Editor's note: Twenty-five years ago this month, East and West Germany reunited after the country’s post-World War II division into the Communist East and Democratic West. Leading up to this, churches emerged from the margins to play a role in the reshaping of new societies, as communism in Eastern Europe was being dismantled. Some were methodically helped to heal the wounds of revolution, while others used newfound freedoms to bring about more revolution. The Observer commemorates the anniversary of Germany’s reunification by republishing this story from October 1990.
They call it The Revolution of the Candles, and many say it began in St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, East Germany on Oct. 9, 1989. That was the Monday night when Rev. Christian Fuhrer’s weekly peace-prayer meeting swelled into a demonstration of 70,000 people. They filled the centre of this historic city where Bach worked and died, demanding democratic reforms from the embattled communist regime of Erich Honecker. It was the first mass anti-government demonstration in East German history, and it signaled the beginning of the end of one of the most hardline countries in the Soviet Bloc.
A year after St. Nicholas’ brush with history, Fuhrer’s notes on the events of Oct. 9 are still feverishly immediate:
. . . anonymous threats on the telephone: ‘If you hold another peace-prayer meeting your church will be in flames’. . . distress, tension weigh heavily on us . . . by 2 p.m. our church is filled (the service begins at 5) . . . we ask neighboring congregations to open and offer peace-prayers . . . several hundred Party members are present; nevertheless we stick to our motto: St. Nicholas Church is open to all . . . the atmosphere in the church is surprisingly good, the reaction of the Party members surprisingly positive . . . a huge crowd forms in the courtyard . . . fear that the 2,000 inside won’t be able to get out, but the exit proceeds without incident . . . calls of ‘no violence, no violence’ . . . a procession of 70,000 marches through the inner city . . . a moving experience to see this non-violent stream of people . . . afterwards we sit together and there is a tremendous feeling of gratitude to God . . . In all of this one must be willing to see a sign of hope. We surely want to.
Within a week, similar demonstrations had spread throughout the country, many beginning in churches and many ending there as protesters sought sanctuary from police. The sick and aging Honecker was forces to resign. By Nov. 7 the government had resigned en masse. The next day, the new communist leader fired his entire Politburo. A day later, the Berlin Wall was opened. By year’s end, the Communists were gone and East Germans began preparing for the first free elections in 45 years. Throughout it all, not a single life was lost.
“This place is a shrine now,” says 33-year-old economist Gerd-Ulf Kreuger as he joins hundreds of Leipziggers streaming through St. Nicholas Church on a busy Saturday afternoon. The visitors are quiet and respectful as they study displays commemorating the church’s part in the revolution. There are photos of French President Francois Mitterand’s pilgrimage to the church last Christmas, photos of a recent pro-Romanian demonstration and, as if to emphasize the church’s ongoing commitment to social justice, a display decrying conditions at the Leipzig jail.
Outside, Kreuger shows how the Oct. 9 demonstration took shape — how the demonstrators left the church and planted burning candles in front of the Stasi secret police building; how the Stasi snuffed them out; how the demonstrators re-lit them before assembling in Karl Marx Square. Like a lot of East Germans who took part in the revolution, Kreuger is still bewildered by the dizzying speed of events in the last year and not convinced the end result of it all — unification this month with market-driven West Germany — is a good thing. But on one count, he is certain: “If the revolution was going to start anywhere, it was in the churches.”
Former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt echoed this to a Toronto audience a few months ago. “It was no accident,” Brandt said, “that the churches played an important part in the events of last fall.”
It may be no accident, either, that the Western media pay only passing
mention of the churches in their coverage and analysis of the East
German revolution. “Secular bias,” says former moderator Very Rev. Sang
Chul Lee, who was a guest of the East German arm of the Evangelical
Church of the Union (EKU) last spring at the first synod after the
revolution. (The mainly Lutheran EKU, which has organizations in both
Germanys, is a strong partner of The United Church of Canada.) “The
media see only what they want to see — a victory for capitalism over
socialism — and do not tell the whole story.”
