The East German State and the Catholic Church, 1945-1989

By O'Sullivan, Michael E. | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The East German State and the Catholic Church, 1945-1989


O'Sullivan, Michael E., Canadian Journal of History


The East German State and the Catholic Church, 1945-1989, by Bernd Schaefer. Translated by Patricia C. Sutcliffe. Studies in German History series. New York, Berghahn Books, 2010. ix, 303 pp. $90.00 US (cloth).

This translation of Bernd Schaefer's first book provides an English-speaking audience overdue access to a genuinely authoritative work of scholarship. The East German State and the Catholic Church analyzes Church-state relations from the founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) until its collapse, a topic that suffers neglect in comparison to the voluminous academic literature about western German Catholicism. Besides retaining relevancy almost fifteen years after its initial publication in German, this volume represents a building block for all future research about Catholicism under the East German dictatorship.

The book systematically supports one convincing thesis. Schaefer suggests practical approaches by both Church and state ultimately overcame the hostility inherent in the worldviews of Catholics and communists to create a stable, long-term Kirchenpolitik. While the GDR never retreated from its utopian stand that the Party should hasten the end of a superstitious institution destined for irrelevancy, it understood short-term tactical reasons to pursue a conciliatory course. Despite show trials of priests in the late 1950s, the emphasis on Jugendweihe (secular confirmation ceremonies), and a policy of "differentiation" designed to erode Church unity, the communist dictatorship required Church consent in order to achieve international recognition and receive profits from currency exchanges with western European countries. The Catholic Church opposed Communism as an existential threat and a godless ideology, but it also approached the GDR with expediency rather than open hostility. Eager to retain contact with the Vatican and West German Bishops, hopeful to avoid state repression, and open to the notion of an "eastern Heimat," East German Church officials accepted the sovereignty of the communist state and pursued a policy of "political abstinence" to maintain the status quo.

Schaefer's depiction of Alfred Bengsch, Bishop of Berlin and Chairman of the Berlin Conference of Ordinaries (BOK) from 1961 until his death in 1979, forms a pillar in the argument for the primacy of a pragmatic Kirchenpolitik during this era. Preceded by the more outspoken Cardinal Konrad von Preysing and succeeded by the less conciliatory Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Bengsch committed to a fragile balance between accommodation and dissent within the GDR. He pursued "political abstention" in order to preserve the Church's existence and maintain access to West Berlin and the Federal Republic after the construction of the Berlin Wall (p. 88). His relationship with the Ministry of State Security (MfS) best illustrates this delicate accommodation. Bengsch appointed certain high-ranking officials, such as Prelate Otto Gross, to serve as regular informants for the MfS and maintain productive relationships with the state. However, Bengsch successfully prohibited any other clergy from contact with the state so as to prevent the GDR from dividing Catholics with their policy of "differentaiation." Bengsch ultimately lacked sympathy for socialism. In fact, he objected to the Vatican when Rome pursued its own version of Ostpolitik during the 1960s and 1970s in order to leverage the stable Church-state relationship in the GDR into a better situation for Catholics in other Eastern European countries. …

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