Berlin's remaining walls

International | The concrete wall is down, communism defeated-but why is the church's enemy more formidable?

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 1998," Dec. 5, 1998

in Berlin - On the inside, the third-floor apartment is positively middle-class American in appearance: There's a sectional sofa, an entertainment center, a coffee table, a ficus. It's the small things that reveal this is East Berlin, not Ohio. Udo Arndt removes his shoes and puts on slippers before walking on the carpet. His wife Angelika is careful with coasters. The meaning is clear; you never know when carpet or furniture will become available again. "We waited 10 years for an automobile," says Mr. Arndt, 51 (even then, it was only a Trabant, the Communist-made subcompact that deserved its nickname, "the Stinker"). "But we waited only nine years for the telephone. The reason we got the telephone so quickly was that I became an assistant clerk in our church; that's when the East German secret police, the Stassi, allowed us a telephone so they could tap it." He says this cheerily; Angelika Arndt smiles also. "We called our friends in Köln, and we told them to speak loudly so the others could hear." Such was life before the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall nine years ago, they explain. As Christians, they were forbidden to enter the universities or most professions. Mr. Arndt, a trained civil engineer, hit his career peak as a traffic-light technician. Mrs. Arndt is a schoolteacher, but in a subordinate position (as she explains it, it's something like the difference in the United States between a certified teacher and a day-care worker). Their neighbors were paid to keep an eye on them for the Stassi. Informants were paid to attend meetings at the house churches ("We could tell who they were because they didn't know where to look when we prayed," Mrs. Arndt explains.) "Downstairs was a family who kept a book for the police, listing everyone who came and went in the building," Mr. Arndt says. "As Christians, we were assumed to be opponents of Communism. Everyone was watched, of course, but we were watched extra." "And so people trusted us," adds his wife. "Before, during Communism, people would seek us out, to ask advice." Her husband nods. "People with problems knew they could go to a Christian, and that their words would not be reported. The advice would not be ..." Here he searches for a word, consults the translator. "Self-serving," he says. "It would be good advice. Because being a Christian meant something. That sense changed, in the years after the wall. It seems to mean less to be a Christian now." His wife, blonde with delicate features, looks down. "The neighbors, the ones who kept the book for the police, came to see us the night the wall came down. They both had government jobs and were very committed to the ideology. The woman said, 'For you, nothing has changed. For us, we no longer have our world.' But I think our world changed greatly, too." As we leave the apartment and re-enter the drab, gray environs of East Berlin, the German-American missionary who has been helping to translate struggles to explain the paradox. It's true, he says, the church was healthier and more vigorous when it was officially suppressed. "Like they said, it meant something then, it meant sacrifice," says Heiko Burklin, who trains youth workers. "Now, it is seen as just another choice. The East Germans are overwhelmed with choices." The West may have saved the church here from Communism, Mr. Burklin says, but not from commercialism. "I find that Christianity is a non-issue," he says. "There is now, suddenly, the opportunity to get those material things that East Germans did without for so long. The advertisements are hitting them from all sides. It is difficult for Christianity to rise above all that noise." He cites a recent, very effective ad campaign: A young Berliner is surrounded by symbols of the stress and worry of daily life. He asks aloud, "Isn't there anyone who can take our worries?" The camera pans upward, to the bright, clear sky and the logo, "Hypobank." And it doesn't help that two generations of East Germans have undergone the anti-God indoctrination of the Communist government. And in practice, at least, the new order is echoing the old. Marx's dialectical materialism was exchanged for run-of-the-mill materialism. The former is more hate-filled than the latter, but neither philosophy is friendly to God. "That has devastated these generations," Mr. Burklin says. "Every culture, except this, has some kind of religiosity-even if it's wrong, there is at least a sense of a greater being. Not here. The usual way [to witness] is to say, 'Let me tell you about God.' Here, you must first explain the concept of God. At least, before the wall came down, Christians were noticeably different." If this sounds like an odd sort of nostalgia, in many ways it is. Nostalgia is epidemic in Germany now, particularly in the East. With unemployment at over 30 percent in parts of the East, and not much better elsewhere, selective memory makes the bad old days-Germany reunified on Oct. 3, 1990-not look so bad. "There were a lot of positive things about East