Correct Losers – but Wrong Winners

Thoughts - not just - on Eastern Germany since 1989


For me, the German transformation from 1989-90 is connected with ludicrous and unforgettable scenes. In January 1990 I observed Vietnamese near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate eluding police and escaping over the Wall – in both directions. After shopping or sightseeing, they would escape back into the East at eventide. An East German friend still laughs about a joint entry into East Berlin around March 1990. The GDR (German Democratic Republic) policeman waved him through, but my US-pass was cause for careful scrutiny. Times had changed.


I was in for some more surprises in early 1990. I recall holding a lecture near Chicago only days after the mighty demonstration of protest and wit at East Berlin’s “Alexanderplatz” on November 4, 1989. I informed my audience of astonished, retired businessmen then that a “third way” between capitalism and East European socialism was possible and had strong support in the GDR. But that cause was dead as soon as the Western republic got seriously involved a few weeks later and reunification became the sole issue of consequence. It is even claimed that the East German elections of March 18, 1990 squelched the feeble seedling of East German democracy (see Olaf Baale, “Aufbau Ost”, 2008). Foreign control (Fremdsteuerung) reappeared – but now the puppet wires were strung from the West instead of the East.


The East German voter appeared to be shockingly short-sighted to the tune of: “Kommt die D-Mark nicht zu mir, gehe ich zu ihr.” Employees were apparently willing to exchange their jobs for possession of the West German mark, introduced into the GDR on July 1, 1990. The frequent currency exchange of 1 to 1 was akin to suddenly making one US dollar worth four euros - which would pretty much end any US exports. It would have immediately made Americans wealthier – and jobless. And in the “Treuhand”-holding’s mad rush to privatize East German industry, job retention came last. The number of West German millionaires and unemployed East Germans shot up simultaneously. Four million of the GDR’s 17 million population were later at some time unemployed.


I wasn’t happy about it, but even I assumed initially that the all-powerful Federal Republic of Germany could swallow East Germany without regurgitation. I was wrong. Today, a repainted and remodeled Eastern Germany indeed looks gorgeous. But a closer look reveals that many rural areas are devoid of youth, most domestic factories are in ruins, the unemployed and prematurely-retired hang around public places and an incredible amount of asocial – and even fascist - behavior occurs. Perhaps I am only showing my age – behavior among the young in Russia appears considerably better.


Getting back to the church

Much to my astonishment, things got raw in record time after the start of 1990. Western enamorment with the defenders of the church was over in nothing flat. Accusations of compromise and secret police (Stasi) involvement advanced quickly to the headlines. Within several years, the evangelical church’s top lawyer, Manfred Stolpe (born 1936), was bogged down in a war of claims and counter-claims as to whether he had been an agent of the Stasi. He was even defamed as a Stasi agent by East German dissidents who at least in part owed their freedom to him. Stolpe had worked as a church intermediary to get them released from prison and expelled to the West during the 1980s.


Independently-minded, tactfully-dealing East-German church representatives were no longer a model. Indeed, virtually all were considered compromised who had not taken the route of absolute opposition to the GDR-state. Conservative Western voices such as Gerhard Besier (born 1947) and the alternative evangelical news service “Idea” championed absolute opposition – which usually involved imprisonment and expulsion to the West – as the only unobjectionable means of opposing the communist state. Pastor Oskar Brüsewitz, who had died 1976 through self-immolation in Zeitz, was regarded as perhaps the clearest example of steadfast Christian witness. In contrast, outstanding, critical Evangelical church voices such as Heino Falcke and Friedrich Schorlemmer had never even been in jail. Political conservatives claimed they had always known that GDR existence was highly-temporary in nature, and that absolute opposition had been the only proper response.


Lessons I have learned

It strikes me that victors usually act as victors. Not a few examples of unfair treatment of Easterners by Westerners in Germany exist. While workers in state offices on East German soil were receiving only 75% of a Western wage, their advisors from West Germany were receiving a full Western salary plus additional hardship benefits (“Buschzulage”) for their willingness to serve for an interim period in the underdeveloped East. East Germany’s highly-effective system of polyclinics was jettisoned, apparently because it had no Western precedent. Bavaria’s cumbersome and elitist, three-track middle-school system was superimposed on the population-weak, new province of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The bureaucratic and incredibly expensive civil service statutes of West Germany (Beamtenrecht) were reintroduced in the East. The archives of only one German secret service were opened for public scrutiny. We consequently have cock-eyed research on much of the recent German past today.


