People celebrate German Unity Day in Berlin on Oct. 03, 2014. Photo by Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images

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.”

It was 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.

And 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.

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. 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, either.

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 socialism.”

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 anti-government demonstrations.

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.”

A West German couple embraces in front of the Berlin Wall prior to it being lifted during the collapse of communism in East Berlin on Nov. 10, 1989. East Germany's communist government erected the Berlin Wall in August 1961. Photo By Stephen Jaffe/Getty Images

The church’s unflagging insistence on non-violence was another reason it won support. “No-one wanted to get hurt,” says Kreuger. “We just wanted change. Everyone knew the church stood for pacifism and we respected it for that.”

But at first, there was violence. On Oct. 7, East Germany’s 40th anniversary, Honecker staged a parade in East Berlin and protesters staged an anti-government demonstration. They were attacked by police, chased through the city and beaten. Terrified and bleeding, many took refuge in historic Gethsemane Church, camping out on the floor until it was safe to go home.

In Leipzig, 175 kilometres away, Christian Fuhrer watched events with apprehension. There had been violence in Leipzig as well, although St. Nicholas Church was not involved; it was closed as usual, for the national holiday. “From our windows we witnessed the power of the police state against the defenceless masses of people,” he says. “We were horrified; but the extraordinary thing was that people showed no fear.” The violence understandably bothered him for another reason. Two days later, a weekly peace-prayer service was scheduled to take place at St. Nicholas, and word was that the turnout would be huge.

Fuhrer had chosen Isaiah 45 as the basis for the Oct. 9 meeting. The passage must have run powerfully true for believers and non-believers alike as they began arriving at St. Nicholas Church in mid-afternoon for the supper-hour service: "assemble yourselves and come, draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannon save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together!"

By the time the service began, 2,000 people had crammed into the sanctuary. Fuhrer had made arrangements with three other Leipzig churches to open their doors as well for the expected overflow. In all, there was space for 6,000 people. Even so, there were more people on the streets outside the churches than inside as the services began. At. St. Nicholas, Fuhrer spoke about the duty of peace-prayer meetings to bring about sharing, to plant the seeds of peace, to do away with “the power of the club" and to continue pressing for change where it’s needed. The Bishop of Leipzig concluded with a sober call for non-violence and blessed the gathering; he gave the same message to the other churches.

Slowly, the crowd left the church and joined the throng waiting outside. The other churches emptied and the centre of Leipzig became a sea of humanity. Calls of “No violence!” mingled with slogans such as “We Are One People, Join US,” “Allow the New Forum,” and “Bring in Reforms or End Up in the Old Age Home." Kreuger recalls seeing side streets filled with police, militia and paratroopers, “But nothing happened. It was like a dream.”

Word of the Leipzig demonstration spread to other cities, and soon, non-violent protests were spilling out of the sanctuaries and into the streets all over East Germany. The Revolution of Candles had begun.

St. Nicholas Church, Easter Sunday, 1990. A young woman is positioned at the rear entrance of the church to keep visitors out during the two morning services. It’s not that St. Nicholas discourages visitors; the sign outside still proclaims “Open For All.” It’s that the shuffling of feet around the edge of the sanctuary makes too much of an echo. Six months after the Oct. 9 demonstration on the penultimate date in the Christian calendar, St. Nicholas Church is three-quarters empty.

It’s a graphic testimony that the East German church is once again a remnant church — to the majority of East Germans, yesterday’s heroes. Outsiders may find that fact dismaying. Yet church people have put it in perspective. Fuhrer is typical. In his modest apartment across the street from St. Nicholas, he talks about the empty pews and what they signify. His daughter and wife pitch in as translators. “We are again a minority church, as we were in the old days. We are on the side of the weak and those without political rights. The churches have as big a meaning now as in former times — it is still open to all. Yes, today there were lots of empty seats. In October, we needed seats for 10,000. It’s all part of a process that’s ongoing. We are grateful God used us for this special purpose.”

“Most of the people who made the revolution are in shock . . . There are so many questions which have to be solved in a very short time."

In the weeks following the revolution, the church continued to exert considerable influence on East German affairs. Church-sponsored round table sessions at the national and local levels helped pave the way for constitutional change and free elections. Not surprisingly, many of the pastors who moderated these sessions found themselves nominated as candidates; some went on to become leaders of new political parties.

