The title “Democratic Republic” sounds nowhere more hollow than when applied to the present government of East Germany. Its rulers can scarcely be reassured by recent events in Hungary, where the instruments of power in the hands of the ruling elite have perforce been turned against the people in whose name they profess to rule. It is the purpose of this article to note some of the major features of this “Republic” and to seek to evaluate its points of strength and its areas of weakness.

Soviet Advantages

In installing the puppet regime in their zone of occupation, the Soviet rulers had three major points of possible advantage. First, they had at their disposal the large Junker estates, which most of the world agreed should be divided. Thus the land reform should have pleased the beneficiaries, and should have brought to the government a broad popular support from the peasants. This advantage was not pressed; crushing agricultural quotas discouraged the tillers of the land at the outset. More important still, the history of such “reforms” in Russia convinced the East German farmers that collectivization would follow in short order. This they have not wanted. Many are not waiting for it, for farmers make up a good portion of the refugees who leave the “Republic” at a rate of 1,000 per day.

The population of the seven Lander or provinces comprising the East German state has been traditionally socialistic. Thus the workers would not normally be opposed to the basic objectives of socialization. Yet the regime seems to have failed signally to enlist the loyalty of the workers, who for some uncanny reason are largely unmoved by socialist inventives. The barrage of agitative propaganda seems to annoy and disgust them, so that the new political orientation fails to “take” on them.

The intellectuals of this land have been traditionally tolerant of bureaucratic administration and generally responsive to official dictation and to state planning. Why, then, has the regime failed to win the general support of the intelligentsia?

Leaders in East Berlin official circles complain of the ideological indifference among the intellectual classes. Conversations with those who flee to the West reveal, however, that there is much active opposition to the dogmatism of Marxist science. As one trained physicist told the writer, he faced the choice of assenting to the dogmas stemming from dialectical materialism (at the expense of intellectual honesty) or of rejecting them and in consequence running afoul of the regime. He chose the latter alternative.

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One cannot avoid the impression that the Communist party and the major classes of the East German population are separated by a lack of rapport. With the exception of the events of June, 1953, this has generally manifested itself in passive antagonism. Rulers and subjects appear in the form of two opponents in a battle of attrition, each determined to wear down the other.

Weaknesses Of Government

The causes underlying the weakness of the government of Pieck, Ulbrich, Grotewohl and others are numerous. The government began under the handicap of having been installed by a conqueror. It has never been able to make the smallest logical claim to rest upon the popular will. Indeed, its leaders seem to feel no need to establish such a base of support. They have, moreover, been embarrassed by their own pretension to sovereignty. At the demand of their Soviet masters, they have insisted that they headed a government which could make up its own mind. This prevented any candid statement to their subjects of precisely which powers remained in their hands and which were reserved to the Kremlin. This failure to take the people into its confidence has compelled the regime to bear the responsibility for the repressive acts and arbitrary decisions which, in part at least, have been imposed upon it from without.

A further feature tending to alienate the government from its citizens is the exactness with which it maintains the features which are part of the ritual of communist dictatorship. These are: rigid censorship of press and mails, constant internal espionage, senseless restrictions upon travel into and out of the country, the secret police and a brutal administration of the penal code. Most of these seem senseless to the outsider, while to the insider they bear no obvious relation to the achievement of the goals set by the rulers for the land.

Brute Force

The Party itself, hated by the masses, maintains itself in power by brute force. It rationalizes its position by posing, through endless propaganda media, as the agent of transformation, which promises a glorious tomorrow through planned and managed change. Conversations with refugees from all classes fail to support the view that this appeal finds much popular response.

The regime justifies its rigid control of the social and cultural life of the land upon this basis, namely, that it must discipline in order to reform. Propagandistic attacks upon the West as decadent continue monotonously. Life is designedly austere, and no major concessions are made to the demands of the masses for emotional relaxation, save such minor ones as the qualified tolerance of jazz and lipstick.

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The governing clique lack much of the creative inspiration which their counterparts in the Soviet Union may at times experience. In Russia there is some measure of realism in the adaptation of measures to conditions in the land. In East Germany, on the other hand, the processes of the Kremlin are applied without creative imagination to a situation that is radically different. This creates an air of unreality, a feeling that the land is a stage upon which an unconvincing drama is being played. It is against this feeling of unreality that the instruments of official propaganda work with fervor and without great apparent success.

Impermanence Of Two Germanys

In the light of the foregoing factors, the East German government seems a strange combination of strength and weakness. It is difficult to weigh the one against the other. It is doubtful whether the East German officials expect their government to survive for long should Germany be reunited. This may account for their continued demands for recognition of their state, and for the pressure of Vice-Premier Otto Nuschke upon the Church of East Germany to acknowledge its permanence. These and similar actions bear witness to a possible doubt in their minds as to whether the impossible situation of two Germanys can long be maintained.

It is well known that East Germany is predominantly Protestant. The Evangelical (Protestant) Church has attracted wide attention for its courageous resistance to the encroachments of the regime. Dr. Jacob, Bishop of Cottbus, declared in Berlin last June that the Church would accept no compromise with atheism and would resist the “theoretical and material godlessness” that underlies the dialectical materialism to which the government professes such slavish adherence.

