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25 years after Berlin Wall’s fall, faith still fragile in former East Germany

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On a recent Sunday, Major Rolf Metzger, a 70-year-old Salvation Army officer, worshipped with 12 other believers at a small church in the former East Berlin. Hymn singing, prayer and a Bible message comprised the relaxed worship service, as is common in this denomination.

Called the "Heilsarmee" in German, the evangelical church best known for its social services and thrift stores is a modest movement of 1.3 million members and adherents worldwide. The tiny numbers in that East Berlin assemblage, Metzger concedes, seem almost negligible.

"I don't know if in the (United) States you would even call it a corps," as local Salvation Army units are known, he said.

Many Christians — evangelicals and others — in the West imagined a blossoming of religious interest in the former East Germany after the "Peaceful Revolution" of quiet, church-based protests contributed to the removal of travel restrictions between East and West Germany in the fall of 1989 and the spontaneous dismantling of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9 of that year. And while there has been some movement toward faith since the hand of Communist suppression was lifted, the anticipated revival has fallen far short of those expectations.

"I remember, just after the opening of the Berlin Wall, there was an American and he said to me, 'Now, at least, everything of communism has gone away, and the churches will be full,'" Metzger, now a semi-retired pastor, recalled. A quarter-century later, "They are (all) quite empty."

Islands of faith are still found in a secularist German sea: along with the Salvation Army, some Lutheran, Catholic and "free" churches (i.e., unassociated with a state-sponsored denomination) are gaining members. Slightly more than two-thirds of all Germans report affiliation with either the Roman Catholic Church or Protestant churches, while Jewish life in the former East Germany is also normalizing, one group says. However, German society overall appears to be highly secular, as affiliation doesn't always signal regular attendance.

"Forty-five years of communism and the Stasi left the old (East Germany) a religious desert," said George Weigel, a leading Catholic thinker who was a confidante and biographer of Saint John Paul II, the Polish-born pontiff whose anti-Communist witness inspired believers across the Eastern Bloc.

Faith and the fall

During the decades of state-sponsored atheism in East Germany, more formally known as the German Democratic Republic, the great emphasis was on avoiding religion. Some churches, however, were permitted to operate during the period: Roman Catholic and Lutheran congregations enjoyed highly limited freedoms during the GDR period, and both The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jehovah's Witnesses were also among those groups whose operations were permitted. East German dictator Erich Honeker saw a way to "forge better ties" with the United States when the GDR allowed the LDS Church to build a temple in Freiberg in 1985, according to Volker Benkert, a professor at Arizona State University who grew up a Catholic in Germany.

The protests that would eventually topple one of the most dramatic symbols of a Germany divided after the Second World War, Der Spiegel noted in 2009, had religious roots. They began as "East German dissidents had been meeting at Leipzig's 800-year-old Nicolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church) for almost a decade to pray and talk politics" at the invitation of Pastor Christian Fuehrer, then a young prelate who'd just taken over the historic pulpit.

The weekly prayers were for peace — specifically for nuclear disarmament — and the political talk was at first somewhat muted. Starting in February 1988, those discussions included more and more East Germans upset about travel restrictions that limited their movement to and from West Germany. Some 18 months later, those groups grew into meetings of thousands of people inside and outside the church, calling for the right to move freely between east and west.

As the Leipzig protests grew, leaders of the German Democratic Republic became concerned. They not only remembered the experience of Solidarity demonstrators in Poland, but fresh in their consciousness were the demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. During the summer of 1989, GDR leaders praised the Chinese reaction, and, the West German newsmagazine recalled, "East German police had cracked down forcefully on protesters in Dresden, Berlin and Plauen. Protesters marching in Leipzig on Oct. 2 were beaten by police."

Pastor Fuehrer, who died in June at age 71, saw his victory as temporal: "I always wanted also to move in the earthly realm," he told The New York Times when he retired six years ago.

According to Volker Benkert, a professor at Arizona State University who grew up a Catholic in Germany, "It's kind of a tragedy that the churches spearheaded the 'Peaceful Revolution,' but didn't benefit from it. Churches were a safe haven (for dissidents), but it was never a religious movement, and didn't translate to a new religious life."

An 'absolute peak'

Salvationist Metzger found the weeks after the Wall fell the "absolute peak, the climax of my whole career. I could see that God Himself was working in a personal way" as the movement entered East Germany.

There were moments when the Christian group's military terminology and uniform helped. In the first chaotic weeks after the Wall fell, Metzger recalled, he appeared at Leipzig's city hall to ask the mayor for permission to open a Salvation Army church there.

"I'm Major Metzger from Berlin and I want to speak to the mayor," he told the startled woman who controlled access to the municipal offices and perhaps thought Metzger was a different kind of officer. "Immediately I was received" by the mayor, he recalled. "It turned out to be a good meeting."

