Remembering Baerbel Bohley, an artist who helped bring down the Berlin Wall

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; B03

On a snowy evening four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I made a return visit to Baerbel Bohley's apartment on Fehrbelliner Strasse in what used to be East Berlin. The building was a typical relic of World War II shrapnel damage, Communist-era neglect and post-Berlin Wall materialism -- satellite dishes hanging over a urine-stenched entrance hall.

Inside, Bohley, an abstract painter and the mother of the East German revolution of 1989, had transformed her home into a bohemian mix of East and West, past and present. She had added a new white Siemens clothes washer in the kitchen since I'd last seen her. But she still lived without central heating. "Like a real Ossi," a real East German, she said.

As the events of 1989 have moved from journalism to history, Bohley's name has given way to those of politicians such as Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev, and her death at 65 from lung cancer this month barely registered in the United States. But it was Bohley, a wisp of a woman with a delicate voice, who made the fall of the Wall possible, who lent the East German people the courage to take to the streets that fall and demand rights that had been denied them for 40 years.

"Without her, the autumn of 1989 is unimaginable," the German journalist Stefan Berg wrote in Der Spiegel after her death. "She was the challenge to think for yourself, to get involved."

On that icy dusk four years after the demise of the country that spied on her and imprisoned her, Bohley told me about her drive south to the Austrian-Italian border the summer after the Wall opened. There, high in the Alps, she and a friend had pulled off the road. They were beyond what had been, for all their lives, the frontier of possibility. Together, they cried until their eyes hurt. "How," Bohley wondered, "could anyone have deprived another of this?"

Publicly, Bohley never gave the impression that she savored her new freedom. Through the 1990s, she was a regular on television, always at one demonstration or another, having shifted her critique from communism's repression to the West's excesses. Bohley's public image was joyless, a woman grimly pining for ideological purity, equally offended by the Soviet system of spying on one's friends and by the Western system of leaving each person to fend for himself.

In fact, she mainly yearned to be herself. "I love the freedom," she told me, "the possibility to see pictures and read books I want. I like to drink dry wine instead of sweet, which was all we had here before. The small freedoms -- eating Italian cheese or traveling to New York, seeing buildings repaired and flowers in the windows -- are not to be underestimated."

Publicly, she allowed herself to become a symbol of growing unhappiness in the East, the regret that East Germany had not survived in some form after the Wall to make its own mistakes, create its own identity.

Over time, her voice faded. East and West blended, if slowly. Now, who recalls that it was her group, New Forum, that organized the silent candlelight marches that surrounded and eventually strangled the regime of Erich Honecker? The group, which grew up in the Lutheran churches of the East, had seemed unthreatening enough to the regime for half a million East Germans to put their names to petitions seeking change within socialism.

In today's history books, it can seem as if New Forum came and went in a matter of weeks, and it's true that after the fall of the Wall, East Germany's utopian reform movement was overtaken by the prospect of bananas, Deutsche marks and the consumer society that East Germans had seen on Western TV but could never touch for themselves.

But for nearly a decade before the Wall opened, Bohley had been chipping away at communist control of people's lives. In 1983, she and 30 other women dressed in black gathered at Berlin's Alexanderplatz to challenge a new military draft law. Five women were arrested. Bohley managed to slip away, but some months later Stasi agents nabbed her and charged her with "treasonable passing of information" for talking to a Western journalist.

In 1988, Bohley organized a protest at which people unfurled a banner at the annual state demonstration marking the 1919 murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht, founders of the German Communist Party. The banner quoted Luxemburg: "Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently." Bohley was charged with "treasonable activity" and deported. She spent a few months in Britain, then chose to return, believing that even in such a system, change could be forced.

In 1989, Bohley and a few friends pushed the dissident movement out of its church cocoon. With biologist Jens Reich, Bohley created New Forum. She turned her apartment into its headquarters, where volunteers hand-copied fliers. Meetings led to demonstrations, which led to marches. The movement snowballed, the government froze, the Stasi crumbled.

Bohley and her friends were socialists to the end; they were horrified that they might be the vehicle by which their fellow citizens gained access to Disney, McDonald's and Mercedes. But once the Wall came down, it was exactly that craving for the freedom to travel and consume -- to taste oranges and use soft toilet paper -- that rendered Bohley and New Forum irrelevant. Within three months of their greatest triumphs, Bohley and her friends were marginalized.

Bohley never painted again after the Wall fell. She went through a dark period. She moved to the Balkans for a time, working with young victims of war. She never quite found her revolution. She never imagined that people might want their own kind of freedom, the right to have nothing to do with others. "It took me a long time to realize that the people here were so materialistic, that people were more interested in things than in ideals," she said to me that day in her apartment, with more sadness than anger. Softly in the background, her new washing machine rumbled -- a thing, but also an ideal, a product of the freedom that Bohley had unleashed.

Marc Fisher is The Washington Post's enterprise editor for local news and the author of "After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company