This is where Bonhoeffer worked and where the East German opposition met: the Zionskirche is a fascinating site of Berlin’s and Germany’s history.
You can still feel the spirit of resistance, the desire for freedom and the courage to act that shaped the history of the Zionskirche. Time and time again, German history was made here. It is where Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked, and also where opponents of the East German regime met and set up a secret library.
The history of the Zionskirche
The church owes its existence to a failed assassination. In 1861, Kaiser Wilhelm I, grateful for having survived an attempt on his life, donated funds to build a new votive church. After a number of arguments between various authorities, work began in 1866. At what was then the highest point in Berlin, a church was built with a brick and terracotta façade. The architect August Orth chose what was then the very popular Berlin Historicist style: Neo-Classical combined with Gothic elements. After all, the church was not only intended as a place of worship, but also as a patriotic expression of royal gratitude.
In the Second World War, bombs destroyed the roof, the organ, the altar and the choir windows. At the end of the war, Berliners looted the church in search of firewood. Later damage to the roof was not repaired, which meant that church was in a very poor state for a long time. Restoration began at the end of the 1980s, beginning with the roof, and now continuing in the interior. The Zionskirche reopened in 2002 and services are held there every Sunday.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer - a man of courage
Dietrich Bonhoeffer worked in the parish from 1931. After the Nazis took power he joined the resistance. He was arrested in 1944 and executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp on 5 April 1945 – just before the end of the war. A bronze memorial to him was erected on the west side of the church in 1997.
Opposition in the GDR
In the mid-1980s, opposition groups such as the “Zion’s Church Peace and Environmental Circle” began meeting in the basement of the church. It was also where they hid the “Umwelt-Bibliothek” (Environmental Library), containing officially prohibited books and magazines on environmental and human rights topics. Following a raid, the Stasi arrested some of the members, which only brought the group to wider attention. Supporters held vigils and the events were closely reported in the Western media. The arrested members were soon released and the group gained great popularity, becoming a driving force in the civic movement that led to the end of the GDR.
The permanent exhibition in the Zionskirche
“Erinnerung wird zur Kraft der Gegenwart” (memory becomes the power of the present) is a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and is the title and guiding motif of an unmissable exhibition on the Zionskirche and its turbulent history. The exhibition deals with Bonhoeffer’s struggle in the resistance, as well as the story of the Environmental Library and the commitment of the community, thus showing how closely the church is linked with German history.
Our tip: Every Sunday you can climb up the stairs to the top of the church tower for just a small fee. After 104 steps you reach the top and get rewarded with a stunning view over Prenzlauer Berg and the rest of Berlin.