The research for this paper was carried out at the Forschungsschwerpunkt Zeithistorische Studien, an institute set up by the new state of Brandenburg, the Max Planck Institute and the German Research Foundation for the investigation of the history of the former German Democratic Republic. The author wishes to express his gratitude for the generous support of its directors, Professors Jürgen Kocka, Christoph Klessmann and Konrad Jarausch during the summer of 1995 as visiting research professor. He is currently preparing a study of the role of Protestantism in the history of the GDR.
The Church Policy of the SED Regime in East Germany, 1949–89: The Fateful Dilemma*
Article first published online: 9 OCT 2007
Journal of Religious History
Volume 20, Issue 2, pages 228–246, December 1996
How to Cite
MOSES, J. A. (1996), The Church Policy of the SED Regime in East Germany, 1949–89: The Fateful Dilemma. Journal of Religious History, 20: 228–246. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9809.1996.tb00477.x
- Issue published online: 9 OCT 2007
- Article first published online: 9 OCT 2007
. The present author, together with Dr. Gregory Munro of the Australian Catholic University, has discussed the literature on this issue at length in ‘Assessing the Role of the East German Churches in the Collapse of the GDR’, in Re-Writing the German Past, Reinhard Alter and Peter Monteath (eds), New Jersey 1996. Valuable insights as to the actual role of the churches in what happened are provided by Richard Pierard, ‘The Church and the Revolution in East Germany’, The Covenant Quarterly, November 1990. See also Beth Cantrell and Ute Kemp, ‘The Role of the Protestant Churches in Eastern Germany: Some Personal Experiences and Reflections’, Religion, State and Society, Vol. 21, Nos 3 & 4, 1993. Interviews were conducted with committed church people in Meissen, Dresden and Leipzig to enquire of their behaviour during the Wende. The sample illustrates that by no means all were politically active and some pastors were even obstructive in their attitude to dissidents as the latter's activity was construed as dangerous for the church in its relation to the state. So, not all Protestants were enthusiastic for the Wende even though they had no love for communists.
. The debate over whether it is legitimate to designate the events in the GDR during the autumn and winter of 1989/90 as a ‘Protestant Revolution’ has taken on considerable proportions and merits separate investigation. But see, Protestantische Revolution? Kirche und Theologie in der DDR: Ekklesiologische Voraussetzungen, politischer Kontext, theologische und historische Kriterien, Trutz Rendtorff (Hg.), Göttingen 1993. A sympathetic survey based on interviews with participants and newspaper and magazine reports is provided by Karl Cordell, ‘The Role of the Evangelical Church in the GDR’, Government and Opposition, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter 1990. Very perceptive and positive in his judgment is Richard Schröder, ‘The Role of the Protestant Church in German Unification’, Daedalus, Vol. 123, No. 1, Winter 1994. The literature available on this theme has become voluminous, usually written by scholars trained in ecclesiastical history. Secular historians, on the other hand, seeking to explain the collapse of the GDR, are more inclined to concentrate on the obvious external factors such as the consequences of Glasnost and Perestroika on the entire Soviet imperium, and see the churches, wherever they became prominent as in Poland and in East Germany, as largely having afforded ‘succour’ to oppositional elements. See, e.g., Gale Stokes, The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, New York and Oxford 1993, p. 152.
. This is: Das Institut für vergleichende Staat-Kirche-Forschung, Planckstrasse 20 in Berlin Mitte under the direction of Professor Horst Dähn.
. Cf. Robert F. Goeckel, The Lutheran Church and the East German State: Political Conflict and Change under Ulbricht and Honecker, Ithaca and London 1990, pp. 23–8.
. Marx in his ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law—Introduction’ dismissed religion in the following often quoted words: The struggle against religion is therefore a struggle against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma. Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.' Cited after Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx, Cambridge 1986, pp. 481–2. Very perceptive on Marx' understanding of religion is Edelbert Richter, ‘Chancen für Kirche und Staat: die neue Kirchenpolitik der SED und die Marxsche Religionskritik’, Kirche im Sozialismus, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1983. Relevant in this context is David McLellan, Marxism and Religion, New York 1987, where it is pointed out (pp. 161, 170) that Marx's ideas are arguably a secularized form of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
. Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science, Moscow 1962, p. 435.
. Engels, Anti-Dühring, p. 435.
. John A. Moses, Trade Union Theory from Marx to Walesa, Oxford 1990, pp. 60–3.
. Goekel, The Lutheran Church, p. 27. Goeckel here cites Bohdan Bociurkiw as pointing out that, ‘Lenin upgrades the importance of “consciousness,” of the active struggle against religious ideology as a means, if not a condition, of successful struggle against political and economic oppression’. ‘Lenin on Religion’, in Lenin—the Man, the Theorist, the Leader: A Reappraisal Leonard Schapiro and Peter Reddaway (eds), London 1967, p. 110.
