Breaking Down Barriers
On November 9, 1989, the world watched in awe as the Berlin Wall fell. A symbol of physical and spiritual oppression for more than a quarter of a century, East Berliners were suddenly pouring through its borders without opposition, into the welcoming arms of Westerners on the other side. Now, twenty years later, we take a look back at the Church behind the Iron Curtain and its growth since the Wall’s collapse.
Many were stunned by the fall of the Wall, but the event was far from sudden; people from all walks of life, including politicians, religious leaders, and Church members, labored diligently for decades to open" the Curtain by building trusting relationships with communist leaders of the Eastern Bloc. That, combined with a swell of civil unrest within Eastern Europe in the late 80s, created a social force so powerful that it could no longer be contained by barbed wire and steel beams.
World War II Aftermath The carnage and destruction of World War II left thousands of European Saints cold and starving. "In the end, stores were giving away what they had so people could have something to eat," recalls Ingrid Azvedo, who now lives in California. "The houses I knew were bombed, and there were people and horses dead in the street - these are some of my earliest memories."
In December 1945, President George Albert Smith called Ezra Taft Benson to be the European mission president, charging him with great responsibility: "First, to attend to the spiritual affairs of the Church in Europe; second, to work to make available food, clothing, and bedding to our suffering Saints in all parts of Europe; third, to direct the reorganization of the missions of Europe; and, fourth, to prepare for the return of missionaries to those countries" (IE 50 [May 1947]: 293). Benson was one of the first U.S. civilians to administer relief in several war-torn regions. In total, two million dollars' worth of supplies was distributed to people desperate for relief.
The European Saints also made great efforts to ease suffering Church members, taking no thought of borders or politics. For example, the Nazis were especially cruel in the Netherlands. Yet the Saints there sent most of their large potato crop to members in Germany.
Soon after the War, Germany was divided among the Allied Powers. The U.S., Britain, and France jointly controlled West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany); East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) was governed by the Soviets. Berlin was also divided, but for years, no physical wall separated the West and East portions of the city. By the time construction of the Wall began in August 1961, 3.5 million people, including many Church members, had fled the GDR by taking advantage of the loose border between East and West Berlin.
"I recognize today that the Wall was the best thing that could have happened to us," says Elder Manfred Schütze, an area authority in Germany who served in many leadership positions in the Church during the existence of the GDR. "We had lost so many members prior to that time. They all went to West Germany and America, simply because they believed, and rightfully so, that conducting their lives in accordance with the principles of the Church was not always possible. They left by the dozens, yes by the hundreds. It appeared as if all the branches would die. But then it ended. That was a blessing, as bad as it sounds. We now had to focus on ourselves. I didn't understand that in 1961, not at all. Today, looking backwards, I understand it much better."