East German Peace Discussions Continue in Top Gear during Luther Year

Six of the seven East German "Kirchentag" church conventions scheduled for this Luther anniversary year have already been held. At all of them, peace was the most major topic, followed closely on its heels by personal spiritual issues. On the issue of pacifism, the East German Evangelical Federation appears way ahead of its West German counterpart. Admittedly, both the East German "Federation of Evangelical Churches" and the West German "Evangelical Church in Germany" (EKD) condemn the moral validity of atomic warfare. At the Dresden "Kirchentag", July 7-10, the Saxon bishop Johannes Hempel underscored this position with his statement: "Nothing is of so much worth that it needs to be defended by atomic weapons." Yet the Federation has moved beyond a simple "atomic pacifism". While the EKD officially still sanctions "service for peace with and without arms" equally, the Federation holds alternative service to be a "more obvious witness" of' the Christian love for peace. At the closing Kirchentag session in Dresden attended by 100,000 persons, - it was the largest church gathering in East Germany since 1954 - a clear call was made for Christians to stand up for their pacifist convictions irregardless of' possible vocational or educational consequences.


Even this has not been enough for hundreds of categorically pacifistic Lutheran and United pastors. Clergymen such as Propst Heino Falcke of Erfurt have bemoaned the fact that the considerations which need to be taken for ex. of the West German sister church hamper possibilities of attaining a more radical pacifist consensus within the GDR (East Germany). In contrast to the Federation, the EKD is still deeply intertwined with the existing military and political power structures.


In Dresden, the retired leading bishop of the Federation, Albrecht Schönherr, spoke movingly of the Christian concern for peace. He stated that “politicians attempt to implant hate effigies (bogeymen), or at least see to it that existing ones don't fade away. Hate effigies are like priceless old paintings, which one spruces up and pampers. Nothing is ever allowed to be changed or painted over." These, this one-time student of Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, always arose from generalizations such as "the Jew" or "the Pole”. "We all know where that can lead," he added. (Undoubtedly Schönherr would also include "the communist" among the most dangerous generalizations.) In a play on Ronald Reagan, the Bishop noted that "the border between good and bad does not run along religious, political or ideological boundaries." Love breaks down borders. "How good I appear, when I can condemn others," he concluded. At a mass assembly on July 9, it was stated that "your enemy needs peace . . . . Security is not to be found in a greater stockpiling of weaponry, but rather in the heart of your enemy."


East German Christians display an increasingly disarming degree of frankness. In a dramatic forum in Dresden's "Christ Church" the following forenoon, questions highly undiplomatic in nature were fired at the assembled church spokesmen. Questions regarding the arrest of certain youthful peace activists were answered explicitly. Another question expressed well the tinge of suspicion felt by many GDR-Christians during 1983: "The government's concessions during the Luther Year frighten me. You too?" Johannes Cieslak, president of the Lutheran synod of Saxony, basically affirmed the justification of such feelings, yet ended by applying the motto of this year’s "Kirchentag" conventions specifically to state channels. That motto makes the appeal, "Dare to trust".


Eighteen North Americans also got into the East German peace act just prior to Dresden. On July 2, Dr. Paul Wee, General­Secretary of Lutheran World Ministries, and members of the "Lutheran Peace Fellowship" pasted "9.5 theses" on the Wittenberg church door. Their paper rejects the validity of all weapons of mass destruction. Dr. Wee commented further that "the body of Christ must be stronger than nationalistic symbols”. Christians could therefore never aim weapons at other Christians. Believers need to ask whether they can continue living with the concept of "an eye for an eye and a bomb for a bomb". During their stay in the Soviet Union, this group had spoken out against Soviet intervention in Afghanistan as well as human rights infractions. The group nevertheless believes that the greatest danger of a nuclear holocaust emanates from the Reagan administration.


Bill Yoder

Berlin-West, 22 July 1983


Written for the Mennonite “Meetinghouse” in Scottdale, PA/USA, 707 words


Notes from May 2022: Johannes Hempel (1929-2020) was bishop in Dresden from 1972 to 1994. Heino Falcke (born 1929) still resides in Erfurt. Albrecht Schönherr (1911-2009) served as bishop in East Berlin from 1972 to 1981. Johannes Cieslak was an East German stove fitter and lay head of the synod of Saxony’s provinicial Lutheran church based in Dresden. Paul A. Wee sill resides as a pensioner in Alexandria/Virginia.