. Christiane Lemke, Die Ursachen des Umhruchs 1989: Politische Sozialisation in der ehemaligen DDR, Opladen 1992, pp. 167–87, passim. Antonia Grunenberg, Aufbruch der inneren Mauer: Politik und Kultur in der DDR 1971–1990, Bremen 1990, pp. 81–91. The way in which the SED regime sought to displace the religious consciousness in the GDR by means of substituting state organized public functions for traditional church rituals such as confirmation through die Jugendweihe is perceptively treated by Richard Pierard, ‘Civil Religiosity in a Marxist-Leninist Country: The Example of East Germany’, Christian Scholars Review, Vol. 22, 1992.
. Goeckel, The Lutheran Church, pp. 27–8.
. Gerhard Lange, Katholische Kirche im sozialistischen Staar DDR, Berlin 1993; Franz Georg Friernel. ‘Der Weg der Katholischen Kirche in der DDR’, in Glauben Lernen in einer Kirche für Andere, Ernst Feil (ed.), Gütersloh 1993. For statistics, see Christen, Staat und Gesellschuft in der DDR, Gert Kaiser (Hg.), Düsseldorf 1993, p. 23.
. Mary Fulbrook, ‘Cooption and Commitment: Aspects of Relations between Church and State in the German Democratic Republic’, Social History, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1987, p. 84.
. Horst Dän, Konfrontation oder Kooperation? Das Verhältnis von Staat und Kirche in der SBZ/DDR, Opladen 1992, pp. 23–4.
. Michael Rudolf pursues this issue in his article, ‘Das Verhältnis der SED zur weltanschaulichen Toleranz in den Jahren 1946 bis 1949’, Internationale Wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz (IWK) 29 Jg. Dez. 1993, Heft 4, 490–505. He concludes that it is virtually impossible to be certain whether under the Soviet occupation the intra party discussion about alternative policies towards religion could have borne fruit. Nevertheless, for the years 1946–7 such expectations were not entirely unrealistic.
. Joachim Heise, ‘Zwischen ideologischem Dogma und politischem Pragmatismus—Kirchenpolitik der SED in den 50er Jahren’, Berliner Dialog Hefte, Sonderheft 1993, pp. 3–4.
. In the immediate post-war years the CDU (East), under its first chairman Jakob Kaiser, tried to follow an independent, critical line with regard to both Soviet and SED church policy, but after 1948 under the leadership of Otto Nuschke the CDU became aligned more and more with the SED, a line loyally maintained by the long-serving General Secretary of the CDU, Gerald Götting (1949–89). See Gerald Götting, Christians and Politics in the German Democraric Republic, Berlin-East 1966, passim.
. Heise, ‘Zwischen ideologischem Dogma’, p. 5.
. Heise, ‘Zwischen ideologischem Dogma’, pp. 5–6.
. The notion that Marxism-Leninism was an alternative form of religion is forcefully argued by J. M. Bochenski, ‘Marxism-Leninism and Religion’, in Religion and Atheism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, Bohdan R. Bociurkiw and John W. Strong (eds), London 1975. On p. 5 he affirms, ‘Not only are they [Marxist-Leninists] believers but believers in an all-embracing, absolutist world view’.
. See the remarkable book by a former SED member who became a religiously inspired dissident, Rolf Henrich, Der vormundschaftiliche Staat: vom Versagen des real existierenden Sozialismus, Reinbek 1989. The entire question of opposition in the GDR is addressed in a symposium edited by Ulrike Poppe, Rainer Eckert & Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, Zwischen Selbstbehauptung und Anpassung—Formen des Widerstandes und der Opposition in der DDR, Berlin 1995. The contributor, Thomas Klein, ‘Reform von oben? Opposition in der SED’, targets the problem of inner-party opposition. There were potentially several sources, which were not tolerated by the Politbüro, and concludes that this supreme authority was not simply concerned to preserve the existing social relationships in the GDR but also to ensure that it was the only agency with the power to shape society for all time. In a word, the Politbüro must remain the only ‘agency of social synthesis’. Consequently, it could not countenance any reform initiatives from anywhere else within the party. This did not mean, however, that all critics of the regime were effectively eliminated from the Party. (Klein, ‘Reform von oben?’, pp. 140–1.)
. It should be noted that the SED issued a thinly veiled warning to DDR dissidents in the official party newspaper, Neues Deutschland (5 June 1989), that the bloody suppression of the Chinese students' demonstrations in Tiananmen Square was the way to deal with any counter-revolutionary uprising of an extreme minority. Erich Honecker was apparently prepared to issue such an order in the GDR but in the end no-one was willing to carry it out.
