Bärbel Bohley: Political activist who played a key role in the dismantling of the East German state

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The Independent Online

Bärbel Bohley was a key figure in the attempts in the 1980s to bring democratic changes to the highly undemocratic German Democratic Republic, so much so that some called her the Jeanne d'Arc of the peaceful revolution of 1989. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the GDR, said of her, "For many, including for me, her courage and her directness were exemplary. I remember her as a personality who made possible the peaceful revolution and the road to German unity."

She was born in Berlin in 1945 just after the Soviet occupation; the family lived in an old tenement block. Clearly she was greatly influenced by her childhood in that devastated and divided city – the masses of refugees, the limbless ex-soldiers (including some of her teachers), the Soviet victors to whom they were not allowed to speak and the constant fear of a new war.

She was 16 when the Berlin Wall went up. Her father, a Neulehrer, one of the teachers trained rapidly by the allies to help eradicate the vestiges of Nazism, made an impression on her with his reminiscences of the brutalities of the war in Russia, tales which led her to become a pacifist. She was also influenced by her father's dismissal after the revolt of 17 June 1953 because he refused to join the ruling SED party. Nevertheless, Bärbel was able to gain her matriculation in the relatively mild political climate of 1963, going on to take commercial studies and then train as a teacher in this field.

In 1969 she gained admittance to the famed cultural academy, Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee, graduating in 1974. She worked as an independent painter with Francisco de Goya and Käthe Kollwitz as her inspirations. She married a fellow artist, Dietrich Bohley, and had a son, Anselm. Although devastated by the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 she still hoped for change in the Soviet Union and in 1976, as a prize for her work, she was able to spend two weeks there, but the terrible conditions she encountered convinced her that there was no hope for Soviet-style "socialism".

In 1982 Bohley established the Women For Peace group, in protest against a law which gave the state the power to call up women in a defence emergency, leading to her expulsion from the committee of the official artists' organisation. Bohley's new group was part of a growing body in East and West calling for nuclear disarmament on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and she made contact with the West German Greens and with British anti-nuclear campaigners. In December 1983 she was arrested for the first time; but in the year they were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the death of Karl Marx, the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther, and were negotiating a massive loan from West Germany, the SED did not want any bad publicity, and she was released after six weeks. She was no longer able to receive official sponsorship for her work or display it in public, however; she pursued both her painting and her peace activities regardless.

Another landmark came in 1988. On the anniversary of the murder of the revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, there were protests at the official celebrations by some individuals seeking to leave East Germany. Over 120 were arrested and their relatives asked Bohley for help; within 10 days she, too, was arrested. She later admitted that she was very frightened and, in panic, agreed to leave the GDR with a visa enabling her to spend six months in England. Regaining her strength, she disappointed the SED by returning to East Germany.

The SED then made a fundamental mistake in instigating massive electoral fraud in the local elections of May 1989. Anger spread, and on 19 September 1989, along with Jens Reich and Jutta Seidel, Bohley founded the New Forum movement. It did not attack the "achievements of the GDR" or the SED leaders, but sought to be a platform for dialogue for all parties and groups to discuss the GDR's problems. Soon it was joined by other opposition groups, and throughout October demonstrations spread across the GDR, demanding democratic reform. The Wall was opened on 9-10 November and, by early December, the government of the reform Communist Hans Modrow was discussing matters with NF and other opposition groups on a regular basis.

When Bohley attended a conference on the future of the GDR at Nottingham University in January 1990, she enthralled most of her audience. The opposing speaker, however, the Christian Democrat Bernd Beck, mayor of the small town of Heiligenstadt, argued for immediate reunification – and the GDR's democratic election on 18 March 1990 revealed Beck to be more in touch with the mood of ordinary East Germans. They voted for quick re-unification under Helmut Kohl rather than the slow road Bohley and her friends favoured. The election was a bitter blow for Bohley whose Bündnis 90, an amalgam of various groups including NF, gained only three per cent of the votes.

But Bohley's role in the demise of the old GDR was not over. In September 1990 she took part in a peaceful occupation of secret police archives in East Berlin, which led to legislation allowing citizens and foreigners to see files that where held about them.

In 1996, Bohley said that what had been achieved in Germany since reunification was "less than what we dreamed" but "far more than what we had before." She subsequently worked in the former Yugoslavia on aid projects for children; her experiences in Bosnia turned her somewhat away from pacifism. If necessary, she said "müssen die Menschenrechte auch mit Waffen verteidigt...warden" ["human rights must be defended with arms"].

Married for a second time, to a teacher, Dragan Lukic, Bohley lived for some years in Split, Croatia, returning to her old apartment in Berlin in 2008 after being diagnosed with lung cancer. She is survived by her son Anselm, a landscape architect.

Bärbel Brosius, painter and political activist: born Berlin 24 May 1945; married firstly Dietrich Bohley (one son), secondly Dragan Lukic; died Berlin 11 September 2010.

David Childs is the author of 'We Were No Heroes' (2009) and 'The Fall Of The GDR' (2001).