Minefield to mission field

International | Ten years after Germany reunited, its eastern wing is ripe for more miracles

Issue: "The narrow runway," Oct. 14, 2000

in Leipzig-Christians in former East Germany were sure they witnessed a miracle when their country was reunified peacefully with the democratic west 10 years ago, on Oct. 3, 1990. "God intervened in history," stated Lutheran bishop Werner Leich, who was then the head of the Evangelical Church Federation in the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). "We were stunned," remembered Harald Krille, once a Protestant activist in the east, now the photo editor of Idea, an evangelical publishing house. "We Christians believed that the division of our country was an expression of God's wrath over the crimes committed by Germans during World War II. We could not imagine that this might suddenly end." Indeed, how could we believe that, short of a wonder, the Iron Curtain would disappear almost overnight, along with its minefields and death strips? How could we conceive of East Germany's military, the second largest in the Soviet bloc, being dissolved without any loss of blood? That a 500,000-strong Russian occupation force would calmly withdraw to its homeland, allowing the German territory it had occupied for half a century to become part of NATO? Nobody dared to hope that the east's crumbling railroads could be so swiftly supplanted by a state-of-the-art network of tracks allowing gleaming trains to zip along at 140 mph. Nobody envisaged the almost instant renewal of the telephone system. It had not been updated since 1928; getting new service meant a15-year wait. Now it ranks among the most advanced in the world. When the Berlin Wall fell, millions of deep potholes dotted East Germany's roads; they disappeared within months. The eastern cities were crumbling woefully; now many of them sparkle more brightly than their western sisters, especially Leipzig, cradle of the peaceful revolution that toppled the GDR's communist regime. The industrial region around Leipzig was considered the most polluted in central Europe. Lung disease was rampant among the young. Today a huge resort area flecked with artificial lakes and parks is being developed here. Farther north, near the Baltic coast, a potentially worse industrial disaster loomed. West German experts found a Chernobyl-type nuclear reactor in such dire state that a meltdown threatening all of northern Europe seemed imminent. The reactor was shut down. "It is obvious that we received a gift from God," said Johannes Holmer, a Lutheran pastor in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg. But he added, "Let us just hope that God will become the center of our people's lives once again." There is little to indicate that this is about to happen. Pastors quip that turning people away from God was the communists' sole and evidently lasting success. Opinion polls show that 31 percent of former East Germans still believe in God, compared with 73 percent of their western compatriots. Church membership has slid from 83 percent in 1950, to 34 percent at the time of reunification, to 25 percent today. In former West Germany, on the other hand, eight out of 10 still adhere (often nominally) to Christian denominations. The former East Germany was Lutheran heartland; these days in some of its towns no more than 5 percent of the inhabitants are Christians. Even Leipzig, once a center of Lutheran orthodoxy and theological brilliance, has turned into a spiritual desert. In this city Johann Sebastian Bach, often called the "fifth evangelist," worked for 27 years. But almost none of the people attending the motet and cantata services in this Gothic church on Fridays and Saturdays can say the Lord's Prayer. "They are catechetical illiterates, and some of the younger ones even think that the crucifix above the altar represents a gymnast," reported Johannes Richter, Leipzig's Lutheran superintendent. Almost nine out of 10 Leipzigers are thought to be agnostics or atheists. It's not that they are still communists. But 10 years after reunification, many of them have not fully adjusted to democracy. What persists is a phenomenon called Ostalgie, a kind of nostalgia for the totalitarian coziness of the GDR. Its industry may have been rotten, dirty, and inefficient, but East Germans pondering their current rate of unemployment-almost 20 percent-recall that everybody had a job in the old days. There was less crime, too, and life, though boring, unfree, and devoid of choices or competition, was blissfully laid-back. Ostalgie notwithstanding, 95 percent of eastern Germans do not wish to return to "GDR conditions." What has survived from the old days are the symptoms of communist godlessness. Abortion rates in the east are three times as high as in the west. While 100,000 teenagers follow an atheistic rite of passage called Jugendweihe, only 40,000 follow the tradition of Lutheran confirmation. Although the churches were instrumental in bringing down the communist regime, 53 percent of all eastern Germans have no confidence in them whatsoever, according to a recent poll. They rank 11th among institutions trusted by the east's 16 million people. Most would rather put their faith in the police, the food industry, the banks, aviation, the military, television, the press, the railroads, the judicial system, and the unions-in that order. Only the federal government in Berlin and the political parties are viewed with more suspicion than religious organizations. This development goes back beyond the communist era. It is often forgotten that Hitler's regime was also atheistic, but it only lasted 12 years. When it collapsed in 1945, churches became once again an important force in West German society. In the east, however, Christians faced persecution. They were not usually allowed to obtain high-school certificates, a precondition for attending university. They were barred from senior positions in the administration, the military, industry, and academia. Remaining faithful required sacrifice, and those who did not flee to the west turned their backs on the church, "often with a guilty conscience," according to Protestant bishop Axel Noack of Magdeburg. "These were the grandparents and parents of today's overwhelming majority of young unchurched eastern Germans." Ironically, the creators of the Berlin Wall sowed the seeds of its demise. Communist Party leader Walter Ulbricht, who established the wall, gave orders to blow up Leipzig's graceful, late-Gothic university church on May 30, 1968. That act triggered a protest movement that snowballed. Peace marches spread through the country, and by the mid-1970s, a full-fledged Christian revival involving hundreds of thousands of East Germans was underway. They sang American-style gospel songs, in addition to the traditional Lutheran chorales. They prayed for Israel, in contrast to their government's policies. Resistance to communist policies went far beyond Christian circles, but the church provided the entire opposition movement with a roof and a methodology. Martin Luther's doctrine of "grabbing the tyrannical rulers in the snout but not interfering with their craft" proved victorious. On Oct. 9, 1989, Leipzig pastors preached using the text from Proverbs 25:15: "Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone." It turned out to be the most important series of prayer services in the history of the German resistance. The congregations joined 70,000 other demonstrators and softly felled a 40-year tyranny. They knew that soldiers had guns trained on them. They knew that thousands of body bags were waiting to carry them away. They knew that makeshift concentration camps had been set up for their leaders, especially the pastors. They also knew that the slightest act of violence on their part could provoke a massacre. So when agents provocateurs among them tried to attack the headquarters of Stasi, the local secret police, to give the military an excuse to intervene, the protesters instead sang hymns and carried burning candles. Christians placed themselves protectively between the agitators and the Stasi structure called Runde Ecke (Round Corner). With this deed of nonviolence they averted a bloody incident; what followed was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the GDR. This was a happy end of sorts for Germany and the world but not for the church. It went into a tailspin, defying the hopes of leaders that "people would return to us just like after World War II," according to Mr. Leich, the Lutheran bishop. Ten years after reunification, pastors and politicians alike are just beginning to realize the extent of the social disaster 56 years of Nazi and communist atheism have wrought upon eastern Germany. It drove away the elite. It created a monstrous youthful subculture brought up without religious and family values in soulless, gray, socialist housing estates. (Three times as many acts of right-wing violence against foreigners and minorities are committed in Germany's eastern states than in the west. Parts of the east have become hotbeds of Satanism, too.) But for East German church leaders, the reunification story does not have to end on an unhappy note. "I am curious to see where God is leading us now. It won't be to where we have been in the so-called good old days," said Leipzig pastor Johannes Richter. "But He is leading us somewhere exciting, of that I'm sure. For Christians it's going to be a fascinating new adventure." Mr. Richter and others report that although few new members are joining their churches, those who have remained faithful are becoming increasingly active in their communities. The church, though small, shows distinct new signs of life.

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