. On the vexed question as to what extent the Stasi succeeded in weakening the resolve of church people to stay loyal to their Christian convictions, a great deal of literature has been generated. It was sparked off by the appearance of a large volume of documents selected from the archives of the Ministry for State Security by Gerhard Besier and Stefan Wolf, ‘Pfarrer. Christen und Katholiken’—Das Ministerium für Staatsicherheit der ehemaligen DDR und die Kirchen, Neukirchen-Vluyn 1992 (2nd edition). The Stasi's stock-in-trade was to interview pastors and other church people for the purposes of enrolling them as ‘informal collaborators’ either by blackmail or other devious means. The question whether such individuals really betrayed their allegiances and colleagues, or were simply acting out a role because they could not extricate themselves, is still an emotive issue in the former GDR. The entire question has now been investigated by Karl W. Fricke, Akten-Einsicht—Rekonstruktion einer politischen Verfolgung, Berlin 1996.
. As suggested by Axel Noack, ‘Die Rolle der evangelischen Kirche im gesellschaftlichen und politischen Umbruch in der DDR’, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, 6. Jg. Heft 1, 1993. For a perceptive survey of the phases of SED church policy, see David Steele, ‘At the Front Lines of the Revolution: East Germany’s Churches Give Sanctuary and Succour to the Purveyors of Change’, in Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, Oxford 1994.
. See the Stuttgart Declaration, 18–19 October 1945 in which the Protestant church leaders of Germany acknowledge their part in the guilt for crimes committed in the name of the German people by the Nazi regime. This statement was made with regard to the Western community of nations. On 8 August 1947 a minority group of Protestant theologians led by Karl Barth proclaimed the so-called Durmstädter Wort, the core of which expressed a distinct sympathy for ‘socialism’. See Gerhard Besier, Der SED-Staat und die Kirche—Der Weg in die Anpassung, Munich 1993, pp. 38–50 passim.
. Kurt Nowak, ‘Evangelische Kirche in der DDR’, Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht, 3/95, p. 144.
. Falko Schilling and Friedemann Stengel, ‘Die theologischen Sektionen im ‘real-existierenden’ Sozialismus der DDR’, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 5. Jg Heft, 1992. A detailed case study with documentation is provided by Dietmar Linke, Thedogiestudenten der Humboldt-Universität—Zwischen Hörsaal und Anklagebank, Neukirchen-Vluyn 1994.
. Nowak, ‘Evangelische Kirche’, p. 147; Besier, Der SED-Staat und die Kirche, pp. 135–8 passim.
. The views of Otto Dibelius were. well known from his synod speeches, especially in 1956, prior to the publication of his famous treatise, Obrigkeit, Stuttgart 1963.
. Besier, Der SED-Staat und die Kirche, p. 209.
. Nowak, ‘Evangelische Kirche’, p. 150.
. Besier, Der SED-Staaf, p. 253.
. Besier, Der SED-Staat, pp. 279–80, where the text of a joint communiqué dated 21 July 1958 is given.
. In October 1958 Barth had published his famous ‘Letter to a Pastor in the GDR’ in which he suggested that the church should adopt the role of ‘loyal opposition’ to the regime. See Besier, Der SED-Staat, pp. 301–11.
. Besier, Der SED-Staat, p. 332.
. Besier, Der SED-Staat, p. 545.
. Cf. John A. Moses, ‘The Church’s Role in the Collapse of Communism in East Germany 1989–90’, Colloquium, Vol. 23, No. 3, 1991, p. 127. Nowak, ‘Evangelische Kirche’, pp. 149–50.
. Kirche im Sozialisms, Information and Texte Nr 15 March 1988, p. 2 (Theologische Studienabteilung, Berlin).
. Moses, ‘The Church’s Role in the Collapse of Communism’, p. 128.
. See the related documents published in SED und Kirchet Eine Dokumentation ihrer Beziehungen, Frédéric Hartweg (Hg.), Bd. II, SED 1968–1989, Neukirchen-Vluyn 1995, pp. 328–41.
. Nowak, ‘Evangelische Kirche’, p. 152.
. Kirche im Sozialismus, p. 9.
. Cited after Lother de Maizière, ‘Zwischen Anpassung und Venveigerung-Konsequenzen aus dem Leben in einem totalitaren Staat’, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 4. Jg. Heft 1, 1991, pp. 416–17.
. Edelbert Richter, ‘Die Zweideutigkeit der lutherischen Tradition’, Deutschland Archiv Nr 4, Jg., 26, 1991, p. 413; The Place of the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Life of the Evangelical Churches in the Life of the German Democratic Republic Lutheran World, Vol. 24, 1977, pp. 26–9., ‘
. David Steele, ‘At the Front Lines of the Revolution’, p. 128.
. Ehrhart Neubert, ‘Sozialethische und charismatische-evangelikale Gruppen in der Kirche aus soziologischer Sicht’, in Das Recht der Kirche, Bd III, Gerhard Rau et al. (eds), Gütersloh 1992, pp. 311–12.
. Friedrich Schorlemmer, Träume und Alpträume: Einmisrhungen 1982–90, Berlin 1990, in which the author, a dissident pastor, documents that the first desire of many church persons was simply reform of the existing state on more democratic lines.
. Hartmut Zwahr, Ende der Selhstzerstörung—Leipzig und die Revolution in der DDR, Gottingen 1993.