A “Working Priest” in the German Democratic Republic

On the Life and Witness of Heinz Ludwig


I first met Heinz Ludwig at a church conference in East Berlin. His hearty laugh, broad frame and raw hands made him conspicuous in any crowd of dignified theologians. He didn't hesitate in offering me an invitation to visit his home in Magdeburg and I couldn't resist availing myself of that some months later. Afterwards, I didn't see him for over two years; he needed to spend time in a sanatorium due to stomach ulcers and wasn't around when I could have stopped by. "It's a result of 20 years of day and night shifts,'' he explained.


The year 1961 had brought major changes to the citizenry of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In August of that year the border around West Berlin had been sealed. It was also a dramatic year for Heinz Ludwig: In May he had exchanged clerical garb for the soiled overalls of a semi-skilled factory laborer.     


Heinz clearly recalls those traumatic weeks. At the beginning of every shift, the arriving workers would gather in the corridor. This was the foreman's means of ascertaining who was missing and deciding how best to utilize the remaining work force. Every night colleagues were disappearing only to resurface later in West Germany     


In that heated atmosphere, Heinz's superiors suspected he might be a Western agent. After all, he had received a Western education, and why else would a pastor take on factory employment precisely when other persons were heading for greener Western pastures?


Heinz Ludwig was born in 1927 in a village near the present-day border between Czechoslovakia and West Germany. Along with his friends, Heinz joined the “Hitler Youth” organization. He recollects that the pastor of his local Methodist congregation was drafted and would return home on leave to preach in full uniform. After his promotion, this pastor was able to preach in an officer’s uniform and his appearance didn’t particularly disturb any church members.


In December 1944, during the last desperate days of the Third Reich, Heinz was drafted into the notorious "Waffen-SS" regiment. He was captured by the U.S. army near Prague the following spring and was brought to the liberated concentration camp in Flössenburg, arriving only two months after Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been executed there. Through a ruse, Heinz obtained his release from POW camp in 1946 and returned after a time to his home in the Soviet zone.


Four years later, he began to study at the Methodist seminary in Frankfurt/M. Due to increased East-West tensions, he transferred to the newly-created Methodist seminary in the GDR in 1953, graduating from there the following spring. That same year, he married and became active as a church pastor.


In 1957 he transferred to Dessau, a town located 70 miles southwest of Berlin. Pastors were scarce, and one cannot say that Heinz was underutilized: Every Sunday he would travel 100 miles by train to hold services at four locations. These included small congregations in the industrial towns of Wolfen and Bitterfeld.


lt was Wolfen that changed his life. Thirty-thousand workers were employed in Wolfen's factories, but on Sundays only 15 of them  (.005%) were to be found in his services. Evangelistic meetings hardly increased the number. Heinz concluded that we Christians were calling the world to “come hither”, though we actually should be “going forth”. It was therefore primarily our mistake, not theirs. So with the encouragement of close friends within the Lutheran-allied Gossner Mission, he pulled on worker's attire and joined the masses at a film-producing plant in Wolfen.


Such a step dare not be interpreted too casually: Heinz had intended to remain active as an unsalaried pastor, but his rejection of a salary led to cancellation of his pastoral status. He was abruptly once again a layman. Then, as now, Heinz has remained a controversial figure. Prophetic voices are less esteemed than diplomatic ones, and his lot has seldom been an easy one.


During my recent visit in Magdeburg he described Lutheran practice in a certain new town district, an area consisting primarily of hastily-created apartment silos usually built to house the freshly-uprooted workers of new industrial plants. Only within the past five years has the GDR church received permission to construct chapels within such "socialistic" town districts. Utilizing Western funds, the Lutheran church has built a chapel and three single-family dwellings adjacent to the afore-mentioned apartment silos.


Heinz is an anti-denominationalist and fervent advocate of ecumenical cooperation. He is pleased that Methodists and Lutherans have held joint services in his district of Magdeburg during recent winters. "Just too bad”, he points out, "that Father Frost, not the Holy Spirit, has brought us together.”


