Pulling the Curtain down: An Introduction to the Role of the East German Protestant Church in the Peaceful Revolution of 1989

 

The year 1989 will always be remembered as the year in which a hurricane of democratic change swept across the Communist-dominated political landscape of Eastern Europe. Several political and religious groups, long oppressed and pushed to the periphery of society in these countries, found after the fall of old governments and the confused scramble to establish new ones, that they suddenly had representatives of their interests in important positions of national leadership. The disenfranchised suddenly transformed into the empowered, in some cases in only a matter of a few months.

 

The East German Protestant Church, represented especially by the Evangelische Kirche - the East German Lutheran Church - provides an excellent example of an unlikey political actor in a Communist state. Its churches across the country generated an incredible amount of political change before the collapse of the East German government in November 1989, led by Erich Honnecker. One certainly oversimplifies the Revolution to conclude that the overwhelming activism of the Church was the only factor determining the historical changes. To assert such, in fact, would be to apply a reductionist logic similar to that of the Marxist dialectical materialism against which the masses revolted. But definitely, the mass engagement of East German citizens with strong connections to the church helped assure the success and peaceful nature of the Revolution. One can safely say that the East German Protestant Church was at the forefront of the Revolution, initiating and propelling many of the historical political changes that collectively known as the "Friedliche Revolution" or Peaceful Revolution of 1989.

 

The central role of church leaders and members is evident in their political engagement before and during the Revolution in

 

1.       conducting dialogue between citizens and government leaders;

2.       in organizing mass protests;

3.       and in providing a safe meeting place for diverse activist groups, which united some of the most vocal dissenting elements in society that challenged the government's authority.


East German Christians were also politically engaged after the Revolution (or "the turning" as they call it) in mediating and establishing a forum to debate the future shape of society and the government after the sudden end of 40 years of Communist rule. Several church leaders also held important positions in the new coalition government that followed the Revolution. This paper examines the contributions and direction which the Church gave to the political changes and attempts to offer some basic explanations for why and how the Church became such a critical agent of change in this, the only peaceful revolution in Germany's history.

 

In order to understand the dissent that led masses of East Germans to unite in scores of anti-government protests (which of course were illegal), one must first understand the totalitarian nature of life under the SED party, the Socialist Unity Party. Perhaps the country's official name, the German Democratic Republic, was somewhat of a misnomer. Some have joked that the Communist takeover after World War II rendered the GDR barely German, hardly democratic, and certainly not a Republic. During the nation’s 40-year history, the Socialist Unity Party established and enforced the "total touch" policy characteristic of totalitarian regimes. Each sector of society was subdued under the careful guidance of the only official party, the SED.

 

Nielsen points out that with no legal opposition parties, the Communist party, the SED, established and enforced the "most efficient police state in Europe" (Nielsen, p. 25). The Secret Police (or the Stasi, as they were most un-affectionately known) were famous for both their skilfulness and their ruthlessness. They oversaw a massive enforcement apparatus, well known for keeping rooms of files detailing the personal histories, and in many oases, the daily activities of citizens, commoners and leaders alike. One never knew if the neighbour next-door or across the street was a paid informant of the Stasi, on salary to report any so-called anti-government activities. The Stasi also bugged and monitored telephones with stereotypical German efficiency (Nielsen, p. 25).

       

In his excellent comparative account of the revolutions in Eastern Europe, Niels Nielsen describes the conditions against which the East Germans rebelled. He notes that there were little or no open discussions of important societal issues, public demonstration was illegal, and travel outside the GDR was generally prohibited, unless one vacationed in other Eastern Bloc countries. Some exemptions were possible, and the government liberalized these policies in the last few years (along with emigration policy) in the face of growing unrest (Nielsen, p.25). Strict Marxist-Leninist philosophy was also enforced in the workplace and in schools at all levels. As "the only true worldview", citizens had to swear their loyalty to Marxist-Leninist ideals, or the government denied them and their children educational and employment opportunities (Pierard, p.501).

       

Citizens wearied however, of this "total touch," and in many cases rejected this enforced worldview as ideologically bankrupt (Nielsen, p. 42). They demanded a radical restructuring of society, freedom of expression and travel, elections that were not rigged, and an end to personal harassment (Nielsen, p. 42,45). Nielsen explains that this groundswell of dissent in the 1980's coincides also with East Germany's prolonged economic decline. The government’s inability to improve the citizens' standard of living helped convince the people, he concludes, that East Germany, under Erich Honnecker's leadership, was both ideologically and economically bankrupt (Nielsen, p. 45).

