Barbel Bohley (1945 - 2010)

pacifist and important member of the Anti DDR forces in East Germany

Barbel Bohley

Barbel Bohley

Bärbel Bohley was born in Berlin two weeks after the end of World War II. Her father was a civil engineer, who, despite being qualified to teach, was expelled from the teaching profession after refusing to join the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany). After completing her senior high school diploma in 1963, Bärbel took on various temporary jobs before enrolling in Berlin’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1969. She completed her studies in 1974 and embarked on a successful career as a painter and graphic designer, taking part in international exhibitions and winning numerous awards. In 1976 she was elected a director in the East Berlin ”Artists’ Association”. 

The artistic milieu in Berlin as well as her husband’s family – closely linked to intellectual circles –strongly influenced her political leanings. The growing militarization of the DDR and the rise in the West of the Pacifist Movement were decisive for her commitment to the opposition. In 1980 she signed the Instigation to peace, the first pacifist declaration to be underwritten jointly by activists from both the East and the West; it marked the beginning of far-reaching cooperation between activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain, far beyond both political and military blocks. At the same time, Barbel came into contact with the circle that had formed around the scientist Robert Havemann. In 1982, in reaction to the new military service law – which required women to be recruited “in case of need for the defence of the country” – along with Havemann’s widow Katia, she arranged to send open letters of protest to the government and to collect signatures throughout East Germany. This action gave rise to the “Women’s Peace Movement”, joined by at least 150 women. In 1983 Bärbel was expelled from the “Artists’ Association”, and forbidden to exhibit her works and, lastly, she was arrested and charged with treason. 

The popularity she enjoyed, along with numerous protests in the West, forced the authorities to release her in January 1984. In 1985 she co-founded the ”Initiative for Peace and Human Rights”, which aimed to set up areas of civil society outside the framework of the Church. One of the ”Initiative’s” first and most significant actions, in 1986, was to send a petition to the 11th Unity Party Congress demanding social debate on the democratization of the country. Considered by the Stasi – the secret police – to be one of the most active members of the opposition, Bärbel was arrested again, along with a group of dissidents, on 17 January 1988. She found herself “in the same jail, in the same cell, subjected to the same interrogators” as she had been four years earlier. The new arrests provoked an unprecedented wave of solidarity throughout the country and numerous protests abroad. Thanks to the mediation of the Church, all the detainees were released, but immediately expelled from the DDR without trial. Only in August, after numerous international interventions and pressure, Bohley managed to return. Developments in the overall political situation led dissident circles to look for new forms of opposition: for the first time entire groups and individual people, including Bärbel, publicly declared their opposition to the regime. At the same time they searched for new organizational procedures that would enable them to expand beyond the restricted circle of other dissidents. In the spring of 1989, along with Katia Havemann, the painter founded “New Forum”, a movement with no political programme, bent on exhorting the population to abandon an attitude of passive submission and to introduce democracy “from the bottom up”. In a matter of weeks, the founding deed, Watershed ’89, published in September, was underwritten by two hundred thousand people. 

A key aspect of Bohley’s opposition to the regime was her attention to the ethical, rather than the ideological grounds: she was concerned above all about people’s behaviour rather than programmes, the real needs of real people rather than of the parties. The Stasi had defined her “the mother of the underground movement”, while during the 1989 changes the populace called her the “mother of the revolution”; her shy character, however, and her substantial lack of trust in formal structures and professional politicians soon led her to retire from public activity and to dedicate herself to social issues. In 1996 she opened a help centre for victims of the East German regime. In this action she was supported by numerous politicians, including Helmut Kohl himself. Later, and until 1998, she took part in the programme for the reconstrustion of Bosnia and moved to Croatia, where she organized summer camps for the orphans of that tortured region.

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The "power of those powerless" lies in defeating fear through the strength of a collective assumption of responsibility, testified by the appeal to "live the truth" in a society that is built on lies.

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