But let us return to 1961: Heinz, his wife Gertraud and their four children were required to leave the parsonage and were consequently in dire need of a new apartment. Due to the housing shortage, they were being forced to accept any living quarters regardless of their location within the country. One year later, a Moravian congregation in Gnadau near Magdeburg kindly offered them a modest apartment. (In that congregation Heinz once raised temperatures by joining the ladies on their side of the church. Eventually, he won his cause.)


In 1974, the Ludwig family moved into Magdeburg, residing in quarters above a Methodist chapel. Heinz mourns the fact that this congregation boasted 400 members in 1945; today it has barely 40. “Those who didn't flee westward, fled inward," he states categorically. Until the end of 1981, he remained active as a lay minister within the Methodist church, preaching approximately twenty times annually.


Heinz has been employed since 1962 as a lathe operator in a tractor factory. He has made a conscious effort to remain at the roots as a semi-skilled laborer, refusing any advancements which would have placed him on a higher rung of the factory social ladder. "One needs to take the lowest road if one desires to share the lot of the majority, to share with them the burden of shift work and the attainment of ever-increasing production norms," he claims.


In time, Heinz did accept the position of "brigade leader”, becoming thereby the spokesman for 20-30 colleagues vis-à-vis the plant management. His communist superiors permitted him to name his brigade after a socially-involved Sicilian Catholic. "In that position I feel most capable of defending the interests of my colleagues," he says, "and it has changed my relationship to Marxists completely."


Eventually, fellow workers began to question him about his past and many meaningful conversations took place. He has befriended dozens of both genuine and less-genuine party members. "When I was a church pastor, I viewed them as my enemies," he says. "But only after joining a factory did I become acquainted with them." "Communists aren't anti-God," he states, “just anti-clerical”. They don't like preachers. “lt’s easier to converse about the faith with them than with indifferent Christians."


Communists are fully aware of the church's historical sins and see her presently as primarily a pro-Western institution. "Marxists and Christians have failed on the same issue," Heinz states. "Neither of us has succeeded in converting the masses. This leads us to a kind of mutual solidarity. I can fully respect their desire to create the new man.”


Heinz’s greatest personal reward is the trust which he has been offered by numerous state officials. As a high school student, one of his daughters refused to participate in paramilitary target drills utilizing BB-guns. The school administration was deeply offended and took final measures to expel her. Yet higher authorities intervened and ruled that she might remain. Her assembled class was then presented with an official explanation: “This student may remain solely because her father not only prays for peace, he also struggles for peace."


The massive resistance of the church to that which Heinz considers to be constructive change has been his biggest disappointment. Marxists frequently say to him: "Yes, we know you're different, but the church in general. . . ."


Exceptions only prove the rule. In fact, Heinz is aware of only one other GDR-theologian who has chosen to become and remain a factory laborer. Nevertheless, he continues to dream of a church without property and privilege. That's the direction of church progression in many socialist countries, though seldom with the assent of more than a handful of its members.


Heinz believes that theologians remain a necessity, yet they should not utilize the church as a stepladder to power and privilege. The North American church (and to some extent even the GDR church) has unlimited financial and technical means. But is not credibility, i.e. the positive witness of the church in the eyes of its surrounding community, of much greater importance?


Heinz still retains hope that new forms of evangelization can emerge. “The layman is the person who transports the message into the world," he claims. "l've wanted to discover how through my factory work. The Gospel cannot be simply proclaimed orally; it must be demonstrated."


Fidel Castro has stated that all persons should be engaged in both manual and mental labor; that, according to Marx, the division between manual and mental is a primary cause of social injustice. lt's rare finding Germans who engage in both. In fact, how often have you met persons who not only preach about Philippians 2:1-11 (taking the low road), but have also chosen that route for their own lives?         


Bill Yoder

Delaware/USA on approx. 15 August 1982


Appeared in the October 1982 issue of the Mennonite “Missionary Messenger” in Pennsylvania/USA, 1.558 words. Also appeared in the Mennonite magazine „Purpose“, 24 April 1983.


Note from May 2022:

Heinz Ludwig died at age 67 in 1994.