But it's the Army's social work — a thrift shop in Dresden, a café for the hungry and poor in the former East Berlin — that is the group's chief ministry now. The Berlin café draws "between 60 and 80 people" daily from Tuesday to Saturday for food and counseling by a social worker, Metzger said.

Despite the modest spiritual accomplishments — 25 to 30 parishioners gather at the Leipzig Salvation Army for weekly worship services — Metzger believes the group's efforts were, and are, worthwhile: "I still think that, also today, 25 years after, the small Army has a very important place in (the former) East Germany."

Faith today

Metzger's congregation is in many ways an apt representation of of the religious landscape in the former East Germany: small in number but committed in practice.

Detlef Pollack, a professor at the University of Muenster, said "there was no religious revival in East Germany after the fall of the wall. The rate of baptisms and of joinings rose a bit immediately after 1990, but at any time the number of withdrawals exceeded the number of gains. Many observers expected after the repression of churches and believers during communism that people wanted to get back to church and religion, but that didn't happen."

Observers say the reasons for this include Germany's longtime secularism, which began decades before World War II, as well as East Germany's years of state-sponsored atheism. But it was also related to the infiltration of state-tolerated churches such as the Lutherans by East German secret police, which left a taint on the churches.

According to Benkert, "The Protestant church particularly was not above collaborating with the state and (having infiltration from) the secret service. The courage of individual (pastors) was marred by the fact that the (church) hierarchy was infiltrated by the regime."

Pollack, who studies the sociology of religion, credits a struggle for daily survival with keeping some East Germans from faith.

"After the 'peaceful revolution,' people were concerned with securing their existential basis," he said, recalling the quick merger of the two Germanys. "They had to reorganize their entire life, looking for new jobs, learning, etc. They simply had no interest in focusing on questions of meaning and spirituality."

Pollack also noted that "during communism at least two generations became more and more alienated from religion and church and have even lost religious knowledge. It is hard to restore religious ties after you have lost them."

But there are elements of hope, according to Uwe Siemon-Netto, an Associated Press journalist who saw the Wall go up in Berlin in 1961 and is now a Lutheran scholar in Southern California. Even though there are "hard core" atheists in Leipzig, he said, there are still those who have kept the faith.

"What's remarkable," he said, "is the intensity of the faith of those remaining. (They are) not just nominally Christians, but they are (also) involved, engaged and you have parishes that function very well. The influence of West German churches has been catastrophic; the Western churches that supported the East over the four decades (of communism) have gone quite liberal."

Siemon-Netto recalled his July 2014 visit to one of Leipzig's largest Lutheran churches: "On a Sunday, the church was full of foreigners and locals. They celebrated Bach and Lutheran mass as it was celebrated in Bach's day in Leipzig; it was so beautiful, you broke into tears."

Other faiths flourish

The European Jewish Congress, which represents Jewish communities throughout the continent, said life in post-unification Germany is better for Jews than it was in the days of the Cold War.

"Jewish life in East Germany under communism was very much like that in other Warsaw Pact countries," a statement provided to the Deseret News said. "The community was decimated from the Holocaust and any religious groups were kept under very strict control of the authorities. In particular, Jewish education was limited so by the time the Wall came down, the small community had become very secularized and a generation had been lost. Today, there is no noticeable difference between Jewish life in the two different parts of the country or indeed between the two former parts of Berlin. Most German Jews today are either immigrants from the former Soviet Union or their children born in Germany."

The Jewish group noted, "there is a flourishing and multi-denominational religious life in Germany today, including in the cities of the former GDR. All the major cities have rabbis and synagogues; some, like Leipzig, have both Orthodox and Reform and there is even a religious seminary for Orthodox women."

Having closely observed the path of faith in the former East Germany since 1989, Siemon-Netto noted the challenges and opportunities presented by a growing Muslim presence in Germany, where decades of allowing guest workers have brought many Muslim immigrants. While there's an effort to build a large, four-minaret mosque in the center of Leipzig, he said Iranian refugees in the former East Berlin are also finding Christian faith in significant numbers, something he and Matthias Pankau noted two years ago in Christianity Today magazine (paywall).

Buddhists, Siemon-Netto said, "aren't doing badly," while also growing, he observed, are the Eastern Orthodox churches: "Some convert to Orthodoxy from other Christian denominations, because of the liturgy."

Uncertain future

The ranks of the East German faithful are likely to remain thin in the near future, especially in terms of Christian observance.

"As much as I would wish for a religious revival of any flavor, I fear that we are on a path to secularization that is not going to stop at any time soon," Benkert said.

What does this mean for the soul of a now-united Germany? According to Benkert, "I think that the loss of spirituality is to a certain degree compensated by the values system of a democratic society that more people embrace. This is a deeply secular value system that bears very little spiritual component to it."

He added, "Clearly the consensus of what holds a society together has to be rethought and our secular constitutionalism is one such pillar, but I'm not sure it's enough to be the only one."

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner

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