Being Quaker in East Germany

Posted December 3, 2013

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

During the Communist period, the governments in East-Central Europe treated religious groups with varying degrees of tolerance. The Catholic Church in Poland was too large and influential to ignore, so remained powerful even under Communism. The Albanian government, on the other hand, tried to wipe out all religious identity to such a degree that Communist leader Enver Hoxha declared the country the first atheist state. The rest of the region fell somewhere along the spectrum between these two.

East Germany had numerous Protestant churches, several of which played critical roles in the changes of 1989. One of the smallest Protestant denominations in East Germany were the Quakers, who are grouped together with the two other historic peace churches, the Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren. You can find small groups of Quakers in various countries around the world – with larger concentrations in England, the United States, and Kenya – but the only significant Friends Meeting in East-Central Europe during the Cold War was in East Germany.

In 1990, I was working for a Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee. So, when I arrived in East Berlin in March of that year, and couldn’t easily find a place to stay, I spent a couple weeks in the Quaker Meeting House, sleeping on the couch and taking cold-water baths. This last February, I revisited the building and discovered a newly rehabilitated space that was beautiful and welcoming. Quite a few people showed up that Sunday morning for meeting for worship and the simple meal afterwards.

I traveled from Berlin down to Wittemberg to talk to one of the key people in East Germany’s Quaker community. Ulrich Tschirner is a scientist who also stepped forward in the 1990s, somewhat reluctantly, to serve as a local politician. He was a student in the 1960s when he heard a Quaker lecturer from the United States and was impressed with the fact that the man dispensed with the formal mode of address to emphasize his equal status with the audience. As a member of the Quaker community, Tschirner worked on peace issues and inter-German dialogue during the Cold War period. These concerns stayed with him after 1989, during his tenure as a Green politician and local activist.

We talked in his home in Wittemberg, a city about 70 miles south of Berlin that is famous for the church where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses in 1517. Tschirner described some of the environmental victories that the Greens and civic movements achieved after 1989. Progress on peace issues, however, has been somewhat more elusive.

“We have no conscription army — just a professional army — this is something we Quakers supported,” Tschirner told me. “But it’s not the end. It’s just the first step. I don’t see why we need an army. I can understand if the European Parliament says we need a small army, each country providing a contribution. I don’t want such an army, but I can at least understand this step. But why does Germany need an army? In the Eifel Mountains, at the Buchel air force base, we even have 10-20 nuclear bombs in storage!”

Germany, as part of its foreign policy, raises a number of human rights concerns in various countries around the world. “We can protest against human rights being violated. That’s okay,” Tschirner pointed out. “But why doesn’t our government protest against Obama’s drone attacks? No, we are supporting our own drone program! Why does Germany need these weapons?”


The Interview


Do you remember where you were, what you were doing, and what were you thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?


We were surprised. It was wonderful, something that was just unthinkable. It was a time when there was a lot of hope. Now, for me, the world is very hopeless, and it’s difficult to predict what will happen.


Were you here in Wittenberg?




Did you want to go immediately to Berlin to see what was going on?


No, not immediately. We went a week later. We were in West Berlin and saw Kurfürstendamm and other highlights. We also visited some Quaker friends in West Berlin.


Was there anything surprising about West Germany that you saw?


We were very well informed about the situation in West Berlin and West Germany, especially through our Quaker contacts. Our exchanges with Quaker friends from West Germany and USA were very real. There was no whitewashing, no attempt to cover up the problems of the West.


You were trained originally as a physicist?


Yes, my specialty was liquid semiconductors.


That’s a very important industry.


Yes. But in the GDR in my time it was more or less pure research at the university. There were no contracts with industrial plants. In the later period, in the 1980s, the connection between university and industry became stronger in the GDR. For 20 years, I worked in the university. And for 20 years I worked in the hospital.


When did you start working at the hospital?


In 1985. I built up the medical-technical staff at the hospital. We inspected the x-ray machines, the ultrasonic devices, the devices for automatic needle insertion, but also beds. Our hospital was the biggest hospital in the GDR owned by the Protestant Church. We also had machines from West Germany, for example from Siemens. When there was a diagnostic problem, we’d phoned them up and explain the problem. They gave us an advice for the solution of this or a technician from Berlin or Munich would come with replacement parts.


