Thursday, June 04, 2009

FROM PRAYER TO DEMONSTRATION: HISTORY OF CHURCH IN EAST GERMANY IN 1980s IS STILL NEGLECTED in USA POLITICAL & HISTORICAL ANALYSES

FROM PRAYER TO DEMONSTRATION: HISTORY OF CHURCH IN EAST GERMANY IN 1980s IS STILL NEGLECTED in USA POLITICAL & HISTORICAL ANALYSES

By Kevin Stoda, Germany

During this 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, many in Germany are restudying the events of that age and reflecting on what it means in Germany and in the world today. This article focuses on two pastors involved in the Revolution of 1989/1990 in Eastern Germany


Both (East German born and raised) Rainer Eppelmann and Markus Meckel have lived out some extremely interesting biographies.

Eppelmann, a former pastor, was active for decades in the church in East Germany and suffered for his beliefs and strong stances.

For example, Eppelman opposed the East German Communist states military draft in the 1960s and served time in jail for this. In 1990, however, he suddenly found himself appointed as Defense Minister for the very last East German government.

Eppelmann changed the name of the office as well—he changed it to the Ministry of Defense and Disarmament. Eppelmann has since served in the parliament and for government for a United Germany several times over the past two decades.

NOTE: As far as I my research can demonstrate, there has never been any other government in history with a “Ministry to Defense and Disarmament”.

Similarly, Meckel, as a protestant minister was very active in the peace movement, conducted under the sanctuaries of the East German churches in the 1970s and 1980s.
Meckel became East Germany’s last foreign minister (Secretary of State) in 1990.

In the meantime, Meckel has been active in the Socialist party (SPD) of Germany and busy running the Foundation for Comprehending the History of the East Germany Society (Stiftung zur Aufarbeitung der DDR-Staat). He also has led working groups to improve Polish and German cooperation and reconciliation for years.

I came across one of those now-prevalent 20th Anniversary (of the Wall Opening up) interviews with Meckel and Eppelman recently.

I think it is very important to hear these two gentlemen in their own words because the American academic publishing industry has really missed out a lot on good and rigorous research on what took place in East Germany between the 1950s and 1989, i.e. when Germany’s first peaceful revolution in history succeeded in deposing a despotic regime.


THE REVOLUTION OF THE PASTORS

The title of the interview I read recently with Rainer Eppelmann and Markus Meckel was pulished in CHRISMON, a Christian monthly magazine.

The interview was entitled “Revolution of the Pastors”. The article came out in the May 2009 edition of the CHRISMON magazine.

http://www.chrismon.de/Begegnung.php


The interview began with typical “20th anniversary commemorative” questions for the 1989s, le.g. “Herr Meckel, could you have ever imagined that the East German (GDR) government would ever discontinue to exist?”

Markus Meckel admitted, “That is something which we had never considered. It was all about freedom when we founded the first peace groupings in East Germany. In February 1983 the first base communities were formed under the banner ‘Concrete Action for Peace’. We got to know each other and shared our phone numbers.[Only] with Michael Gorbachev did we gain a new perspective. Already, by 1987, I had had the feeling that Gorbachev wouldn’t let the tanks roll in. The question of unification was far from our minds as we thought that was far too unrealistic at the time.”

Rainer Eppelmann chimed in, “We wanted to make the GDR more humane and people friendlier. I had forbidden myself to even consider more than that possible. I had no idea why the Russians would be willing to pull 300,000 troops from our soil. After all, they had fought terribly hard to get there [during WWII] and it had cost them so much [in terms of lives]. All we were trying to do was to encourage the members of our communities [or fellowships]. However, these activities became more-and-more political as time went on, for example, in 1982 when Robert Havemann made the Berlin Appeal public.”

http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/pdf/eng/Chapter12Doc11Intro.pdf

Eppelmann continued, “In the [Berlin] appeal, with its many signature, we demanded to have a peace movement independent of the GDR government. Later, a qualitative leap in this process was made when we realized that we needed to found alternative groupings to the government, so that we could clearly challenge or question actions of the SED’s [East German Communist Party] leadership. However, in doing this we never once created any political party. That’s because whoever challenged the sacred-cow of the SED would have been prosecuted in court.”