Very little stemming from the GDR survived. Popular opinion cites the green pedestrian traffic light consisting of a fat man with a bulbous nose as the prime example of the Eastern will to survive. Despite his initially-planned demise, he has survived to this very day, even invading traffic lights in the heart of West Berlin.


There indeed is no free lunch: It is the dollars and cents that matter most. The altruism of the West was limited. Of course: Millions were pumped into the East to support the un- and underemployed, but the goods they bought with that support were also from the West. East Germany was interesting to the West as a market for Western goods – not as a producer of the same. As Marx said, a primary problem for capitalism is over-production. And here the West had the opportunity for a momentary solution.


The desire of Eastern state employees to receive salaries equal to Western ones is recognized as legitimate by most. But it was never attempted to achieve that goal by decreasing Western salaries and have the two salary scales meet in middle. And this has usually been true in church circles, too. Consequently, that objective has not yet been achieved after two decades – East Germans still earn less than their Western counterparts.


Particularly striking was the shameful treatment meted out to the novelist Stefan Heym (1913-2001) in the Bundestag of Bonn on November 10, 1994. As the oldest member of the all-German Bundestag, he had according to tradition been asked to hold the opening-day speech. Conservative parliamentarians left the hall in protest, refused to applaud and saw to it that – for the first time in history – the opening-day speech of the parliament’s most senior member did not appear in the public record. Yet this German Jew and US-soldier during WW II, who had dropped his US-citizenship when he fled from McCarthyism to the GDR via Prague in 1952-3, had spent over three decades after 1956 courageously confronting the GDR’s SED-party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deuschlands). For decades he had fought for a humane socialist alternative. Yet only a bit before the Bundestag speech, Chancellor Helmut Kohl accused Heym of “always setting his sails according to the wind”. Heym had been highly-honored in the West during the decades when he was repressed – but only until 1990.


A topic we can hardly cover here are the so-called “professional dissidents”: Then-young East Germans who rose up against the SED-state in 1988-89 and are still busily lambasting that long bye-gone state. (Only dead horses are eagerly kicked, one hears.) Some quickly dropped the hope for a third way in 1990 and a good number of them now belong to the conservative Christian-Democratic party. That short interval of dissent in the face of considerable odds has served them well as the key to unlock the door to lucrative careers in the reunited Germany. Yet internal-party dissent is as old as the 1940s and 1950s.


Why were so many of the East German heroes of the 1980’s forgotten by 1991? Was it because these heroes – also in the church – had suddenly become competitors in a tight job market? Many of the advocates for a better, third way who had spent decades at a distance to the Western model were robbed of their platform through defamation – as collaborators with a supposedly omniscient Stasi. West Germany was obviously interested in stamping out political alternatives.


The Fate of the church after 1990

In contrast to elsewhere, the East German church fell onto hard times after reunification. Long lines of ex-East Germans formed in front of courthouses during 1991 - just to make sure they were no longer church members and consequently free from the requirement to pay the state-collected church tax. Had the church been much more heroic in Western media than on the home front? The church had played a vital role as a platform for GDR dissidence in the 1980s and 1990s. But the church was barely thanked for that role after 1990.


Church popularity had indeed only been an interim one – brought about by the need to play the role of “ersatz parliament” due to the lack of other options. The church had spoken frequently of Christ. But the communists understood well that a political program was inherent in many of its pronouncements and accused it of hypocrisy, of “misusing” the church for political ends. Indeed, many pastors transitioned into professional politics in 1990. Perhaps spiritual counseling of the needy had not been their primary concern.


Church opposition appears hardly heroic if one looks at the German-nationalist past of some evangelical church leaders during the 1950s. These included the Bishops Otto Dibelius (1880-1967) and Friedrich-Wilhelm Krummacher (1901-1974).