The Church in East Germany operates currently upon the basis of the agreement which Premier Grotewohl signed with Bishop Otto Dibelius on June 10, 1953. This agreement was secured by the prompt and courageous action of Bishop Dibelius and provided for a reduction of the many forms of harassment of the Church by Red officials. It promised, among other things, a review of the sentences of imprisoned pastors, relaxation of regulations upon public services and the readmission of youth expelled from schools because of church attendance.

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A Secular Confirmation

The major thrust of the government’s attack upon the Church has been against the youth work, the Junge Gemeinde. At no point has the war of attrition against the Church been pursued with more ingenuity. Knowing the place which Church confirmation held in the mind of the German people, the regime introduced its own secularized version of confirmation, the Jugendweihe, or Youth Dedication. This is an impressive ceremony, urged upon all East German children “who wish to become loyal citizens” and arranged to coincide with the time of Church confirmation, generally during Holy Week.

Bishop Dibelius spoke promptly for the Church, condemning the Jugendweihe and laid down the general principle that a youth cannot participate in both Church confirmation and the state’s “youth dedication.” The outcome of the struggle is at this moment still in doubt. There can be no doubt that the long-range objective of the government is the destruction of the Christian Church. At present, the regime tolerates the Church, provided it “refuses to become a refuge for reactionary circles”—meaning that it may take no part in any movement to restore freedom to the people of East Germany.

The struggle for the minds of the youth continues. The F.J.D. (Free German Youth) compels its members (numbering some 2,000,000) to pledge to destroy “capitalist moral standards and superstition”; in other words, to obliterate the Christian religion and the ethics which it seeks to inculcate. Youth who refuse to participate in Youth Dedication are barred from universities and incur other serious handicaps.

The Weight Of Restrictions

It is difficult for the outsider to imagine the weight of restrictions under which the Church in East Germany operates. A pastor may not be transferred from one parish to another, save under most unusual circumstances. His income is less than that of common laborers, averaging about $30 a month. His children may not enter schools for higher education, and he and his family are in constant peril of arrest for some imaginary or real infraction of obscure bureaucratic regulations. This writer’s knowledge of these pastors indicates that they are overworked, tired, poorly paid but withal courageous in their determination to perform their duties in the fear of the Lord.

The larger ministry of the Church is curtailed in every way imaginable. A church may receive little or no help from the outside; it may export no funds whatsoever. While the supply of paper for atheistic literature is abundant, the publication of religious periodicals is rigidly controlled because of “paper shortages.” Home missions are rigidly curtailed; all but a handful of the Railway Missions ministering to the aged, the infirm and mothers traveling with children have recently been closed.

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It is clear that the regime tolerates the Church solely because it finds her obliteration too costly. This toleration is a temporary expedient, until the older generation dies, and until a new generation can be trained in atheism. Meanwhile Vice-Premier Nuschke (a member of the Christian Democratic Union who is currently tolerated in the government) advises “a united front” and suggests that there is no time for controversy over religion or “other minor issues.”

A Light In The Night

Today the East German Church finds herself on the defensive in this conflict of wills with the State. She is the only significant bridge between her unhappy land and the free world. Within her tight frontiers, she is exerting an influence which is surprising when measured against her problems. There is reason to believe that as she cannot extend herself laterally, she is finding her own spiritual life deepened through her sufferings, and that as she can draw but little from the Church outside her frontiers, she is drawing more heavily from the resources of her Living Head.

In the meantime the people of East Germany live in their meager and monotonous world, while their rulers live in isolation from them in their own world of words and of perfectly coherent ideological dogmas. Many from all walks of life can bear the stifling and unreal atmosphere no longer. By the hundreds, these walk away, making their way to East Berlin, and thence across the border into the refugee installations in Free Berlin. Others cross the border temporarily, upon the pretext of visiting relatives, and spend a few cherished hours breathing the better air of the free world.

If and when Germany is reunited, and if the present government of East Germany is liquidated, the question of what legacy the regime will leave behind is a crucial one. One dares to hope that such a time will reveal that the East German Church has been largely significant in keeping alive the ideas and ideals of Christian civilization during the long night of communist rule.

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We Quote:


Director, Population Reference Bureau

In our finite world indefinite multiplication of people must eventually pass any possible optimum. Standing room only becomes a possibility in no very long time … In about 4½ centuries population density of the entire 52 million square miles of the earth’s land surface would be some 25,000 persons per square mile. That is the concentration on Manhattan Island today.… Considering how much desert, arctic, and mountain land is uninhabitable, it is not too soon to give serious consideration to the question of population optimum for this unexpansible planet.—in “The Population Bomb,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. XII, No. 8 (Oct., 1956), p. 296.


Director-General, FAO, from 1945 to 1948

Our immediate problem is the provision of food for say 5,000 million by 2,000 A.D. and possibly a further 2,000 million in the following twenty-five years.… The limit to food production is neither lack of knowledge nor physical obstacles of soil or climate. The limit is imposed by economic factors. The amount of any food a farmer produces is determined not by what is possible but by what he hopes to sell at a remunerative price.—in “Science and Hunger,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. XII, No. 8 (Oct., 1956), pp. 309 f.

Dr. Harold B. Kuhn is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Ky. Summer after summer he has carried on an educational and evangelistic ministry to Russian zone refugees in Germany. He holds the B.A. from John Fletcher College, and the S.T.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, and has pursued post-doctoral studies at University of Munich.

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