Playing By Their Own Rules: A Clergy Couple in the GDR

Wilhelms 27 05 18

Friedmut and Gundula Wilhelm, May 27, 2018 (photo: author)

When asked to characterize his approach to dealing with Communist authorities, Friedmut Wilhelm, a retired Lutheran pastor who largely grew up in the German Democratic Republic and served parishes there from 1966 to 1979, is matter of fact: “We simply refused to play the game by their rules.” (Interview between author and Friedmut Wilhelm, September 5, 2017).

It’s a telling remark and one that I would contend is the key to understanding how the Lutheran Church in the GDR persisted in the face of forty plus years of hostile rule by the Socialist Unity Party (SED). This post is based on three interviews I conducted with Friedmut Wilhelm and his wife Gundula over the past number of months and it relates experiences they had as a clergy couple in rural East Germany between 1966 and 1979. While the Wilhelms’ story is theirs alone, I suggest that it is an example of the church’s – or more accurately, some of its clergy’s – dogged determination  to maintain independence from direct state control, an attitude which allowed the Lutheran Church to help facilitate the peaceful revolution of 1989 which brought an end to both the GDR’s state socialism and the Cold War.As someone who has spent many years trying to gain insight into what everyday life in the GDR was like, it is always refreshing when I have an encounter that challenges my long held assumptions and understanding of things. As you will see here, my conversations with Friedmut Wilhelm and his wife Gundula did this quite nicely.

The Early Years

Friedmut Wilhelm’s path to the pulpit seems to have been pre-ordained. Born in 1941 in Sauen/Brandenburg, Friedmut’s father was a pastor serving in the Confessing Church, a form of German Protestantism opposed efforts to create a “state church” supportive of the Nazi regime. After his father was killed serving in the German army only two months after Friedmut’s birth, he and his siblings were raised by their mother in difficult circumstances in Schkopau, an industrial centre in the Sachsen-Anhalt region of “Middle Germany”. At the war’s end, his mother married a man more than thirty years her senior, a former Lutheran missionary in Africa who had come to Schkopau to serve a parish there. “We called him ‘Väterchen’ (Little Father, ed.),” remembers Friedmut, “but he was a good man and I have much to thank him for.” (September 5, 2017).

Gundula Wilhelm too comes from a pastor’s house. Born in 1942 in Guben, a Brandenburg county seat where her father was a Lutheran minister, she stayed there until she was nine when her father took a call in Berlin. His new church was in Treptow, East Berlin, located just inside the inner-city border dividing East from West. Her memories of those years in Berlin before the Wall are happy ones: “It was a wonderful place to grow up. The border was still open, so you could go over with the S-Bahn [commuter train system which still linked the two sides of the city, ed] and I had a grandmother, aunt and cousins over there whom we visited all the time.” (Interview with Gundula and Friedmut Wilhelm, May 27, 2018)

The Student Years: Theology Studies at East Berlin’s Humboldt University

The building of the Wall in August 1961 coincided with Friedmut and Gundula’s young adulthood and though both of their families had relatives in the West, neither ever considered trying to leave the GDR in those years. Rather, having been good high school students, each applied – and were accepted – to study theology at East Berlin’s Humboldt University and this is where they met.

Knowing how GDR authorities limited access to higher education to the children of “class enemies”, which certainly included those with clergy parents, I expressed surprise that they had gained entry to East Germany’s most prestigious university. Gundula just smiled and told me, “Well, we got admission to study theology. They certainly wouldn’t have let us into medical school!” (May 27, 2018).

Berlin, Humboldt-Universität, Haupteingang

Students outside main entrance of Berlin’s Humboldt University in February 1960 (Photo: Erwin Schneider, Bundesarchiv_bild_183-71073-0001 (Wikicommons Images Archive))

Friedmut then explained to me that there were several reasons for the continued existence of the Theological Faculties at the GDR’s universities. First, they had an “alibi function”, something the Party could point to as evidence of the commitment to freedom of religion guaranteed by the GDR’s Constitution. Second, “keeping these programs was a way [the authorities] could maintain some control over those students.”  (May 27, 2018)

Although the curriculum was not dissimilar to theology programs in West Germany, there were differences. For example, Marxism-Leninism was a compulsory subject (as it was for all university students in the GDR) and the faculty included several of what Friedmut refers to as “red birds”, professors loyal to the state. These profs reported on their students to the GDR’s secret police, the Stasi, but according to Friedmut, students were clear on the allegiances of such faculty [for example, by their use of Party propaganda terms such as “the NATO church” when referring to the West German Lutheran Church, ed] and behaved accordingly in their presence. (Interview with Friedmut Wilhelm, September 21, 2017). Despite these controls on the students, both Friedmut and Gundula were happy with the overall content and quality of the education they received at the Humboldt Uni.

