Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Peacemaking between East and West Germany

Each month, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, thousands fled from East Berlin to West Berlin.  In response, on August 13th 1961, the East German government closed checkpoints and uncoiled rolls of barbed wire along the path of what would become the Berlin Wall. Within days, trolley lines and underground services were severed and passage between the two parts of the city forbidden.

For Quakers, this construction of the Berlin Wall underlined the urgency for conciliation efforts between East and West Germany. There had been a significant Quaker presence in Germany every since the Quäkerspeisung programme that followed the First World War, when over a million children were saved from starvation. This work was remembered by many Germans and engendered a great deal of trust and respect for Quakers from both sides. Many Friends now felt there was a need for a Quaker representative to promote a realistic discussion about the divided Germany and to bring about contact between the two sides.  In 1962, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) asked American academic Roland Warren to fill this role.

Warren soon became aware of two very different views of the Wall.  While the West saw it as a ‘Wall of Shame’, the East perceived is as protective.  Warren sought to present each view to the other side.  His priority was to do what he could to reduce family separations, particularly where children were involved.  His efforts established a basis for negotiation, but a consistent stumbling block remained the refusal of the West to recognise the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) as a legitimate government.

Emil Fuchs, a German Quaker working at Leipzig University in East Germany, invited the AFSC to send a team to visit East Germany.  Eight delegates spent a week in West Berlin and a week in East Berlin, visiting many different groups, listening and asking questions, with the aim of ‘bringing one-sided mutually exclusive perceptions closer to each other and to reality.’

The issue they focused on most was that of travel restrictions.  The West imposed travel restrictions on East German citizens by refusing to recognise East German passports.  The group pointed out that, for example, scientists and doctors were prevented from making vital international contacts.  Their report, sent to the State Department in Washington, helped to ensure that these restrictions were lifted in 1964.

Similarly, the group wrote to the East German government proposing specific steps to allow families separated by the wall to be reunited on compassionate grounds.  This, however, did not lead to any policy changes.

Their full report was published in 1964, under the title ‘A Journey Through the Wall.’  A map, included at the last minute by the publishers, caused great offence in East Germany, as it showed the old pre-war German boundaries and was perceived as signifying the West’s desire to reunify. However, the contacts established by the group remained open.

Successive Quaker International Representatives in Berlin maintained relations with individuals and groups in both West and East Germany, and reported back regularly to both London and Philadelphia.  They made efforts, some successful and others not, to develop contacts for intellectuals, youth groups and others between East and West. In 1969, they were able successfully to arrange for East German representatives to be included for the first time in the Quaker Conference for Diplomats to discuss “Violence and Non-Violence as Methods of Change.”  In succeeding years there continued to be strong representation from both West and East Germany.  As East Germany was still not officially recognised, this was one of the few platforms where the two could meet.

The Quaker representatives also continued to promote contact between East Germany and the US government.  Western governments often took the line that recognising the East German government would be a ‘betrayal’ of those in East Germany who were not communists.  The Quakers were able to let Western officials that, on the contrary, the policy of non-recognition was largely condemned by a majority of East German citizens.

Quaker ‘good offices’ thus contributed to a gradual change in policy, culminating in full diplomatic relations being established with the German Democratic Republic in 1972.

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Further Reading and Credits

  • Mike Yarrow, C.H. 'Quaker Work Between the Two Germanies', in Quaker Experiences in International Conciliation (New Haven, USA, Yale University Press, 1978).


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