Barmen and Leipzig

Two Stations on the Path of the Evangelical Church in Germany

A Confessing Processes Essay from Prayerful Preparation

by Wolf Krötke

It is certainly bold to draw a line from the Confessing Synod of 1934 in Barmen to the Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig in 1989. In 1934, the emerging Confessing Church in Germany distanced itself from the “false doctrine” the “German Christians” (Deutschen Christen) had used to infiltrate the regional Evangelical (Protestant) churches in Germany with the spirit and above all the practices of National Socialism. In 1989, the popular demonstrations in Leipzig heralded the end of the socialist state in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Most of the demonstrators had no connection to the church. For them, the church only played a role insofar as it was where their protests had begun and concentrated, and it had shaped their demonstrations with the watchword of non-violence.

The Leipzig demonstrations, then, were a political action in which the church was strongly involved. The Theological Declaration of Barmen, however, had no intention of taking a political position on the National Socialist state, whereas in Leipzig, the church was highly politically active in promoting the end of a state that had denied fundamental liberties to its population. The Theological Declaration of Barmen played no role in this. Nevertheless, the Leipzig demonstrations made a feature of a concern about the state that is enshrined in the fifth thesis of the Theological Declaration of Barmen. This thesis argues for a clear differentiation between the task of the state and the task of the church, meaning that the state is not permitted to “become the single and totalitarian order of human life.”

This was precisely the goal of both the National Socialist state and the socialist state, both of which desired to impose their ideology on all areas of society by force. But the two political systems are not to be conflated: the East German state was no killer. Despite its myriad violations of human dignity and human rights, the GDR also proved to eventually renounce violence in the era of the Peaceful Revolution. Its Marxism also had embedded values of European humanism, which morally prevented it from giving orders to shoot the defenceless protesters.

Structurally, however, this state created a problem for the churches in the GDR that was comparable to that of the National Socialist state: it attempted to deploy its power to press the entire society into the spirit of its ideology, “from kindergarten to the nursing home.” Since atheism was part of this ideology as well, the church particularly suffered under the totalitarian aspirations of the socialist state, whose aim was the “withering away” (Absterben) of religion: according to Marxist theory, religion as an orientation “towards heaven” “dies” on its own when a socialist society satisfies all of the people’s earthly needs. As this did not fully take root in the GDR by any stretch of the imagination, it was vigorously helped along by the ideological state. With the atheistic indoctrination of the population and the massive disadvantaging of Christians, this “withering away” was self-enforced. It was also successful. In the forty years of the GDR, the Evangelical Church in East Germany lost three-quarters of its members. While 90% of the population belonged in 1949, by 1989 church members had become a minority in society.

The question of whether one could attest of the state that it carried out its function “by divine appointment […] of providing for justice and peace” (Barmen V), was part of the path of the Evangelical Churches in the GDR from the beginning: the harassment of not only Christians, but the whole population, was a glaring injustice. The military escalation of the East-West conflict threatened the peace. Nevertheless, a synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany referenced the fifth thesis of the Barmen Declaration to explicitly affirm the legitimacy of the East German state before the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, when the churches in Germany still made up one organizational unit. The synod formulated this precept: “The gospel shifts the state to us under divine merciful appointment, which we know to be valid, independent of the realization of state violence and its political form.”1 Accordingly, only in isolated cases was resistance to the totalitarian aspirations of the state or criticism of its injustices possible. Those who objected were expected to be prepared to suffer.

The terms by which the church had interpreted the fifth thesis of the Theological Declaration of Barmen gave it no categorical right to deny this sort of state. The kind of declaration the church had made, however, was not at all in accord with Barmen V, which holds that Scripture tells us which duty is allocated to the state “by divine appointment,” but not that the state is “shifted” into divine appointment no matter how it has come into being. The formulation that utilizes the Gospel to “shift” the state has the unmistakable shimmer of the old “orders of creation” theology from the Reformation, apparent in the writ that the self-evidence of “authority” is already in itself understood as divine “order,” and that any “insurrection” against it is declared to be irreconcilable with God’s law.