What changed at the hospital after 1989?


Much changed. Now the people from the different manufacturers came to us to sell their devices. And we had to decide whether it was really necessary to buy the machines. Also, the health of the patient became less important. It was important, of course, but it was not the top priority. Individual self-interest became much stronger. For example, the bosses became more self-important. Previously, people acted more as a collective.

I read a paper written 40 years ago about the practice at the American Mayo clinic where the physicians have very good relationships with the patients. The physicians from different disciplines — the orthopedic surgeon, the internist, the neuropathologist – would sit together and talk with the patient. After this, they’d come up with a diagnosis. Here, each doctor said that he knew everything and didn’t need to do any consultation.

Also, time pressures became more important. You had to do the operation during such and such a time. Some surgeons were very accurate but a little slow. This was bad: they had to be faster and faster. Some old and good surgeons were pushed aside. That, from my point of view, was not a good development.


Were you born in a Quaker family?


I came to the Quakers through the Protestant Student Community. They invited lecturers to speak to students. One of the speakers was an American Quaker. This was in the 1960s, and he talked about whether a scientist should work in a weapons-producing factory. His name was Victor Paschkis, and he was a professor of technology. He was one of the founders of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science (1948-1976).

I went to his lecture. An African student stood up and said, “I am also a Quaker. And I want to ask you -”

Paschkis interrupted him and said, “If you are also a Quaker, why don’t you use the informal ‘you’”?

I was a student. I was very impressed that a professor would put himself at the same level as the student. So, I asked myself, what are these Quakers? My first job was at the technical university in Karl-Marx-Stadt, today Chemnitz. There I also visited the lectures from the student Community. There was a lecture on Albert Schweitzer. When the lecturer finished, he said, “We as Quakers are in agreement with the fundamental principles of Albert Schweitzer.”

In Chemnitz there was a small group of Quakers. So, from this time, I became a friend of the Friends. Then, in the 1980s, I became a member. In 1985, my mother died and we arranged our flat here in Wittenberg, and we went to Berlin for Meeting.


How many Quakers were there in Berlin in the 1980s?


About 10-20.


And there was always an interest in peace issues?


Of course.


Were there any conflicts between the Quaker group and the East German government?


It is a very difficult problem. In the GDR, there was the state secretary responsible for Church affairs. This state secretary was the father of Gregor Gysi.


Klaus Gysi.


Yes. I don’t know if it was Klaus Gysi or another state secretary, but one of them received support from the Quakers during the Nazi period. So, Quakers had a good relationship with the state secretary. For example, there was an English-East German peace seminar in the GDR and also in England, and five Quakers from the GDR could go to England. On the other hand, the American Friends Service Committee sent a representative to Berlin to observe the situation between East and West. The Stasi was apparently very distrustful of this person. They assumed that he’d been sent by the CIA.

I was involved with our Young Friends who wanted to make a peace march in 1985 or 1986 against the Euromissiles stationed in GDR. We spoke with the state secretary and it was not allowed.


Did the Young Friends do it anyway?


No. I think they did a fast instead. Matthias Schwerendt was involved in this.


You were living here in Wittenberg in 1985 and going up to Berlin and participating in Quaker Meeting. Did you also observe the increased activity in the Protestant Churches on peace, environmental, and human rights issues?


In 1985 there were some very small groups. In Wittenberg, for example, there was a group involved in ecological activities called the Church Research Home (Kirchliches Forschungsheim). They did some very interesting activities, for example, putting out a report on uranium mining in the Erzgebirge, the Ore Mountains between Dresden and Zwickau. These were big mines run by the Soviet military. It was a German-Russian joint project, but the Germans were the workers and the engineers, and the bosses were the Soviets.


Was the government upset about this report?


Yes. It was a samizdat publication.


What did you think about the meetings that took place in Leipzig around the Church in the late 1980s?


I was not in Leipzig, but of course these demonstrations sent out signals to other parts of the country. Also in Wittenberg a meeting was planned in the Stadtkirche – in October 1989. Our son Thomas, who was a student at that time, said he wanted to go. But we said, “no, no”: we will go.

The Stadtkirche was surrounded by the police. But they only wanted to see our passports. Then it was no problem, and they let us pass. At the meeting there was discussion of new parties like Neues Forum and so on. The meeting came up some proposals for the police chief and elected a small group to meet with him.


