The GDR and Martin Luther

Martin Luther, Citizen of East Germany


"On May 4, the verse "It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes" (Psalms 118:9) rang out on East and West German television. The occasion was the inauguration of this year's Luther festivities, which took place in Wartburg castle near Eisenach. This was the first live broadcast of a church event in the GDR (East Germany). On a sweltering July 10, over 100,000 believers swarmed into Dresden for the closing of the GDR's biggest "Kirchentag" (Church Day). This was also the largest church convention on East German soil since 1954. State officials and the police were barely visible in Dresden and no church texts utilized at the Kirchentag were subject to prior censorship. How could this be? "Luther makes everything possible," is the church's usual reply."


The Marxist state's about-face on Luther puzzles many. In contrast to school books still in use, state media no longer slur Luther as "lackey of the princes" or "murderer of peasants”. Though for decades Thomas Müntzer was upheld at Luther's expense, the latter has suddenly roared past the peasant revolutionary. Apparently, the government's abrupt reversal on Luther also alarmed the party rank-and-file. Although three years ago East Germans began referring to 1983 as the "Luther Year", the party suddenly rechristened it "Karl Marx Year" in December 1982. At the same time, official state jargon reduced the Luther Year to a "Luther Commemoration". Yet, although the primary Marx event has run its course (he died 100 years ago), it is solely Luther who is still drawing hundreds of thousands of Western tourists to the GDR.


The party's reversal on Luther was heralded by fifteen "Theses on Martin Luther" published in September 1981. This paper's opening paragraph claims that "everything progressive within German history" is a part of socialist-Marxist tradition. Luther can therefore be applauded for having travelled in the appropriate direction, Müntzer and Marx simply advanced further along the same route. Presently, the Marxists readily quote a statement from Friedrich Engels, who once labelled "A Mighty Fortress is Our God” the "Marseilles of the Peasant Uprising". Luther is dubbed "one of Germany's greatest sons", yet the Jewish native of Trier officially remains its "greatest son".


A peculiar juxtaposition of Luther and Marx has come into being. Mercifully, no major attempts have been launched to bring the two into complete agreement with one another. For the very first time, these theses make the significant attempt to give lip recognition by Marxists to the relevance of Luther's spiritual and theological contribution.


Though the fifteen theses do laud Luther's protestant work ethic and his appeals to defend the motherland against the Turks, state attempts to send Luther into combat against his own present-day namesake church are usually discreet. Party functionaries do on occasion point out to an increasingly pacifistic clergy that Luther himself was a foe of pacifism.


Luther's rediscovery is one landmark of the party's present trend away from a militant class interpretation of history and towards a more pragmatic one. GDR-Marxists are in search of a past, and the return of Kaiser Frederick the Great's statue to East Berlin's thoroughfare "Unter den Linden" is part and parcel of the same quest. In all fairness, this should be considered the primary cause for Luther's reinterpretation, not an anticipated increase in Western tourism. East German party members are proud of their Luther heritage and reveal a taint of competitiveness regarding their West German neighbors. They frequently imply that "we are the more genuine caretakers" of the German heritage.


The Church and Luther

In contrast to the Pope in his native Poland, the elevation of Luther in the GDR has fostered little denominational arrogance. The church has repeatedly expressed shame regarding past Luther anniversaries and stresses, that this year's festivities will be unique in their elimination of all heroization. Fifty years ago, Luther's name had been invoked to plug anti-semitism. In the moving Wartburg ceremonies, three separate requests for forgiveness from all those against whom Luther and his followers had sinned were made. It was added that ''Martin Luther was a sinner like unto us and no less dependent upon God's mercy than we are." An East German church poster shows the empty pedestal of a Luther statue and cites his quotation: "Above all, fear, love and trust God”.


There is much within the church's Luther festivities to warm the evangellcal heart: An entire church is reflecting upon a pre­modernist theology of the Reformation. Justification by faith, mercy, sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers are the most common topics. Propst Heino Falcke of Erfurt has stated that Luther is a mighty witness to all those pastors "who no longer have confidence in the power of their message".


In Dresden on July 9, the renowned East German evangelist Theo Lehmann held a service attended by 15,000 persons. During a preceding Kirchentag in Magdeburg, the Ugandan Festo Kivengere had evangelized extensively. In contrast to West Germany, East German evangelicals play an integral role within their own "Church Days". Though West Germany's one Kirchentag this year attracted 140,000 persons, the GDR's seven regional ones will be hosting over 200,000. The GDR population of 17 million is less than a third of the West German one.


The atmosphere of an East German Kirchentag seems less aggressive and more spiritual than one in the West. One of the few larger Luther events in West Germany this year will be a "Luther Spectacle"" scheduled for Berlin in November. This satiric and surrealistic parody on Luther's life should readily illustrate the spiritual poverty of much of West German Lutheranism.


Church and State

State mollification on Luther is one fruit of the ongoing rapprochement between church and state in the GDR. From the outset three years ago, the government had expressed desire for a joint church-state planning committee for this year's festivities, an offer which the church rejected. The chairman of the church's Luther committee, Bishop Werner Leich of Eisenach, functions solely as a consultant within the government committee. This committee is chaired by none other than Erich Honecker, head of both party and state. The church never tires in repeating its desire to make its own specifically Christian contribution to East German society. It states clearly that it will not serve as an uncritical amplifier of government policies. At all church celebrations this year, it is the church which is obviously in control."


The government's cooperativeness is of course not entirely without its price. In Dresden, the church was forced by its own prior agreements to remove information stands which had not been properly registered. Such church "self-censorship" has raised the ire of youthful, more-or-less church-related political radicals.


In a dramatic forum in Dresden's overflowing Christ Church on July 10, brutally-honest questions were thrown at the assembled church leaders. One inquiry expressed well the suspicions of numerous Christians: "The state's concessions during the Luther Year frighten me. You too?" The president of the Saxon synod, Johannes Cieslak, conceded that such suspicions are not necessarily unfounded, but concluded by applying the motto of this year's "Church Days" also to government institutions. That motto is: "Dare to trust". Many Lutherans do express appreciation for Marxist interest in the father of their church.


A major topic in Dresden, as well as most everywhere else in both Germanies presently, concerned world peace. Virtually all GDR-Christians retain the deep hope that the United States will still refrain from stationing further NATO weaponry on Western European soil. Being that the internal church-state relationship is strongly influenced by the general East-West climate, the church fears that a further hardening of East­West relations could result in the retraction of recent state concessions.


Six of the seven scheduled GDR "Church Days" have already been held. The last one, which will be held in Wittenberg in late September, will be devoted entirely to the study of Luther's theology. Festivities will be concluded with services in Eisleben and Leipzig, November 10-13. Erich Honecker himself will be closing out the state's Luther activities with ceremonies in East Berlin on November 9.


Bill Yoder

Berlin, July 18, 1983


Appeared in abbreviated form in “Christianity Today” (USA) on Sept. 2, 1983, 1.353 words here.