This is why a storm of indignation was triggered in the church and the socialist state when Berlin Bishop Otto Dibelius took the view in 1959 that Christians in a state where force dominated the law were not obliged to conscientious obedience.2 In terms of theology, Dibelius was actually quite quite close to Karl Barth, the author of the fifth thesis of Barmen: it can be read from Dibelius’s interpretation of this thesis that a state that deploys its power to disseminate a worldview is to be answered with “an unhesitating ‘No!’”3 It must be clear, Barth writes, “that Christians must not only endure the earthly State, but that they must will it, and that they cannot will it as a ‘Pilate’ State, but as a just State”.4 In the same era, as the so-called Obrigkeitsstreit was raging in the GDR, Barth said in his lecture on ethics in Basel: “If power becomes disengaged from the law […], the result is […] the demonization of the political,” which ruins the statism of the state, as in fascism, National Socialism and Stalinism.5 From this it can only be concluded that part of the mission of Christianity, even in the GDR, was to champion a democratic constitutional state, and not a power state that disregards its citizens’ right to liberty.

In 1959, however, the political situation was so poisoned by the East-West conflict that the Berlin bishop became suspect of escalating Cold War tensions of West against East. But Karl Barth, citing Barmen in this conflict, called for the church to take a “third way,” by which it was incumbent upon the church to freely advocate the message of reconciliation to people who had become enemies of one another. However, he also took into account the possibility that the churches in East Germany would reactivate the archaic concept of “authority” that had not been needed in Barmen, in order to express the church’s fundamental recognition of the GDR state.

Then came the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. By any reasonable estimation, this meant that the church would have to live under the rule of a state that was supported by the vast military power of the Soviet Union indefinitely. From a pragmatic standpoint, it now had no other recourse than to talk to the state. One of the first statements from the conference of Evangelical Church leadership in the GDR in 1963 reiterated that it honoured the GDR’s “authority” (!) as a “divine appointment” which the church prayed for and respected.6 Added to the statement, however, was that the church would be acting “in disobedience” if it failed to defend “the truth” or remained silent about abuses of power or were unwilling to obey God over the people.7

Fundamentally, this double accentuation of the relationship of the church to the socialist “authority” held out the prospect of a difficult balancing act: the church’s relationship to the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” as the East German state referred to itself. On one side: the divinely legitimated honouring of the state. On the other: criticism of the abuse of political power. All in all, this balancing act was always in danger of tilting, first towards affirming the state and then back towards criticizing it.

Two stations on the path of the Evangelical churches in East Germany highlight this particularly well. In 1969, the Federation of Evangelical Churches in the GDR was launched. It marked the organizational separation of the East German regional churches from the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). The federation states in its preamble: “With its member churches, the federation affirms the decisions taken by the first Confessional Synod in Barmen. It calls upon the member churches to listen to the testimony of their brothers. It [the federation] helps them in their joint defence against church-destroying heresy.”8 As Albrecht Schönherr, the first chair of the Federation of the Evangelical Church in the GDR, put it, Barmen was to be understood as an aid to the church in its “search for a path” in the “socialist society of the GDR.”9 This “search for a path,” however, led to the acknowledgement of the formula of the “church within socialism” that the GDR idealogues had concocted in order to take under the state’s wing a church that, despite everything, had not withered away. Albrecht Schönherr admitted after the end of the GDR that the approval of this formula had been a mistake.10 The formula sounded as though the church “within socialism” had been embedded within a friendly home and, accordingly, had also been at home with socialist ideology. What had been meant, however, was that the church had wanted to support the people in socialist society and that it had advocated for them as a church. As a student of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Schönherr had envisioned that the church could become an authentic “church for others” by affirming the genuine socialist ideals of a socially just world and promoting these within the church as well.

