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German Democratic Republic: Politics, Economics and Society – Mike Dennis

May 16, 2016

GDRThe Head of German in the school where I last taught was somewhat of an expert in East Germany and he devised teaching schemes for schoolchildren there. From him I gained an interest in the GDP.

I remember visiting the Nikolai Church during my first visit to Berlin, soon after the wall came down. There were photos of the peace vigils held there. In the GDR, the church provided the only free space,” Fuhrer said in an interview with Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. “Everything that could not be discussed in public could be discussed in church, and in this way the church represented a unique spiritual and physical space in which people were free.”

GDR 3In the early 1980s, Rev. Christian Fuhrer began holding weekly prayers for peace. Every Monday, worshippers recited the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Few came at first, but attendance grew as the Soviet Union began opening to the West. The prayer service, Fuhrer said, “was something very special in East Germany. Here a critical mass grew under the roof of the church — young people, Christians and non-Christians, and later, those who wanted to leave (East Germany) joined us and sought refuge here.”

As a college student in those years, Sylke Schumann was one of the hundreds, then thousands, who joined the vigils in the sanctuary at St. Nikolai and then marched in the streets holding candles and calling for change. “Seeing all these people gather in this place … from week to week and more and more people gathering, you had the feeling this time really the government had to listen to you,” Schumann said.

In October 1989, on the 40th anniversary of the GDR, the government cracked down. Protesters in Leipzig were beaten and arrested. Two days later, St. Nikolai Church was full to overflowing for the weekly vigil. When it was over, 70,000 people marched through the city as armed soldiers looked on, but did nothing. “I remember it was a cold evening, but you didn’t feel cold, not just because you saw all the lights, but also because you saw all these people, and it was, you know, it was really amazing to be a part of that, and you felt so full of energy and hope,” Schumann said.

“For me, it still gives me the shivers thinking of that night. It was great.”

GDR 2“In church,” Fuhrer said, “people had learned to turn fear into courage, to overcome the fear and to hope, to have strength. They came to church and then started walking, and since they did not do anything violent, the police were not allowed to take action.

“(East German officials) said, ‘We were ready for anything, except for candles and prayer.'”

Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount were Fuhrer’s primary motivations, but he also drew inspiration from German pastor and Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fuhrer said King “prepared and executed this idea of nonviolence, peaceful resistance, in a wonderful way. Then it became our turn to apply the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount here in Leipzig.”

Just a month after the massive demonstration, the wall between East and West Berlin came down. The church had sent a powerful message to the world: the East German government no longer controlled its people. “If any even ever merited the description of ‘miracle’ that was it,” Fuhrer said. “A revolution that succeeded, a revolution that grew out of the church. It is astonishing that God let us succeed with this revolution.”

St. Nikolai itself has gone back to being a parish church, its congregations not much larger than before the demonstrations. But Fuhrer said he and his fellow worshippers didn’t do what they did back then to draw people to the church. “We did it,” he said, “because the church has to do it.”

This book explains the role of religion in these troubled times.

It also says that ‘the rebuilding of the New Synagogue in the Oranienburger Strafle in East Berlin is under planning consideration’ and I am pleased to say that I saw the rebuilt synagogue during my last visit a few years ago.

I was very surprised that homosexuality isn’t mentioned in this book despite its account of the general liberalisation in attitudes towards sexual behaviour. East Germany inherited the law Paragraph 175. Communist gay activist Rudolf Klimmer, modeling himself on Magnus Hirschfeld and his Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, campaigned to have the law repealed, but was unsuccessful. However, the law was reverted to the version found in the 1925 criminal code, which was considerably milder than the version adopted in 1935 under Nazi rule. In the five years following the Uprising of 1953 in East Germany, the GDR government instituted a program of “moral reform” to build a solid foundation for the new socialist republic, in which masculinity and the traditional family were championed while homosexuality, seen to contravene “healthy mores of the working people”, continued to be prosecuted under Paragraph 175. Same sex activity was “alternatively viewed as a remnant of bourgeois decadence, a sign of moral weakness, and a threat to the social and political health of the nation.”