The financial bind hit the churches hard after reunification. Pastoral salaries soared – suddenly for ex. Baptist congregations with less than 90 members could no longer support a full-time pastor. The same problem exists today: the entire Lausitz region from Cottbus to the Polish border and south to Forst has no more than two professional Baptist pastors. The churches’ problems are also greatly compounded by the flight of the young to large East German cities and to the West in search of employment.


The East German “revolution” of autumn 1989 is still lauded as a peaceful and pacifist one. Indeed, all East European revolutions of that time, other than the Romanian one, remained non-violent. Pacifism did work at this stage, yet perhaps only because the situation in Eastern Europe at that time was particularly conducive to such an approach. Mahatma Gandhi was successful in part because the British in India were too squeamish for massive blood-letting. And at least after mid-October 1989 it was clear in the GDR that the USSR would not resort to tanks to force through its interpretation of peace and order. Very likely, a pacifist model would have been unsuccessful during the East European uprisings of 1953, 1956 and 1968.


But the footprints of a Christian response to the socialist challenge are not completely gone. East Germans, and East German Christians in particular, remain sensitive to concerns of job security, social equality and equal opportunity. Politically they remain more leftist and socialist than their Western counterparts. “Die Linke” (the legal successor to the bygone communist party) can at present expect a good 25% of the vote in Eastern Germany. Member-wise, Die Linke remains Eastern Germany’s biggest political party by far. Indeed, it also appears that the peoples of Russia enjoy greater respect in Eastern Germany than in the West.


There were compatriots of North American Mennonite work in the GDR during the 1970s and 1980s who were no favorites of the loud-and-obvious dissident crowd. Friends of the Mennonites such as Bruno Schottstädt (1927-2000), Carl Ordnung (born 1927) and Willibald Jacob (born 1932) were considered much too compromised by most GDR-dissidents and the Western majority. Yet all three of these remained true to their convictions and continued to work for dialogue and reconciliation after 1990 – a fact which honors them. Until the end of the GDR, Western media focused on the most prominent dissidents, the primary leaders of East Germany’s evangelical church. We Mennonites concentrated on leaders in the 2nd row – the “junior varsity” one might say. And that was fine with me – up until this very day. It is an appropriate level for quiet and trustworthy efforts.

The ex-communists today

It has been two decades since the SED was cast from its throne. Unfortunately, probably none of us – including myself – have taken the opportunity to dialogue extensively with its former members. Should not a people of peace regard them as human partners worthy of reflective dialogue? We should remember that the GDR’s church dissidents were certainly not the only ones who risked their necks (die eigene Haut zu Markte tragen) for a cause they believed in. The SED also had its opposition, even within the Stasi, and it is important for us to recognize that. Often they (Wolfgang Harich, Walter Janka, Karl Schirdewan, Rudolf Bahro, Robert Havemann and many others) were in much greater danger than we Christians. When they were imprisoned, they usually (Bahro was an exception) had no powerful Western lobby behind them.


I have become acquainted with a few of the former SED-leaders through lectures and reading. One of them was Markus Wolf (1923-2006), the GDR’s boss of foreign espionage and offspring of a prominent German family. A Christian can very rarely approve of a life being led as a lie for the sake of uncovering state secrets - Christians have their limits. We believers should play with open cards, we spy for no one and we fared well with that policy during the Cold War. But Wolf was also a learned and contemplative person – I cannot view him and many other communists or ex-communists as ogres. Which reminds me of Axel Noack, the Evangelical Bishop of Magdeburg, who recently stated that many politicians stemming from the SED and now active in Die Linke were most interesting and certainly not ogres: “But I would never vote for them.”


Professor Lothar Bisky, today one of Die Linke’s two heads, moved to the GDR as an 18-year-old in 1959 by climbing through a hole in the fence on the inner-German border. Bisky’s mother spent most of her working days as a cleaning lady for the US-Army in Schleswig-Holstein (north of Hamburg). I have heard uninformed Christians denounce him as a “party fat cat”. But his wife Almuth, according to his autobiography “So viele Träume”, is still active as a social worker for the elderly and downtrodden in the downscale (opposite of “upscale”) West Berlin district of Wedding. His wife also had a short fling with the Stasi in the 1960s. There is a statement from him on 1989-90 (die Wende) which I appreciate: “The correct people lost - the wrong people won.” Bisky was in 1989 and before a voice of reason and compromise in the SED. I have respect for careers like that.