A large part of the
story is how the East German churches came to nurture the closest thing
the country had to an opposition. It’s also the story of how the
churches became a carefully cultivated enigma in a country based on
conformity — never fully part of socialism but never fully apart from it
either. “No one knew exactly what we were,” says Christa Grengel,
ecumenical officer of the East German arm of the EKU. “They tried to
integrate the church but never did. You can integrate the church
institution somewhat, but you can’t integrate the Gospel.”
actually quite pleasant to spend a Sunday afternoon strolling along the
Berlin Wall in the first months after the revolution. Once a monument
to fear and division, it became a mecca for curiosity seekers from both
Germanys and around the world: a carnival-like feeling prevailed at the
places where it had been opened to allow people to cross. Entrepreneurs
hawked Cold War memorabilia, vendors sold sausages and ice cream to
picnicking families and street artists performed before amused
onlookers. And nearly everyone took a swipe or two at the wall, either
with tools they brought or with chisels rented from quick-buck artists
on the scene.
For years, there had been a vacant church on the
East side that had the misfortune to be right on the dividing line with
the West. The East Germans bricked up the doorways and windows and
incorporated the building into the wall; a few years ago, it was finally
torn down. For many it symbolized the perilous place of religion in an
officially atheistic state.
When they came to power in 1949, the
East German Communists (officially called the Socialist United Party)
inherited a country where as much as 90 percent of the population said
they were Lutheran (East Germany was the only Protestant country in the
Soviet Bloc). Though official committed to atheism, the government
simply could not risk attacking religion head-on, nor did the theorists
believe they had to: socialism would eliminate the social roots of
religion, and eventually the church would wither and die.
wither it did, especially in the 1950s as the government sought to
isolate the church from the mainstream of society. Youth groups were
harassed, members passed over for job promotion or denied entrance to
higher education, and occasionally laypeople and clergy were put in
jail. Throughout, the state was able to raise the stigma of the
Protestant churches’ almost total acquiescence to the Nazis during the
1930s and ‘40s. But despite all of this, the church did not die. A
reduced but committed core of believers continued to worship, publishing
houses continued to print Bibles and religious literature and the
theological schools continued to train clergy. Equally important, the
church maintained institutional links with its sister churches in West
Germany, a symbol to many of the desire for a united Germany, not to
mention a vital source of funding.
Theologically, the church
began to apply the thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to its position in
Communist East Germany. Bonhoeffer was a martyred theologian who, during
the Nazi era, led the Confessing Church in opposition to Hitler when most
other Protestants acquiesced. He had argued that the task of the church
was to proclaim God’s reality in a world that did not necessary need or
want God. For a growing number of East Germans, this meant that the
church had to adapt to political reality if it was to play a useful and
faithful role in East German society.
Thus emerged the notion of
the “church in socialism,” which was to guide the East German church
until the revolution last year. First introduced in 1968 and refined
over the next decade, the formula saw the church in “critical
solidarity” with the state — cooperating for the sake of society’s
overall welfare, but pointing out injustices and shortcomings when they
arose. Direct dialogue with the government was the avenue through which
“critical solidarity” was to be reached. At a historic meeting with
church leaders in March 1978, the government implicitly recognized the
church as a social body in its own right, granting it limited freedoms
and, most important, access to the decision-making apparatus.
One of the early church-state issues proved to be a key, perhaps the key factor, in the growth of organized discontent with the communist regime.
of the early church-state issues proved to be a key — perhaps the key
factor — in the growth of organized discontent with the communist regime.
The church began to complain that the government’s regulation on
assemblies and meetings unfairly restricted church life — that it was
often left to police to decide what constituted a genuine church
meeting. “It hindered most lay activities in the church,” recalls
Grengel. “Even things like folk music nights were a problem.” Regular
complaints were leading nowhere, so the church finally wrote the
government and boldly said that from then on, it would determine which
meetings were genuine. The government didn’t yes, but it didn’t say no,
An upsurge in meetings on human rights, peace and
environmental issues followed. “For us,” says Grengel, “those were
genuine church meetings.” But perhaps more important was the emerging
reputation of the church as a place where people, especially young
people, could go to be heard, whether or not they were members or
believers — “free space,” they called it.