In East Germany, Paragraph 175 ceased to be enforced in 1957 but remained on the books until 1968. According to historian Heidi Minning, attempts by lesbians and gays in East Germany to establish a visible community were “thwarted at every turn by the G.D.R. government and SED party.” She wrote: Police force was used on numerous occasions to break up or prevent public gay and lesbian events. Centralized censorship prevented the presentation of homosexuality in print and electronic media, as well as the import of such materials.

Ironically, the Protestant church provided more support than the state, allowing meeting spaces and printing facilities.

Towards the end of the 1980s however, just before the collapse of the iron curtain, the East German government opened a state-owned gay disco in Berlin. On 11 August 1987 the East German Supreme Court affirmed that “homosexuality, just like heterosexuality, represents a variant of sexual behaviour. Homosexual people do therefore not stand outside socialist society, and the civil rights are warranted to them exactly as to all other citizens.”

The author is Professor of Modern German History at the University of Wolverhampton.

Quotations:

On 30 April 1945, one era gave way to another: the Chancellor of the thousand-year Reich committed suicide and Ulbricht, the ‘founding father’ of the GDR, returned to Germany after twelve years’ exile in Paris, Prague and Moscow. Ulbricht and his nine communist colleagues were commissioned to assist the Soviet authorities in the reconstruction of the Berlin region in the Soviet zone of occupation.

The memoirs of Wolfgang Leonhard, the youngest member of the Ulbricht team, bears witness to the chaos: The scene was like a picture of hell—flaming ruins and starving people shambling about in tattered clothing; dazed German soldiers who seemed to have lost all idea of what was going on; Red Army soldiers singing exultantly, and often drunk; groups of women clearing the streets under the supervision of Red Army soldiers; long queues standing patiently waiting to get a bucketful of water from the pumps; and all of them looking terribly tired, hungry, tense and demoralised.

Anton Ackermann, too, recalled the feeling of hopelessness:

What we met was a people in agony. That is the truth. They were paralysed by the poison of despair equally weighed down by the traumatic experience of nightly air raids and the other horrors of war, the carefully nurtured fear of bolshevism and the awareness of their shared responsibility for the fate that had befallen Germany.

The history of the GDR can be dated in a narrow sense either from the establishment of the Soviet zone in 1945 or since its foundation as a state in October 1949. However, its historical and cultural roots are firmly embedded in the `unmastered’ German past. The GDR’s own understanding of its historical pedigree has long rested on the claim that it ‘furthers the heritage of the best sons of the people, whilst at the same time it has radically broken with the reactionary past’ (The German Democratic Republic, 1981, p. 33). Until the recent confrontation with some of the ‘darker’ chapters in German history, the progressive traditions were associated primarily with Thomas Miintzer, ‘the most prominent leader of the insurgent peasants and the urban populace’ in the Peasants’ War of 1524-5; Marx and Engels, who ‘put science and all the great achievements of human intellectual activity into the service of their liberation struggle’; and August Bebel (1840-1913) and Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826-1900) who helped create ‘the first proletarian mass party that espoused Marxism as its ideological form’ (The German Democratic Republic, 1981, pp. 30, 34-5). Their struggle was continued by Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919), Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919) and the leader of the KPD’s fight against fascism, Ernst Thalmann (1866-1944). The GDR therefore depicts itself as the culmination and embodiment of the long history of the German labour movement.

As a final link in the continuity thesis, GDR historians insist that capitalism in the Federal Republic can still serve as an incubator of fascism; in contrast, the GDR has found the appropriate antidote: socialism.

With about one-third of all marriages ending in divorce, GDR has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. And women are far likely than men to institute an action for divorce. The increasing number of mothers and some young couples’ preference for free association (Lebensg testify to the questioning of marriage as a ‘part of the good life’. Another sign changing pattern of the relationship is the increase in the proportion of live unmarried mothers from 17.3 per cent in 1978 to 32 per cent in 1983.

