Bohley, Bärbel (1945—)

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Bohley, Bärbel (1945—)

German political activist, known as the "Mother of the Revolution" in the closing months of 1989 in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Born in Berlin, Germany, on May 24, 1945.

Active as a leading member of the East German opposition, arrested and imprisoned on several occasions (1980s); appraised by the Stasi (secret police) in her file as the "mother of the underground"; instrumental in the founding of the New Forum organization which focused the grievances of the population against the Communist regime of Erich Honecker

(September 1989); believing that a radically reformed GDR could survive as an independent state, opposed German unification; though her organization New Forum played a major role in transforming East Germany (1989), it virtually disappeared in the first free elections (March 1990); withdrew from politics with the achievement of German unity, only rarely making critical statements about the situation in the states of the former GDR.

Born in Berlin on May 24, 1945, only a few weeks after Germany's defeat in World War II, Bärbel Bohley grew up to be an artist, but she could never escape the burdens and responsibilities history had placed on her country. Bohley lived in the Communist eastern part of Germany, which was founded as a Soviet satellite state in October 1949, calling itself the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Life was difficult in the poorer, totalitarian German state, and after 1961 the raising of the Berlin Wall made it virtually impossible for people to leave the GDR, even on vacation. For intellectuals like Bohley, however, there were compensations for living in the east. If one chose not to challenge the regime, there was job security, cradle-to-grave health care, heavily subsidized cultural events, and inexpensive vacations. Beyond the economic benefits, by the 1970s a clear sense of national pride and identity had emerged, particularly because of GDR triumphs in Olympic sports.

Yet for all of the achievements that made the GDR the most prosperous Communist nation, by the late 1970s a sense of national malaise had begun to emerge. Economically, the system was stagnating and production increases were minuscule at best. Within the regime, dissident voices were raised against the monopoly of power exercised by the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Non-Marxist dissidents found their spiritual and moral home within the Lutheran church, and strongly criticized the abuses of power that inevitably appeared in a rigidly totalitarian society like the GDR. The appearance of a third group of dissidents, in which women played a major role, took place in the early 1980s.

The immediate grievance for a small group of women (approximately 150), led by the ceramic artist Bärbel Bohley, was the conscription law of 1982, which included a provision making women liable for military service. Calling themselves "Women for Peace," Bohley and her group were determined to launch a strong protest against the militarization of GDR society. Although numerically insignificant, they were almost immediately perceived as a threat to the system by the omnipresent secret police, the Stasi. On October 16, 1983, Bohley and 30 other women, all dressed in black, marched to East Berlin's main post office on the Alexanderplatz to mail to high government officials their declarations of intent refusing to perform any required military service. The security forces arrested five women; Bohley and Ulrike Poppe , another leader of the peace activists, barely escaped detention.

Bohley's luck ran out in December 1983, and she began serving a two-month prison term for having had contacts with a peace activist of the West German Greens. (The Green Party promoted ecology, non-violence, grassroots democracy, and social responsibility.) Refusing to be intimidated, she continued to work with activists on the political left who felt that the "real existing Socialism" of the Erich Honecker regime was a perversion of socialist ideals. Although the number of activists in her circle was small, the Stasi agents who kept a close eye on her activities assessed her to be a dangerous individual, personally incorruptible and therefore a threat to the SED dictatorship. One Stasi report prophetically characterized Bohley as the "mother of the underground." Engaged in a relentless nonviolent attack on the regime, she emphasized that the government, a self-proclaimed "peoples' democracy," had completely lost touch with its own people. In January 1988, the GDR dissidents used the occasion of the 69th anniversary of the murders of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg to organize a public protest. Once more, Bohley was arrested in the aftermath of this embarrassment to the regime. Realizing the wisdom of not turning her into a martyr, the Stasi allowed her to leave the GDR for several months in the summer and fall of 1988, during which she spent time in West Germany and the United Kingdom.

The events of 1989 were as unexpected for Bohley as they were for everyone else in the country. Like most GDR dissidents, she was well aware of her country's injustices but had no timetable for a drastic transformation. After her return from the West, she was soon aware that major changes were in the offing. In the Soviet Union, the Gorbachev reform movement offered promise of genuine democratization, and the fresh winds from Moscow, as well as from neighboring Poland and Hungary, were shaking the moribund Honecker dictatorship to its foundations. Thousands of East Germans fled to the West via Czechoslovakia and Hungary that summer, and by September 1989 dissident elements were encouraged to take a bold stand for basic changes despite the obvious risks involved in speaking out openly.

On September 11, Bohley and Ulrike Poppe founded the New Forum; their aim was not to directly challenge the regime, but rather to open its eyes to the need for immediate and fundamental reforms through a serious dialogue with all dissident elements. The next few weeks were tense as the police attempted to frighten dissidents into mute submission. A mass movement quickly emerged, however, and over 200,000 angry yet hopeful women and men of all ages and backgrounds signed the New Forum manifesto calling for dialogue and change. Within a month's time, Honecker had been pushed out of office by desperate SED "reformers." On November 9, the Berlin Wall was opened up; within hours, thousands of Germans from east and west crossed freely in both directions for the first time in more than 28 years.

The next months witnessed dramatic changes in the GDR, many of which were viewed less than enthusiastically by Bohley. She was hailed throughout Germany and in the world press as the "mother of the revolution," a label that annoyed her. From the start of her fame, she felt that her ideas and ideals had been largely misunderstood. The goal of her courageous opposition had never been the destruction of the GDR, but rather its salvation through reform. A democratic socialist, her visits to the West had convinced her that individualistic capitalism could also create major social evils. The goal of New Forum had been to start the process that would bring about a truly democratic socialist society. Thus, Bohley reacted to the opening of the Berlin Wall with little enthusiasm, knowing how powerful the wealthy consumer society of West Germany was, and how easily it could swallow up the weak, as yet unreformed, GDR.

In the first democratic elections ever to take place in the GDR, held in March 1990, New Forum participated as a movement rather than as a conventional political party. The Forum was allied with two other reform groups, "Democracy Now" and the "Peace and Human Rights Initiative"; the three campaigned as "Alliance 90." Despite the combined effort, they won only a disappointing 2.9% of the vote. Although New Forum could boast a membership of 150,000 in January 1990 and was even able to publish its own weekly newspaper Die Andere ("The Other One"), the organization was too vague in its aims to compete against the Western-style parties that now dominated GDR politics in the brief period of East German democracy.

Bärbel Bohley decided not to participate in the political life of united Germany, which she regarded as an unfortunate historical evolution. She withdrew back into private life, attempting to live again as an artist rather than a political celebrity; this was not always possible, however, and she did occasionally grant interviews. In 1992, she lamented the "swallowing up" of the GDR and the former GDR citizens who "retreated into lethargy" after reunification. In 1993, she sharply attacked Manfred Stolpe, premier of the state of Brandenburg who was accused of being a pre-1989 collaborator with the Stasi. Exhibiting some of the passionate spontaneity that characterized her life of the 1980s, Bohley accused Stolpe of having "rightly become a symbol of repression." Bärbel Bohley regarded truth and justice above personal advancement.


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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia