"The East German Church and the Stasi"

This is a pamphlet titled Stasi Verseuchte Kirche? or Was the Church in the GDR Corrupted by the Stasi?  It was translated into English by Dr. Ralph Radloff,  Professor emeritus of Religion, Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois and Erwin Weber, Professor emeritus of German, Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.  Permission for the translation and publication of the pamphlet was granted by the author, Dietrich Mendt, Head Pastor emeritus of Saxony, and the Thomas Verlag in Leipzig, Germany.

Files Hide the Truth

Until recently any attempt to investigate the church's role in the German Democratic Republic has been done primarily through the publication of files by the Stasi.1  Files are documents with seals and signatures, that make them believable. And they have branded the church as a church infiltrated by the secret police. It does not matter that the church has drawn attention to the fact in official documents that only a few pastors and staff were used by the Ministry of State Security. Official documents make a strong impression on us bureaucracy-believing Germans. In every case, they make a greater impression than the written or spoken explanations. I consider this not only dangerous, I consider it false. I would like to explain in this small pamphlet why it is dangerous and false; and to show another way to interpret the facts, which, of course, needs more space than a pamphlet.

The files have several errors. There are primarily two infractions committed by the secret police. First: They tampered with the files. The clerks were not neutral observers or stenographers, they were themselves party members and secret police, who had definite instructions and who had a constant fear of filling out the forms incorrectly. In everything that we know of the secret police, their fear was justified. In addition, they did not write simply what happened, but often that which was desired by superiors. Dr. Schmutzler, the Evangelical student-pastor from Leipzig, who had been sentenced to five years in prison, later wrote a biography, "Against the Current". For six weeks, he refused to sign false documents. His strength to resist did not last any longer.2 No one will ever be able to convince me that one is able to reconstruct the real truth, for example, by comparison with other records, which to me are also false files.

The second error: Some files are missing. The Consistory President Hammer of Magdeburg was a major in the secret police. However we find out that his files are no longer available. And if not all of the details are correct (see above) the fact that he was a major in the secret police cannot be doubted. This story furthers the suspicion, indeed, confirms the suspicion, that about 20% of the files, those that are missing, are almost exclusively about the acts committed by high-ranking people. "They hang the small fry... The big shots run around free."

The files kept by the church itself are also incomplete, but the situation is quite different. I remember during a visit to Leipzig in 1951, I, as leader of the Evangelical Student Association in the GDR, witnessed, by chance a search of the Head Pastor's office by the Criminal Police. Stacks of files were taken away at that time. The files, which contained notes concerning the church's relationship to the government, led to no procedure against the church. As the Leipzig student pastor, I never kept a guest book, so that the names of our many guests from the West and East, also from the Soviet Union or Poland would not fall into their hands in case of possible house-searches. Thus the church's files are also incomplete. Whoever was raised in the West and has served in western public or church offices can hardly understand this.

Results: Files alone are not enough. But before I suggest another way, here are a few comments on "The Church in the GDR".

Difficulties of Christians in the GDR

The GDR was an atheistic state as well as a dictatorship. It had no interest in religious and independent-minded individuals who might place the state at risk and make it insecure. Therefore, steps had to be taken so that Christians could fit into the state. There were a number of possibilities for dealing with Christians: Denial of higher education and student acceptance, so that Christians would not be able to achieve positions of leadership (in the GDR they were the "cadre")! Discrimination in career and chosen profession: Christians had no chance for advancement and in the last decade were able to be neither a state official nor a lawyer in good conscience. It was also often difficult for teachers. Christians often walked a tight rope. And they were obviously not welcomed in areas such as Eichsfeld or Erzgebirge, where there were still strong Catholic or Protestant communities.3

In addition there were restrictions on travel, publications, assembly, vacation to spas and inexpensive union resorts! They compelled the youth to join communist youth organizations, etc. All of this is known. And in the past, the Western Press has made this known again and again. What is not known is what it meant for the individual Christian and for the Christian family to live in the GDR in every day life. What is not known is with what emotions some parents brought their children to the first day of school. What is not known is what trying and humiliating conversations not only the parents, but also the children had with teachers and functionaries. There were occasions, when a nine-year-old child was put in a room and for an entire hour or more had to give an account of his actions and justify his behavior in front of five or six teachers, the Pioneer leader, the director of the school and the class teacher. Or what does it mean when children dared not tell in school what was talked about at home, at the table, which radio programs and TV channels were turned on, and which books were read? Until the Sixties, a person was punished with imprisonment if he owned or borrowed the book by Gollwitz which deals with a Russian prisoner of war camp titled And Led Where You Didn't Want to Go. Or what does it mean, if again and again, here and there, people were arrested, without our knowing where they were held imprisoned, to whom we were not allowed to write, and to whom we were not permitted to bring a Bible? As student-pastor in Leipzig, I was never allowed to visit a student in prison. As a member of the State Church Office, I was able one time to visit a pastor in custody, but was not permitted to obtain a bible for him. These were all personal difficulties behind the obvious difficulties for Christians in the GDR - and they were the worst ones.

What were the Alternatives for Christians?

The first possible Alternative: Leave the church and join the party. This was the simplest solution and it was preferred by the state. Many people preferred this path, in particular those, who no longer had any more inner connection with the church. (It is probably a similar group of people, who in the old Federal Republic of Germany resigned from the church out of opposition to the church tax.)

The second possible Alternative: Flee (before the time of the Wall) and later resettle in the West! Not only many intellectuals took this route before 1961, but also numerous children of evangelical pastors went "over there" to the West, so that they would have an opportunity to attend schools of higher learning. The motives were various. There were those who could not take it any longer in the GDR. They were afraid of not only losing their freedom but also their careers. They were unable to use their God-given talent, and also could not earn a good living, or at least make some "big" money. Among them were those who were convinced (that one cannot live in the GDR as a Christian) and those who were opportunists (those who were looking for an increase in the quality of their lives). Adjusting to economic conditions in the West was preferred and more justifiable by many of them, rather then adapting to the political situation in the GDR. For some the GDR wasn't such a bad place. As a matter of fact they had a good life there. However, they lived in constant fear, that one day their luck would run out. Today people from this group of refugees belong to the harshest and most severe critics of the Church in the GDR. They have to prove, that a true Christian could not live in the GDR. Therefore, in their eyes, everyone who remained in the GDR was either half a Communist or a complete one.

The third possible Alternative: Adapt yourself carefully to the GDR. Join the CDU (Christian Democratic Party) and not the SED (Socialist Communist Party) in order to have peace and to be left alone. You become a member of the "Society for German-Soviet Friendship". Each time a law was passed, you decide anew whether or not you must protest against it, but most of the time could not find the courage to speak against it in an open debate. You went to vote, and in the most extreme cases you went into the voting booth and refused to cast your vote publicly, which was already something that required a bit of courage. This alternative was chosen by the majority out of consideration for the family, for fellow workers (you didn't want to spoil their periodic bonuses), and out of consideration for oneself and one's moral strength to resist.

Finally, the fourth possible Alternative was that people thought that God had an assignment for them in this country, namely a dual assignment: on the one hand, they had to bring the biblical message to this country and enlist people for Jesus Christ and his disciples, namely, to become missionaries, because they were convinced that there was no country in which God was not at work. The text of Second Isaiah out of the Babylonian Captivity gave help and consolation: "With God one is able to leap over walls!" (Psalm 18.3). They didn't understand this Word of God as encouragement to flee over the Wall, but rather as a statement of the fact, that for God there are no Walls.

For others it meant that they were equally responsible with God for the conditions in this country. They were always concerned about making the GDR more humane and more just in the spirit of Jeremiah 29 and his exhortation in the Babylonian Captivity of Israel "Seek the welfare of the City" (Jer 29.7). And they believed that this would be possible. When Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Union in 1985, it was a confirmation that internal resistance accompanied by constant criticism of the state sometime had an effect and would be rewarded by God. And God did reward it in 1989, even if it was in a different way and a more radical way than we had thought. It was more than we were able to hope for in our most urgent prayers, and more than any West-German politician had considered possible.

The Wall as God's Reminder

Here is a little story: In 1960, one year before the Wall, a group of very active laypersons and pastors from church and student organizations from the GDR were guests for ten days at the "House of the Church" in Grunewald, West Berlin. Helmut Gollwitz spoke with us one afternoon. It was his opinion that we were living in a Socialist-Communist country for the long term and we therefore had to adjust. And his request was that we accept the promise, that also the "gates of hell will not prevail against the community of Jesus." (Mt: 16:18) Afterwards, there was a heated discussion with him. No one wanted to accept the idea that the GDR would last for a long time. Not until the Wall was built did it become clear that Christians had to "live" in this country and not merely "winter over". And not until 1961 did the Church face the question seriously as to how a Christian could live in this state. From then on the Protestants and Catholics disagreed on how to live in the GDR. While the Catholic Church, as a world church, was more strongly united with Catholic Churches in foreign countries and more strongly protected, it sought to insure its continued existence, and to protect and shield itself from the socialist-communist state and its temptations, the Evangelical Church, inspired by the gospel, sought to equip its members for service in this country and to this country. Out of this effort was created the not-very-clear and later misused and misunderstood evangelical formulation of the "Church in Socialism."

There had been a fairly great spectrum of opinions for the formulation of the "Church in Socialism." After the Wall, there were some who previously had shared each others' burdens, respected and supported one another, who now began to quarrel. What was "Resistance" and what was "Opportunism"? What was responsibility and what was not? I will attempt to make it clear with two personal examples.