Hans Modrow (born 1928), once touted as the GDR’s Gorbachev and the SED’s final GDR-head, strikes me as a sober and sincere politician. He was won for the socialist cause as a very young German POW in the Soviet Union. Another POW, the West German theologian Helmut Gollwitzer, was undoubtedly wiser and was not won over to the cause. But Modrow too, I believe, was as a politician in Dresden of considerable service to the people for whom he was responsible.


I have respect for those who are not “Wendehälse”, those who remain true to long-held, sincere and humanistic positions. The mostly-West German novelist and politician Gerhard Zwerenz (born 1925) led a life far removed from Christian moral standards. A Marxist dissident and student of Ernst Bloch, he fled to West Germany in 1957. He reported in a book (“Krieg im Glashaus oder Der Bundestag als Windmühle”, 2000) that he was twice kept from holding a lecture in Eastern Germany by the same person. The first time, he was denied the privilege by a staunch SED-official. The second time, in the 1990s, that same person, who had mutated into a CDU-politician, came up with the very same decree. Einsiedel is worthy of respect for his steadfastness in upholding honorable ideals.


One should remember that the GDR’s communists had post-1990 experiences radically different from those of their comrades in neighboring countries. The GDR had the “privilege” of being consumed by its larger neighbor. Their party was thrown from power and their only means back up was through honest usage of the ballot box. They were forced into soul-searching, and many ex-members of the SED (not all, but many) did serious study and evaluation of their grave past mistakes. Which makes for fascinating reading. But positive navel-gazing by SED-members had gotten off the ground before 1989. I recall a lecture given by East German writer Stephan Hermlin (1915-1997) in West Berlin around 1983, in which he spoke of the crimes (Verbrechen) of his own communist movement. Hermlin was then a confidant of Erich Honecker.


In 2006, on the 30th anniversary of Oskar Brüsewitz’ death, the former SED-paper “Neues Deutschland” published an apology for its “mean-spirited defamation” of the deceased. Including were a number of the thousands of never-published letters which had reached the paper in 1976 protesting its portrayal of Brüsewitz (see ND, August 12, 2006).


There was of course no one big enough to swallow the Russian Federation in 1991 and Russia’s former communist party has mutated into a nationalist, pro-Orthodox and anti-Semitic lobby. But nevertheless: How could one live in today’s Russia and admire a raw, laissez-faire capitalism? I have complained much about the fate of the East Germans – yet their landing was incredibly soft compared to that which the average citizenry further East was forced to endure.


Jobs a people of peace could be doing

At least since the onslaught of the Cold War, learned Anabaptists have a tradition of disregarding the ideological boundaries being fed to them. In Iran and Iraq Mennonites have again expressed well their unwillingness to accept the “hate effigies” (Feindbilder) being hoisted upon the general Western populace. They have protested the comfortable, bilateral division of the world into “freedom-lovers” and “terrorists”. They have frequently kept on talking after others had resorted to more “persuasive” means. People of peace recognize the complexity of human reality and politics. Indeed, victim and victimizer are frequently the same person.


The dispute on how best to response to government-initiated adversity is far from over. For ex., Minsk’s 1,000-member, charismatic “New Life” congregation is being celebrated by some as a continuation of the East German opposition movement of 1989, as harbingers of the new tolerant, democratic, pan-European order. They have not fared badly with their vehement, pro-Western opposition to the existing Belarusian government. When I visited them 2009 in their long-and-low church – a renovated cow barn on the outskirts of Minsk – they assured me that their building was off-limits to government officials. None of them, including police, are permitted into the church!


The established Belarusian Baptists are much more cautious and tactful. That controversy on how best to respond to government pressure is far from resolved – also in Moscow. Life is complicated. The never-resolved issue of how best a church should respond to state pressure is one reason why my interest in Eastern Europe remains undeterred.