Germany that people didn't appreciate then as much as they do now," one businessman told the Toronto Financial Post. "Everyone now has the material things they always dreamed of having, like a car or a video recorder, but they often don't have a job anymore. So many have lost their jobs, their places in society, their self-respect. No wonder they're happy to see 'Erich Honecker' again." It's no ghost. The reference to Erich Honecker is actually to East Berliner Kurt Schmidt, a retired baker who is paid to attend parties and drop in at discos-dressed as the late Communist dictator. The resemblance is little better than passing, but it's getting better as Mr. Schmidt learns to dress, swagger, and talk like Mr. Honecker. He's got the decisive wave down pat, and his act is very popular. The parties are part of a phenomenon being called "Ostalgie"-that's short for "nostalgia for the East"-and it's partially responsible for German Premier Gerhard Schroder's sweep of the last election. The center-left "Third Way" candidate was particularly strong in areas with high unemployment and lots of Ostalgie bashes. Axel Nehlsen could be mistaken for a typical American pastor. He wears loafers, slacks, a sweater. His gray hair is neat and, it seems, just slightly hairsprayed. But his church, the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, would be incongruous anywhere. It's three churches, really; the remains of a gothic cathedral, gutted and nearly destroyed by Allied bombers at the close of World War II, and the tall, cylindrical structure Berliners refer to as the "Lipstick Tube." In the shadow of both is the squat, ultramodern block of the new cathedral, with its walls of honeycombed stained glass. Mr. Nehlsen's real work is in the foyer of the last of these; he works with the homeless, the drifters and the aimless young people who seem to congregate in the small park at the steps of the ruin. In other words, the centerpiece of German Lutheranism has become a struggling mission church. "I remember the Peace Prayers," says Mr. Nehlsen, who has served here for more than 20 years. "The churches, both in East and West Germany, became centers for the resistance [to Communism]. Especially in the East, they were sanctuaries. The Christians there had kept their faith strong, and resisters were drawn there, naturally. So the church was truly the catalyst of the democracy movement." Toward the end of the unrest in 1989, the churches on both sides of the Berlin Wall were filled with people-all day, every day. "But when the wall came down, we wondered where the people were," he says. "The churches were empty again. It was a missed opportunity; the churches had failed to convince the non-Christians of the truth of Christianity. The church was seen as useful, but not necessarily true." In truth, though, the error goes back further. It becomes clear in a brief tour of the three buildings that make up the Kaiser Wilhelm church. At the door of the bombed-out structure is a jarring inscription: "This tower should remind us of the judgment of God that broke over the people of Germany during the years of the war." Inside, a few yards away from a marble statue of Christ, is an oversized, golden, faceless Christ statue, hanging above the altar, arms outstretched. It's the pose without the cross; its feet do not touch the earth. It's the perfect modernist Christ-the Savior is distant, impersonal. What the bombs couldn't do to the old church, a liberal theology did. The walls are blue squares of stained glass, but not the sort that tells a story. The formless blue glow from each square is equally a testament to spirituality without memories. Herr Nehlsen assents to this assessment. "You must understand the strength of secularism here," he says. "Yes, we had Luther, but since Luther, nothing. We had no further reformations, no Great Awakening, no charismatic revivals. The churches became more and more liberal in their theology. They died." To meet the problems of modern Germany, he says, the church must shake itself awake. "You see everywhere the broken biographies of the Easterners. The values they had for 40 years are gone, and secular society has failed to replace them. They lack orientation; they ask me, 'What am I living for?' and 'Why am I working?' If they are unemployed, they ask me, 'If there is a God, why did he let this happen?'" He checks his watch; it's nearing time to begin preparing an afternoon meal for the vagabond youths on the steps of the church. His mood changes dramatically when discussing them. He doesn't seem to realize he's verbally sketching a third image of Christ, a true and glorious image. "We didn't plan this; in fact, we literally tripped over them on our way home each evening," he says. "Eventually we saw, here is the need. Everyone else throws them out, calls the police. Nobody likes them, nobody likes their dogs, their lifestyles. Their smells. But we saw need, and we opened a coffeehouse. We brought in Christian bands, we began providing some good meals." His eyes crinkle with joy. "And they will ask us, why are you helping? Why do you not throw us away? And it is then that they are open to hearing the gospel."

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