Despite the rejection of the institution of marriage by some Marxists, the GDR has always recognized the value of both marriage and the family The GDR family continues to perform the basic functions of reproduction, the socialization of children, and economic and emotional support for its members. Marriage is proclaimed by the 1966 Family Code as a union for life based on mutual love, respect and faithfulness, understanding and trust, and unselfish help for one another. The founders of the GDR sought, however, to modify the traditional relationship between the sexes. For example, the 1950 Law on the Protection of Mother and Child replaced the previous right of the husband alone to make decisions on all marital matters by the joint decision-making right of both partners. In addition, women’s employment was regarded as the key to their equality and a ‘higher’ form of family life. After much delay, a new family model emerged in 1966 with the promulgation of the Family Code.

The code defines the family as the smallest cell in society and proclaims that only socialism, which is allegedly free from the exploitation and material insecurity of bourgeois society, can provide the necessary conditions for family relations of a new and lasting kind. Children receive a good deal of attention in the code. The most important task and duty of parents, to be undertaken jointly, is the upbringing of the children in, it is hoped, a stable and happy environment. The socialization of children and young people is not envisaged as the prerogative of parents but as a cooperative effort between parents, school and state organizations such as the Thalmann Pioneers and the Free German Youth.

The SED target of two to three children per family is not easily reconciled with the burdens arising from the full-time employment of a high proportion of women and with the liberal abortion legislation.

The Evangelical Church, especially since the informal pact with the state in 1978, provided considerable space for the articulation of ‘unofficial’ views. For example, at a conference of Evangelical Church Directorates in July 1982 the production, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons was denounced as a moral evil. The major open event has been the annual Dresden Peace Forum, notably that of February 1982, which was attended by about 5,000 people, despite the authorities’ attempts to suppress news of the event and hinder travel to Dresden. At the Forum, speakers called for the introduction of obligatory peace education in schools. The authorities forcibly suppressed the wearing of the famous ‘Swords into Plough­shares’ emblem whose popularity mushroomed after the 1982 Forum. Students and apprentices who wore the badge faced expulsion from college.

GDR 6Other activities include, since 1980, the Peace Weeks and the Peace Workshops which attract thousands of young people. The Peace Weeks, organized each November, encompass services, discussions, poetry and music. These events are not confined to peace groups: the Peace Workshop held at East Berlin’s Church of the Redeemer in July 1983 was attended by women’s, gay and ecology groups. The East Berlin pastor Rainer Eppelmann, who has been a focal point of the peace movement since the beginning of the 1980s, organizes highly popular blues masses. The masses consist of blues and rock music, meditation and reading. In 1984, about 6,000 mainly young people attended the blues mass at Eppelmann’s church in East Berlin. This may, however, have represented a turning-point since numbers declined sharply to about 2,000 participants in 1985 and then to over 1,000 in the following year, a waning interest in the blues masses themselves rather than pressure from the state and the church authorities seems to be the main reason for the fall in attendance

A few young men refuse military call-up: Wensierski estimates that about 100 did so in 1982. Penalties can be severe: in November 1985, about forty men, mainly total conscientious objectors, were imprisoned for several weeks before church interven­tion secured their release towards the end of the month. Since the Construction Soldiers decree of 1964, conscripts can serve in a construction unit as an alternative to formal military service. The number of young men choosing this option varies from 350 to 700 per year. Although not engaged in formal military duties, the construction soldiers are obliged to wear their own uniforms with a spade emblem on the epaulette. In 1981, a group in Dresden proposed a more radical solution: a community peace service as a civilian alternative to military service. Those performing this kind of service would be employed in homes for children, old people and the physically and mentally handicapped, in auxiliary service in hospitals and community care.

