25 September 2009

East Germany - A Catholic Revolution?

Academics and others have been disputing for almost 20 years whether the events in the GDR in autumn 1989 can be characterised a "Protestant Revolution". Now, in a speech to mark the 20th anniversary this year of the opening of the Berlin Wall, the leader of the German (Roman Catholic) Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch has pointed to the role of the Catholic Church:
With the distance of 20 years, we can see that the various developments that came together on 9 November 1989 had begun much earlier. At a whole series of stages we encounter Pope John Paul II. Mikhail Gorbachev even wrote in his memoirs, "Everything that has happened in recent years in Eastern Europe would not have been possible without this Pope." Here I need only recall the first visit of Pope John Paul II in his Polish homeland in 1979, On the eve of Pentecost, he prayed: "Send forth your Spirit! And renew the face of the earth! This earth!“ Then, at the Victory Square in Warsaw, the Pope gave confidence to his compatriots, encouraged them to commit themselves to freedom and human rights, and with his prayer set in train a movement of "Solidarity" that could not be stopped even by violence and martial law.
Zollitsch is certainly right in this anniversary year with his reminder of the significance of the events in central and eastern Europe - particularly in Poland - for what happened in the GDR, events that are sometimes obscured by a focus on 9 November and the Berlin Wall. This was not just (or not even) a German-German affair. At a later point in his speech Zollitsch refers to the role of the churches in what he terms the "German Revolution":
It is correct to say that at its origins the German Revolution of 1989/90 was not a Christian revolution. But neither should one ignore that the churches opened their doors as the crisis of 1989 arrived, as the oppositional groups first were at the peace prayers in the church and then went onto the demonstrations on the streets
The Protestant church had the advantage of being the bigger sister, and being better able to offer appropriate rooms and was all in all more generous when it came to offers church premises for non-religious events. But it is indisputable that both churches offered space and protection as the opposition in the GDR needed institutional support and personal help. In their attempts to achieve freedom and civic rights, the opposition looked to the churches, the people sought the presence of the church and their hopes were not disappointed. The courageous examples were contagious. This explains why a surprisingly large number of GDR Catholics, who because of political abstinence reaching back decades were largely immune to such developments, seized the opportunity to get involved in promoting freedom and unity, and to take on political responsibility, beginning with moderating the Round Table to standing as candidates in the elections that soon followed.
So it wasn't a Catholic revolution after all, but what is interesting in the cautious attempt to deal with the role of the Catholic Church in the GDR, noting that its policy of "political abstinence" had meant that Catholics were less likely to get involved, and that the Catholic Church was less likely to offer premises to non-religious events, by which is meant political gatherings for civic rights activists. Its a far cry from the statements shortly after the political changes of 1989, when the Protestant church was being criticised as too cosy with the GDR authorities and the Catholic Church being presented as a model of resistance.

Here is an extract from the H-Net review of Herbert Heinecke's book. Konfession und Politik in der DDR: Das Wechselverhältnis von Kirche und Staat im Vergleich zwischen evangelischer und katholischer Kirche:

While both churches adopted initially confrontational postures toward the establishment of SED rule, differences in their own histories and traditions, social positions and self-understandings led them to respond very differently to changing circumstances in the GDR. These differences became especially clear after the mid-to-late-1950s, when the relaxation of state anti-church activities made room for more nuanced church-state relations. They culminated in the late 1980s in the central role played by the Protestant churches in the emergence of East German civil society at a time when the Catholic church was still only beginning to come to terms with its place in the GDR.

:: Hat tip to Anli Serfontein for the speech


Anonymous said...
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Zweifler said...

Oops that should be from a "Polish perspective"

zweifler said...

It would be interesting to see a paper from a Polish perspective on the GDR's "Protestant" revolution

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