But the socialist state had continually darkened and distorted these socialist ideals through the manner by which it chose to exert its power. It was therefore inevitable that criticism of this state from church circles would become even louder. Symptomatic of this was the lecture by Heino Falcke at the Synod of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Dresden in 1972. His talk was entitled: “The Deliverance of Christ – The Reason for a Church for Others.”11 The GDR prohibited its publication, but copies and transcripts still entered into broad circulation. Here Falcke combined the statement of Barmen II, that Jesus Christ delivers the community to “a free, grateful service to his creatures,” with Bonhoeffer’s talk about a “church for others”: the deliverance of Christ (Barmen II) as the reason for a church for others (Bonhoeffer). It is this very concentration on the innermost church—the suffering of God in the person of Jesus on the cross—that liberates the church to exist for the world, “in mature responsibility.” This motivates the church to not settle for any injustice of which the state could be guilty. The lecture therefore called for an “improved socialism” as opposed to the “real existing socialism” cemented by the state.12 In so doing, Falcke touched the very foundations of this political system.

After all, the “church within socialism” ought never to be allowed an independent say in “religion” as far as socialism was concerned. This was regarded as “revisionism,” the undermining of the true doctrine of Marxism-Leninism by an “enemy of the class.” But these kinds of voices nevertheless had gradual repercussions, becoming louder and louder in the mid-1980s. The congregations generated “peace circles” that questioned East Germany’s military options in alliance with the Soviet Union and fiercely criticized the militarization of the society as a whole. Environmental initiatives exposed the unbridled ecological destruction wrought by the East German economy. Philosophy and literature circles scrutinized the intellectual context of Marxism-Leninism. Alternative art found a means of expression in the congregations. The establishment of citizens’ movements and even political parties, like the Social Democratic Party (SDP), were prepared and finally completed under the auspices of congregations. The “Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation,” which was well received in worldwide Christianity, was a discussion in the GDR of all of the shortcomings of the socialist state’s exercise of power, those that could not be reconciled with human rights and a policy in favour of God’s creatures.

Of course, many factors were involved in these voices from church circles becoming successively more audible in public. Primary among them is the policy of perestroika in the Soviet Union: the opening up of socialist society to its citizens’ potential freedom. It is the reason that Soviet tanks like the ones used during the popular uprising of 17 June 1953 were no longer available to the East German leadership to bulldoze their citizens’ desire for freedom. Through its tireless advocacy for the rights of the citizens of this state, however, the Evangelical Church had looked after even the most unchurched people and acquired the confidence to be the champion of its own desires for freedom. This is the only way to explain how the Evangelical Church in the GDR could generate the impetus for the Peaceful Revolution not only in Leipzig, but also in Berlin and then in the entire country.

This was the year that the East German leadership wanted to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the GDR in grandiose fashion, even as protest gatherings and demonstrations against its rule were taking place in and out of the country. The streets in central Berlin were still full of protesters during the anniversary celebration on 7 October 1989 at Berlin’s Palace of the Republic. The police went after them with the utmost severity: more than a thousand people were arrested. In other cities too, the police violently dispersed demonstrations. But the demonstration that would sound the death knell for the socialist dictatorship took place in Leipzig two days later, on 9 October 1989. Seventy thousand people set out for the city centre from the Nikolaikirche (Church of St. Nicholas) and other churches under the slogans “We are the people” and “No violence.” There were fears of a bloodbath. The People’s Army and combat groups were standing by to reinforce the huge police presence. The population was called upon to avoid the city centre.

But hundreds of people, their numbers steadily growing, had already gathered inside and in front of the Nikolaikirche for the peace prayer. Groups and initiatives advocating a just, free, and environmentally responsible society had been meeting in Leipzig for this peace prayer since the early eighties, including many who wanted to leave the GDR. The prayer for peace had a long and rather conflict-ridden tradition, since it had not always been easy for the congregation to bring the politically motivated demands of such groups and initiatives into harmony with the church’s duty to proclaim the gospel. Above all, these prayers for peace and the actions that resulted from them were an annoyance to the state. The state security service and the police had been applying sanctions to the prayers for years, harassing participants and making arrests. To ease the situation in this regard, the church side had forgone the dangerous word “peace” and introduced the language convention of “Monday prayers.” But this did not prevent their increasing popularity.