Despite the support of the church synods for the proposal, the authorities refused to contemplate it. Werner Walde, a Politburo candidate, countered that the GDR itself was a community peace service.

Small women’s peace groups have been formed in several cities under the protective cover of the autonomous peace movement. When in March 1982 the new Military Service Law was passed providing for the conscription of women aged 18­50 in the event of an emergency, several hundred women signed a letter of protest to Honecker. In their letter, in October 1982, they contended that army service for women was not an expression of equality but in contradiction to their being female. Barbel Bohley and Ulricke Poppe, two leading figures in ‘Women for Peace’, were arrested in December 1983 but released soon afterwards.

Although peace activities and concerns are certainly not confined to the Evangelical Church and Christians, the church, as the only ‘self-supporting’ institution outside the control of the party and state, provides the essential sanctuary. It is, however, a difficult and taxing relationship for all concerned. The church hierarchy desires to embrace the autonomous peace movement but without jeopardizing its fragile compact with the state by becoming the centre of an overt political opposition against state and party. This delicate balancing act leaves church leaders open to charges of expediency from the more impatient peace activists. Tension also exists within the church over to what extent the peace groups, which contain many non-church members, should be incorporated more firmly into the organizational framework of the church

The division of Germany left the Soviet Union in occupation of a predominantly Protestant area: 81.9 per cent of the zone’s population was Protestant and 11.9 per cent Catholic in 1946. The churches could anticipate a bitter struggle with the socialist state whose ideological forebears had insisted upon the abolition of religion as a necessary precondition of people’s real happiness and freedom from oppression. Yet, as John Sandford observes, ‘the death of religion—like the “withering away of the state”—is postponed for the communist future and is not expected of the socialist present’. The churches’ survival lay in a combination of factors: the reluctance of the political authorities to provoke unnecessary conflict whilst creating a new social order in the anti-fascist, democratic period; the numerical strength of the evangelical community; the churches’ vital contribution to the relief of destitution in the war-ravaged zone; and the humanistic values of justice, peace and solidarity which underpin both Marxism and Christianity.

Although the Soviet authorities and the SED were not intent on the destruction of the churches, a fierce struggle broke out, especially in the 1950s, between church and state. The members of the Evangelical Church’s organization for young people (lunge Gemeinde) suffered discrimination at school and university and religious instruction was banned in schools. The conflict eventually centred around the introduction in 1955 of the atheist youth consecration ceremony (jugendweihe) for 14-year-olds. The Evangelical Church objected to the pseudo-religious character of the ceremony and declared it irreconcilable with confirmation. However, faced by the participation of over 87 per cent of pupils in the eighth grade in the Jugendweihe, the church authorities withdrew their ban in 1960. Not only was communion being denied to these young people, but the church was depriving itself of potential followers.

The church-state struggle abated in the 1960s. Ulbricht’s statement to the People’s Chamber in 1960 that ‘Christianity and the humanist goals of socialism are not irreconcilable’ heralded a change in the regime’s strategy: the churches were to be gradually coopted or incorporated into the socialist order. The regime took issue, however, with the Evangelical Church’s links with its Western brethren. Not until 1969 did the church finally establish its own separate League of Evangelical Churches in the GDR, thus withdrawing from the all-German umbrella organiza­tion, the Evangelical Church of Germany. Two years later, the state acknowledged the League as the official representative of the eight provincial churches of the GDR. Paul Verner, the influential Politburo member and Central Committee secretary for security and church questions, confirmed the drawing-together of state and church when he explicitly denied that the SED aspired to the socialization of the Christian doctrine. Cooperation, though somewhat uneasy, rather than incorporation became the keynote ofSED policy under its new leader.