 

On October 9th, considered by many commentators the turning point of the Revolution, West German President Richard von Weiszäcker was asked how he explained the unprecedented upheaval in East Germany. He replied, "Gorbachev and the churches" (Nielsen, p.27). It seems that Gorbachev's glasnost was indeed coming to East Germany, even though the SED leadership condemned the reforms and determined at first not to follow Moscow's lead and liberalize its policies (Burgess, p. 31). Without Gorbachev's decision to allow the protests, one might speculate that the Peaceful Revolution might have had a very un-peaceful ending. If, for example, he had decided to enforce the Brezhnev doctrine and maintain Soviet control of the GDR by force, as was done in 1953, there may have never been a successful Revolution. One should not underestimate the fortune (or as some East Germans suggest - the providence) of the simultaneous unrest in the Soviet Union that influenced Gorbachev not to entangle himself in East German domestic affairs. The moment seemed primed for change, and the Church, as Weiszäcker suggests, took full advantage of this historic opportunity.

 

In at least five ways, members of Protestant churches across the country, most notably in Leipzig and Berlin, but also in smaller rural locales, became engaged in political activity at the grassroots level. Although the Church has had a significant political identity for years, it had never before fostered as much antigovernment protest as its members did in the final years before the collapse of Communist rule (Burgess. p. 17). In 1989, the Church became a key agent behind the mass mobilization of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of citizens, all demanding change. An examination of the Church's leadership role in the protests also indicates that its members consistently emphasized the need for peaceful protests by all citizens and the necessity of restraining from the use of violence.

 

Pierard, a historian at Indiana State University, explains that tensions between hard-line leaders and reformers in government steadily grew throughout 1987 and 1988 (Pierard, p.502). However, during the summer of 1989 two events triggered action: the rigged local elections of May 7th and the dismantling of the 354-kilometre long iron fence border between Austria and Hungary (Pierard, p. 502). In Leipzig, the Stasi arrested more than 100 demonstrators who protested against the undemocratic election. This prompted church leadership at a conference in June to break decisively with any remaining "accomodationist" sentiment and to condemn the falsified election as evidence of the government's undemocratic orientation (Pierard, p. 502).

 

Meanwhile, in July and August, thousands of vacationing East Germans began pouring through the newly opened border in Hungary. Exercising again its activist voice in its official pronouncements, the Church drafted a letter to Honnecker "calling for an open discussion of the problems facing the country, respect for dissenting opinions, and an immediate end to press censorship and travel restrictions" (Pierard, p. 502). Again, on September 19th, the synod of the Federation of Protestant Churches sent an even stronger statement justifying the mass exodus of citizens and urging immediate democratic reforms.

 

The development of special interest activist groups within local congregations is the second indication of its significant political involvement. The base groups were collections of individuals with a variety of social concerns who met to plan events and exchange ideas regarding peace and disarmament issues, human rights, preservation of the environment, and several other concerns (Nielsen, p. 37). They served as a broad umbrella to bring Christians and other activists together into the grassroots organizations that later served as the core of dissent during the Revolution. The church sheltered and defended these groups, who were prohibited from meeting openly. They enjoyed relative safety inside the church walls, although the danger always remained that government informants could also infiltrate the church. John Burgess describes the unique “free space” that these groups provided for activists in contrast to the state-imposed conformity they experienced elsewhere. “The church offered a sense of freedom and acceptance,” he explains, “that they did not find elsewhere in society” Burgess, p.24). The agenda of these groups influenced the Synod’s approach to social issues and helped keep the Church attentive to the political interests of East Germans at the local level (Pierard, p.502). The Church served as the key meeting place for dissenters during the Revolution and fostered the development of core activist groups. Members of these close-knit pockets of political dissent became instrumental as leaders during the weeks of mass protest.