Gerd-Ulf Kreuger is
typical of the East Germans who gravitated to the church. He doesn’t
consider himself a believer but was drawn to meetings at St. Nicholas
because, as he puts it, “there is where the progressive people in our
city were going.” St. Nicholas and churches like it often had more
people in the pews for week-night meetings than for worship on Sunday.
But this was compatible with the theological basis of the ‘church in
The growing importance of the church as a forum for
debate and dissent did not go unnoticed by the state. Interference and
outright spying were commonplace. A peace group in Dresden reported that
among the 50 or 60 people who attended its monthly open meetings, 15 to
20 would be undercover agents. The group knew who they were and called
them “guests,” encouraging them to take part in open debate. Grengel
recalls church receptions where the waiters were hopelessly clumsy and
not a little nosy: “They were spies.” During a June, 1989 Kirchentag
(“Church-days”) rally in Leipzig, a small legal demonstration in support
of the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square ended when a trolley car
stopped beside the group, opened its doors and disgorged a squad of
plainclothes officers, who seized the banner the group was carrying. The
banner read “Democratization” — in Chinese, with barely discernible
German lettering underneath.
Throughout the summer of 1989, East
Germans witnessed — usually on West German television — the
overwhelming defeat of Poland’s Communists in the Soviet Bloc’s first
freely contested elections in 40 years, and signs that the communist hold
on Czechoslovakia and Hungary was crumbling. These images only added to
growing discontent at home over the economy, the environment and the
heavy-handed methods of the Stasi secret police. The 40th anniversary of
the country’s founding was approaching in October and Soviet President
Mikhail Gorbachev, the catalyst for change in the communist world, was
scheduled to be on hand for celebrations. There were rumors of
A month before Gorbachev’s visit,
at the stroke of midnight on Sept. 13, the country and the churches
were plunged into crisis. Hungary threw open its borders, and thousands
of East Germans vacationing there crossed the frontier to begin new
lives in the West. It was the start of a human hemorrhage that would see
an estimated 500,000 people, a large percentage of them young
professionals, flee the country.
The church had for a long time
been against wholesale emigration to the West, maintaining the
responsible thing to do was to stay and work to change socialism.
Grengel describes the first images of the exodus as one of the darkest
moments in the Church’s existence. “We sat around a television and wept.
We knew the problems it would cause. So many talented people, the
future of our country. We could see hospitals with no doctors, people
dying for lack of care.”
In church discussion groups, there was
growing consensus that the only way to stop the exodus was to press the
government for immediate democratic reforms. A coalition of reform
interests emerged, rallying under the banner of New Forum, founded by
clergy, academics and writers to seek a “democratic dialogue” with the
government. New Forum’s vision of itself echoed the mission of the
churches that nurtured it. Its vague agenda called for a liberalized
East Germany, but not a capitalist one.
For the EKU’s sister
churches in West Germany, September and October were tension filled.
“For one thing,” says Rev. Reinhard Groscurth, Grengel’s West German
counterpart, “it was difficult to get information. We knew that this was
a critical time, that there would be large demonstrations in many
cities, but we didn’t know how they would go. We feared the worst — that
what had happened in China (when the military slaughtered demonstrators
in Tiananmen Square) would happen in the GDR. Germans have not had a
good history of non-violent revolutions.”
The tension for the
East German churches was doubly intense, but it was a strangely
rewarding time as well. As the crisis deepened and the prospect of some
sort of showdown grew certain, people such as Grengel saw the churches
taking centre-stage in East German affairs after decades on the margins.
Meetings were now filled to overflowing and previously near-empty
sanctuaries were packed on Sundays. “When the socialist system began to
fall,” explains Grengel, “everything came with it — except the church
which was never fully integrated. In the population, there was a growing
knowledge that the church was not affected by the collapse, that it had
credibility. It was just what we needed in our society at the moment.
For me, it was the Holy Ghost.”