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Home  >  Features  >  LB: East Berlin

Looking Back

Berlin Wall Death Strip, 1977. Picture by George Garrigues
Berlin Wall Death Strip, 1977. Picture by George Garrigues

Friday August 22 2014

Looking Back: Church in East Berlin

From Life and Work of August 1964, Brian Cooper records his impressions following a visit to churches in Communist East Berlin


"Convinced Communists are a minority in East Berlin"

“Please be careful. Don’t be found with any addresses of East Berlin pastors in your pockets: it could mean trouble for them. Don’t tell any police or other officials that you are going to visit clergy. Don’t telephone them in East Berlin; probably their telephone will be tapped.”

This somewhat dramatic advice from the West Berlin pastor helping me to make contact with East Berlin clergy typified the crisis atmosphere of Church and people which I experienced on a recent visit to the divided city of Berlin. The Church in West Berlin – overwhelmingly Lutheran – has its special problems. It has to try and make meaningful the gospel of reconciliation when all around bristle the signs of man’s dividedness.

The machinery of the united government of the Church in Berlin can no longer function; since the building of the Wall in August 1961 a united fellowship can exist only in spirit; no West Berliners can enter the eastern sector; East German frontier authorities often refuse entry to West German clergy; Western Christian literature is forbidden in the East. The Communists continually attack the West Berlin Church, and particularly its bishop, Otto Dibelius, as being the “tools of N.A.T.O.”.

West Berlin Christians are tempted to despair, even forget their brethren across the Wall, but they are resisting that temptation. Each parish in West Berlin has “adopted” a parish in East Berlin as its “twin”. Church members send food parcels and letters (which risk being opened) to their fellow-Christians in the East.

“Prayers and parcels” has become a new watchword of the Church in Berlin today. The Wall, symbolising all the tragedy and inhumanity of the Cold War, challenges the church members on both sides to an ever-deeper realisation of the Gospel as breaking down “the middle wall of partition”. By looking to ecumenical foreign visitors to make the East-West Christian contacts which they themselves cannot make, the Christians of the divided Berlin share their buden of division with the world Church.

Christians under Communism

While in East Berlin myself I learned much of the difficulties of being a Christian under the Ulbricht Communist regime, from conversations with Lutheran pastors and visits to Christian families. Along with the rest of the population they have to endure the material hardships caused by the inefficiency and economic maladministration of the regime. Over-rapid farm collectivisation since 1960 has caused many food shortages, meat is still rationed, and the range of consumer goods available often demonstrates high prices, relatively poor quality and short supply.

Such material shortcomings united with the denial of basic liberties to cause the flight from East Germany before the building of the Wall closed the last escape route; yet it is the State-Church tension and not the absence of prosperity which is facing the East German Church with a crisis situation today.

Officially there is religious freedom. There is no interference by the State with services of worship or any other activities on church premises; the State has spent considerable sums restoring historic churches destroyed during the war; Church opinion is given representation in the East German Parliament.

Yet many pressures restrict Christian activity. For Christian parents, the problems arising from Communist education of their children can be acute. Education in atheism and the inculcation of anti-Church attitudes from an early age, strong incentives for children and teenagers to participate in the State youth organisations, and even in many cases discrimination in examinations against the children of Christian homes, together hinder the Church’s work among young people and seek to lead away Christian youngsters from their beliefs.

Anti-Christian pressures

East Berlin clergy I spoke to had varying views about the success of the Communist State’s anti-religious pressures. Some were frankly pessimistic. They believed the vast majority of the new generation would accept atheism and feared that, for the immediate future at least, the Church would be a minority movement. Others felt the State was stepping-up its anti-Church campaign (for instance, by banning youth conferences organised by Church bodies) because the Communists were really afraid of the continuing hold of Christian beliefs upon the people.

In spite of such divergent views, one point is clear: the convinced Communists in East Berlin and East Germany form a tiny minority. The majority of the population may superficially accept the Marxist philosophy; this does not mean that the traditionally very strongly Protestant areas of Germany have forsaken the Church.

Communist “Youth Dedication” ceremonies are the State’s own counterpart to the dedication before God of young Christians or adult converts in the Lutheran Confirmation service and Free Church adult baptisms. To choose the latter requires real Christian courage and a willingness to face not open persecution but rather the subtle pressures of the State’s disapproval, and possible personal sacrifice in the form of discrimination in career and promotion prospects.

I also heard of party officials in factories and offices watching known churchgoers for any expressions of political disloyalty. They visit their homes to find out how many Bibles and other items of religious literature are possessed, informing them that the State noted with displeasure their activities. Such incidents are not universal; anti-Church pressures appear to depend on the attitude of officials in each locality; that such surveillance occurs at all shows an attempt to undermine religious faith by an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear.


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