Meckel explained, “The problem was that there was no long-standing tradition of opposition in East Germany. Until 1961, whoever was politically persecuted simply moved to the West. After the wall was built in 1961, the East German government simply rounded the discontented East Germans up and sold them to the West. Unlike in Poland, Czechoslavakia, and Hungary, we [in the GDR] suffered from a continuous brain drain of critical and alternative thinkers.”

I have to note here that during the 1970s and 1980s, West Germany actually paid money, i.e. a sort of ransom, to the East German government to take in dissidents from the SED regime.

Meckel, who was pastor in the small village of Vipperow in East Germany most of those decades, added, “Only with the Peace and Disarmament Movement [starting in the early 1980s] were opposition cells able to begin to create networks. In my town of Vipperow the project started rather banally. A man came alongside me one day and asked what I thought should be done against all the [nuclear] rockets. Since we couldn’t find any solution at the time in our short debate, we decided to set up a meeting later and discuss it further. Suddenly, 20 people showed up to talk about this particular issue.”

The interviewer asked, “Were they all church people?”

Meckel answered, “Not all of them. My superintendent was like many in the church at that time [in the East]. He looked at our meeting critically. The superintendent said, ‘Other pastors raise bees, but Meckel plays politic.” [Nevertheless], as the Ecumenical Council in Vancouver in 1983 officially started a ‘Conciliation Process for Justice, Peace, and Preservation of Species’, the Peace, Environment, and Human Rights groups inside the Evangelical Church [in East Germany] received wider recognition.”

Eppelmann noted, “The Superpowers put up more and more nuclear warheads. We thought: OH HEAVEN’S NO! How many times do you want to destroy the earth? Here we in [the tiny] East Germany found ourselves in the middle of a weapons buildup with a country [the USSR] which constantly pretending to be a peace dove nation. They blamed the Americans for the Pershing missiles but put more warheads on their SS-20s. Nevertheless, strategically speaking, this was our chance [in East Germany]—as long as we could operate and function under the banner of ‘Peace’, the powers-that-be could not touch us [in the church]. Soon, alongside peace, human rights and environment became a core focus of ours, as well.”

“Why did these peace groups mostly develop under [or near] the umbrella of the church?” asked the interviewer.

Eppelmann explained, “There was a law or principle in communist East Germany, whereby theoretically anyone could assemble and demonstrate. However, in practice, no one ever got such permission to assemble. The only exception to this rule was with the Church, which could hold its meetings whenever--and almost wherever—it wanted to.”

Meckel jumped in, “The State tried to restrict assemblies of the church to only activities of worship. However, we, the church determined what ‘worship services’ looked like. This is how artists, writers, and others marginalized by the government or society could find a voice in our meetings. Particularly, in November each year, this outreach and openness to meet was strongly emphasized by churches around East Germany.”

The interviewer finally asks, “Why were so many ministers of churches involved in the Revolution [in East Germany]?”

Meckel responded, “This is due to our educational training and different emphasis on the problems of individuals and their experiences in the East German society. As I was thrown out of school with the 10th grade, I had to study at a private school run by the church in order to eventually graduate by taking a GED-like exam in East Germany. This is why even as later I served as the nation’s Foreign Minister, my resume clearly shared for all to see that I had had 10th grade education. . . .[On the other hand, by] studying for 15 months outside of the regular school system, I had become a free man. That would not otherwise have been possible [for most in East Germany].”

Eppelmann noted, “ Only inside the Church could one practice speaking freely. This is why when a Round Table was created [in autumn 1989-1990 to work out and create a new society in East Germany], many people from churches were invited to take a seat. One other important thing was that being a minister or a worker in the church, one was able to gain some financial freedom and social freedoms from the state, which the average East German did not have access, too. This sense of security aided me in the 1960s when I went to jail [for my stand against being forced to do military service]. When the state might have put me in jail [in later decades] I thought in confidence of how the church would still both support and take care of my family.”


EPILOGUE

I am almost overwhelmed by the ever-present collective memory of Germany today, especially concerning the role of the church and churchmen in the Peaceful Revolution of 1989.