Alexander Lukashenko, labeled “Europe’s last dictator” by his detractors, is at least “king” of the bankrupt kingdom of Belarus. But he indeed has taken the social question seriously and has the support of his country’s poorest – the workers and pensioners. Perhaps the social question is the greatest priority: People indeed do need housing and bread before they can worry about free elections and press freedom. In great contrast to Russia, one sees very few mansions for the new rich in Belarus. A collectivized agriculture is still functioning; Belarus has made no mad rush to privatize. Lukashenko is hardly a model for long-term reign – but I think he is one more relatively-isolated leader whom a people of peace could hope to engage. (See Belarus described positively in Peter Scholl-Latour’s “Russland im Zangengriff“, 2006.)


Essentially, I think we should be trying much harder to engage communists and ex-communists in dialogue. On the East German scene, I don’t believe any evangelicals (including myself) have attempted to do so. I am also not aware of any such attempt by Protestants in Russia. As stated, the GDR’s ex-communists are taking a very serious look at their own pasts – and who else is thinking equally critically of their own history? We have no right to refuse fraternization with prodigals en route home. I remember the words of a young Ukrainian, Baptist politician several weeks ago. Asked if his country’s communist party was interested in Baptist support, he responded: “Of course not! After all, they’re communists!” I am convinced that for a people of peace, political reality needs to be more complex than that. Nothing less than our Christian witness is at stake.


The Lutheran pastor Joachim Gauck (born 1940) and persons of similar conviction have done further damage to the cause of the church in the eyes of ex-communists. Only becoming known as a dissident in Rostock in late 1989, he quickly advanced and was named “Federal Trustee for the Records of the State Security Service of the former GDR” in the newly-unified German state. In great contrast to the period after 1945, the German state now had a mighty bureaucracy of over 2,000 employees dedicated to exposing the sins - and sinners - of a bygone era. Many of his department’s judgments have been seen as politically partisan and unfair. Gauck’s detractors speak of “victor justice” (Siegerjustiz). So anyone wanting to win a good fourth of East Germany’s population for the cause of the church has a daunting task ahead. But the greatest tragedy of all is that no one is trying.


Traveling from the Arctic Circle in Finland to the borders of Gibraltar without needing to show a passport is indeed a heady thought. The Schengen (Luxembourg) agreements of 1985 have made this possible. It is also difficult for me to envision a more promising solution for the territory lost by Germany to Poland in 1945. Despite the bloodshed of WW II, Germans and Poles with ties to the same turf will in the future increasingly be able to enjoy it jointly. I am grateful to God for this development!


But the downside of the good is that Winston Churchill’s “iron curtain” cutting through Europe (first mentioned in Fulton, Missouri in March 1946) has re-arisen in another form. Most Westerners no longer need visas to enter Ukraine as tourists. Travel in the opposite direction though is quite another matter. A completely innocent, Ukrainian music group was foiled twice during 2009 in its attempts to perform a few Christian concerts in Western Europe. Getting visas for Western Europe in Kiev, Belgrade or Moscow has often become a humiliating nightmare. I have seen German embassy staff in Moscow acting towards Russian visa applicants – even church officials - as if Operation Barbarossa (the attack on Russia in 1941) had never occurred. Corrupt Russian border police have nabbed me for rubles on several occasions, but none of this compares with the treatment East Europeans are subjected to in Western embassies.


Citing the rates of illegal immigration, the Schengen policies on visas are defended by not a few West European evangelicals. But they must recognize that the innocent suffer unjustly. Thanks to their deep pockets, Eastern Europe’s corrupt, new rich are readily given visas. Schengen is apparently not trying to reduce entry to those most accustomed to abiding by the law.


In June 2008 in Moscow, I heard Alexander Torshin, a high-level, ruling-party politician, invite Western Baptists to come and resettle the countryside. Quite a ludicrous thought for most North Americans. But was it even a mistake for Mennonites to move to Ukraine in the 1780s? In view of the cost in human lives – yes. But one could also claim that the biggest mistake involved our behavior towards the resident Slavs after arrival, not the mere fact of arrival. The separate community and the economic gap were two trademarks of Mennonite life in Tsarist Russia. But despite all their weaknesses, ethnic-German Mennonites were a major influence on the Russian and Soviet evangelical movement apparent up to the present.


