17 September 2010


I met the east German artist and opposition activist Bärbel Bohley, who has died aged 65, only once, 25 years ago – but it’s a meeting I shall never forget.

I was working for European Nuclear Disarmament Journal, the organ of the neither-Washington-nor-Moscow British peaceniks, at a big conference in west Berlin of east European dissidents and west European anti-nuclear activists, libertarian leftists and greens, organised by the city’s Alternative List (the local green left).

The cold war was beginning to thaw, and the Hungarian and Polish communist regimes had allowed some high-profile dissidents out for the conference. But the east Germans had not. So, as an act of solidarity with our east German comrades, some of us made a point of crossing over to east Berlin to meet them.

The get-together I went to was in Bärbel Bohley’s apartment. She had been a founder of an independent feminist pacifist group a couple of years before and had been blacklisted and jailed for taking a public stance against the communist authorities. But here she was holding open house for fellow free sprits – 20 or so east Berlin dissidents, a handful of western sympathisers – in flagrant disregard of the consequences.

The evening was one of booze, fags, flirting and black humour – the recurrent joke, which she started, was the identity of the Stasi informer or informers at the party. Afterwards, my friends and I staggered back through darkened streets to catch the last U-Bahn to the west. We were stopped and interrogated briefly by the police at the station checkpoint, but I didn’t think anything of it. Fifteen years later I discovered that the evening’s reveleries had earned me a Stasi file.

Bohley became one of the key players in Neues Forum, the dissident group that turned into the movement that brought down the east German communist dictatorship in 1989. She and her comrades were in essence the last and most radical of the reform communists, though I don't think they would have put it that way. Whatever, their dream of a completely democratised east German “socialism with a human face” was radically at odds with the desire of most of their fellow citizens to join the federal republic (and the dream of capitalist affluence) as soon as possible. But they played a massive role in 1989, and their steadfastness and bravery in the face of a brutal police state should never be forgotten. Bohley was a real heroine.

  • David Childs has an obituary in the Independent here.

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