Were you optimistic at that meeting?


There were very different groups involved. But there was no program for all. Each group had its own perspective. There was also a feeling of freedom. I could say what I wanted to say. Also in Wittenberg there was a Monday prayer session. After this session was a march through the town. The town is very small, so it was a short march. But it was a good feeling.


What did you think would happen as a result of these meetings and demonstrations?


The main problem was that we had no concept for our own development. We just made a copy of all the things we know from West Germany. We didn’t have our own direction. The SED, the majority party, had to step down, and then there was a time of rapid change, everything changing from minute to minute. Out of a feeling of duty but also with a clear aim, I was a representative from the Green Party in the regional parliament from 1994 to 1999. But I must say that I’m not a politician. It was not my cup of tea.


Do you feel that you accomplished anything in parliament?


No, we were only three members from the Green Party. The other blocs, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), they were larger. They wanted us for legislative majorities against the other parties.


Did they ever support any Green Party ideas?  


Yes. We were able to stop a gravel mine that the construction industry wanted to build near the River Elbe.


That was an accomplishment!


Yes, true.


You served for five years and then?


I said, “Okay, I will run for a second term.” But the Green Party put me up in an area where I was unknown. My region had a different Green candidate. He won his election, but I lost mine.


But you were happy.




What did you do between the months of November 1989 and the March elections in 1990? You said that you were not involved in Neues Forum.


I really didn’t have a concept or idea, after the Wall fell, of what we should do in the GDR. I was hesitant about getting involved in these parties and groups. Maybe it is because I am a scientist.


The elections in March, were you surprised by the results?




Why do you think the CDU was so popular?


I can tell you an interesting story. In the hospital, I was very irritated with the results of the elections. An older cleaning woman, older than me in her mid-50s, I asked her whom she voted for.

She told me, “CDU.”

I asked her, “Why the CDU?”

She said to me, “They are the people who can best handle money.”

It was very interesting to me. Simple people were looking only at consumer products, money, economic activity. This explains the results for me.


Twenty years ago, you described to me the activities that you and your family were doing at the time. Your sons, for instance, were putting out a newsletter called…?




Tell me a little bit more about that. When did they start that newsletter?


Have you seen it?

[Gets copies]

So, this is from November 3, 1989. And this is the license to put out the newsletter provided by the License Bureau of the GDR. It’s very specific — number of copies, how often it will be issued, the format of the pages. It was devoted to the political culture of Wittenberg.


Morgenstern means?


A morning star. A weapon. Like a mace or club.


They started it in November 1989.


And they put out seven issues.


Why did they stop?


It was very difficult to produce. I know because I helped with it. We had to do everything after our normal work hours. We had to do the layout ourselves. You must distribute these newsletters by bicycle and so on. It was very time-consuming. Moreover, the young people had very high standards. They conducted interviews with some weighty people. The only chance to keep it going was to make it their profession. You can’t make such a project in your spare time. But at the beginning, they were young and very enthusiastic.

A man came from West Germany to publish a newspaper here with announcements and advertising and with a good financial foundation. He spoke with my son Christian about producing the newsletter. But the young people didn’t want this.


You continued to work on environmental issues. You mentioned that the gravel mine stopped. Earlier, there were protests against the uranium mining. What were the other major ecological issues in 1990 that you were worried about?


There was a great chemical complex in Bitterfeld, between Wittemberg and Leipzig. It’s now closed. The ecological issues were well solved. It was one of the wonderful aspects of the reunification (Wende). In the GDR government of Hans Modrow, between November 1989 and March 1990, there was a very good minister for environment (Michael Succow, later a winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize ) who declared several regions as nature preserves. So we have these very good areas on the Baltic Sea, in Saxony, and so on. This was a very good step. I don’t know if it was possible to do more after reunification.

This environmental policy was a very good part of the Wende. Of course I personally had wanted to preserve the kind of equality that we had achieved during the Communist period. Many policies that we’re discussing today — education, kindergartens, and so on — were better then. The difference in the salary between a bank director and a normal worker is now so large — there is no reason for such large differences. I don’t believe that everyone should have the same salary. That’s not realistic. But such a large difference between the lowest and the highest? Why does a man or woman need so much money?