 

New illegal political parties, such as Democracy Now and the New Democratic Departure also sprang up in 1989. The initial meetings of both were held in churches in Berlin and Leipzig. This third reflection of the Church’s involvement is most apparent when one examines the results of the first free election after the Revolution. On March 18, 1990 the Christian Democratic Union party won an overwhelming number of parliament seats, soundly defeating the former Communist party which had sought a facelift in its much—needed name change to the Party of Democratic Socialism. The significant point is not that the CDU won, but rather that out of 400 seats, 21 Lutheran pastors, 2 theologians, one Baptist layperson, and three other lay leaders were elected (Pierard, 507). The voters understood that the Church had led the Revolution in many respects. It had also maintained the only alternative worldview to Marxist—Leninism over the years. Prominent Church members even led the new coalition government. The new Prime Minister, Lothar de Maziere, was a lay member of the presidium of the Protestant Church Federation. Four Cabinet Ministers were also pastors, including the Foreign Affairs Minister (Markus Meckel), the Minister for Economic Cooperation (Hans-Wilhelm Ebeling), the Minister for Media Policy (Gottfried Müller) and Rainer Eppelmann, the Minister for Disarmament and Defense (Pierard, p.507). Professing Christians would never have held these positions before the Revolution, because no one with personal or familial contact with the church could advance in the Communist hierarchy (Pierard, p. 506). They would be extremely fortunate, in fact, to have received a college education, since most traditional educational and professional opportunities were closed to those who did not officially disassociate themselves from the church (Pierard, p. 506).

 

In addition to their official statements against the SED government, the housing of the core political groups, and their involvement in the new political parties, the church members also led the first mass protests in Leipzig. Often leaders within the church were relied on to lead rallies and organise protests (Nielsen, p.38). Perhaps the most significant and well-known method by which the Leipzig churches contributed to the mass mobilization of their city to protest in October and November was through the “Montagsgebete” or Monday prayer services. Every Monday since 1982 hundreds of citizens met at the Nikolaikirche (the Church of St. Nicholas) to pray individually and collectively for both personal and social concerns (Nielsen, p.25) Eventually the practice spread to other churches as well. In these meetings, people often offered prayers for peace and over the years, the weekly gatherings developed a significant political dimension. Nielsen explains:

 

Their political engagement for peace and justice was intrinsic to their preaching. But it was members of the base communities, not primarily the larger constituency of the churches, which came to make up a subculture of resistance. Political opposition became especially intense as church prayer services served as a place of information, a voice for the voiceless (Nielsen, p.41.)

 

The Monday-night prayer meetings served as a catalyst or rallying-point for the demonstrators in Leipzig. Hans Taut, a doctor In Leipzig, whose family attended the demonstrations, explains that the weekly regularity of these meetings partially accounts for the large numbers that protested during October and November. During these months of the largest protests, citizens knew that each Monday, hundreds would fill St. Nicholas Church and afterward proceed with lit candles through the Leipzig streets to the centre of town. The reliability of these protesters to lead demonstrations always on the same evening enabled the thousands and later hundred of thousands of citizens to have a predetermined time and place to meet for mass demonstrations, whether they came first to a service in one of several churches or joined the demonstrators after they arrived in the massive open area near the University of Leipzig.

 

Thus, the largest demonstrations always occurred on Mondays and grew in size as the summer weeks passed. Reliable estimates of the demonstrators attending the protests in October reveal a stunning progression: October 2 — 10,000; October 9 — 70,000; October 16 - 120,000; October 30 - 300,000 (Nielsen, p.30). Amidst this national crisis for the SED party, Erich Honnecker resigned on October 18th and was replaced by Egon Krenz, who remained in office less than two months.

 

Leipzig pastor Hans-Jürgen Sievers details the Church’s involvement in the Revolution during the months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November. His account of the Monday prayer meeting on October 9th provides insight into the role of the Church and the mind of the demonstrator. I offer here a translation of a passage out of his book Stundenbuch einer deutschen Revolution:

 

St. Nicholas’ Church had to be evacuated once again because of another bomb threat. Shortly after 4 P.M. entrance was forbidden, and only a few minutes later, three other churches were overflowing with people. For the first time, St. Thomas’ Church and St. Michael’s Church were involved, both two streetcar stops away from the centre of town. The situation in the churches was a once in a lifetime experience. People sat, stood, and pressed themselves into any available spot. They stood on the staircases up to the balconies, in the doorways, and outside in the streets. A breathtaking silence and focused alertness dominated the crowds. The crowds attending the services were filled with both fear and great determination — determination not to allow themselves to be intimidated, and to go anyway out on the streets. At the same time, they feared the consequences (Sievers, p.73).