I am also overwhelmed by the amount of material on the subject in the German language while totally under-whelmed by the comparative lack of material in the English language in terms of books on the Church and the Revolution in East Germany.

This the lack of collective memory in the USA and in other lands, where I have studied 20th Century history and culture over the past three decades, needs to be improved--and improved quickly because many Americans and British peoples mis-learned from the collapse of communism in the late 1980s and 1990s.

This is one reason that the West continues to equate the endless war on terrorism with the endless cold-war—which I had grown up with as a child in America.

Many would-be historians and political economists in the USA and in the UK thought that Reagan’s nuclear arms build-up had forced the Soviet Union to cash in its chips.

Little analyses was made of what a strong peace movement in eastern Europe meant for peace in our time.

Moreover, far-right free-market capitalists mistook the sign of the age to be that Keynesian and Marxist political-economic criticism no longer had anything to offer (or even much appeal in the modern world). The claim was made that there was no alternative between Chicago school style free market capitalism and any other political-economic -ISM.

These academics and well-paid think-tanks read their tea leaves and failed to investigate the growth of freedom following the Helsinki accords in the mid-1970s and the historical tendency for Eastern and Central Europeans to always be on the look out for alternative paths and alternative solutions, i.e. of which Western Europe was only providing a glimpse of in the 1980s and 1990s.

People in the 1980s were simply looking for a public space which would allow them to develop more freely. Citizens were not looking to simply replace one dominant ideology of life and society for another one.

Increasingly, numerous books have come out in these past few years in Germany on the role of church and the church leadership’s (and meeting places’) relationship to the East German state in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

During these decades, churches gave space to many marginalized voices throughout Eastern Europe.

Three recent books on the topic include:

--FROM PRAYER TO DEMO (Vom Gebet Zur Demo in German) by Arnd Brummer
http://www.chrismonshop.de/item/49/1/0/232/vom-gebet-zur-demo.html# brought out from Chrismon Verlag
,
--THE WALL IS GONE (Die Mauer ist Weg in German) by Wolfgang Huber http://www.buchhandlung89.de/epages/61441600.sf/de_DE/?ObjectPath=/Shops/61441600/Products/9783938704844
also published from Chrismon Verlag

, and

--OUR REVOLUTION: THE HISTORY OF THE YEARs 1989-1990 (Unser Revolutions: Die geschichte der Jahre 1989/90 in German) by Ehrhart Neubert http://www.kas.de/proj/home/events/90/1/year-2009/month-1/veranstaltung_id-33869/index.html
from Piper Verlag.

These books are just some of the more recent works on the Church and State in the East Germany Republic during the period from 1945 through 1990.

MEANWHILE

In the USA, however, the focus has been strongly UPON how one can villain-ize the system of the former East German state.

http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=24118

This APPROACH of simply villain-ising East Germany and the lives of its peoples has left me and other Modern European historians feeling that U.S. historian- and political science leadership have continued to be muddled in cold warrior-like narrations.

This particular cold-war narration has been detrimental to peacemaking in the USA because the U.S. experience of people-power has been forgotten under narrations of military power and economic power.

There are almost no books in the English speaking world that correct the biases in the old- and worn- cold war narrations.

NOTE: On the one hand, I must admit that there have been some good journal articles and on-line web reviews of the era of Revolution in East Germany, which reveal that some historians in North America do recognize that the role of church (and others working among the institution of the Church) from the 1960s onwards, in fact, had enabled democracy--and a more global & peace consciousness movement--to expand at a very fast rate by the late 1980s.

http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-53869119.html


Nevertheless, book-length works are generally lacking. Only a few autobiographical works, like Dr. Mark Jantzen’s, THE WRONG SIDE OF THE WALL are the exception.

American historians and political scientists should come to Europe and interview the revolutionaries of the 1980s now—or they will pass away—and American mis-narration of the end of the Cold War will continue to dominate in North America and the UK for decades to come.

This false narration will promote more wars an military posturing than our world can afford in order to solve real social, environmental, peace and justice issues over the next century.

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