Then there are the peace issues. The German parliament now discusses the use of drones! It is horrible.


And German troops were in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Yes. Terrible. But now in Berlin at the Schaubühne theater there is a very interesting play by a German playwright, Wolfgang Borchert. He wrote the play The Man Outside about a soldier who returned after the Second World War and could not find his way. Borchert died in 1947 at the age of 26. I saw this play 50 years ago. It was very emotional. I felt how unfair it all was. But this new production finished with a real person who fought in Afghanistan and talked about his trauma. “What more can you say?” I thought to myself at the end of the play. We’re in those lands for economic interests.

As a Quaker, I was interested from the beginning in development assistance. In Germany in the 1960s we devoted 0.7 percent of gross national income to foreign assistance. Today, we are below .5. Of course the national income has risen, but we are giving a lower percentage.


The UN recommendation was 1 percent. The United States is much lower than .5, unfortunately. We’re below .2 percent. Some people have told me that West Germans don’t care very much about the GDR, that the general attitude is arrogant.


No, I wouldn’t say that. I believe that you have to distinguish between different layers. Some of the managerial layer, in my point of view, has a tunnel vision. It is bad for them and us. The layer of intellectuals has greater understanding. But intellectuals are generally interested in the same things. We have many friends in West Germany, from before reunification as well, and we have no problems with them. There might be some disagreements over this detail or that detail. But in general, we see things the same way.

Then there’s the majority of citizens who are poorly educated or are not interested in reading or informing themselves about other aspects of society. They’re not interested in other people in society or in other countries. They want to have a car and low prices for gas, low prices for food — this is also a catastrophe. A liter of milk costs 49 cents! If you know something about agriculture and cows, you must ask how these low prices can be normal?

We have here in Germany the Free Democratic Party, which in the last 10-15 years was absolutely neoliberal. After the crisis in 2008, my friends and I thought this party had no chance. Now they are in the government. This is a problem of democracy overall. We need other models. This is a big problem if we want to bring our democracy to Russia and other places. We can protest against human rights being violated. That’s okay. But why doesn’t our government protest against Obama’s drone attacks? No, we are supporting our own drone program! Why does Germany need these weapons?

We have no conscription army — just a professional army — this is something we Quakers supported. But it’s not the end. It’s just the first step. I don’t see why we need an army. I can understand if the European Parliament says we need a small army, each country providing a contribution. I don’t want such an army, but I can at least understand this step. But why does Germany need an army? In the Eifel mountains, at the Buchel air force base, we even have 10-20 nuclear bombs in storage!


Are young people from Wittenberg still leaving for western Germany?


Yes, it’s still a common trend that young people are leaving. The majority are women and creative people going to the west.


Why do women go to the west?


Maybe women are more creative. They have the chance to marry better, to get a better salary. Maybe also the professions where women are needed are in the west.


Do people from the west move here to Wittenberg?


I’ve read that families and young people under 40 are returning. This is their feeling of heimat, of homeland. I think it is also the result of the 40-year socialization. You can’t eliminate that.


What do you think remains from the GDR?


Some things I’ve already told you about, like the kindergartens, are being revived. I don’t understand how such a rich country, rich in comparison to other places, has so little money for education.

In 1990-91, the West German government established the Treuhand to handle the sale of East German properties. The idea was for East German citizens to have a share of the commonwealth. Many things were part of the people’s common ownership. And then governmental administration decided to sell things to speculators and so on. Some days ago I read that the documents of the Treuhand are closed. They are top secret. They won’t be opened until 2050!


They obviously want to hide something.


Yes, that’s clear.


Wittemberg, January 31, 2013



Interview (1990)


Wittemberg is a walled city of medieval vintage. Including the outlying houses, it has a population of roughly 60,000. Wittemberg was the home of Martin Luther and near the city’s walls there is an oak where it is said that Luther first burned a papal decree. Inside the walls is Luther’s church and here one can see one of the many contradictions of German history. One of the church’s cornice stones depicts a pig suckling little Jewish children. At the foot of the same wall, however, there is a plaque commemorating Kristallnacht in both German and Hebrew. Wittemberg University, which educated many famous scholars including Giordano Bruno, is no more, suspended by the Prussians in 1870. But many of the buildings still exist, set amidst the town’s other gothic and renaissance structures. When tourism escalates in the GDR, as it will inevitably, Wittemberg will be a major attraction. Perhaps with that in mind, one of the major citizen action committees is devoted to rehabilitating the old buildings, many of which are cracked, dirty and tilting horribly. But there are other citizens’ groups in Wittemberg and the Tschirners were my guide to these.

