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Silomon, Anke


"Schwerter zu Pflugscharen" und die DDR. Die Friedensarbeit der evangelischen Kirchen in der DDR im Rahmen der Friedensdekaden 1980 bis 1982.


Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1999. XI, 398 S. gr.8 = Arbeiten zur kirchlichen Zeitgeschichte, 33. Geb. DM 96,-. ISBN 3-525-55733-7.


Robert F. Goeckel

As a doctoral student researching church-state relations in the GDR, this reviewer was privileged to participate in the official academic exchange program between the US and the GDR in 1979. As a political scientist in a country that viewed politics through the prism of ideology, my host department was the Department of Marxism-Leninism at the Humboldt University. After being subjected to a diatribe against the Chinese for their aggression against Vietnam at the first meeting with the dean, I dreaded my farewell meeting with him after six months researching the role of the church. To my surprise he asked me what I had learned, whereupon I regaled him with an elabora-tion of the Education for Peace program recently initiated by the Federation of Evangelical Churches in the GDR (BEK). The response of the SED comrades present - stony silence and rolling eyes - spoke volumes: despite the mantra of "socialism is peace", it was clear that the church was not to play an independent role in pursuing peace.

In her in-depth analysis of the 10-day programs initiated by the BEK in the early 1980s and known as Friedensdekaden, Anke Silomon comes to the same conclusion. The churches' efforts to inform and increase awareness regarding threats to peace, such as the arms race and militarization of society, as well as their proposals for individual action, such as alternative social service, met with consternation on the part of the SED regime. She provides a detailed description of the first three of the Friedensdekaden, which became a November tradition in the churches in the 1980s. Her monograph provides an excellent discussion of the origins of the Dekaden (particularly the important role of youth pastors, sometimes in tension with the church hierarchy), the themes and activities in 1980-1983, and the resonance in the population and the regime.

For Silomon the Friedensdekaden represent a precedent-setting case: "the first forums in an ideologically-free space devoted completely to the issue of peace, in which every GDR citizen could not only participate but also actively work together, in contrast to church synods." Although she overstates the case- the Kirchentage had long provided open forums for GDR society - there was nonetheless a qualitative shift in the early 1980s as large numbers of non-Christians ("the groups") came to use the church as an umbrella for dissent, foreshadowing the social movements of 1989.

In her interpretation of the case Silomon places the main emphasis on the SED's monopoly of power, which was challenged by the churches' independent peace activities. In so doing, she downplays the significance of international factors, such as the West German context and instability in the eastern bloc (primarily Poland and Solidarity). Moreover, the emphasis on the pathology of the SED necessarily gives short shrift to ecclesiastical aspects, such as the structures and self-conception of Protestantism, in explaining this development. Other scholars, including this reviewer, have argued differently.

Silomon's treatment also takes issue with those such as Gerhard Besier, who see the churches' witness damaged by its compromise with the regime and Stasi penetration, as well as with those, such as Ehrhart Neubert, who are critical of the church leadership from the grassroots pacifist perspective. By contrast, she sees the churches' voice on peace and militarism as consistently critical and independent of both the regime and the EKD.

The study documents anew the hallmarks of the SED regime familiar to us all. For example, the penetration of the church by the Stasi left it in possession of complete protocols of meetings of the Conference of Church Leadership of the BEK, even while the church kept them confidential as a sign of restraint (65-66). Church newspapers were censored and Western reporters were prohibited from attending synods because of this issue. The absence of a legal basis for the church-state relationship was manifested in the struggle over the jacket patches (Swords into Plowshares), with the Stasi calling for a ban even while state officials in Dresden saw no legal basis for doing so. The study dramatically reveals how symbols - jacket patches or bellringing - were easily construed as opposition by a regime profoundly insecure of its popular legitimacy.

Striking to this reviewer is the remarkable continuity in the regime's strategy. Many of us had discerned change in the regime's approach to the church, developing throughout the 1970s and ratified in Honecker's meeting with the BEK leadership on March 6, 1978. Yet many of the official documents Silomon uses attest to continuity with earlier SED policy: despite the separation from the EKD, the Dekaden are viewed as part of an "all-German fog"; despite the BEK partner, a strategy of differentiation is pursued toward the individual bishops (Krusche and Forck as reactionary, Leich as pragmatic); despite the mutual recognition exchanged in 1978, the CDU and parish councils are to be used to increase leverage over the church. Silomon demonstrates that only the tactics had changed: while instrumentalizing the church to domesticate and discipline its dissenters internally, Honecker cynically appealed to the church to sympathize with his difficulties in gaining SED support for the new relationship.

But in her careful treatment of the actors of the regime (Central Committee, state officials, Stasi and CDU in particular), Silomon uncovers considerable differences and nuances in terms of the churches' room for maneuver on peace and defense issues. State Secretary Gysi comes across as more moderate than the military; Politburo member Paul Verner seems more hard-line than Kurt Hager and Peter Krausser of the Central Committee apparatus. Gerald Goetting of the CDU weighs in as quite critical of the churches. Silomon also documents significant reporting differences among these actors regarding the Dekaden (pp. 231-239). Yet she does not pursue the theoretical impli- cations of these differences. Do they in fact represent bureaucratic interests or personal ambitions in conflict? Or perhaps the attempt by the regime to triangulate among its foreign policy interests - continuation of dÈtente with the West and star-pupil status with the Soviets - and its domestic interest in stability?

For its part the church did compromise significantly over the issue of jacket patches, retaining the symbol for its own printed materials but halting production as a patch in 1982. The church bowed to the state's insistence that the churches take responsibility for this action, threatening continued coercion against individuals with the patches. This action, along with others which Silomon treats quite fleetingly, such as Bishop Hempel's intervention to avoid conflict over the February 1981 peace protests in Dresden and the 1983 Roland Jahn affair in Jena, suggest that the churches did respond to the state's tactics. Moreover, the state's reporting of the 1982 Dekade reveals a high level of satisfaction with the outcome of the compromise (235-244).

Though state actors always took credit for such "successes", the temporary domestication of peace dissent in the church permitted the regime to press its peace campaign in the West, using frequent appearances by GDR church leaders (176-183, 249).

Perhaps the most engaging portion of the book is Silomon's excursions from the narrative to provide two case studies of youths affected by the conflict over the jacket patches. The confrontations with local officials - arrest and imprisonment in one case, educational discrimination in the other - reveal vividly the concrete ramifications of this issue for Christians "vor Ort". They also suggest the cleverness of individuals faced with an oppressive state, and the practical absurdities of implementation (it turns out that it was easier for the police to confiscate one's jacket with the patch than seizing one's pants!).

One of the main strengths of Silomon's volume is her extensive and balanced use of a wide variety of archival sources. More selective use of such documents might have improved the manuscript; better editing would have eliminated sections which do not see conducive to the narrative. But those interested in the peace movement and church-state relations in the GDR are well-served by this valuable contribution to a growing literature on the topic.