How Christians lived through the
time of communist rule (GDR)
Werner Morgenstern, May 2006
During the time of the German Democratic Republic, the experiences of individual Christians varied depending on the time and place. In Stalin’s time (1945–1953) it was especially dangerous for Christians who did not show total loyalty to the Communist party and who had critical opinions based on their faith. Some of these brothers and sisters were arrested in the middle of the night and came home severely beaten or were never seen again. In 1949 Christians were awarded freedom of religion and conscience, although this was really only a token gesture.
Children from Christian families had particular difficulties. If the children took part in religious instruction in the church, which had replaced the standard state religion lessons, they were often openly bullied and discriminated against by both classmates and teachers. Youth who did not participate in the atheistic youth group or Communist youth organization would be excluded from studying at an academic high school and university, no matter how intelligent or talented they were. Employees who openly professed to be Christians in the workplace had no possibility of promotion. For young Christians it was often difficult to receive vocational training that corresponded with their vocational desires and goals. Therefore many Christian parents and children did bow to the pressure, adapting to and fitting in with the system. It was not an infrequent occurrence for individuals to leave the church so that they could take advantage of better social opportunities. In 1952 the GDR government actually allowed an Evangelical Church Day in Berlin, which many West Germans and well-known Christians from other nations were permitted to attend. Then in 1955 another Church Day was held in Leipzig, which attracted half a million visitors. The government had not expected this kind of turn-out, and from that point on only allowed small Church Day gatherings outside the major cities and towns. Their theory was that by restricting church activities and promoting atheistic youth programs, Christianity would die out little by little.
However, the top members of the government regime got a different result than they expected. Despite being spied on, controlled and threatened, the church began to experience spiritual awakening, particularly among the young people. By the end of the 1960’s, some unorganized youth meetings began to occur in Grosshartmannsdorf (Erzgebirge). Around 2,000 youth full of hunger for God would meet regularly under the leadership of a Spirit-filled pastor from the area. “Visitors” from the Dutch charismatic movement came and brought the forgotten message of the Holy Spirit. Many young people were converted and experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Independent of this, other Charismatic/Pentecostal centers were emerging in locations such as the Schniewindhaus near Magdeburg, Slate in Mecklenburg, and Bräunsdorf in the Erzgebirge. They operated under Spirit-filled pastors, under the protection of the official state church, but were very open to anyone who came from different denominations. Another significant development that occurred during this period is that the Jesus People movement was growing in the west. This also impacted the youth awakening, through articles and tapes smuggled across the border.
Soon people began to observe that the GDR would welcome visitors from West Germany and abroad, as long as they brought hard currency into the country and were not on the Communists’ “black list”. Many well-known leaders from the western Charismatic revival used this to their advantage. They were allowed to bring a “word of greeting”, without a time limit, at services and church events in East Germany. They astutely took the liberty to use the “word of greeting” as a time to bring deeper spiritual teaching and encouragement. “Hours of Blessing” were also held, in which baptisms and healings took place, attracting more people.
This revival soon spread spontaneously throughout the Oberlausitz region in Saxony. A preacher from the Dutch movement “Streams of Strength” held services that caused a spiritual fire to spring up in a little group of spirit-filled elderly Christians. At a retreat that this group organized near Bautzen, the fire of God also took hold of some of the young members of the Moravian congregation in Herrnhut. They had already been hungering for the spirit that once so ignited Zinzendorf’s generation. A longing for a fresh and new baptism of the Holy Spirit spread, and it was not long in being fulfilled. A charismatic house/prayer group began to take shape in Herrnhut, and was led by Christian Winter. This group had its own special history, and from it grew what came to be Christliches Zentrum Herrnhut, and even more recently, the Jesus-Haus as well.
For years the members of this group purposely stayed rooted in the Moravian Church in Herrnhut, believing for a spiritual revival for the whole congregation there. Beginning in 1977 and continuing for several years, they were able to organize up to six worship retreats a year. These were held in the Moravian Church’s education center, which was built with the aid of donations from the west. Speakers were often invited from West Germany, England, and Holland. Although no invitations or advertising went out, the number of people who wanted to participate was so great that often the place was not big enough and we had to spread out to private quarters and the church sanctuary. Looking back today, it was truly a miracle that we were able to do this.
