Wendy R. Tyndale, Protestants in Communist East Germany.
In 1989, the Protestant churches in East Germany were feted as the inspiration for the peaceful revolution that led to the collapse of communism and the unification of Germany. Within a couple of years, however, these churches were widely seen as having been fatally undermined through infiltration by the state security service, the Stasi, and a policy of cosying up to the communist regime that took power with the creation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949.
In reality, neither portrayal does justice to the Protestant church in the GDR. It was neither a church made up of dissidents, nor a church of fellow travellers. Wendy Tyndale's nuanced and readable account sets out the constraints within which the church operated, and how, especially during the second half of communist rule, the church leadership attempted to avoid the extremes of outright opposition and uncritical subservience.
Throughout her account, which spans the period from the foundation of the GDR in 1949 to the protests of 1989 and their consequences, Tyndale focuses essentially on two issues: the first is how what would become a largely minority Protestant church in a communist state could serve as a focus for protest in 1989; the second, why the political involvement of churches in East Germany in 1989 did not apparently have a longer-lasting influence in the years that followed.
The GDR was the only post-war state in Eastern Europe with a majority Protestant tradition, taking in the heartland of the Lutheran Reformation--Wittenberg, Eisenach, and Luther's birthplace of Eisleben. Immediately after the second world war, the Soviet Union, like the Western allies, appeared to recognize the institutional autonomy of the church. Protestant theological faculties remained at state universities, for example, and permission was given for a church publishing house and even a Protestant news agency.
The 1949 constitution ostensibly defended freedom of religion, but in the 1950s the church faced political repression and an ideological battle for the support of the population. Ironically, it was the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 that began a process of reorientafion leading to a cautious rapprochement between the Protestant church and the state in the 1970s. Despite the open and ideological repression the church had faced, its own internal structures--such as synods organized along broadly democratic principles, and elections for bishops --remained largely intact. In the 1980s, the Protestant church increasingly served as an umbrella for a pacifist and environmentalist milieu, out of which grew the opposition movements and parties that formed in 1989. Still, as Tyndale points out, the growth of such a critical subculture was not universally welcomed within the church leadership, even by those seeking some autonomy from the state, who were "afraid that if the boat were rocked too vigorously it might capsize with the church underneath it" (p. xxi).
Based on secondary literature and interviews with 23 protagonists, Tyndale's account begins with the events in Leipzig on 9 October 1989, when thousands of people braved the deployment of security and paramilitary forces to take to the streets in a protest demonstration, following peace prayers in local churches. Unlike many who portray this "turning point" in the peaceful revolution, Tyndale does not confine herself to Leipzig. Instead, she describes how events in Dresden threatened to tip over into violence, and how in Magdeburg police had unleashed violence against protesters who had gathered around the city's cathedral two days before the peaceful protests in Leipzig.
This portrait of the churches' role in the protests then provides the jumping-off point to review the history of the Protestant church during the 40 years of the GDR. Five chapters take the reader through the period from 1949 to the eve of the revolutionary events of 1989. In 110 pages or so, Tyndale discusses issues such as the churches and the workers' uprising of 1953, the introduction of a socialist youth pledge ceremony and its implications for the long-term future of the church, divergent views within the church, the creation of an East German Protestant church federation in 1969 that was separate from the previously all--German Evangelical Church in Germany, the rapprochement between the church leadership and the communist authorities in the 1970s, the growth of a youth-based subculture, and the tensions this created within the church as a whole--all issues that help to explain the role played by Protestants at the time of the events in 1989.
A particular strength is Tyndale's description of the wider GDR society within which the church operated: the militarization of daily life but also gender relations and the failure of the GDR economy. She notes perceptively that while the church-linked critical groups focused on issues such as peace, demilitarization, human rights and ecology, they generally failed to take economic questions into account. This contributed, she writes, "to many within the church eventually fatally underestimating what was possible for the future of the GDR while they underestimated the importance of economic considerations for most people's decisions in life" (p. 85). This observation helps elucidate the second issue that underlies Tyndale's presentation: why this political involvement by churches did not have a longer-lasting influence. This question underlies her final three chapters, which cover the protests of 1989, the opening of the Berlin Wall and its consequences, German unification, and the soul-searching about the past that followed.
No doubt because of the eyewitness accounts from her interviews that inform them, these final chapters have a more direct, immediate tone than the earlier section. Many of the long-standing activists were looking to a new, reformed society, even, Tyndale reports (p. 120), to a "form of socialism with a human face". Yet such hopes, she notes, failed to take account of the economic collapse of the GDR, the attraction exerted by the Federal Republic--not least the Deutschmark--after the opening of the borders in November 1989. In this, the protagonists from the critical church-linked groups were shown to be out of step with the population as a whole. At the same time, she shows how the East German churches got caught up in the flurry of unification with their West German counterparts, in which the general expectation seemed to be that the western model could be simply applied uncritically to the east.
In the final pages of the book, Tyndale reflects on how the legacy of the critical GDR voices she highlights might still be relevant amid the need for the reordering of social, political and economic policies, and the "loss of credibility of traditional parliamentary democracy" in Europe. Here she shows her own apparent sympathies with the "Protestants who encouraged and stood by the citizens' movements [who] were crucial players in the whole process of liberation" (p. 170). Nevertheless, in her overall account of the Protestant church in the GDR, she elucidates particularly successfully the different points of view that existed within the Protestant church, rather than trying to force them, as some others have done, into a harmonized account of Protestant theology in the GDR.
There are some passages where the book could have benefited from stronger editing. At some places, for example, Tyndale describes the eight Landeskirchen in the GDR as "regional churches". Elsewhere she refers to them as "dioceses". Kirchentage--Protestant conventions--did not take place biannually in East Germany after 1961 (p. 93) except on a regional basis. Inevitably for a book of this kind, there is sometimes too much reliance on the judgments of secondary literature. But overall, Tyndale has succeeded in providing a readable, comprehensive and nuanced account of Protestantism in East Germany. Her book could well find its way onto a reading list for students in areas such as religious studies, theology, German studies or politics, as well as appealing to a general audience wanting to know more about the GDR's "peaceful revolution". This makes it all the more unfortunate that for the moment the book is available only in a format--hardback and at a price--45 [pounds sterling]--that puts it out of reach of all but specialists and libraries.
Dr Stephen Brown works with Globethics.net in Geneva and is the author of a recently published study on the Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation as a precursor of the GDR's peaceful revolution.
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|Publication:||The Ecumenical Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2011|
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