Honecker’s meeting in March 1978 with the executive of the League of Evangelical Churches and its chairman Bishop Schonherr bore witness to the more harmonious relationship. SchOnherr himself had made a significant personal contribution to laying the groundwork for the compromise. His famous statement in 1971 was a clear indication of the church’s new attitude: ‘We do not want to be a church against or alongside but we wish to be a church within socialism’. Honecker reaffirmed the permission, first granted in 1976, for the construction of church buildings in new towns and new suburbs; he granted the League a modest amount of TV time and additional access to the state radio; and he accepted the import of church literature from the West. These and other concessions were not enshrined in a formal agreement, but they did represent the state’s acknowledgement of the church’s position within socialism. Honecker -designated the church as ‘an autonomous organization of social relevance’.

The SED leadership’s willingness to conclude this informal pact with the Evangelical Church may have been accelerated by its wish to defuse the crisis triggered off by Pastor Briisewitz’s self-immolation in 1976 in what has been interpreted as a protest against the state’s treatment of the church. The 1978 accord should, however, be primarily understood as the outcome of the greater willingness on both sides, since the early 1970s, to establish a working relationship. From the standpoint of the SED leaders, church policy was yet one more aspect of their general policy to integrate diverse social and political groups into the socialist system. Furthermore, the church, due to its links with the West, was probably regarded as a useful ally in the SED’s efforts to influence Western political leaders and peace movements.

A second high-level meeting was held in February 1985 between the heads of state and church_ Honecker expressed his ‘warm thanks’ to the Evangelical Church for its past work and commended its social services, its witness for peace and its attitude to the celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the liberation from fascism. The new chairman of the League of Evangelical Churches, Bishop Hempel, also acknowledged that relations had developed constructively since 1978 but he added the rider that ‘Trust between us (church and state) will grow only to the extent that such trust is felt by ordinary believers’.

The modus vivendi has therefore survived into the 1980s, albeit subject to certain restraints. These limits were clearly drawn by the secretary of state for church affairs, Klaus Gysi, in 1981: cooperation, he averred, is desirable where state and church agree but the church should respect the state’s decisions in the event of disagreement.

The major issues now in dispute between state and church concern the discrimination against young Christians in education and employment and, from i time to time, the Evangelical Church’s involvement in autonomous peace activities.

Nevertheless, the church is firmly embedded in society: it enjoys the right to levy church taxes; it has the right of free assembly; and its many homes and hospitals care for the aged, the physically and mentally handicapped, and social outcasts. The church’s ‘open’ youth work enables it to reach beyond the official membership: many young people take part in excursions, Bible study groups, social activities and weekend retreats. Despite its higher social profile, the internal situation of the church gives cause for concern. First, the church leadership finds itself performing a difficult balancing act between the state and the peace activists, many of whom are not members of the church. Tension also surfaces over the severe constraints on the church’s freedom to articulate in public the political, philosophical and ethical ideas discussed within its walls. Secondly, young people, whether involved in the activities of the Junge Gemeinde or the church’s ‘open’ youth work, are frustrated by bureaucratic tendencies within the church and by what they perceive as a senescent leadership. And finally, the church’s membership has been eroded by the secularization and urbanization of GDR society. The most recent reliable data, from 1977, show a church membership of 7,895,000 or 47.13 per cent of the country’s total population (as against 55.6 per cent in 1971). Membership has most probably continued to decline in the 1980s: the state secretary for church affairs estimated church membership at between 4 and 5 million in 1986 and a leading Evangelical official, Manfred Stolpe, has predicted that by the end of the century only 10 per cent of the population will belong to a church.

The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally played a less active role in GDR society than its evangelical counterpart, partly because it lacks the latter’s numerical strength (1.2 million members in 1977). It has, however, always been intimately concerned with pastoral and charitable work and, more recently, it has adopted a more outspoken line on political matters. In January 1983, the Berlin Bishops’ Conference, the executive committee of the Catholic Church in the GDR, released a pastoral letter on peace. The arms race between East and West was condemned as ‘an intolerable vexation’ and a war with modern weapons of destruction as ‘immoral’. The bishops reiterated their ‘serious misgivings’ about military instruction in schools and confirmed their support for unarmed service for conscripts. In the past, the Catholic Church and state have frequently clashed over the Jugendweihe and the administrative links between the GDR and West German dioceses. The bishop of Berlin, as a result of his jurisdictional rights in West Berlin, is a member of the German Bishops’ Conference under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of Cologne. The Berlin bishopric is divided into three parts—East Berlin, Berlin and the GDR—and about 270,000 of its 435,000 members live in West Berlin.