The couple recall a telling scene in their first year of study which underscored the theology students’ status as outsiders at the university. As Friedmut relates, a group of second year theology students came to the new cohort saying “‘If you want to study theology and become a pastor [the only realistic career path for anyone with a theology degree in the GDR, ed.], then take out your FDJ membership card so we can destroy them.’ [FDJ = Free German Youth, the state’s official youth organization, ed.] The idea here was to make clear who was on the Party’s side and who was not.” While the purpose of the action was obvious to all, Gundula remembers, “It was done in a matter-of-fact way, not as part of any big campaign or anything like that. (May 27, 2018)

This depiction of the Faculty of Theology existing as a sort of antibody within the greater organism of the Humboldt University is interesting in that it challenges the overriding narrative of total Party control of institutional life in East Germany. Certainly, in the years when the Wilhelms were there, the Humboldt was the site of challenges to more “Stalinist” interpretations of Marxist theory and practice (for example, see dissident Communist professor Robert Havemann). However, I would suggest that the overriding image we have of East German institutions is that these were places where authorities had the levers of power in firm control and used them to nip in the bud discussion, inquiry or exchange which deviated from the approved ideological norms. From the Wilhelms’ descriptions, we are presented with an academic environment, albeit a marginalized and carefully surveilled one, in which control was not total and where intellectual exchange and inquiry outside of the prescribed ideological boundaries could, and did, take place.

Called To Serve: Parish Life in the Rural GDR

In 1966, the Wilhelms found themselves at a crossroads. The previous year, Gundula had given birth to the couple’s first child, an event which had forced her to cut short her studies. Friedmut had completed his degree and was now faced with the practical matter of finding a job to feed his young family. Despite his lack of seminary training, the Lutheran Church – facing a clergy shortage – offered him a pastor’s position which he eagerly accepted. He was then assigned to a rural four-point parish based in Bülzig, then a town of 1,000 residents just outside Lutherstadt-Wittenberg.

When the couple arrived at their new parish, they faced some sobering realities. First, active membership in the four parishes had dwindled with church having become what Friedmut characterized as “something for only the womenfolk” (September 5, 2017). Second, some of the church buildings, several of which were hundreds of years old, were in dire need of repair and renovation.

Undaunted, in the years that followed the pair worked to engage their members and the community, work that took many different forms. For example, Friedmut led Sunday worship in the various parishes and worked with the Church Council to help to revitalize congregational life. Gundula, for her part, was no less involved taking on the role of organist accompanying worship services. Over the years, she also offered both a weekly pre-schoolers group and a “Mothers’ Circle” at various points, activities which were open to members and non-members alike and served as a way of establishing connections with the broader community.

In these early years, Friedmut’s initial focus was on building the community by reviving the baptism of the congregations’ children, a practice which had gone dormant. Through this central Christian ritual, he hoped to reanimate families’ connections to their church, but this approach met resistance from a number of sides. First, as he relates, the families themselves were not enthusiastic: “They told me that they couldn’t find Godparents or that they didn’t have the means to throw a party as was expected. I told them not to worry about this, that the Church Council would identify suitable Godparents and that the congregation would organize and pay for the social gathering afterwards. This did the trick and that first year, we held a mass baptism for 25 children, infants to 14-years old, and then we did the same thing again the year afterwards.” (Interview with F. Wilhelm, July 23, 2018)

While these baptisms did serve to help reenergize the congregations in his call, they also brought the young pastor into conflict with the church leadership and state authorities. While the latter was more or less expected, the friction with the local synod was the source of surprise and consternation. Gundula remembers, “It went without saying that there was friction in the relationship to state authorities, but one expected something different from the church.” (May 27, 2018)