 

 

Meditation texts used by the Church during these gatherings reveal the political nature of the Church’s message of resistance. For example, a political adaptation of the biblical text, I Corinthians Chapter 13, was read on October 9th in the Leipzig Reformed Church. The meditation, originally written by Canaan Banana, the former State President of Zimbabwe, and a committed Lutheran, indicates the Church’s awareness of the larger struggle for the recognition of human rights around the world. Although the author originally described political oppression in an African context, members of the East German Church recognised parallels with their own situation and included the text in its service. The meditation expresses scepticism towards the present political system, emphasizes the need to take action, and indicates a deep concern for the protection of human rights. Portions of the African devotion include:

 

I would be a hypocrite if I preached about the sacredness of life and watched the suffering of my people without doing anything. I would be a hypocrite.

Love never gives up. As precious as life, are justice and human dignity. Political slogans will pass away, systems of exploitation will decay. People call for liberation, because God has given us the right to worth and freedom (Sievers, p.74).

 

Perhaps one of the most significant contributions of the Church in its role of generating and organizing dissent was its consistent appeal to both citizens and government leaders for non-violent change. Base groups were especially effective in persuading demonstrators to avoid violent clashes with the police. Hans Taut explains that citizens feared that the government could order the police to fire cm the crowds at the demonstrations. Police encircled the demonstrators enclosing them, and they were always armed. What followed in Romania months later could conceivably also have occurred in Leipzig. Footage of the protests discovered at the secret police headquarters shows how high-powered cameras atop city buildings would focus in narrowly on faces in the crowds. The Stasi would seek to identify and arrest any leaders of the protests.

 

The possibility also existed that the police could plant agents in civilian clothes in the crowds to provoke fights. In the event of such a violent outbreak, the peaceful demonstrators from the Church, most holding candles and posters, were certain to lose. Given this tense environment, the base groups from the Leipzig churches made extensive appeals to the crowds before protests, urging non-violent demonstrations.

 

Sievers includes in his account of the events of October 9th the text of an appeal made by the Leipzig base groups for justice, Human Rights, and Environmental Protection. The document describes the danger of past demonstrations, the uselessness of violent solutions, and it offers suggestions for peaceful protest. These citizen groups write, “We fear for the future of our country. Violence creates only more violence. Violence solves no problems, violence is inhuman, violence can not be the sign of a better society” (Sievers, p.752) The base groups also implore the crowds not to attempt to break through any human chains which the police form and to restrain themselves from every form of violence. The conclusion of their statement reveals the effects of the democratic liberalism that upset the imposed Communist order in East Germany. Affirming their sovereignty, they write:

 

We are the people! Violence among us leaves behind eternally bleeding wounds! Above all, the party and the government must be held accountable for the rise of the present serious situation. But today it is our responsibility to prohibit a further escalation of the violence. On this our future depends (Sievers, p.76).

 

Erwin Weber also points out that during the Montagsgebete, the Monday prayer services, thousands of people were praying for safe, peaceful demonstrations, before marching with their lit candles - symbols of their peaceful intent — out into the streets. He writes, “You have to realize that the demonstrators were boiling with hate for what the state had inflicted upon them the last forty years… However, with the candle in their hands, a reminder of ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,’ the demonstrators were kept from using force and resorting to violence (Weber, p.8-9). The Church’s insistence on non-violent protest helps explain why the East German Revolution is known in Germany as the “friedliche” or peaceful revolution.

 

The preceding discussion has offered an introduction to how the Church became politically engaged in the Revolution in 1989. One learns even more about the political culture in the former German Democratic Republic by asking why the Church, as an institution, became such an important political actor. An examination of the unique political culture that developed in the East since 1949 is now a particularly significant and worthwhile study for Europeanists, when one considers the challenges which unification brings to the five new Länder and to Germany as a whole.

 

Several explanations help explain the Church’s strong role in political affairs in 1989. John Burgess, describing the development of church—state affairs in East Germany, notes that the Church has always maintained a strong political identity, one that at times has even overshadowed its religious identity (Burgess, p.172) He suggests, in fact, that the Church “has consistently represented the major ideological and political alternative to the Communist party and socialist state” (Burgess, p.17). The Church served as a voice of the people and developed into what the Nazi-resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the church for others” (Nielsen, p.32-33).

