Some east German Protestants feel overlooked as Wall recalled
As Germany celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, some Protestants feel the crucial role their church played in shepharding the democracy movement to success is quietly being overlooked. This seems strange to someone like myself who reported on those events back then. Any reporter in Berlin in the tense weeks before Nov. 9, 1989 knew the Protestant (mostly Lutheran) churches sheltered dissidents and was working for reform. But the idea that this was fading from public view came up during my recent visit to Leipzig when, at an organ recital in Johann Sebastian Bach‘s St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche), the pastor mentioned the point in a sermon.
(Photo: St. Thomas Church in Leipzig with Bach statue, 17 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)
When I later went up to Berlin, I ran the idea past a leading east German Protestant theologian and a pastor and two parish council members from the Gethsemane Church (Gethsemanekirche). That church in eastern Berlin was one of the most active centres of protest in the tense months before demonstrators forced open the Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. They all agreed.
The many anniversary celebrations, documentaries and discussions now underway across Germany seem to focus mostly on how fearless street protesters and astute politicians pulled off the “peaceful revolution” that ended communism. Films and photos of dissidents packed into the Gethsemane Church in East Berlin or Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche), the leading houses of worship that sheltered them until the Wall opened , are among the trademark images. But those crowded “peace prayer” evenings were only the tip of the iceberg of behind-the-scenes work by pastors and lay people who considered it their Christian duty to promote civil rights and human dignity in a rigid communist society.
At the organ recital, Rev. Christian Wolff illustrated the point by mentioning a recent commemoration in Leipzig attended by German President Horst Köhler, Chancellor Angela Merkel and other dignitaries. “At the ceremony, Werner Schulz spoke of the role of the churches — nobody else did,” he noted, referring to a former East German dissident who is now a European Parliament deputy. Köhler didn’t go into it in his speech, the main address of the day. While the Protestant churches didn’t claim all the credit for the success of the protests, Wolff said, “it wasn’t just a quirk of history that Christians took leading roles in the late 1980s.” They acted out of their religious convictions that each person had God-given dignity and rights that the communists were denying them.
(Photo: St. Nicholas Church, 9 Oct 2009/Steffen Schellhorn)
Richard Schröder, the East German theologian who was a Social Democratic politician in the transition period and then headed the theology faculty at Berlin’s Humboldt University, agreed the churches’ role was being overlooked. “In the media reporting now, the Wall seems to have fallen without any pre-history,” he told me during an interview at his home south of the capital. “Western German public opinion doesn’t have a clear perception of the churches’ role.” He thought the dynamics of politics and the media in united Germany played a part in changing the public perception of 1989. Most politicians and journalists come from western Germany, he said, and had no experience of the underground activity bubbling below East Germany’s calm surface during the 1980s. Because 3/4 of eastern Germans belong to no church, the westerners underestimate the influence the churches had, even among the non-religious. This is the image that is now being repeated in speeches and television documentaries around Germany, Schröder said.
The pre-history to the Wall’s fall goes back at least to the early 1980s, when underground groups opposed to the superpower arms race linked up with activist pastors increasingly critical of the regimentation of life under the communists. In 1982, Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church launched weekly “peace prayers” mixing Gospel readings with political debates. Police did not break up church services, so these sessions gave dissidents a freedom of speech and assembly they could find nowhere else.
(Photo: Nikolaikirche – offen fuer alle (St. Nicholas Church – open for all), 18 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)
Similar alliances emerged in many cities, aided by the large network of parishes maintained by the Protestants, who far outnumbered the cautious Catholic minority. By 1988, the Stasi secret police counted 160 such groups, almost all connected to the churches. In the debates, pastors sometimes cited models such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian executed for resisting the Nazis, and the non-violent strategy of U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King. In guidelines for participants at his Monday evening “peace prayers,” St. Nicholas Church pastor Rev. Christian Führer laid down the rule that “participants and their contributions to the debate may not contradict the Gospel of the crucified Christ and its message of reconciliation and must be based on the commandments of God insofar as they aim to preserve life.”
Such activist pastors were a minority among the clergy, but became a majority in the political parties that formed in the autumn of 1989. The speaking and organisational skills developed in their church careers, one of the few areas of East German life not controlled by the communists, clearly helped them to take charge.
As Werner Schulz put it in the speech that Pastor Wolff cited, “the peaceful revolution was, at its core, also a Protestant revolution … Its pioneering motto ‘no violence’ was the essence of the Sermon on the Mount, the most revolutionary passage in the Gospel… Protestant churches were base camps of this revolution… People went from peace prayers to street protests with a serious Protestant manner, disarming reasonableness and discipline.”
(Photo: Werner Schulz, 22 July 2005/Arnd Wiegmann)
The gap in perception of 1989 emerged clearly at a forum I attended in eastern Berlin where the Gethsemane Church showed a film about its role in 1989 and invited comments from audience, which was about 2/3 Ossis (easterners) and 1/3 Wessis (westerners) who’d settled there since the government moved from Bonn in 1999. One Wessi criticised a section on the “Round Table” — a church-moderated public panel that helped oversee the transition to democracy between December 1989 and March 1990 — as not lively enough to show the real drama of that period.
The Ossis promptly and unanimously disagreed. They found it thrilling to see clips of civil rights activists politely grilling once untouchable communist officials, uncovering their corruption and insisting they take responsibility for their misuse of power. This showed the new democracy in action, they said.
The film, Ende der Eiszeit (End of the Ice Age), also showed the central role of the churches in shielding the dissidents and encouraging them to embrace non-violence and transparency. “Without the churches, this openness couldn’t have come about,” said Rev. Heinz-Otto Seidenschnur of the Gethsemane Church. A parish council member there, archeologist Ursula Kästner, said the church stepped into a vacuum to ensure a peaceful transition. “This was the church’s synodal principle at work,” she told me. “Otherwise, we would have had violence like in Romania.”
(Photo: St. Nicholas Church, 18 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)
Dieter Wendland, a graphic designer and veteran member of the parish council, said the phenomenon of packed churches burst like a balloon when the Wall opened. “On the first Sunday, almost all the pews were empty. About 10 people were sitting there and that was it. It was a bit depressing, but I said we’ve achieved what we were struggling for. Now we can do the work we’re called to do, that is, organise church life and preach the Gospel.”