Friedmut remembers the reverberations caused by the mass baptisms as follows:

“The Party was up in arms and went to my Bishop saying, ‘Your pastor is trying to turn back the wheel of history!’ But the thing was that the Church saw things similarly and told me, ‘Brother Wilhelm, you have to accept that the days of the Volkskirche [literally ‘people’s church’, a term referring to churches to which the majority of a population are members, ed.] are done. You need to understand that it serves no purpose to baptize all the children in a village.'” (May 27, 2018)

While disappointed by this conflict with the church leadership, the young clergy couple proceeded with their work much as they had before. After the early focus on baptizing the congregations’ children and youth, a later phase of Wilhelms’ work focused on renovating a number of the church’s buildings. Friedmut explains that the rationale for this focus was that these projects would reengage the local men with their church by having them invest some of their own “sweat equity” in the parish.

One of the initial projects was to save the church building in a village of 60 residents. This had suffered years of neglect and the structure’s windows had failed resulting in considerable damage to the sanctuary. After raising over 2,000 Marks (a considerable sum at that time) and arranging a volunteer work brigade to carry out the installation of new windows, Friedmut and the congregation turned to the local synod asking for a grant to match their efforts. When the synod turned down this request by arguing that it made little sense to invest in such a small congregation, Friedmut was quick with a written response. In it, he rejected the synod’s reasoning by referring to Matthew 18:10 in which Jesus – while outlining the criteria to be fulfilled in order to receive the gift of eternal life – admonishes, ‘See that you do not despise the little ones.’ “I closed by repeating our request for a grant. Sometimes,” he relates with a laugh, “it was necessary to throw their own words back at them. At any rate, we received the money we requested a short time later.” (July 23, 2018).

While the window project caused some conflict with the church leadership, Friedmut recalls another project which served more as a poke in the eye of the Party:

“As part of our renovations to the church in Bülzig,” Friedmut recalls, “we built a brick wall which ran the entire length of our property along a street that the local workers used every day on their way to the train station. Into this, we built a four-metre long, glass-fronted showcase, and I used it to post messages in foot-high letters. This was one way we attracted notice in the broader community. I remember one of the messages I put there: ‘Only with God and sunshine, will the harvest be just fine!’; this was a play on a  Communist slogan: “Without God or sunshine, the harvest will still be fine!'” (September 5, 2017)

While the action above was certainly intended to provoke, there were occasions when the Wilhelms found themselves accidentally running afoul of the Party. Friedmut relates on such episode:

“One year, Gundula decided to mark the Summer Solstice with her Mother’s Group and their families with a big bonfire in the parsonage yard. No sooner did we get the fire lit then the phone rang. It was someone from the local authorities complaining about our shamelessness. Our transgression? The date: June 17th, the anniversary of the Workers’ Uprising in 1953, a very sensitive event in GDR history. We hadn’t noticed, simply forgot. But we’d hung up posters inviting the neighbours to a bonfire at the pastor’s house on June 17th and the Party people had understood this as a provocation. Understandably, but it was not intentional!” (September 25, 2017)

Ruffling Feathers: Battling for the Hearts, Minds and Souls of Local Youth

Slowly, congregational life was revitalized, but the rebirth of a Christian community in their midst was not welcomed by the area’s “temporal authorities” and conflict, both direct and indirect, with the Wilhelms was not uncommon. During our first interview, Friedmut shared with me the philosophical approach to conflict which he had learned from his stepfather as a young man: “He said, ‘If you get into a fight, I expect the second punch thrown to be yours.’ In other words, don’t start anything, but don’t be afraid to defend yourself if it comes to this.” (Sept. 5, 2017) As the examples below show, this is an approach which Friedmut adhered to quite faithfully.

