The Wall in the Brain
The Ongoing Division Between East and West German Christians
During the 1950s, Western media never tired in claiming that the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) was the last
convincing and enduring all-German link across the Iron Curtain between East and West. Yet, the former East German churches are now dragging their
heels on reunification. Christoph Demke, the East German Federation's leading (ruling) bishop, even refused to attend church-state festivities in
East Berlin on Unification Day, October 3. "Why?" one may ask.
Active, white-collar members of the East German evangelical church liked what they had become. It had taken decades, but by the 1970s, one could claim that most of them had found a self-identity of which they were proud. That identity had steeled them against the ridicule of Westerners, who assumed they should want nothing more than to depart for the West, and had made their daily hardships worthwhile. Their East German-style convictions had made it possible to cough down the transit Autobahn in a gray, plastic, two-cylinder Trabant without being fazed by the legions of Mercedes roaring by. This self-understanding is now under attack: Had they fought to achieve their small-but-beautiful philosophy for nothing?
East German believers have tended to regard themselves as "poor, but purer" than their West German colleagues. They assumed the wealth of the West German church had been achieved through accommodation with the economically, politically and militarily powerful. The West is now expecting Easterners to cast aside the pride that comes from being an underdog and come join them in the ranks of the world's "successful" and mighty. The Eastern church would thereby need to drop all resistance to state-collected church taxes, above-average salaries for clergy and military service by Christians. The East consequently regards its credibility, perhaps its greatest treasure, to be at stake. Erfurt's Provost Heino Falcke fears "a wearing down of our credibility whenever the church is integrated into government institutions."
Friendship is more limiting than animosity: In the past, the East German church has not needed to take the opinions of Christian military officers into consideration when issuing pacifistic statements on peace. Officially, the East German "Volksarmee" had long been purged of Christian officers. This past clarity on questions of peace is no longer secure.
In early October, an internal paper of the Christian Democratic party surfaced, in which Eastern Germany's church leaders were "graded" according to past political performance. The paper closed with an admonition to the party faithful to begin infiltrating Eastern church circles. Easterners tend to place such attempts in the same camp as those of the past communist government: The authorities will promise privileges in exchange for political loyalty.
Eastern pain is heightened by the conviction that the wrong values have reigned victorious. The outspoken clergyman and former West Berlin mayor, Heinrich Albertz, explains: "The DM [German Mark] has vanquished all, even the Russian army. So who needs weapons?" In 1988, East German economics concluded that the East German standard of living demanded the goods and services of two earth-sized planets, the U.S. standard of living, five-and-a-half. Therefore, Eastern activists conclude, the present scheme of their compatriots to increase consumption beyond two planets can hardly be accepted as a model for the world to copy.
A personal element held to be in jeopardy is what Dr. Manfred Stolpe, the outgoing chief "diplomat" of East German Protestantism, calls the "fellowship of solidarity". Though East Germans were hardly a happy family, they were at least a solid one. According to Stolpe, where no one was particularly wealthy nor poor, the barriers between humans were lower. In past times, access to hard-to-get supplies demanded the cultivation of human connections and friendships. Now, the DM has replaced humans as the magical key to any given product.
Friedrich Schorlemmer, pastor in Martin Luther's "Schlosskirche" in Wittenberg, reports on the remarkable
political sophistication of the East German populace. In the past, individuals had undertaken great effort at considerable risk to educate themselves
on current affairs. Fear is now
rampant that an avalanche of consumption will suffocate the intellectual curiosity and moral fervor of most East Germans.
East Germans cherished their special contacts to the churches within socialist societies in the developing world, such as Cuba and Nicaragua. A missions executive in East Berlin fears that the relationship of his mission to the German-founded Tanzanian church will change dramatically. "The Tanzanians talked to the West Germans about money; with us, they talked about content." Numerous East Berlin offices are being closed, their work taken over by church offices located in Western Germany.
The East Must Change
In a turbulent session of the East's Berlin-Brandenburg synod on October 20, the majority finally voted to accept a system of state-collected church taxes. They did though in closing introduce a new, minimum tax for low-income members, adding the strong recommendation that the West Berlin synod do likewise. "This may be the only time the Western churches change anything to accommodate us," a resigned Gerhardt Hildebrandt, pastor of East Berlin's "Sophienkirche", stated during a service the following morning.
