Churches in the former East Germany are in some ways worse off since German reunification than under Communism, an internationally known peace campaigner has claimed.

This week, Germany marked the 40th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's construction, which began with the sealing of the border between the Communist and Western parts of Berlin on August 13, 1961.

In the end, the wall became a 155km-long barrier of concrete, with an average height of 3.6 meters. It fixed the division of the two Germanys for almost 30 years and claimed the lives of about 250 people who tried to cross it.

Canon Paul Oestreicher, a former chairman of Amnesty International UK, said while the wall was standing the East German churches developed an anti-militarism stance, which the government tacitly recognized by allocating Christian conscripts to non-combatant roles.

"Now that the eastern churches are united with their western counterparts, that distinctive voice has been lost," he said. "The unified church is much more ambiguous about militarism."

Oestreicher, an honorary consultant in international ministry at Coventry Cathedral, said the introduction of a church tax in the former East Germany had damaged the churches there. In the former West Germany people paid the tax "without thinking about it" but in the east it had led to falling church attendance.

This affected both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, said Oestreicher, an Anglican priest and former secretary for east/west affairs of the British Council of Churches.

Oestreicher said that by the time free passage across the Berlin Wall was allowed on November 9, 1989, the East German population was restive and wanted reunification with the west.

"People wanted reunification, but what they got was a take-over colonization by the west," he added. "Quite a lot [that was good] was lost, East Germany's social welfare provisions, for example."

Oestreicher's reading of the mood in the former East Germany is supported by current poll figures showing that the former Communist Party, now known as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), has a chance of returning to power in October's Berlin city elections.

The party's electoral opportunity is owed to the dissolve of the governing coalition between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. After the elections on October 21, Social Democrats may need to form a coalition with the PDS.

In the last city elections, the PDS won almost 18 percent of the vote, claiming 40 percent alone in the eastern part of the city.

The PDS has not apologized explicitly for the Berlin Wall, but has described the killings of people trying to cross to the west as "inhuman."

In London's Observer newspaper, Oestreicher wrote of a visit to Berlin in 1962. Western powers (the United States, Britain and France), he wrote, were not unhappy with the Berlin Wall. It brought stability to the edge of the Soviet empire, and handed them a valuable propaganda weapon.

"The tanks on either side of the Wall were shadow-boxing for the cameras. … the GDR's [East Germany's] collapse was not wanted then or expected when it did come a generation later."

Related Elsewhere

Previous Christianity Today articles include:
East German Churches Lag Behind the West | A decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany remains essentially divided (Aug. 9, 1999)

Germany: Reform Us Again (Nov. 16, 1998)