One ongoing flash point with Party authorities came over the Wilhelms’ work to engage local youth. As free-time offerings for young people in the area were very limited, the Wilhelms began organizing activities for this group with considerable success – to the alarm of the Party. Friedmut recalls that such work required a considerable degree of creativity: “[The authorities] came to us and said, ‘We heard that you had a youth dance at the church’, which we had, in the church hall. They told us that this wasn’t allowed, so we decided to hold these gatherings in our parsonage, a private residence. We cleared out a bedroom and the living room so the young people could meet there and party a bit. And one evening, when the youth were there, someone came to me and said that someone was outside, watching through the window. A Party type. And I said, well, we can either invite him in, which no one wanted to do, or ignore him. And that’s what we did.” (September 5, 2017)

The local schools were also called into action to try and counter the church’s growing influence. Friedmut recalls a confrontation with a teacher at his children’s school who had been defaming him publicly, a conflict which resulted in the pastor being banned from school property for a time. Several other teachers undertook measures to undermine the congregation’s activities for youth by offering programs similar to those on offer at the church. Friedmut recollects:

“We also offered sporting activities to the youth as this was something they enjoyed. The school got wind of this and then a few of their teachers offered up volleyball in the school gym. I knew what they were up and said to myself, ‘You can’t let them simply lure your kids away.’ So, I decided to go along myself and play too.

Afterwards, the group went to the local restaurant for a drink and it was an interesting scene. At one table sat the school teachers and I sat at the other with the kids. They drank beer and we drank cola. It was a bit awkward.  This was one way that they kept our congregation under observation.

(In an interesting coda to this story, after the fall of the Wall, Friedmut encountered a number of these teachers when he was back in the town for a visit. He takes up the story: “When these people, my ‘opponents’ from back in the day, recognized me, they came over and gave me a hug as if we had always been the best of friends.” (September 5, 2017))

“Christian Teachings” vs. “Socialist Consecration”

Another area of friction between the Wilhelms and the local authorities was in their work to revive “Christian Teachings” classes for district youth. After completing a training course, Gundula was hired by the local synod to lead these classes,  a program of study which culminated in Confirmation, a Christian ritual marking a young person’s passage to fully-fledged adult member of the church community. Party officials viewed such courses critically as they challenged the SED’s monopoly on educating GDR youth and provided instruction in values they deemed antithetical to the development of “socialist personalities”. In the mid-1950s, the Party had moved to counter Confirmation with the introduction of “Socialist Consecration”, a secular course of study intended to supplant the religious rite as the socially-acceptable rite of passage to adulthood. The vast majority of East German youth, and their parents, quickly bowed to state and Party pressure to participate in this new course, thanks in no small part to the repressive measures meted out to some who refused to do so, with the result that the number of confirmands in the GDR dropped precipitously in very short order.

Berlin, Jugendweihe, Feierstunde

A “Socialist Consecration” ceremony in East Berlin, March 1956 (Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild_183-36887-00010, Guenter Weiss).

Over a decade later, the situation was still fraught as Gundula remembers: “The pressure wasn’t applied directly on me, but rather on the parents. However, I knew what was going on and the fact that it was hard for parents to make the conscious decision to send their kids to me was always in the back of my mind. And as for the kids themselves, well, when the pond is frozen, you’d rather go skating, right? So we tried to do things to make the classes attractive, but that wasn’t easy and I can remember going out to the pond and trying to fetch the children for class!” (May 27, 2018).

Friedmut remembers how he came into direct conflict with the local Party representatives after the annual “Socialist Consecration” ceremony was scheduled for the same time as a regular Sunday service one year. He elaborates:

“At our church, the confirmands were required to attend service each Sunday and sign a register as proof of their attendance. I knew that some of them would be tempted to skip a Sunday and go to the Socialist Consecration ceremony, so I drafted a note to them and their families stating that they had chosen the path of Confirmation and that this came with the expectation that confirmands be in church each Sunday. I wrote that it wasn’t acceptable for them to do something else instead, particularly if that something else was attend the Socialist Consecration ceremony.

Well, news of this note got out and I was summoned to the offices of the District Council to explain myself. I went there with my superintendent and so there we sat as the Council Chair outlined the accusations against us culminating with him saying, ‘Show me the Bible passage where it states that Confirmation and Socialist Consecration are incompatible. As far as I am aware, Socialist Consecration isn’t mentioned anywhere in there.’ I answered, ‘I’d be happy to show you, sir, if you’ll let me borrow your copy of the Bible.’