The head of a church-run kindergarten reports that on visits to similar institutions in the West, she is encouraged to look around in the belief that she would be learning something. "No one assumes that they might learn something from me," she concludes. Westerners insinuate that East Germany's heritage was a total failure and that the desire to retain remnants is the expression of a backward-looking, sentimental mind. "I can't throw away those 40 years," the kindergarten director protests, "they're part of who I am, and people will need to accept me for what I am."
In view of these beliefs, the assurance of an East German Christian-Democratic politician, Rev. Christine Lieberknecht, causes resentment among her theological colleagues: "In the future, the Eastern churches will have no other choice but to accept step-by-step the laws and bylaws of the [West German] EKD."
Heino Falcke counters by citing the Biblical command to "hold on to the good and reject the bad." "Both are wrong: to forget the past or to hold on to it dearly." Indeed, he remains suspicious of persons who have readily cast aside all memory of their recent communist party memberships. Falcke suggests that past opportunists have remained as such: "Those who had conformed to their surroundings for opportunistic reasons, can reject socialism most readily now."
Conservatives are aghast that East German theologians retain respect for the positive goals of socialist ideology. Typical is a statement from West Berlin's "Evangelische Sammlung": "Socialists of all nations -- come hibernate within German Protestantism. Here you will be able to regenerate yourselves."
Much to the chagrin of the left, conservatives feel affirmed in their long-time conviction that the course of events has proven the impossibility of communist reform. It follows that total opposition was the sole moral response to communist rule. As the theologian Götz Planer-Friedrich points out, this excludes virtually all Easterners who had chosen to remain in the country rather than to flee from receiving conservative blessing.
Such controversy has also surfaced between Westerners themselves. An internal West German government paper had concluded that Manfred Stolpe "refused along with other clergy such as Forck and [Christoph] Demke to condemn the old system totally." "What a crime!" mocks West Germany's church activist and politician Erhard Eppler. "How grotesque, when government bureaucrats in the West appoint themselves judges over people who have risked more in recent years than anybody in the Federal Republic did." Eppler entitles his article "The Innocence of the Comfortable."
The Unequal Burden
East Germans believe Westerners are profiting most from reunification. For now, Westerners are becoming wealthier, the Easterners, poorer. Only a Westerner could still afford to
purchase a house in Eastern Germany. Thousands of homeowners are fearful that former owners, who had fled to the West decades ago, will be successful
in their attempts to have their Eastern holdings returned to them. Salaries are running 50-70% lower than in the West; indeed, many civil servants
commandeered to the East for an interim period receive more additional compensation for the hardship of working in the East than Easterners do in total salary.
Only the Western economy is flourishing. East Berlin's Bishop Gottfried Forck protested vehemently against Western hesitancy to invest in Eastern Germany: "They wanted first of all to destroy our industry so that they could take it over more easily." Westerners have not reduced the size of their pie slices in order to accommodate the East; Easterners assume they will receive larger slices only if the total size of the pie can be increased.
On unification day, October 3, Western speeches were decidedly more optimistic than Eastern ones; Bishop Forck labeled it "a day for contemplation." In stark contrast to West Germans, a survey discovered that slightly over half of all East Germans felt more fear than joy on October 3. The threat of unemployment is taking its emotional toll." We've been commanded to cheer before," an East German acquaintance added acidly.
The pace of German unification has also been a major source of East-West suspicion. Its haste feeds the suspicion that Westerners intend to vacuum up the East. Forck assures: "We don't want simply to be embraced and then take over all the laws of West Germany." Time for contemplation is direly needed. "We can't do that in close cooperation with the sisters and brothers in the Federal Republic. We have to do that independently, by ourselves." Another observer concludes: "These are profoundly indignant people who need time to work through their indignation."
At least for the active, white-collar church, the emotional division between East and West will remain indefinitely. A 38-year-old Baptist stated, "Maybe my children will become West Germans, but I have been branded by the GDR. I will always remain an East German." Detractors would conclude that the Wall remains in his brain. It is up to each of us to decide, whether that division is good or bad.
Berlin, October 24, 1990
Written for “The Lutheran”, Chicago, 1,648 words