 

The Church embraced many people who found themselves on the periphery of East German society. Many writers and artists, long accustomed to censorship, found openness in the Church and joined the protest community there. Another contributing factor explaining the leading role of the Church in the events of 1989 is the state of unity the Church sought to maintain. While there was occasional division between base group members, Nielsen notes that the Church formed a more consistently unified resistance than other groups such as writers and artists. He relies on analysis by the East German sociologist and activist Erhard Neubert, who argues that the strengths and weaknesses of the Revolution reflects the protesters’ “Protestant heritage” as it was linked to capitalism (Nielsen, p.40). Neubert suggests (not with derogatory intent) that the artist groups in the larger East German society “were highly individualistic and divided amongst themselves” (Nielsen, p. 40). Communists could more easily disrupt their occasional protests. This lack of concentrated dissent further opened the way for a vocal, engaged Church to become a key actor.

 

Furthermore, as noted before, the Church seemed to offer the only alternative worldview in a society dominated by atheistic materialism. “Religious leaders, by contrast,” Nielsen explains, “felt more keenly a living relation to a longer past and tradition” (Nielsen, p. 40). The people probably identified to some degree with this heritage which long predated the imposition of Marxist-Leninist ideology. In fact, a compelling interpretation explaining why churches across Eastern Europe assumed such significant roles in these anticommunist revolutions points to the “triple vector” that churches provided against Communist totalitarianism.

 

Patrick Michel’s study La sociétée retrouvée politique et reliogion dans l’ Europe sovietsée contends that the engagement of the church and its reception as a legitimate voice for the people was to be expected (Nielsen, p.6). In most cases, it was the only institution in these Eastern European countries that took a stand “against the alienation of individuals, against the totalization of society and against the sovietization of the nation” (Nielsen, p.6). Religious conviction challenged the Soviet attempt to suppress personal freedom and distinct national traditions in the service of creating a vast, homogeneous Soviet empire. The present strength of national spirit across Eastern Europe testifies to the difficulty of this task.

 

Religious practice in East Germany, however secularised, may have reinforced nationalistic, anti-soviet feelings among citizens at the grassroots level. In any case, it is entirely conceivable that the East German Church over the years supported an alternative subculture that sustained civil society in a totalitarian environment. The engagement of the Church in the Revolution reveals that its members contributed moral values, integrity and a concern for human rights to am East German society founded on scientific dialectical materialism and dominated by a government which often denied these benefits to its citizens.

 

The Revolutions of 1989 are popularly described as having required ten years of struggle in Poland, ten weeks in Germany, ten days in Czechoslovakia and ten hours in Romania (Nielsen, p.6). Although this understates the struggle of resistors in many of these countries, the observation accurately describes the quickness of the political change that transformed Europe three years ago. As several commentators have documented, members of Christian churches - Protestant and Catholic — became key political actors in these historical events. In the case of East Germany, the Church conducted dialogue between citizens and the government, assuming the role of speaking up for the voiceless in the former Volksrepublik or “People’s Republic.” Church and lay leaders also organized mass demonstrations, emphasizing the necessity of non—violent protest and the virtue in following Christ’s example. Churches also sheltered diverse activist groups, who later led protests, developed, and articulated the ideological basis of the people’s protests. The Church was the main institution to provide an alternative worldview to the Marxist ideology that the Communists preached in the schools, in the workplace and in mandatory indoctrination sessions. Niels Nielson summarizes the fundamental conflict between church and state in the former East German society like this:

 

it must be said that the stereotype of a group of steadfast true believers giving unqualified prophetic witness against a brutal system is all too easily invoked. Such situations existed, and there were faithful martyrs, but the larger problem was the conflict between religion and culture, church and state in the Communist setting. Religion is a social phenomenon, not simply a matter of individual belief. It exists in community. Even religious communities that were compromised under communism stood apart from totalitarianism, challenging it. The continued life of the churches in spite of state control indicated that Marxist atheism had not won fully… ‘Tearing down the curtain’ was not just the work of movements and ideas; it happened because courageous men and women resisted apathy and fear (Nielsen. p.9).

 

Stephen Lazarus

April 6, 1992

 

Many to Many Issue 3 February 1993

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