Erich Honecker, “The Grave Digger of the Nation” and 1983

Luther Statue - Wittenberg Town Square - 1980

Statue of Martin Luther, Wittenberg Town Square, spring 1980 (photo: D. Hendricksen)

As today is Reformation Day, it seems an appropriate moment to turn our attentions to the GDR’s relationship to Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), the German theologian generally credited with having been one of the key figures in setting this transformative process in motion.

“Grave digger of the nation”, “servant of the princes”: these were but two of the epithets popularly directed at Luther by East German ideologues and cultural leaders, at least in country’s early years. Hewing close to a Marxist-Leninist reading of German history, GDR historians understood Luther as the “seed of the German misery” which would later blossom into fully formed disaster with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

While this position softened somewhat by the mid-1970s and some of Luther’s contributions to German culture came to be grudgingly acknowledged by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) apparat, the reformer remained nevertheless an ambivalent figure in East German cultural life. That is, until 1980 when East German leader Erich Honecker labelled the medieval monk “one of the greatest sons of the German people.” (pg. 3. Berliner Zeitung, June 14-15, 1980) It was a reassessment which caught many, in particular his SED comrades, off guard.

What was behind this change and what were the results?

This post will look at the motivations for, and the unintended consequences of,  this about face, a subject most instructive as from it we learn something about both Honecker’s survival strategy for his Workers and Peasants State and a possible reason for its ultimate demise.

GDR and German History

After assuming the leadership of the Socialist Unity Party and East Germany in 1971, Erich Honecker made enhancing the standing of the GDR, both among its citizens and abroad, a top priority. This work took many forms (see my posts on the 10th World Festival of  Youth and Students and the GDR and the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal), and included a concerted effort to reposition the GDR within the mainstream German history.

While attempts had been made under Honecker’s predecessor, Walter Ulbricht, to connect the GDR to the German past, the approach had been piecemeal in nature, focusing almost exclusively on the German workers’ movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. While leading figures in the German Communist and Socialist Movements  of the Weimar-era (e.g. Ernst Thälmann, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg) had been elevated to saints of “real existing socialism”, more prominent figures from pre-Weimar history, such as the German Kaisers and a number of important social/cultural figures – including Luther – had been condemned as irredeemable enemies of the people.

Under Honecker, the new approach to history involved asserting connections between the GDR and key figures and events within what the Honecker labelled Germany’s “great, progressive humanist tradition”. (Erhart Neubert, Geschichte der Opposition in der DDR 1949-1989: Bundeszentrale for politische Bildung, 1998, pg. 358)

Horn 81 Friedrich the Great statue UDL

Frederick the Great returned to East Berlin’s grand boulevard, Unter den Linden, 1981 (photo: Michiel Horn).

A prime example of the sort of reassessment that came about under Honecker was that of Prussian King Frederick II, King of Prussia from 1740-1786. Under Ulbricht, Frederick II was labelled “a warmongering, feudal-absolutist and spiritual father of German imperialism” (C. Dieckmann in “Der König der DDR, ZEIT, Nov 22, 2011), but Honecker publicly rehabilitated the Prussian monarch  in a two-page interview he gave to British publisher Robert Maxwell in August 1980 which articulated the new Party line towards history. (Incidentally, Maxwell’s Pergamon Press also brought out a biography on the GDR leader that same year).  In this interview, Honecker drew a straight line between East Germany and the state of Prussia and stated, “Our worldview is informed by an understanding of history which incorporates its objective, actual course and the dialectics which shaped it. Part of this involves acknowledging the greatness, and limits, of eminent historical personalities.” He would then go to refer to Frederick II by his long-taboo title of “Frederick the Great” and later that year, Honecker ordered the return of an iconic equestrian statue of the Prussian King from 1851 be returned from its exile in suburban Potsdam to the East German capital’s grand boulevard Unter den Linden.

Honecker’s Luther

Providing an ideological blessing for an accomplished statesman and military leader was one thing, but extending approval to a church leader was something many SED hardliners had a difficult time accepting given that the Marxist-Leninist ideology in which they had been steeped was not positively predisposed the organized religion, to put it mildly.

AK - Bad Frankenhausen Panoramagemaelde

Postcard and stamp from 1989 commemorating the GDR’s “preferred” Protestant Reformer, Thomas Müntzer (photo: author)

Many Party members noted that they already had an ideologically sound Reformation figure in  Thomas Müntzer. A more radical contemporary of Luther, Müntzer’s opposition to both Luther and the Catholic Church led him to open defiance of feudal authorities and, ultimately, a grisly death in the wake of the German Peasants’ War in 1525.