I tell you, the man had a fit! ‘Such cheek!’ And he threw us out, me, the still-wet-behind-the-ears pastor and my esteemed superintendent. But that wasn’t the end of the story as that same night, the Council Chair had a heart attack, as a result of which he never returned to work.” (September 5, 2017)

Lest I get the impression that the life of a pastor’s couple in the GDR was characterized by constant conflict with the State, however, Gundula is keen to emphasize how everyday life was, in fact, a delicate balancing act:

“I don’t want to give the impression that things were entirely black and white, with us on one side and the authorities on the other. For example . . . there was a teacher at our children’s school and we got to know her quite well. In fact, she had her child baptized by my husband and I was the Godmother, despite the fact that this could have caused real problems for her. Anyway, she came to us and asked that we let our children join the Young Pioneers [the official state organization for children in grades 1 – 6, ed.].

And I remember asking myself, ‘Should I cause her problems just so I can keep the moral high ground? So we agreed and our children were allowed to become Pioneers.” (May 27, 2018)

Friedmut recalls:

“We knew how teachers suffered under the system if their students didn’t participate in the official youth groups. And we also saw how our children suffered, how they fell into the role of ‘outsiders’ if they weren’t allowed to take part. It was a difficult matter.” (September 25, 2017)

Gundula adds:

“Keep in mind that this was at a time when we could be happy to even have an understanding teacher like this at our children’s school . . . This is an example of how one found ways to compromise to get through everyday life.

This story makes me think of the book The First Life of Angela M. written by some snobby West German [in it the author paints the German Chancellor as a political opportunist using her past as a functionary with her employer’s FDJ group as evidence of this, ed.]. When I read it, I thought, ‘You really have no idea!’ If you lived there, with no sense that the situation would ever come to an end, then you had to find a way to make it through in a proper, decent way (orig. anständigerweise, ed.).” (May 27, 2018)

On The Margins: The Lutheran Church in the GDR

While the Lutheran Church has rightly been lauded for its role in enabling opposition to the SED’s oppressive state socialist regime, I think that this focus has tended to inflate the reality of the church’s position within GDR society. While the Lutheran Church was indeed at the heart of the East German opposition in the 1980s, its position was tenuous at best. In 1966, when the Wilhelms moved to Bülzig to take up ministry there, the institution of the church was even more clearly at the margins of East German society. Government propaganda and policy, persecution of believers and general social trends had combined to reduce the number of active Christians in the country to a fraction of what it had been only a few shorts decades earlier. While still extant, the situation of individual parishes was often precarious, and the church had yet to become a crystalisation point for those opposed to “real exisiting socialism”.

Friedmut recalls both the place the church had on the margins of GDR society well and the anxieties which this position created within his parishes. When asked about this subject, he says, “I didn’t feel persecuted, personally. I always said to the people, ‘This state of affairs [the church relegated to the sidelines of society, ed.] is the norm. Our Lord Jesus said, ‘The servant is not superior to his master’, so don’t be surprised at the way we are treated.” (September 5, 2017)

Indeed, in hearing Friedmut’s recollections, the hardships imposed on his congregations by the state are not something to be resented, but rather seen as opportunities to spread the Gospel message. An example of this was an incident where some in his congregation became convinced that one of their ranks was spying on the group for the Stasi. Their pastor’s reaction likely surprised some of them: “Some of the congregation were upset about this,” recalls Friedmut, “but I said, ‘No, this is great. He’ll learn something. He’ll only hear good things here, about God’s love and salvation. This is good! Don’t worry about this, but rather rejoice!!” (September 5, 2017).

This understanding of, and reaction to, the encroaching of “the state socialist system” on his ministry is a prime example of how the Wilhelms, and clergy like them, refused to engage with authorities on their terms by, for example, trying to unmask the spy or resort to conspiratorial meetings, etc. By choosing instead to emphasize the positive aspect of their beliefs, these clergy assumed a stance which seems to have reinforced their congregation’s faith and resolve in a hostile environment, attitudes which would later prove instrumental in allowing these places of worship to function as the nucleus of the East German opposition movement.

“Nicodemus  By Night”

One anecdote which the Wilhelms shared does a good job of illustrating the marginalized position that Christians occupied within GDR society. Gundula recalls:

“One night, it was already dark outside, there was a knock on our door. I went over to open it and when I did, there stood a young man with a beard whom I had never seen.  Before I could speak, he said ‘Nicodemus by night.’ This was a reference to the Bible story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who sought out Jesus to discuss his teachings under the cover of darkness (John 3: 1-21). I remember being deeply moved by this and the way in which this Bible quote established an immediate connection between him and us.”

