East and West German Perspectives on the Arms Race

Germans are now quoting Karl Marx in a slightly revised form: “A specter is hovering over Europe; the specter of pacifism." Within the past year, the East German (GDR) Lutheran church has found itself in the once-unthinkable position of supporting a pacifistic movement. In April 1981, a "Social Peace Service" alternative to military service was proposed by an unofficial group of concerned Lutherans. In the following months, approx. 4,000 appeals were sent to the various Lutheran denominations requesting church support in the struggle for the instalment of an alternative service program.


By November, it had become apparent that the state would be making no concessions in this matter; the GDR was already having “sufficient difficulty fulfilling its responsibilities within the Warsaw Pact". The party paper, "Neues Deutschland", claimed that the entire GDR embodies "social peace service", the creation of any alternative prograrns being therefore meaningless.


In the midst of these rejections, the Lutheran synod in Halle addressed an open letter to all those who had sent in an appeal. The letter advises young people to begin doing voluntary orderly service in hospitals and in homes for the elderly and handicapped, knowing that for the present this service would not be recognized as an alternative to military service. The Christian pacifist is now called to prove his sincerity; his personal lifestyle and willingness to corn promise will now need to lend his cause further impetus.


A Christian pacifist is of course burdened by his church's past. A party official will likely inquire: “Why only now are you beginning to protest against military service? When Hitler was in power, members of your church served gladly." These persons still need to prove to their government that they are motivated by peace, not by anti-communism. In Halle, Superintendent Heino Falcke lamented the synod's inability to achieve total unanimity on the issue of pacifism. Our selectivity "fosters the suspicion that we do not actually want peace; but rather, they we only desire to refuse service within the armies of a specific political system."


Soviet suspicions have not been sufficiently allayed. A Soviet citizen may quickly respond: "Is this peace initiative in the GDR not only one more German ploy to destroy socialism and achieve the reunification of their country?"


In early December 1981, an East German novelist, Stephan Hermlin, was allowed to host a totally new type of international peace forum in East Berlin. For the first time in the GDR, dissident and hard-line party members as well as former GDR-citizens were able to confront one another in a televised forum. GDR-author Günter de Bruyn expressed disappointment over the SED's (the communist party's) refusal to accept the "Social Peace Service" movement as a potential ally in the struggle for peace. De Bruyn also commented that both super powers should be undertaking unilateral steps towards disarmament. Stefan Heym, a U.S.-citizen until the McCarthy era and now a prominent GDR-"dissident", proposed that he, Erich Honecker and other party members lead a demonstration protesting the existence of atomic weapons in East and West Germany. (A Soviet participant countered by insisting that the Soviet army had no atomic weapons stationed on German soil.)


German Perspectives on the USA

I would judge the present peace sentiment in all of Germany to be neutralist and strongly anti-super power: "We Germans do not want our territory to serve as the battlefield for anyone else's war." To paraphrase the West German theologian Dorothee Sölle: "The 'jokers' in Washington and Moscow aren't getting the job done; we're taking matters into our own hands."


The conservative politicians in both Germanies are convinced that their respective governments owe primary loyalty to their historic, super-power guardians. Both the Christian Democrats in the West and most party members in the East believe their own military pacts play a strictly defensive role, securing world peace. But liberals are placing both super powers in the same general camp. The Soviet Union has been mixing into Afghan and Polish affairs; the U.S. is doing likewise in most Latin American countries. Both powers are responsible for the increasingly insane arms race; Germans are increasingly refusing to cooperate. Perhaps both Reagan and Brezhnev have nursed the illusion that the German peace movement is anti-American and pro-Soviet. In reality, the East and West German peace movement could be more aptly described as pro-Swedish or pro-Yugoslav.


On the other band, a certain bewilderment appears reserved for the American superpower. Ronald Reagan has liberally fostered an image of the U.S. as a free-swinging, trigger-happy cowboy. The U.S. seems to have excelled in poor taste: It was widely reported in the GDR-church press, that the U.S. intended to christen a nuclear submarine "The Body of Christ" (Corpus Christi). Reagan announced the planned construction of the neutron bomb on Hiroshima Day. Alexander Haig and his associates have aired totally undiplomatic projections concerning the possibilities of limiting a nuclear war to the European theater. They can be thanked for playing a major role in the growth of the European peace movement.


Bill Yoder

Berlin-West, 22 December 1981


Written for “Mennonite Central Committee” in Akron/Pennsylvania, 828 words


Notes from May 2022:

This article fails to mention that the GDR offered a non-combatant and unarmed service option within its army beginning in 1964. These were called “construction soldiers” (Bausoldaten). The GDR’s draft had been instituted two years previous. A “Social Peace Service” completely outside the army – which was the case in the USA – was never realized.


Günter de Bruyn (1926-2020) was one of the GDR’s best-known novelists.

Heino Falcke (born 1929) retired as propst (superintendent) of Erfurt in 1994, where he still resides.

The writer Stephan Hermlin (1915-1997) was a confidant of Erich Honecker and a non-conformist Marxist during the GDR’s last 15-or-so years.

The political novelist Stefan Heym (1913-2001), an ethnic Jew, resided in the USA from 1935 to 1952. He, along with important cultural figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Hanns Eisler, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, felt forced to flee the USA during the McCarthy era.

Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003) was a prominent West German theologian and feminist.