Erich Honecker recognized, however, that while Müntzer may have been ideologically sound, his legacy within Germany’s social and cultural life is a modest one. For purposes of burnishing East Germany’s legitimacy, finding a place for itself within the shadow cast by Luther was essential and this is what Honecker set out to do. In the spring of 1980 the SED leader appointed himself the Chair of GDR’s State “Martin Luther” Committee, a group tasked with overseeing preparations events to be held in honour of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1983.

As luck would have it, my father, Dr. John Kleiner, a Lutheran seminary professor, took part in a study tour to the two Germanies in June of 1980 on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, the primary confession of the Lutheran faith. This trip took him to a number of Luther sites in both Germanies but wrapped up in East Berlin just after the constituting session of the GDR’s Luther Committee took place. This is how I have come to  have the Berliner Zeitung from June 14/15, 1980 which reported on event in my collection (see below).

Lutherjahr - BZeitung Titel

Lest its readers be unclear of the importance of the “Luther Year”, the Berliner Zeitung‘s editors made the priority this project involved crystal clear by dedicating both the paper’s front page and 3 1/2 more in the paper’s front section to this auspicious event. A consideration of the subject headings of Honecker’s speech to the committee underlines the ideological orientation which the Party gave the “Luther Year”: ‘Luther’s Influence remains unmistakeable today’, ‘His thinking evidence of his close relationship to the people (das Volk)’, ‘His legacy is in good hands’ (pg. 3, Berliner Zeitung, June 14/15, 1980).

Another speech by Prof. Dr. Horst Bartel, the Director of the Central Institute for History at the GDR Academy of Science, the GDR’s pre-eminent historical institution and a key player in parroting the official line, underlined the new take on Luther. Here the apparatchik contended that no less than Marx and Engels had identified in Luther the ultimate source of the revolutionary impulse in Germany, asserting that “Martin Luther was the man in whose brain the revolution begins.” From here, Bartel outlined the path, in a number of broad strokes, from the Reformer to the German workers’ movement, the (relatively) solid ground upon which the GDR’s reading of history was based (Ibid, pg. 5).

Lutherjahr - BZeitung Honecker with Church leaders

That same spring, Dennis Hendricksen visited a number of East German Luther sites with his choir from Camrose Lutheran College in Alberta, Canada. This visit was part of the choir’s European tour and, in addition to the time in the GDR, included performances in West Germany and several Scandinavian countries. Listening to Hendrickson’s recollections, it is clear that the rehabilitation of Luther was already in full swing at this point.

Hendricksen, now a Lutheran pastor in Regina, Saskatchewan, recalls,

“Our trip happened near the height of the Cold War and I think we weren’t sure what to expect. But what we saw, matched the few expectations we might have had. For example, we expected that the Communist regions would be poorer [than the Western countries the group visited, ed], and they certainly were. We expected that religion wouldn’t be highlighted and it wasn’t.” (interview with author, October 24, 2017)

In fact, the choir’s experience with their official minders illustrate the official attitude towards Luther perfectly. “We had these two official guides, a man and woman,” remembers Hendricksen. “The suspicion was that they were actually KGB, keeping an eye on us, but they told us stuff, and what they told us about Luther . . . had very little to do with religious reforms; it was all about social reforms, things like that.” (Ibid.)

AK Eisenach Bach monument

Eisenach: the Bach Monument (Auslese – Bild Verlag, 1975)

One experience that Hendricksen’s group had in Eisenach is particularly telling as it underlines how, despite their willingness to incorporate the theologian Luther into the state’s official narrative, state authorities continued to be ill at ease with anything that might construed as religious,  Hendricksen remembers the scene as follows: “Eisenach is not only an important Luther site, but it’s also the birthplace of J.S. Bach, so we visited the Bach museum there. Outside it, there was a Bach statue and these little steps and so the choir just decided we would set up and sing. So we did and we sang this “Allelujah” chorale which just repeats the word over and over. And we were singing this and the tour guides came over and stopped us immediately: ‘No, no, no! You can’t do that!’ And we were all, ‘What? You can’t sing choral music in front of a Bach statue?!’ But it became clear that the problem was the piece we were singing because it was clearly religious.”

