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Fischer, Thomas:

G2W - Faith in the Second World: Using the Helsinki Network to Overcome the East-West Divide

In 1972 the interdenominational institute “Faith in the Second World” (or G2W after its German acronym for “Glaube in der 2. Welt”) was founded on initiative of the Swiss Protestant priest Eugen Voss to inform the public in the West about the oppression of the church and religious communities in the communist East. Voss, himself of Swiss-Russian origin, had learned about the worsening conditions for the Christian communities in the East on the occasion of a family visit to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and was looking for ways and means to gain more reliable information on the situation. Under Voss’ lead the non-governmental institute G2W between 1972 and 1991 established a broad network of personal contacts across the borders of the Iron Curtain, including such prominent names as Soviet dissident Andrei Sacharov, to help improve the situation on a grass-root level. This included, on the one hand, making cases of religious oppression known in the West and giving people a voice, who otherwise had none. On the other hand, G2W engaged in direct practical help “from people to people” (sending food packages, books, clothes and alike), and supported religious radio programmes broadcasted to the Eastern European countries.

When in 1975 thirty five European states including the Soviet Union, as well as the US and Canada signed the so-called Helsinki Final Act as a concluding document to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which stipulated among other things the respect for the principles of religious freedom and individual human rights in all participating states, G2W was among the first Swiss NGO to understand the significance of this document as a basis for its work. In the following years G2W actively engaged in the establishing of the “International Helsinki Federation”, encompassing non-governmental and state actors alike in the CSCE follow-up process, and thus joined broader transnational efforts to establish East-West contacts in the Cold War.

The case of G2W is of particular interest, as the organisation also gained influence on the diplomatic level, when its head, Eugen Voss, in the 1980s was part of the official Swiss delegations to the CSCE expert meetings on human rights in Ottawa 1985 and on human contacts in Berne 1986. This is one of the rare examples, where we can actually see non-governmental and governmental actors joining forces, with a grass-roots movement’s ambitions transforming into official policy.

The proposed paper aims at analysing how G2W tried to achieve its aims in establishing East-West contacts across Cold War divides, and how their efforts were gradually linked to the broader context of the international “Helsinki network” of Western NGO’s and Eastern dissident movements working for the implementation of the CSCE basic principles on individual freedoms and religious rights after 1975. The paper will draw on previously unexplored archival material from the Archive of Contemporary History at ETH

Friday 30 Oct 9.00-11.00 Session 4 SESSION 1
Panel:Choosing Sides: Was Neutrality Really Possible?