Letters from the Road: Ministering in the DDR

Essays

A common impression of Christianity in the DDR (East Germany) is of the persecution of the church. Given the atheistic basis of communist states, the very act of confessing that one was a Christian was enough to land one in prison. Faithful ministers were persecuted, church buildings were ransacked, and the Christian churches went through a dark period comparable to that of the early church. Those who worked with the state or even – God forbid – dared to support communism were merely Stasi agents who had compromised the ‘true’ faith.

In order to offer very different perspective, I would like to tell the story of Dick Boer. In 1984, he was called to be a minister in Dutch Ecumenical Congregation in the DDR (Niederländische Ökumenische Gemeinde in der DDR). He was minister for eight years, until 1990, after the fall of the wall and the end of the DDR.

A common impression of Christianity in the DDR (East Germany) is of the persecution of the church. Given the atheistic basis of communist states, the very act of confessing that one was a Christian was enough to land one in prison. Faithful ministers were persecuted, church buildings were ransacked, and the Christian churches went through a dark period comparable to that of the early church. Those who worked with the state or even – God forbid – dared to support communism were merely Stasi agents who had compromised the ‘true’ faith.

In order to offer very different perspective, I would like to tell the story of Dick Boer. In 1984, he was called to be a minister in Dutch Ecumenical Congregation in the DDR (Niederländische Ökumenische Gemeinde in der DDR). He was minister for eight years, until 1990, after the fall of the wall and the end of the DDR.

Why did this congregation call Dick? He was at the time a professor of theology in the University of Amsterdam, but he was also a member of the communist party. In short, he is a minister of the church, a professor and communist. As for the congregation, it was a small (100 members) communion of left-wing Christians in the DDR. It was established in October of 1949, when DDR was itself founded. At that time, the church was made up of Dutch citizens who had come to Germany as foreign workers (Fremdarbeiter) during the Second World War and who lived in what became both the DDR and West Berlin. After the construction of the wall in August of 1961, the part of the congregation in the new DDR grew into a community of left-wing Christians. They became deeply committed to political readings of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. And they also developed a liturgy that included elements one may describe as ‘secular’ or ‘non-religious’. Or rather, the liturgy saw the work of God in the world outside the walls of the church, outside what had become the acceptable zones of Christianity. For example, the hymn book contained not only the best examples of church music, but also the ‘Internationale’ and ‘Vorwärts und nicht vergessen’. All of which meant that the Dutch Ecumenical Congregation took a step further than Federation of Evangelical Churches of the DDR, which defined itself as ‘not against and not outside but within socialism’ (nicht gegen, nicht neben, sondern im Sozialismus). By contrast, the Dutch Ecumenical Congregation saw itself as a communion of ‘Christians for socialism’. That is, they were both ‘within socialism and for the DDR’.

The challenge for Dick, as the minister and as a theologian, was to find ways to preach within the context of actually existing socialism. In the liberation and political theologies that arose in Western contexts – Latin America, North America, Europe – a key biblical narrative is that of the Exodus out of slavery, as is the Gospel promise of the ‘Kingdom of God’ that will provide healing, release from hunger and freedom from exploitation. In these cases, the moment of the Exodus or the new world is yet to come at a hoped-for future moment. But what does a minister do when the Exodus has, so to speak, already happened? How does one go about the difficult task of constructing the new society? To preach the Exodus in the DDR would mean to speak of liberation from slavery in the DDR. So Dick discovered the importance of the ‘historical’ books of the Old Testament, such as Joshua, Judges, and the books of Samuel and Kings. Above all, he re-discovered Ezra and Nehemiah, with their accounts of rebuilding a life when the exile is over. It was, to borrow a phrase from Brecht, the problem of ‘die Mühen der Ebene’ (‘Nach den Mühen der Berge kommen die Mühen der Ebene’, which refers to the difficult task on ‘level ground’ after once one has finished the uphill struggle). This experience led Dick to develop what he calls an argument for ‘Actually Existing Israel’ (Het reëel bestaande Israël), a gloss on ‘really existing socialism’. In turn, this idea became the basis of a chapter in his book on biblical theology, Redemption from Slavery: Biblical Theology in the Service of Liberation (Verlossing uit de Slavernij: Bijbelse Theologie in Dienst van Bevrijding, 2009).

Further, since the government of the DDR recognised the congregation as an organisation with a special relationship to the Netherlands, the church was allowed to organise seminars with Dutch speakers who entered into discussion with Marxists from the DDR. The topics of these seminars included: ‘The alliance of Communists and Christians’; ‘Faith and Atheism’; ‘Socialism and the Third World’; ‘The New Economic World-Order’; ‘Media’; and ‘Gay Theology’. The Marxists who partook in these seminars actually felt free to engage in a robust critique the official communist positions of the state – in the spirit of the tradition and theory of Marxism itself. Further, even though the government of the DDR officially forbade a ‘Christian-Marxist dialogue’, here that dialogue took place, regularly.

Since it was Dick’s task to find and invite Marxist speakers for these seminars, he also had the opportunity to meet and speak with them in private. He became friends with many of them, a friendship enhanced by their common experience of being members of communist parties. They shared their hopes for a renewal of socialism and their despair concerning the impossibility, at the time, of such a renewal.

These contacts also encouraged Dick to undertake an initiative to ‘save’ the DDR in the time of the ‘Wende’ (turn). He was inspired by the Dutch peace movement’s project to ‘Stop the N-bomb’: one starts with a manifesto, which is signed by prominent figures without explicit political commitments. In the Netherlands, this action led to the largest mass-movement since the Second World War. So he proposed a similar action in the DDR: organise a manifesto, signed by well-known people from the new civic movements (Bürgerbewegungen: Neues Forum, Demokratischer Aufbruch), the Church and the party (the section working for renewal and not related to the State and the ossified party apparatus). This initiative, beginning with the manifesto For Our Country (Für unser Land) which was written by Christa Wolf and Volker Braun, became the largest mass-action in the period of the Wende in the GDR. They obtained no less than 1,167,048 signatures. Sadly, the initiative for renewal itself failed, not least because the Soviet-Union was no longer able to protect the DDR from the unending efforts of the West to ‘overthrow’ communism. Yet, as Dick points out, the sheer size of the movement (one among many) shows that, contrary to much propaganda, the DDR was supported by many of its citizens until the end.

-Roland Boer, in old East Berlin

Like what you're reading?

Join our mailing list to receive an email every time we post new content.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!