The “Luther Year”: 1983

Considerable resources were invested in the GDR’s official “Luther Year” activities. In addition to polishing the GDR’s legitimacy, Honecker also hoped the country could attract “Luther tourists” with hard-currency from West Germany and Scandinavia. As part of the efforts to lure these customers eastward, the Wartburg, perhaps the most famous Luther sites in the GDR, underwent extensive renovations in the years leading up to 1983. This castle in the Thuringian town of Eisenach is where Luther retreated to at the height of his confrontations with the Roman Catholic church and it was there where, disguised as Junker Jörg, he translated the New Testament into the German language.

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One major high point of the “Luther Year” from the official GDR perspective was a ceremonial church service at the Warburg in May 1983. This was a landmark event as it  featured the participation of a number of high ranking West German politicians (including the mayor of West Berlin) and western diplomatic representatives (e.g. both the West German “permanent representative to the GDR” and the American ambassador to the GDR) and also marked the first simultaneous broadcast in both East and West German television. In his address here, Honecker made explicit what he hoped to accomplish by associating the East German state with this aspect of German history: “A visit by GDR citizens to the Wartburg will strengthen their national feeling and sense of homeland.” (video clip from MDR Thüringen Journal, March 5, 2003).

GDR-era Souvenir Photo Collection of Wartburg Castle (1986)

There were numerous state sanctioned activities to mark this anniversary including Luther-themed exhibits at East Berlin’s  German Historical Museum and National Gallery, an album of Reformation-era songs on the state record label Amiga and even a five-part Luther biography was produced by East German TV for the occasion. Naturally, the East German postal service produced a series of commemorative stamps to make the anniversary (see below).

The “Luther Year” and the Lutheran Church in the GDR

Church - Pfarrerpaar

East German pastor and wife, spring 1980 (photo: J. Kleiner)

While Honecker’s close involvement in the “Luther Year” activities did provide the Lutheran Church in the GDR with some added cover, it must be noted that while pressure on this, the only independent institution within East German society, did not by any means disappear (Neubert, pg. 480). Points of conflict with the church in the years leading up to the anniversary were many and included the emergence of independent peace groups within its space, something which authorities found disturbing in the extreme given the centrality of the “peace theme” to official GDR ideology (see my recent post on this topic here).

With the end of the “Luther Year” events in the fall of 1983, however, any restraint authorities might have shown towards the church and those acting within the spaces it provided quickly vanished with state prosecutors and People’s Police moving to intimidate and arrest many deemed trouble makers. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see these measures as some of the last vigorous attempts by the SED apparatus to defend its monopoly position.

The Luther Year and Honecker’s Demise

Interestingly, there is a school of thought that traces the ultimate downfall of Erich Honecker and the GDR in the fall of 1989 to the “Luther Year” project. This line of thought contends that the loosening of restrictions on the church during the preparations for and carrying out of the “Luther Year” provided the space in which the East German opposition movement was able to establish itself (Church Historian Peter Maser in “Martin Luther in der DDR”, Deutschlandfunk, April 26, 2017). A fascinating interview with a deposed Stasi colonel recorded in the early years after the GDR’s collapse supports this view. Asked how the dangers emanating from the Lutheran church could have been countered, the Stasi man was adamant: “We couldn’t do this! A “Luther Year” had been proclaimed, Luther had been presented as a forerunner of the SED state . . . and after the “Luther Year”, moving against the church in a major way simply wasn’t possible any more.” (quote from “Die Garde stirbt, aber sie ergibt sich nicht”,

Eisenach, Wartburg-Wiedereröffnung, Honecker

Erich Honecker receives a bouquet at event to mark reopening of the Wartburg in April 1983 (Bundesarchiv Bild 183-0421-414, photographer Franke).

Scholars looking at SED history have demonstrated that Honecker’s position vis-a-vis Luther was met with confusion, and even disdain, by many Party members and that his about face here undermined his standing within the Party (quote of GDR historian Adolf Laube, “Martin Luther in der DDR”, Deutschlandfunk, April 26, 2017). A telling anecdote to support this view is found in the words of the SED Chair of the Erfurt District Council to his colleagues at the end of 1983: “Comrades, Luther is now off the menu. From now on we’re back to the force feeding of Karl Marx.” (“Nationale Neubesinnung in der DDR” by Jan Schönfelder, MDR Thüringen, May 4, 2017).



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