I was among those who placed hope in Socialism! We believed, that if one freed socialism from all distortions of Stalinism and the GDR, it could, under the right circumstances, become a healthy and competitive alternative to the market economy. And I have sought with others again and again for a basis which appeared to me to be appropriate. The best known attempt was probably that of the Erfurt Provost, Heino Falcke, who at a meeting of the Synod of United Evangelical Churches in the GDR, demanded a "Better Socialism". Aside from the fact that in retrospect such hopes were obviously deceiving, they were also shattered, since the State considered such reforms, i.e., the so-called "Revisionism" as counterrevolutionary and therefore traitorous. In the files from the Leipzig Secret Police Headquarters, which are in front of me, there is, among others, a report about me: it says that my attempt to create a support group and small circles, which met in homes, was nothing other than the preparation of the church for possible illegal activities. Although there was some truth in it - so that in case of persecution under certain circumstances, members of the support group would have a chance of survival - this was absolutely not my motive. My intention was more to establish a revival of the church which had frozen in its structure, by intensive instruction of the laity through contemporary application of the Biblical message to daily life. And for that, the support groups seemed to me to be a fitting means.

The other example: In one Bible-study meeting, I explained Paul's Letter to the Romans, Chapter 13, and, with it, sought to encourage the Christians to take responsibility for the GDR and to care for it, as Paul demands of the state: that it reward the good and punish the evil. (Rom. 13:3-4)! I asserted, therefore, that Christians should remain in the GDR, in order that they inform the state that which it did not know, because it knows nothing about God. From this the secret police concluded that I wanted to keep Christians in the GDR, in order to strengthen the active opposition against the state.

Conclusions

We know too little about each other. We need reports of experiences. Our generation, my generation which experienced together the forty-four year history of the GDR, must write down their experiences and make them available to the public. Because we know too little about each other, we do not understand each other. The victim does not understand the culprit. The culprit does not understand the victim, and what, perhaps, is even worse, those who have lived in the West, do not understand us, who have lived in the East and vice versa!! Yes, also vice versa! We in the East have deceived ourselves. We thought that the small group who faithfully had visited us, and had cared for us, sometimes under oppressive conditions, such as border controls, entrance refusal, thorough searches; we believed that they had understood us completely and had helped us. And that "those" in the West also understood us completely. And those "over there" thought that our constantly expressed longing for Western conditions was a signal that we did not want to know anything about our past. This first became clear to me during the course of the last ten years. And I want to explain this lack of understanding by means of two examples which concerns us pastors and which I, therefore, am able to understand especially well.

We evangelical pastors receive presently about 80% in salary of that of our West German colleagues. That appears to us, compared to that which we earned on the GDR side as unbelievably high. We literally have constantly money "left over". And we are not able to understand that our western colleagues, who still receive 20% more, and have more remaining, are not willing to give up at least 5% or 10% of their salaries, so that our church co-workers can finally have more money, to overcome the great social differences between them and us, which are ongoing problems between us. But just as we have gotten used to our life and life style, so have out western sisters and brothers gradually gotten used their life and life style for forty years. That means that in the economic structure of West Germany it is not so tremendously more that they earn. Yet with the cost of rent, gratuities, private cars, company cars, taxes insurance, etc., one can just get by. I also would just get by under those circumstances with this money today, with nothing or only a little "left over". The young people in former East Germany, therefore, look at the handling of money in a totally different way than we older folks. Already, young pastors do not understand us any more and get defensive when we speak of "doing with less."

Another example: For forty years, in the West, they never had to consider the consequences of freedom of the press, what they thought, and what they wrote. Freely and without hesitation they were permitted to speak spontaneously whatever came to their minds. If they were wrong, they were corrected. Sometimes what they wrote was also falsified, distorted, shortened, or expanded. But then they could be corrected again. However, we in the GDR, during this time period had to always carefully consider each word that we said in public. We were not permitted to print anything unless it was approved by the state. We were responsible for every word. We therefore had to be careful not to say anything that could be considered provocative and irresponsible, and had to be careful not to falsify the Gospel. That also meant for example, that we would say nothing that the press could exploit in order to portray us Christians remaining loyal to the GDR.

Not until we Christians understand one another in such a way, that we can mutually comprehend, how and why we have behaved in our life situations in this way and in no another, are we able to write the history of the church in the GDR. Not until all kinds of personal experiences are presented in greater breath will it be worthwhile to produce anew the files, and to compare them. When that happens, I am convinced that no one will speak any longer of the "Church corrupted by the Secret Police in the GDR."

Endnotes

  1. Stasi - Staatssicherheitsdienst, Secret Police in the GDR - German Democratic Republic (1949-1989).  After the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, Germany was divided into four occupation zones. The British, French, and US zones formed West Germany, officially known as the Federal Republic of Germany. The Soviet zone in East Germany became an independent communist nation in 1949. Its official name is the German Democratic Republic. West Germany and East Germany were reunited after the fall of the Wall in 1989.

  2. After Schmutzler was threatened with 25 years imprisonment, he signed the false documents.

  3. Christians outnumbered the Socialist-Communists members in these regions.

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After teaching theology in a Lutheran seminary, and serving as a parish pastor, and student pastor, the author, Dietrich Mendt, who was born in Saxony in 1926, was one of five Head Pastors of the Church Council of Saxony from 1973-1983. Thereafter, he served as Head Pastor in Zittau until his retirement in 1991. Since then he has lived in Dresden. His pamphlet, Stasiverseuchte Kirche? Eine Flugschrift was copyrighted by the Thomas Verlag, Leipzig in 1995. ISBN 3-86174-041-9.

Erwin Weber

September, 2000