How East Germany’s communists misunderstood its Protestants

November 9, 2009

schroederAnniversaries are a time to look back at how the world was before the historic event being commemorated. During a recent trip to Berlin in advance of today’s 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, I asked the former East German theologian and politician Richard Schröder for his recollections of the life as a Protestant pastor before the country fell apart. He zeroed in on a fascinating aspect of the Communists’ anti-religion policy I’d never heard about before.

(Photo: Richard Schröder, 21 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)

“The Communists who took over in 1945 were trained in Russia,” he told me at his home in a southern suburb of Berlin. “Their model was the Russian Orthodox Church, which focuses heavily on the liturgy. By contrast, Protestant churches have always been a wide field that included Bible study and other discussion groups. All the charity work of the Protestant churches, like their hospitals, were started by what you might call grass roots movements of congregation members. They were not started by the churches themselves. But the Communists always tried to handle us as if we were Russian Orthodox.”

One way to do this was to demand the churches register in advance any meeting except their Sunday church services and the internal sessions of the church leadership. Officials were especially suspicious of the churches’ youth activities, such as camping trips that included Bible study sessions. The churches refused to agree because this would have been a way to block such activities without banning them outright — all they would have to do was fail to issue permission for the meeting. “The state made a second effort to impose this registration, but the churches decided to pay all the fines and not register the meetings. They got away with it. When the officials noticed the churches always paid the 500 mark fine but kept on holding their meetings, they stopped imposing the fine. It took a long time for the Communists to understand that the Protestant churches are a different version of Christianity than the strongly liturgical Orthodox Church.”

church-membership1(Image: Falling church membership figures in East Germany — purple for Protestants, yellow for Catholics/ Forum of Contemporary History Leipzig)

Communist officials also seem to have had problems figuring out the theological differences between Russian Orthodox and German Lutherans.  “The Orthodox Church didn’t go through the Enlightenment,” Schröder said. “It maintained a sacred worship in which the miraculous, including some pious fraud, played a big role. Lenin once suggested to use the arguments of the French Enlightenment in the fight against religion. So the East German Communists did that here. They didn’t know that every Protestant theology student here had already learned all these arguments. They were old hat. The state established a chair for atheism at Jena University to promote anti-religious propaganda. The professor started to read Lutheran theology and had to admit it had already had its debate with the Enlightenment. They decided to stop using simple arguments like Darwin versus creationism or that the Sputnik didn’t find God out in space. They saw that didn’t work.”

This change of strategy in the 1970s led to the first meeting in 1978 between party leader Erich Honecker and the Protestant church leadership. The state toned down its atheist propaganda and tried to find ways to cooperate with the churches. “The party was aiming for a modus vivendi to boost good will with West Germany because they needed financial credits from them. West Germany had told East Germany it would measure its good will among other things by how they treated the churches.” This eased the situation for pastors, who didn’t have to fear getting arrested anymore, but officials still harrassed them by barring their children from attending high school.

Despite this limited detente, some Communist officials still took a long time to get away from the Russian Orthodox model they’d learned about in their Marxism-Leninism training, Schröder said. When they met him as a young Protestant pastor, they talked about the “dignitaries” of the church, as if they were Orthodox patriarchs dressed in ornate vestments. “Here I was, a bearded man in jeans, and I was suddenly a dignitary!” he laughed.

peace-prayer-signAfter East Germany collapsed, researchers found in the archives of the State Secretariat for Religious Affairs that the Communist officials slowly realised that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his experiences in resistance to the Nazis was very important for Lutheran theology in East Germany.

(Photo: Protest symbol saying “Swords into Plowshares —  Peace Prayers in St. Nicholas Church — Every Monday at 5 p.m.” in Leipzig, 16 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)

“By 1988-89 they finally understood how the Protestant church ticks,” Schröder said. “The motto “A church for others” played a big role in East Germany and it came from Bonhoeffer. They should have been able to see that Protestants had already debated during the Nazi period the question of how Christians should behave in a totalitarian state. We even had the Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church during the Nazi period printed in our hymnbooks.” That 1934 document rejected the Nazis’ bid to subordinate the churches to the state.

By 1988-1989, of course, the protest movement linked to the Protestant churches was too far developed to be contained by some new manipulative strategy by the state. The Stasi secret police had at least 800  informers — many of the church officials and pastors — reporting from inside the churches about what was happening there, according to Stasi documents opened up after Germany reunited. They produced vast amounts of secret reports and betrayed large numbers of church members but were useless in stopping history when it happened.

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