At these retreats there was often a very strong anointing. A new type of worship with new choruses and songs filled the atmosphere. Sparks of the Holy Spirit flew through the whole region and lit further fires. In many areas of Saxony and beyond, new house groups sprang up where the sick were prayed for and the spiritual gifts exercised in a free atmosphere. Some of these house groups grew into churches before the reunification of East and West Germany, and still exist to this day. Because the GDR government condemned it as illegal, one of these churches was forbidden to hold any more meetings, which turned out to clearly be God’s leading. It was just before the reunification of Germany, and so the congregation was given permission to split into two house groups. This led to the existence of two self-sufficient and later legalized independent churches in Bautzen and the surrounding area.
At the same time all of this was occurring in Herrnhut and the places mentioned above, a revival was spreading throughout nearly the entire GDR. Spirit-filled Christians in an increasing number of towns sensed a strong call to missions. An example of this was the little village Radis bei Wittenberg. Here, under the leading of the village pastor, young Christians came together and formed a missions center.
Especially noteworthy during this time is the ministry of Eckhard Neumann from Berlin. Under the covering and protection of the official church, he too was able to hold many retreats which brought about revival, healing and encouragement. In 1988 he organized a faith conference in the Evangelical Gethsemane Church of Berlin. Thousands Christians of all ages, hungry for the Word and Spirit of God, came from all parts of the GDR for this conference. He was even able to rent an unused building from a church in Mecklenburg, and used it as an equipping school for future pastors and leaders, preparing them for the much expected revival. Christian Winter was one of those trained here. Eckhard Neumann walked very much in the will of God, as the fruit of his ministry clearly shows. After Germany’s reunification, new independent churches began to spring up like mushrooms; to be able to work openly they had to be officially registered. However, he managed to network with these new charismatic churches and pastors without building a new denomination or church. The Holy Spirit began to bring clarity through the word of God to the questions people had about baptism.
This account would not be complete if it didn’t also include something about the traditional state church. The Holy Spirit also began to take hold of many vicars, pastors and members of these churches, who felt it their call to remain members of these congregations. They see themselves as part of the spiritual revival in the churches, generally working well with the independent churches by organizing conferences and smaller meetings together. But sadly the Holy Spirit was not given free reign due to traditions and dogmatic reasons. This happened in many places and the spiritual life began to decrease, causing many people to leave the churches. This is still happening today. Churches have been closed and parsonages stand empty and in ruins. But the overall spiritual awakening in the GDR outweighs these negative things by far.
Looking back, we can only stand in awe of how the Lord worked. He even used angels, who were seen wearing “white vestments”. However, He also worked through the official church bishops who made it possible for the men to perform non-violent service in the corps of engineers instead of regular military conscription. This is the only instance of this occurring within the Eastern block countries.
The teaching of this movement wasn’t just focused on rediscovering the charismatic gifts. Rather, other important themes were emphasized including the expectation of the Lord’s soon return, the preparation of the Bride for his coming, discipleship, the way of the cross, and a love for Israel. Not least among the influential teachers was Pastor Gerhard Kuettner from Bräunsdorf in the Erzgebirge. He came from the already mentioned training center “Schniewindhaus” near Magdeburg. At the end of the 1980’s, visitors from the west brought the “prosperity message” (Faith Teaching), smuggling literature into the GDR charismatic circles. This was particularly embraced by the youth. However, it did not supersede the above-mentioned themes and was taught with wise correction. In this way it probably had a more balanced and positive effect here than it did in the West, spurring many to a deeper walk of faith.
In closing, it would not be an exaggeration to say that everything we have in the way of new spiritual life today in eastern Germany has its roots in the charismatic awakening in the former GDR. There was a terrible political pressure, especially when young Christians refused to perform military service or didn’t comply with the political norm. On the other hand, this pressure caused them to stand closer together in unity and to have a greater hunger for God, His presence and protection. Their motivation to steadfastness and faith was the conviction that not the Communist party but rather Jesus Christ is the Lord.