On 9 October 1989, however, the “Monday prayer” faced a crucial decision. Everyone involved was aware of how the Chinese leadership had fired on the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square, to acclaim from the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in Germany. So prominent citizens of the city took the initiative and negotiated an appeal with leading functionaries of the SED district leadership of Leipzig, promising the state party’s willingness to dialogue with the demonstrators. The military and police contingent was withdrawn. For the first time in the history of the GDR, the state had declined to exercise its power, but this was the beginning of its end. This beginning was enthusiastically welcomed across the country. After decades of oppression, people were able to breathe again.

This remains a singular event in the history of the Christian churches’ dealings with state power—and especially of the German churches’ dealings with state power. This church did not opt for oppressive force this time, or justify it by “divine appointment.” The church took the side of the oppressed. It comprehended the “divine appointment” of the state in terms of Barmen V so that it benefited precisely those people who had to suffer under the unlawful use of force. The church aimed for a better state than the socialist one. But it did not do so in the same way as had repeatedly been accomplished historically, namely, with violence, blood and tears. The Peaceful Revolution in East Germany also made it clear that non-violent paths to changing inhuman regimes are no illusion. Not only are they possible, they can indeed come true.

1 Theologische Erklärung der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland in Berlin 1956, in: Für Recht und Frieden sorgen. Auftrag der Kirche und Aufgabe des Staates nach Barmen V. Theologisches Votum der Evangelischen Kirche der Union, Gütersloh 1986, 110. English translation from (accessed 20 March 2016).
2 Cf. Otto Dibelius, Obrigkeit?, Berlin 1959.
3 Karl Barth, Rechtfertigung und Recht, ThSt 1, Zollikon-Zürich 1944, 44. English translation from Karl Barth, Church and State, G. Ronald Howe, trans., London 1939, 77.
4 Barth, Church and State, 80.
5 Karl Barth, Das christliche Leben. Die Kirchliche Dogmatik IV/4, Fragmente aus dem Nachlaß. Vorlesungen 1959- 1961, Karl Barth. Gesamtausgabe II, Zürich 1976, 374; 377. Author’s translation.
6 Zehn Artikel über Freiheit und Dienst der Kirche, in: Für Recht und Frieden sorgen. Auftrag des Staates und Auftrag der Kirche nach Barmen V. Theologisches Votum der Evangelischen Kirche der Union, Gütersloh 1986, 124.
7 Cf. ibid.
8 Cited in Friedrich Winter, Die Geltungsformel der Theologischen Erklärung von Barmen in den Ordnungen der Evangelischen Kirchen in DDR. Ein Beitrag zum Dialog um Barmen, in: Rudolf Schulze/Hartmut Ludwig, (eds), Barmen 1934-1984. Beiträge zur Diskussion um die Theologische Erklärung von Barmen, Berlin 1983, 130. Author’s translation.
9 Albrecht Schönherr, Die Barmer Theologische Erklärung als Hilfe für die Wegsuche in der sozialistischen Gesellschaft in der DDR, in: Wilhelm Hüffmeier, (ed.), Das eine Wort Gottes – Botschaft für alle. Vol. 1, Vorträge aus dem Theologischen Ausschuß der Evangelischen Kirche der Union zu Barmen I und VI, Gütersloh 1994, 381-396. Author’s translation.
10 Albrecht Schönherr, …aber die Zeit war nicht verloren. Erinnerungen eines Altbischofs, Berlin 1993, 374.
11 Abgedruckt in: Zum politischen Auftrag der Gemeinde. Barmen II. Votum des Theologischen Ausschusses der Evangelischen Kirche der Union, Gütersloh 1974, 213-232. Author’s translation.
12 Loc. cit., 227.