28 October 2009

Church calls for DDR Reform

This is an article published in the Ecumenical Press Service from 31 October 1989. Ironically that issue of EPS was dated 1-9 November, a period during which the perspectives for the future of the GDR would change yet again.

Ecumenical Press Service

ECUVIEW: 'Church Calls for DDR Reform' (by Stephen Brown)

EPS 89.11.46 ::: As one of his first official engagements, Egon Krenz, new leader of the ruling communist party (SED) in the DDR (East Germany), met leaders of the Federation of Evangelical Churches (BEK) in the DDR (19 October). And in his first speech to the nation on DDR tv, Krenz told 'all religious citizens' that 'socialist society needs and wants your contribution. More unites us than divides us.'

About half the 17 million people in the DDR are counted as Christians, and most of them belong to one of the eight Landeskirchen (regional churches).
Krenz was elected SED general secretary (18 October) in succession to Erich Honecker, 78. Citing 'health grounds', he stepped down after thousands of DDR citizens left the country illegally for the BRD (West Germany), and tens of thousands more demonstrated in the streets calling for political change.

It is the most serious crisis in the history of the DDR, which recently marked (7 October) the 40th anniversary of its existence. The presence of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev only encouraged protesters calling for Soviet-style reforms in the DDR as well. He indirectly criticised his hosts by saying 'life will punish those who react too late'.

Evangelical churches all over the DDR have been the focus for demonstrations and protest meetings. These have continued, and increased in size, since Krenz was chosen. Unlike those in previous years, the current protests are not limited to independent peace-and-human-rights activists, and they are no longer confined to the relatively safe protection of church buildings.
Nevertheless, churches still provide a focus for protests. Up to 300 000 people demonstrated in Leipzig (23 October), after the weekly 'prayers for peace1 in the Evangelical churches there, the largest mass demonstration ever seen in DDR history. Little more than a month before, a similar demonstration attracted only 300 people.

In Berlin, the red-brick Gethsemane church in the working class district of Prenzlauer Berg offered refuge to demonstrators being pursued by police after protests outside the parliament building on 7 October where Gorbachev was warning the SED politburo, then still led by Honecker, not to delay reforms.

According to the official DDR news agency ADN, the Krenz-Leich meeting was a 'free and open dialogue in a businesslike atmosphere’. They agreed to work for a 'new chapter of constructive cooperation' , and said it was in both their interests 'to promote changes in our society'. Leich said he urged Krenz to 'give quick and clear signals of a new beginning' - starting with 'open dialogue with the people'.

In Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, and other cities, church representatives have played a key role in starting discussions between the authorities and protesters. But such talks have not silenced increasingly open criticism from DDR church leaders.

Three days after Krenz and Leich met, Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hempel of Saxony told a church synod of allegations of police brutality against protesters. Meanwhile, United Bishop Gottfried Forck of Berlin-Brandenburg, called on DDR Prime Minister Willi Stoph to condemn the 'brutal actions of the security organs' in suppressing pre-anniversary demonstrations.

For two decades, BEK leaders have characterised their situation as that of a 'church within socialism'. They have followed a path of 'critical solidarity', willing to support the humanitarian aims of socialism, but ready to speak out and criticise specific areas of state policy.

Well before Gorbachev, church people were promoting a sort of glasnost in the DDR, drawing attention to social and political problems the state ignored or tried to suppress. Leaders like Heino Falcke of Erfurt, made no secret of their demands for greater democratisation and participation within socialism.

The churches became, in effect, an umbrella for groups marginalised in official society - independent peace activists wanting to criticise Soviet, as well as US, nuclear weapons; human rights groups; ecologists and environmentalists; punks and rockers; even gay and lesbian groups. A result has sometimes been tension, if not conflict, between parishes and groups. But church synods have generally supported the demands the groups have been making.

Ironically, it was Honecker, who came to power in 1971, who gave the DDR church freedom to engage in these activities. At the time, such freedom could only be dreamed of in many other eastern European countries. He initiated the first summit meeting with BELK leaders in March 1978, and gave them permission to build new churches, and produce tv and radio programmes. The then state secretary for church affairs, Klaus Gysi, spoke of an 'historic experiment' between Christians and Marxists.

However, the Gorbachev reforms have long since overtaken the Honecker approach. For months, the DDR has been seething with discontent because of lack of reforms. DDR leaders distanced themselves increasingly stridently from the Soviet Union. As one DDR citizen quipped, 'Gorbachev now seems to be more popular within the churches than inside the communist party'.

A number of opposition groups have been founded in the DDR. New Forum is probably the best known. Others include the movements Democracy Now, and Democratic Breakthrough. There is even a new Social Democratic Party. In this, BELK pastors and other church workers often play key roles. A third of the members of the SDP Executive Committee are pastors; many leading figures in Democracy Now have been active previously in the church-related Aktion Siihnezeichen (Action Reconciliation).

Change has even come to the Christian Democratic Union, a heretofore loyal SED ally, which aims to win Christians for official DDR policies. Last September, some CDU members published an open letter urging change in the electoral system, more intra-CDU democracy, more possibilities to travel, and more media openness [EPS 89.10.18]. At the time, CDU leaders criticised the letter.

However, in recent weeks the CDU daily newspaper Neue Zeit has become increasingly outspoken in favour of reform. It ran an interview (13 October) with Manfred Stolpe, BELK deputy chair. In it, he urged 'genuine elections and secret ballots' and a 'strategy plan for the future cooperation of the Germans in two states in a Europe of détente’.. A number of CDU members of parliament even voted against Krenz when he was elected head of state, unprecedented for the DDR, where parliamentary votes are normally unanimous.
Future DDR developments are still uncertain. But if glasnost-style reforms take root, determined DDR church efforts will have played a big role. [EPS]

[Brown, a journalist based in Brussels, is the author of the chapter on the DDR in a book recently published by the British Council of Churches.]


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