The GDR’s Jewish community is represented by a tiny group of about 350 registered members, over half of whom reside in East Berlin, and several thousand people of Jewish origin. The regime appears to be making a conscious effort to accommodate Jewish interests: urbanization of GDR society. The most recent reliable data, from 1977, show a church membership of 7,895,000 or 47.13 per cent of the country’s total population (as against 55.6 per cent in 1971). Membership has most probably continued to decline in the 1980s: the state secretary for church affairs estimated church membership at between 4 and 5 million in 1986 and a leading Evangelical official, Manfred Stolpe, has predicted that by the end of the century only 10 per cent of the population will belong to a church (Biischer, in Henkys, 1982, p. 426; Mechtenberg, 1986, p. 166).

The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally played a less active role in GDR society than its evangelical counterpart, partly because it lacks the latter’s numerical strength (1.2 million members in 1977). It has, however, always been intimately concerned with pastoral and charitable work and, more recently, it has adopted a more outspoken line on political matters. In January 1983, the Berlin Bishops’ Conference, the executive committee of the Catholic Church in the GDR, released a pastoral letter on peace. The arms race between East and West was condemned as ‘an intolerable vexation’ and a war with modern weapons of destruction as ‘immoral’. The bishops reiterated their ‘serious misgivings’ about military instruction in schools and confirmed their support for unarmed service for conscripts. In the past, the Catholic Church and state have frequently clashed over the Jugendweihe and the administrative links between the GDR and West German dioceses. The bishop of Berlin, as a result of his jurisdictional rights in West Berlin, is a member of the German Bishops’ Conference under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of Cologne. The Berlin bishopric is divided into three parts—East Berlin, Berlin and the GDR—and about 270,000 of its 435,000 members live in West Berlin.

The GDR’s Jewish community is represented by a tiny group of about 350 registered members, over half of whom reside in East Berlin, and several thousand people of Jewish origin. The regime appears to be making a conscious effort to accommodate Jewish interests: the rebuilding of the New Synagogue in the Oranienburger Strafle in East Berlin is under planning consideration; a projected road through the large Jewish cemetery in the WeiBensee district of the capital has been cancelled; and the magnitude of the murder of the Jews during the Third Reich is receiving a more explicit recognition rather than, as hitherto, being partially obscured by a concentration on the fate of national groups. Anti-semitism is virtually unknown in the GDR but anti-semitic tendencies occasionally surface. In December 1985, the SED newspaper Berliner Zeitung printed a cartoon showing a Jew with a hooked nose as an Israeli aggressor against the Lebanon. And on the fortieth anniversary of Crystal Night the Evangelical Church alluded to ‘a hidden hostility’ towards the Jews.

The degradation of the environment has given rise, especially since the late 1970s, to a critical debate within religious circles and the small ecological groups which are invariably attached to the Evangelical Church. The three most prominent ecological centres are the Church Research Centre run by Peter Gensichen in Wittenberg, the Theological Study Department of the League of Evangelical Churches in East Berlin and the Church and Society Committee under the chairmanship of Dr Heino Falcke. Criticism is directed at the SED leadership’s pursuit of economic growth without due care for environmental protection, its emphasis on the performance principle, its misplaced faith in the benefits of science and technology, and the lack of popular participation in decision-making processes. The Wittenberg Research Centre advocates a broader definition of social wealth to encompass spiritual-cultural as well as material wealth. Such a concept would, it is hoped, encourage a new attitude towards consumption and lower economic growth would no longer be viewed in a negative light.

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