group that was only dealing with school and pedagogy. We were looking for new forms of pedagogy different from the authoritarian pedagogy we had in the GDR. We were dealing with new alternative concepts of pedagogy, like for example Paulo Freire and The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. We also tried to practice this with our children since we could not do this at school. We created exhibitions about these schoolbooks: Where are the enemy images, where are the stereotypes? What can we do against those stereotypes? We made role-playing games with the children and also with the adults so that they could put themselves into the position of the teacher.

How old were your children?

Ruth Misselwitz: Our daughters were born in 1975 and 1977. During the 1980s, the younger daughter was 12 years old in 1989 and the older daughter was 14.

There was also a group called "living differently." They criticized consumer society in general. Because we in the GDR were a consumer society, too. We did not have as much as the people in West Germany but we had the same thinking, the same patterns. The members of this group - during the time of the peace decade, when we were having the gatherings and events - they slept and fasted in the church for 10 days. During that time a lot of ideas came up about how we should treat the environment and ourselves.

There was also a group thinking about the security system. What are the mechanisms of this military vicious circle? And how can we escape from these mechanisms? There was Olaf Palme with his concept of mutual security. I found that very convincing back then. When Palme was shot it was a big shock for us. Until today I believe that it was a political murder.

The group did a lot! I mean, you were working on pedagogy and the school system, environmental issues, helping the Benin hospital. How did things change as you came closer to 1989?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.