November 10, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

How a Christian Family Stood Up to Tyranny

When the Berlin wall fell 20 years ago, Dorothee Hubner first dared to think, “Are we allowed to leave and finally be free?”  Her story and that of her parents Gerhard and Gertraude, scientists trapped in East Germany, was told by Andrew Curry, a freelance writer, in Science.1  Dorothee was 23 years old in 1989.  Her parents, also biochemists, “had spent decades struggling to do research in East Germany without compromising their personal ideals with allegiance to the ruling Communist Party.”
    By not pledging allegiance to the ruling Communist Party, the Hubners faced a life of difficulty.  “Everything from university admissions to teaching positions depended on allegiance to the Communist Party,” Curry wrote:

It was a difficult offer to refuse.  In exchange for signing a loyalty oath and an agreement to report back to the Stasi on friends and colleagues, you could attend international conferences and have your career fast-tracked, Gunter Fischer [a colleague of the Hubners] says.  “If you said no, you’d have no higher-ranking position or travel, and you might lose your job,” he notes.  The pressure went beyond career and travel to petty indignities.  Party members were given the best lab times.  Non�party members could only use equipment between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., Gerhard recalls.
    Committed Christians, the H�bners refused to give in; they surrounded themselves with like-minded friends and colleagues.  “My parents were never hiding what they were thinking about the whole system,” Dorothee remembers.  “We knew scientists who were honest and didn’t join the party and sell their soul just to have advantages.

In fact, the Hubners found out from Stasi records that at the time the wall fell, the Party was planning to force Fischer and the Hubners out of their jobs.  It was the last indignity for a life of nonconformism.  They had to be very careful.  “You couldn’t speak your mind,” Gerhard said.  “There was always the fear that you could say something that could have harmed your spouse or kids by accident.”  It was difficult for them to get their three children into the university.  Ideology infected everything: “Before 1989, science in the German Democratic Republic, like almost everything else, was political.” Curry said.  “Everything from university admissions to teaching positions depended on allegiance to the Communist Party.”  The Stasi were constantly pressuring scientists and citizens to work for them and spy on their families and neighbors.  By remaining faithful to their principles, the Hubners placed themselves at a severe disadvantage. 
    Curry’s article mentions other evils behind the Iron Curtain: the pressure on Olympic athletes to dope their bodies, the discrimination against women, the collaboration of many top scientists with the regime, and the constant poor economy: “Like most of the Communist bloc, East Germany was in a perpetual state of financial crisis.”  Dorothee readily acknowledges that the fall of communism “changed everything.”  Now she lives in the United States and enjoys her freedom to work at top labs with state of the art equipment.  Discovering what had gone on in East German labs, though, was like opening a rotten egg: “The Stasi archives were opened in 1991, revealing that some of the country’s top scientists had been collaborators and forcing them out of universities,” Curry wrote.  “In the social sciences, entire institutes were simply closed, their scholarship too tainted by ideology to salvage.
    Gerhard’s integrity and hard work paid off.  “And after decades of isolation, an entire generation of scientists suddenly had to compete for jobs with West Germans and others,” Curry wrote.  “Gerhard found himself the lone East German in the running for a position as the chair of his department, up against more than 30 West Germans—he won.”  And his friend Gunter Fischer is now at the Martin Luther University at Halle-Wittenberg.


1.  Andrew Curry, “Twenty Years After the Wall: Profile: Hubner Family: Big Dreams Come True,” Science, 6 November 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5954, pp. 792-793, DOI: 10.1126/science.326_792.

This inspiring story with a happy ending of character enduring hardship is provided as an antidote to the year of Darwin.  What historical scientist inspired the communist worldview?  What historical worldview provided the courage to stand for freedom of conscience?  Which worldview tried to suppress the other one?  There are many lessons here.  Dig them out.

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