How East Germany’s communists misunderstood its Protestants

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.

Some east German Protestants feel overlooked as Wall recalled

thomaskircheAs 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.