The following is a paper I wrote for a course on East German Culture and Literature at the University of New Mexico.
It has been translated from the original German.
(c) 2002 Martin Kretzmann

There have always been difficulties between the church and the governments of communist countries. This was also true in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR,East Germany). Although the government did not completely oppress religion, and although the church remained relatively autonomous, they still had a difficult relationship. Communist countries were antagonistic to religion, because religion is the "opiate of the people" (Marx).

One reason for these antagonistic tendencies between communism and religion, was that "Religion was an expression of man's imperfect was a distortion of man's being because society was distorted" (Bottomore, 413). The early communist leaders, however, understood that it would be difficult to eliminate religion by force: "Engels...warned against the folly of trying to abolish religion by compulsion" (Bottomore, 415). The communists wanted to believe that religion would be destroyed naturally by industrialization because industrialization commercializes all relationships (Bottomore, 414). In 1909, Lenin wrote that religion should be a private matter, and that religious people could be members of the Communist Party if they are also bona fide socialists (Bottomore, 415). In 1913, Stalin wrote that religion was an "obstacle to progress" (cited in Bottomore, 415). Marx was against religion because he felt that religion "meant nothing more than cowardly submission, when wat the working class needed was courage and self-respect" (cited in Bottomore, 70).

The Church in the GDR wasn't repressed to the extent the church was in other communist countries, and remained relatively autonomous from the state. No churches were closed and no church leaders were put into prison (Baum, 3). Gregory Baum wrote in The Church for Others: Protestant Theology in Communist East Germany that there were three reasons for this autonomy. First of all, both the church and the East German Communist Party (SED) were against fascism. Second, the GDR was mainly Protestant, and the Protestants were thought to be more flexible than the Catholic church. Third, the GDR wanted badly to be recognized as a sovereign state by the Federal Republic of German (FRG, West Germany).

In the 1950s, the state introduced secular rituals in order to compete with the church. They had secular rituals for baptism, marriage, funerals and confirmation. The church was against this practice, and for a short time refused to confirm youth who had already been through Jugendweihe (secular confirmation).

Within the church, there was no consensus about what the relationship should be between the church and the state, but by 1958 an association of church officials, ein Pfarrerbund, was established that supported the Marxist-Leninist Philosophy of the SED. In 1958 this group also published a communique in which they supported the peace initiatives of the GDR and the development of socialism. The state also recognized that it would have to cooperate with the church. In 1960 the GDR president Walter Ulbricht said that "Christianity and the humanistic goals of socialism are not contradictory" (qtd. in Baum, 5). In February of 1961 Ulbricht had a conversation with Emil Fuchs, Professor of Theology at the University of Leipzip. Fuchs "...handed Ulbricht a declaration signed by 20,000 church workers, clergy and laity, that recognized the common humanistic responsibility of Christians and Marxists, urged greater cooperation, supported the government's peace initiatives, and criticized the West German government policy" (cited in Baum, 6). This position was later articulated further by the church:

In existing social conditions we must ascertain what God wants from us and do good according to his will. We fall pray to a lack of faith if we assume that God has abandoned us in the existing conditions and thus begin to doubt, or if we interpret the historical and social circumstances as the direct gift of the will of God and accept them without reservation. (qtd. in Baum, 6)
In 1971 these thoughts were summarized with the slogan: "[the church is] not with, not against, rather in socialism" (Baum, 10). Another similar perspective is put forth in the following text:
As citizens of the GDR and as Christians we accept as starting point for all reflection that after the War started through German guilt there now exist two German states...As citizens of the socialist state, we are challenged by the task to make socialism a more just form of human interaction. (qtd. in Baum, 61)
We can now see, that the church and the state both sought to develop the ideals of humanism.

The SED, however, wanted to distance itself ideologically from the church. The materialist philosophy of Communism couldn't fit into the Christian Worldview. Even so, the SED wanted the church to stand for socialism. But everything between the church and state was not totally good. Since the 1950s, young Christians were not allowed to attend the university, and the censors banned a lot of religious literature (Baum, 12).