Ukrainian believers with a sense of mission have been settling in Russia – they are even sending a few missionaries to the Central Asian republics. Even Eastern Germany has empty corners where the percentage of believers is incredibly low. A few West Germans have arrived to fill the gaps. The world suffers not only from a maldistribution of wealth – there is a corresponding maldistribution of Christian believers. Perhaps the influx of Russian-speaking evangelicals into California and the Pacific Northwest gives one all the more reason to serve God elsewhere – long-term. Political developments have given Western believers new options for service thought impossible only 20 years ago.


But these are dim hopes, also among Mennonites. A few from the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (Holdeman) have brought their tractors and greenhouses to Ukraine, and I am told a Canadian Mennonite farmer has become a major actor in the western Siberian village of Apollonovka/Waldheim. But this is apparently not true for the Beachy Amish around Kiev or the Canadian Mennonites gathered in Zaporozhe region. We Mennonites have historically been a sojourning people – but we became very comfortable in North America during the course of the last century.


Trends indeed are in the opposite direction – towards mission tours and other short-term involvement. I can think of a number of persons who reside in North America while officially serving as full-time missionaries to Russia. They’re on location for a few months per year.


Forum 18, the Oslo-based news service specializing on issues of religious freedom in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, is an offshoot of Britain’s Keston College. It describes in detail some of the many infractions against religious liberty apparent in this geographic region. I agree this must be done and is an important service to Western observers. But due to its topical focus, Forum 18 cannot provide a balanced and total picture of developments in any given country. So, unintentionally, they mostly supply the casual, stay-at-home reader with additional reasons to emigrate. Yet the church must do more to encourage and help those willing to remain in their countries of need, to stay.


In terms of mission, Eastern Europe is apparently no longer in-style. Adventuresome mission with the corresponding dangers to life and limb now happens elsewhere. But Eastern Europe remains far from pacified – the work is not done. The Orthodox-Catholic/Protestant chasm between Europe’s East and West, which became particularly apparent during the Yugoslav conflict of 1991-95, still plays a very real role in Russia and Ukraine. And, as stated, the ex-Marxist-Leninist crowd which has fallen from grace in Eastern Germany and elsewhere is highly worthy of our attention. Indeed, the work for a people of peace has hardly begun.


Professor Walter Sawatsky

I first heard of Walter Sawatsky, the man with the wonderful Polish surname of Zawadzki, at Virginia’s Eastern Mennonite College in early 1973. The emissary was Mennonite Central Committee’s Peter J. Dyck (born 1915). Peter had the highest of hopes for his new recruit, and his aspirations were not dashed. Walter’s classic “Soviet Evangelicals Since World War II”, originally published in 1981, made him a household name among ex-Soviet evangelicals in the 1990s.


But more importantly to me: Walter always struck me as the born diplomat. His quiet and elegant manner, his warm, listening style – they impressed me as highly-suited to church diplomacy. He was an undogmatic reconciler and bridge-builder. He was not afraid of contact with anyone and was concerned early-on about the feelings and reactions of the other party. Indeed, his skills reflected many of the traits to which Anabaptists aspire.


But Walter Sawatsky was a church diplomat who also did his homework. He worked hard to get the facts straight, and if he did not know something, he was not afraid to ask. Some of us think only in the short-term. But Walter is concerned about the wide swath of human and church history – at least the last 500 years.


Godspeed and God’s best to Walter and Margaret. You have been a blessing to my life. Let’s stay in touch.


Dr. William Yoder

Orsha, 4 October 2010


Note from August 2021: This is the manuscript I supplied for the book "History and Mission in Europe". It was edited by Mary Raber and Peter Penner and appeared in Germany's Neufeld-Verlag in 2011. The book was dedicated to the work of the Mennonite professor and church diplomat Walter Sawatsky. A good number of persons mention in this report, Lothar Bisky, Manfred Stolpe, Peter Dyck and others, have died since then. There is no German version of this article.


Incidentally, this article invoked the displeasure of Canon Michael Bourdeaux (1934-2021), founder and doyen of London's "Keston College". This gives me the impression that the Canon never took serious note of the mounds of alternative (also church) writings on developments in the German Democratic Republic. To my knowledge, he never veered from the mainstream Western interpretation of church life in Eastern Europe.