Manfred Stolpe: a Lutheran Politician

Believing “too long” in the Improvability of Socialism

Dr. Manfred Stolpe, chief administrator of the United "Evangelical Church in Berlin-Brandenburg," chose not to join the Social Democratic party (SPD) until July 1990.  Only weeks later, on October 14, this 54-year-old church lawyer was elected Minister-President of Brandenburg, a German state surrounding all of Berlin and stretching as far east as the Polish border.  His victory gave the Social Democrats their sole reason to cheer that day: the party lost all five other state elections to the Christian Democrats.  Stolpe's victory can be attributed to his long-term prominence as the church's primary negotiator with the departed communist government.


His importance can be noted in the claim of Ralf Hirsch, a dissident in the former East German state (GDR), that he was on his best behavior only when Stolpe was vacationing.  Over the years, Stolpe's "hot lines" to members of the Politburo had made it possible for thousands of East Germans to exchange their prison cells for a new life in West Germany.


Stolpe, the son of a small restaurant owner, had begun modestly.  Kept from entering law practice in 1961 by his "political unrealiability," this graduate of Jena University chose to cast his lot with the church.  He became a major architect of the East German Federation's* "Church Within Socialism" stance.  Despite his own past, he never publicly questioned the leading role of the Communist party prior to 1989.  The Federation's strategy was marked by caution:  It attempted never to make demands of the party leadership which would have caused it to lose face or become untrue to its own ideals.  Small concessions were demanded with the assumption, that, if added up after time, they would amount to significant political improvement.  Remaining on speaking terms was vital, because, as Stolpe once remarked, if one desires to free prisoners, one must remain on speaking terms with the prison keepers.


Absolute opposition would have forced the church to retreat into its ghetto.  The lawyer and his theological colleagues were convinced that, for the well-being of both Christians and non-Christians, the evangelical church needed to remain a critical and public voice.


Yet this church negotiator's diplomacy cannot be reduced to tactical considerations.  There is no reason to assume he did not truly believe that the socialist order had the potential of creating a better society than the capitalist one.  Several years ago he stated:  "It takes at least three trips to the West and a very bright mind to discover that first impressions cannot determine which system is more helpful for people and better for a poor and endangered world."  Until late in 1989, Manfred Stolpe still spoke of a "basic consensus" of Christians and Marxists on the necessity of a socialist alternative.


Like most voluntary citizens of Germany's weaker state, this husband of a medical doctor found the Western media's celebration of the mass exodus through Hungary and Czechoslovakia disgusting.  He miscalculated grandly on the possibility of German reunification:  Only hours before the opening of the Wall, he labeled all talk about reunification "jabber" and "a threat to peace."  "The majority desires an improved socialism, not annexation by the capitalist Federal Republic."



By early 1990, the public tune of the church's chief negotiator had changed.  Remarkably, Stolpe, an old adversary of West Germany's pro-unity lobby, was requested to hold the official lecture on the holiday for Germany unity, June 17.  Now, before a nationally-televised audience, he expressed joy for the events of November 1989 and concluded: "Upcoming German unification is the will of the people."  He even attacked "the old cliche of the capitalist elbow society and its wolf pack order."  Consequently, this SPD politician no longer refers to "capitalism;" he prefers instead to refer to the "social market economy."  Due to the breakup of East Germany's ruling coalition, he began in early August to advocate annexation by West Germany at the earliest possible date.

Opponents have therefore preferred to portray Stolpe as a chameleon and opportunist.  A West Berlin journalist describes the church leader's transformation as typical for the mindset of a politician: Only today's statements count, not yesterday's.


Yet there do remain strong threads of consistency in his stance.  Manfred Stolpe has always been willing to accept the apparently inevitable.  Casting aside all resentments and tugs of nostalgia, this gifted mediator attempts to make the best of a given, current situation.  Once again relying on the results of a total number of small improvements in social justice, he intends to modify the new, capitalist order for the benefit of the masses.  As a politician, he remains upbeat.  "We can do it!  Let's go for it!" he assures the party faithful.  "Brandenburg will become a blossoming state!"


Reports have surfaced which confirm Stolpe's independence during Erich Honecker's reign.  When returning from official business in the West, he had smuggled in ink for Samisdat printing presses.  Before encouraging dissidents to continue their struggle, he had at times retreated to a bathroom and held his speech while flushing the toilets in hopes of confounding any eavesdropping devices.  Perhaps the most convincing indication of Stolpe's true position is found in secret police reports:  A Stasi report from Potsdam, his hometown, refers to him as a "negative force."  Although Stolpe is a moderating influence in public, "he "bolsters and encourages base (dissident) groups" in private.


This budding politician's credibility is reinforced by his disarming willingness to admit past mistakes.  "Looking back on it now, one can see that the hot heads had the correct horse sense after all.  If I would have gotten my way, then Honecker would still be in power and we would have free travel for all above age 40."  He readily admits that he is not a prophet and concedes, along with Bishop Gottfried Forck, that they believed in the improvability of socialism too long.  The journalist Robert Leicht concludes:  "That Stolpe believed [in the improvability of socialism] was incorrect, but it was not dishonorable."  It could be added that conservatives now congratulating themselves for the correctness of their prophetic statements should remember that it took 40 years for their prophecy of the GDR's imminent fall to be fulfilled.


The gentleman from Potsdam and long-time confidant of West German politicians is not completely without "horse sense" himself.  Though suggested for the positions of church minister, foreign minister, and state president, he chose not to make his move into the political arena until this summer.  Early bird Rainer Eppelmann (see The Lutheran of 6/13/90), the GDR's pacifist defense minister, is suffering from flagging popularity.  Manfred Stolpe though appears headed for greater things.  The victory in Brandenburg makes for an impressive start.


Bill Yoder

Berlin, October 26, 1990


Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago, 1,090 words without footnote


*The Federation of Evangelical Churches was the umbrella organization of the GDR's five United and three Lutheran provincial churches.


Note from November 2020: Manfred Stolpe (1936-2019) held leading positions in the Evangelical Church of the GDR from 1962 to 1990. He served as Consistorial President – the leading lay representative - of the Evangelical Church from 1982-90. He was then the Social-Democratic Minister President of the state of Brandenburg from 1990 to 2002. He was the federal Minister of Transport after that until 2005.


Extremely simplistic is a statement made in the English Wikipedia: “He was a Stasi informer for 20 years while in the church.”