Friedmut takes up the story:

“We invited this man in and he turned out to be the Russian teacher at the local school. I’d heard about him from some of the young people in our congregation; they were quite taken by him.

He explained to me that he had several of my youth in his classes and that it was obvious that they were closely connected to the church. He himself, he told me, was at the school ‘undercover’; his real goal was to become a Catholic priest. He had become a teacher in order to learn about how it was to be a teacher in the GDR school system and since he was good with languages, he had decided to become a Russian teacher.

We spent the evening talking, a really good conversation, but at the end we decided to try and steer clear of one another in order not to cause each other any unnecessary problems. And so that’s what we did but several years later he did go on to become a Catholic priest.” (May 27, 2018).

“Church In Socialism”: Conflict With Church Authorities

It is fair to say that during the GDR’s forty years of existence, the institution of the East German Lutheran Church proved itself to a decidedly human institution. Its leadership found themselves in the very challenging position of having to mediate between a state hostile to its existence and a number of its clergy (including Friedmut) who were committed to the active, public proclamation of the Christian Gospel, an activity considered by many state, Party and church authorities to be – at the very least – provocative. While the period of the Wilhelms’ ministry came after what was arguably the peak period of religious persecution in the GDR, the 1950s, the relationship of the East German Lutheran Church to the authorities was never entirely secure and this situation made many church functionaries eager to avoid provoking conflict with the Party.

In the mid-1970s, church leaders took steps to secure the position of the church within East German society by pursuing a course intended to reassure the Party that the institution was not a “fifth column”. Church leaders gave this position the name “Church in Socialism”, a label meant to acknowledge that the Lutheran Church understood itself to be part of, not separate from, GDR society, a key demand of SED leaders over the years. While the Wilhelms had some understanding for church leaders’ motivation to take this approach (Gundula: “You have to see it against the backdrop that all of them had already experienced a time when the state had moved against the church [the Nazi period, ed].” (May 27, 2018), the policy ended up playing a part in the couple’s decision to leave the GDR to pursue an opportunity for ministry in Canada.

To explain: the church’s explicit courting of the Party through “Church in Socialism” came while Wilhelm was awaiting assignment to a new parish, a process that had been dragged out while the church leadership was unable, or reluctant, to provide Friedmut and Gundula with what they felt was a suitable new parish. When Friedmut read a brief article in an East German Lutheran newspaper about the need for German-speaking clergy in Canada, he sent off a letter asking for more information only to receive a formal job offer for an assistant pastor’s position in Winnipeg, in western Canada, in response. Energized by the opportunity, the couple decided to apply for permission to emigrate from the GDR, a process which would end up lasting last three years.

Berlin, Empfang Kirchenleitung bei Honecker

Lutheran Church leaders at a reception with GDR leader Erich Honecker in 1978 (Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild_183-t0306-0025)

While GDR authorities were not overly sad to see this clergy family leave and the couple’s own congregation supported their decision to seek a new start abroad, church leaders fought for them to stay, a back and forth which Friedmut remembers as follows:

“The local synod fought for us to stay. ‘We need you here. We can’t support you in this move.’ That sort of thing. . . . In those years, the church leadership had adopted the position of ‘Church Within Socialism’ and their position was we want to be the church inside of socialist society. That didn’t mean socialism in any sort of idealistic sense, but rather it was an acceptance of the church’s place as part of ‘real existing socialism’ as it was practiced in the GDR with all this entailed. I said to them [the church leadership, ed.], ‘That’s not for me. I want to live here, but if your idea of the church’s role here is to bring it into conformity with the socialist system, keep the churches small with no attempt to spread the Gospel beyond our walls, that’s taking a step backwards and ‘Goodbye’.” (Sept. 5, 2017)

In 1979, the Wilhelms patience was rewarded with an exit visa just before Christmas 1978 with the by-then five member family leaving the GDR for the Canadian West early the next year. Over the more than three decades to follow, Friedmut served four different congregations in western Canada before he and Gundula retired just outside of Edmonton, Alberta.