Anne Tschirner formerly worked in the dairy industry and now devotes her spare time to ecological and health issues. Ulrich is a physicist working as a medical technician in a Wittemberg hospital. Their three sons are also politically active and the two I met, Christian and Thomas, had been producing a newsletter–Morgenstern–with the hope of uniting the various progressive groups in the city.

I was most interested in the political situation in Wittemberg and the potential emergence of “civil society” (here I mean, widespread civic participation outside of the electoral arena). The reality was somewhat disappointing. With the ceding of political responsibility almost entirely to West Germany or West German-influenced parties, many Wittembergians have lost their initial enthusiasm. The excitement among young people that led, for instance, to the newsletter, has diminished considerably and Christian and Thomas were not entirely sure whether the newsletter would continue. Various small groups still exist, however. There are around five ecological groups, with 20 members apiece, a Green party, a women’s group called “Nettle,” a United Left group with about 30 people, a group of young socialists and a Democracy Now organization of around 50 members.

One issue that concerned the Tschirners, especially the young sons, was the new civil service proposal, pending government revision and approval. A substitute for compulsory military service, the one year of civil service would allow GDR youth to serve in hospitals, in ecological work and so on. Christian and Thomas worry, however, that the FRG model of civil service will simply be imposed upon the GDR. In the FRG, young people must choose between 15 months of military service and 20 months of civil service. Refusal to engage in either results in a prison sentence. So far, in the GDR, refusal is only a misdemeanor and carries only a monetary penalty. A GDR group, “Friends of the Refuseniks,” is working to retain a liberal civil service law, one that is not modelled after the FRG, one that does not provide for “buildingsoldiers” that would engage in military preparations in case of war.

Anne described the ecological movement. Before November, ecological activity was an opportunity to engage in political activity: a benign cover that was nevertheless sincere. These ecological groups targeted the old, inefficient and environmentally unsound factories. In Wittemberg, for instance, a chemical factory dating from 1917 pollutes the air with toxic smoke. But the factory also employs quite a few workers and Anne recognizes the need to come up with economic alternatives: for instance, new, environmentally sound workplaces. On a local level, the green groups have recently initiated a “green telephone” staffed two days a week by someone capable of answering ecological questions from the community.

The interplay between economic development and ecological security raised several interesting points. Anne argued that the introduction of market mechanisms might not be conducive to ecological health. I asked her if many green activists shared her point of view and she said yes. But her son Christian disagreed. “Many East Germans say that the ecological situation in the FRG is better and therefore capitalism and nature conservation go hand in hand. Only a minority sees through this.” But, he notes, “there is not much information available about the mistakes of capitalism. I think that the really green people will soon see these mistakes.”

For Ulrich, the critical question was education: changing the curriculum from one-sided dogmatism to a more open forum. There is a new group in Wittemberg called “Pupils, Parents, Teachers” which is talking about curricular changes. The headmistress of the secondary school at which Thomas attends has been replaced (a Stalinist, she suffered a nervous breakdown in November). But, Ulrich notes, there are still many teachers who refuse to change their teaching methods. The two sons talked about changes taking place at school: the dissolution of the party-controlled student organization, the creation of a new city-wide student organization, the creation of a bulletin board for the dissemination of information.

On the question of growing xenophobia, the Tschirners felt, like Helmut Domke, that the issue was not being sufficiently discussed. Was Wittenberg part of the conservative South? Before the elections, they considered the town quite progressive. But the population supported the CDU with 41 percent of the vote. There are many sections of East Germany that have very checkered histories. Thuringia in the deep South, for instance, was a strong center of national socialism, then after the war, of Marxist socialism and now, after the elections, of Christian democracy (ie: rapid German unification, emergent nationalism). The old Prussian values of order and discipline are still embedded in the educational system and lend themselves to various political orders. Consequently, reformation of the educational system must dig deep.



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