In 1971, state president Erich Honecker made an agreement with the church: the church was allowed to broadcast on television six times per year, it was allowed to build new churches, church workers were guaranteed state pensions, were guaranteed help in organizing church congresses, and was allowed to publish more religious literature. In 1983 there was further cooperation between the church and the state. The state wanted the church to play a roll in the public celebration of Martin Luther's 500th birthday. In 1987 the state repaired the St. Nicholas Church and the Berlin Cathedral (Baum, 13).

In the 1980s is also when political dissidents began to meet in churches. Groups were founded in order to do political activism. These groups informed the public, published propaganda, organized protests and directly criticized the government. After Chernobyl these groups were also against nuclear programs. The government did not like this opposition, and the church was also embarassed by the aggressiveness of these groups. In 1981, this rising grassroots movement sent a petition to the government, asking the government for a peaceful alternative to compulsory military service (Baum, 15). In the 1980s the demand for Bibles also increased: "demand for Bibles soared and far exceeded the output of 44,000 copies a year" (Cline).

The social movement became larger and continued to organize in churches because that was the only place they could have open discussions. In the beginning, the groups were mainly concerned with ideological concerns and concerns about peace, but after 1985 there were more and more groups that associated themselves with Democratic ideals and alternative lifestyles. In 1987 the government finally decided to crack down on these groups. The secret police (Stasi) "invaded a Berlin congregation, arrested the activists, confiscated their printing press, and accused them of plotting against the state" (Baum, 17). In 1989 the movement reached "critical mass." Thousands of people met in the churches in many cities in the GDR to protest against the government. This culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual reunification of East and West Germany (Baum, 17).

The evangelical church played a large roll in the democratization of the GDR. The church was the only institution that was not under the direct control of the state. Furthermore, the church was the only space people had where they could find other political opinions (Burgess, 137).

We have seen that the church was important for political dissidents, but what role did it play in the life of the average citizen? The church "owned 202,400 hectares of land and...operated 50 agricultural enterprises" (Cline). In the 1980s, the Catholic Church "operated 34 hospitals, 118 nursing homes, 14 homes for the mentally handicapped, 30 children's homes, and 137 parish social service offices" (Cline).

What happened to the church after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification? Max L. Stackhouse wrote that "although few church leaders and public intellectuals would still argue that Stalinism, Leninism or Maoism is the way of the future, a belief in socialist values and a Marxist understanding of capitalism remains pervasive." Maybe there is a relationship between this and the concept of Ostalgie. There is a cynicism and distrust of programs, institutions and belief systems (Stackhouse).

Whether or not the citizens of the GDR have begun to return to the church after reunification is unclear. One statistic says that there were 7.7 million Protestants and 1.2 million Catholics in the GDR (Cline). Yet other statistics show that after reunification, only 1 to 2 million people in the former East Germany are members of religious groups (CIA). In all of Germany, there are 27.4 million Protestants and 27.4 million Catholics (CIA).

Now the church, and the east, are searching for their identity. The church must define its mission in a reunited Germany. What should its goals be in a post-communist time? Will the east German citizens again return to their "opiate"? The church will have to leave its past in the past, and move into the future. John Burgess summarizes this problem:

Those Christians...who insisted that the 'church in socialism' should make a distinctive contribution to the renewal of church and society in a new Germany...hoped that a reunified German Church would rethink its relation to church and society. They believed that the East German church had learned to survive in a post-Christendom era; it had taken seriously what it meant to be Christian in a secular world. The West church seemed, by contrast, locked in the patterns of the past, unable to see the realities of the present (139).
As you can see, it will not be easy to solve the problems created by the reunification. However, with a little time and a lot of work, the church and society can once again become reunited.


Baum, Gregory. The Church for Others: Protestant Theology in Communist East Germany. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Bottomore, Tom. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Burgess, John P. The East German Church and the End of Communism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). "Religious Liberty around the World." April 4, 2002: Online:

Cline, Austin. "Religion Around the World: East Germany." April 4, 2002: Online:

Marx, Karl and Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848.

Stackhouse, Max L. "Revisiting the Church in Socialism." Christian Century September 23-30 1998: p. 864-871.