The Wilhelms’ decision to leave the GDR to pursue their ministry might seem to put them in a different category than those clergy who chose to remain and then host opposition groups during the decade that came afterwards. While I can understand this interpretation, I see their decision to leave as a logical extension of their understanding of the church and their role as ministers/lay leaders. As Friedmut alludes to in his statement above, for him the church was something essentially apart from, above even, the earthly realities of the GDR and its state socialist system. As such, the ministry he felt called to provide was not uniquely tied to its East German context, but rather something which could – and should the Spirit call – be pursued anywhere. In speaking to the Wilhelms, I got the clear sense that their experiences as a clergy couple in the GDR had indeed left them worn out and open to change, but I also came away feeling that they would have stayed had they felt the Spirit calling them to do so.

The Wende: “I was not at all surprised.”

In the decade that followed between the Wilhelms’ emigration to Canada and the collapse of the East German state socialism, the family maintained close ties to the relatives they had left behind. Having kept their GDR citizenship, the family were able to travel back to the East often [something that would not have been the case had they emigrated to West Germany, ed.]. Friedmut recalls that the GDR’s downward trajectory was impossible to miss during these regular visits:

“I saw [the changes of 1989] coming. I was back to visit my mother almost every year and each time I returned, things were worse than before. Especially in terms of the environment. The rivers were unbelievably polluted because none of the factories had the money to install the proper filtration systems. The Saale, the Elbe, Mulde, all of them were all poisoned and they all flowed into West Germany. I also saw how the cobblestone roads had been dug up in some of the small towns in rural Brandenburg so that the stones could be sold to France where this sort of paving had become fashionable again. To add insult to injury, [the authorities] simply slapped a layer of asphalt on top of the sandy ground that was left behind and this only lasted until the next harvest when the road was destroyed by all the heavy trucks and tractors driving on it. It was clear that the only thing that mattered any more was getting as much hard currency as possible. That was it.

In the summer of 1989, so four months or so before the Wall fell, I was back and I preached in a number of my former parishes. In my sermons I told the people, ‘When God’s people are suffering, God sends them an archangel to protect them. And remember that the Archangel Michael came to the world in Moscow. You will experience great changes!’ [This was an allusion to both Mikhail Gorbachev and a account in the Book of Revelation wherein  God sends the Archangel Michael to lead his earthly forces in the battle against Satan, ed.] Afterwards, in the church hall, I remember several of the parishoners telling me, ‘Those were lovely words, but nothing is going to change here! Nothing!’

But when everything did happen later that year, I was not at all surprised.” (Sept. 5, 2017)


As I mentioned at the outset of this post, my conversations with the Wilhelms challenged a number of my assumptions about aspects of life in the GDR. As I began putting this post together, I quickly realized that the chief misconception that had been debunked was my understanding of the motivation of Lutheran clergy who played leading and/or facilitating roles during the Wende events of 1989. Influenced by the mainstream readings of this history, I had unconsciously adopted the understanding that this group had been motivated primarily by an opposition to communist ideology. As the son of Lutheran clergy and a Lutheran churchgoer, I should’ve known better!

While anti-communist beliefs were certainly prevalent in church circles, I now think that the Wilhelms’ actions, and those the clergy who went on to support the East German opposition, were positively and primarily defined by a very-Lutheran reading of Christian teachings, not in opposition to any other belief system or ideology. The Wilhelms’ experiences demonstrate an unwavering commitment to act as their faith required of them, an approach which echoes Martin Luther’s famous statement “Here I stand, I can do no other”. If the Wilhelms’ beliefs brought them into conflict with temporal powers, their position was that this was unfortunate, but not something to be avoided for matters of political expediency or convenience.

While the Wilhelms emigrated from the GDR and were not actively involved in the Wende, the faith-filled commitment to the Christian Gospel which was embodied in the ministry they provided between 1966 and 1979 continued in the work of many of the clergy colleagues in the 1980s culminating in the end of the German Democratic Republic and its system of state socialism.







  1. Rich P said:

    Most excellent, as usual! Another GDR article that is well thought out and super informative, esp. how the interviews changed your concept of the church’s role as active antagonist to the State vs. simply following it’s Christian faith. Thank you very much!

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