But for many in the church, the revolution started to sour when East Germans went to the polls on March 18. Groups, such as New Forum, which at its peak boasted nearly 500,000 members, were trampled into oblivion as the big well-oiled West German party machines rumbled across the countryside. The conservative Christian Democrats, their campaign run by their governing counterparts in West Germany, won a staggering 41 percent of the vote on a platform of quick unification.

Like many East Germans, church leaders were left bewildered and frightened. “Most of the people who made the revolution are in shock.” Says Grengel. “There are so many questions which have to be solved in a very short time.” The well-publicized question of currency union — merging West Germany’s powerful deutsche mark with East Germany’s worthless “ost mark” — is only the tip of the iceberg. For everyday East Germans, the questions are as basic as whether they’ll have jobs after unification, whether they’ll be evicted from their homes by West German landlords they’ve never met, whether they’ll have to start paying for health care, whether the co-operative farms they’ve tilled will be privatized — the list is as long as the socialist net was wide.

The future of the institution church itself is also uncertain. Currently, the East and West German arms of the EKU are parallel organizations (the West German arm much wealthier) with their own Synods, Councils and staffs. The president of the East German EKU, Rev. Friedrich Winter, predicts political unification will also bring unification of church structures. “Within three or four years, there will be one church.” It’s likely the East German EKU will close down its offices, housed in a former million for wayward women in a rundown area of East Berlin, and move into West German EKU’s headquarters near the heart of West Berlin’s glitzy shopping district. What happens to staff and programs “is a big question for us,” admits Winter.

The transition may be made easier by the fact that over the years, the West German church stayed as close to its East German partners as the Berlin Wall would permit. West German church officials are well aware of the misgivings East Germans have about the way things are turning out. Indeed, they share many of them. Reinhard Groscurth speaks soberly about “the dangers of seeing oneself as happily victorious . . . You won’t find me in praise of Helmut Kohl and the Christian Democrats in Bonn. They think the failure of socialism is their victory . . . It’s nothing we have done in the west. If you want to credit anyone, credit Gorbachev.”

Despite the uncertainty, the work of the East German church continues. Disarmament, always a major thrust of the church, looms larger than ever as the Warsaw Pact and NATO try to figure out what to do with soldiers and weapons that are no longer needed. In this, the church has friends in very high places: East Germany’s foreign minister, Markus Meckel, is a pastor and former theological student of Winter’s; another pastor and prominent pacifist, Rainer Eppelmann, took on the job of defence minister on condition that the portfolio be renamed ministry of disarmament and defence (Their political futures after unification remains unclear.).

In all, there were 22 clergy in East Germany’s first and last parliament. A service at Gethsemane Church in East Berlin the day parliament opened in April became a show of respect for the role the church had played in bringing democracy to the country. Ninety percent of the newly elected members attended, including tow busloads of Communists. The lesson was Psalm 43: "Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people; from deceitful and unjust men deliver me!"

But the church’s main mission may now be pastoral instead of political. East Germany is rife with lingering hostility. How the church deals with its own former adversaries may well influence how Germans as a whole deal with the enmities of the past. Certainly, the East German pastor who took the disgraced, dying and homeless Erich Honecker into his home after cancer treatment provided a poignant example of forgiveness. There are thousands of former government and party officials with no future; many of them are the state religious authorities who kept the church in check for four decades. “It’s now a pastoral task for us to talk to them,” says Grengel. For Winter, the next few years will be a period that challenges the church and the state to understand the relation between justice and forgiveness. “For years, the idea of Christian forgiveness did not interest people. Everyone talks about it now. But justice must be done too.”

Perhaps the greatest pastoral challenger will be the social upheaval that has already begun as the two Germanys become one. Late on a Saturday afternoon, Gerd-Ulf Kreuger sits on a bench in Karl Marx Square in Leipzig and talks about the events of the last year. “We have not seen anything compared to what’s about to happen,” he says. “People are bewildered and afraid of what they’ve done.” He talks about rampant consumerism that has overrun the country since goods from the West have become available; a beggar approaches and asks for money — preferably deutsche marks. Kreuger talks about the idealism of October that gave way so quickly to the pragmatism of March. He stares across the vast, empty square and shakes his head. “I don’t like it at all. People seem to be losing the spiritual strength that made the revolution.”

From a side street — one of the streets where the police lay in wait that evening in October — a teenage girl emerges carrying a large tape player. A Madonna song is playing loudly, echoing back and forth across the square. The Material Girl in Karl Marx Square. The image seems to sum up the collision of values here a year after the candles were lit.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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