The citizens of Leipzig are very proud of the fact that the East Germany revolution of 1989 began in their city. Leipzig has two famous churches in the heart of its old quarter. Bach made St. Thomas Church famous for music when he was its choir director for 28 years in the first part of the 18th century. Nearby St. Nicholas Church, meanwhile, became the center of the protests in 1989 that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Communist regime.
The Church in East Germany had been a relatively safe place for non-conformists from peace activists to punk rockers. “Back then, churches and church communities were niches, safe havens,” Gottfried Schleinitz told me in an interview last February in Leipzig. “And the community would give you supports, and sometimes also sanctuary. There was a strong sense of solidarity. It was like a second home. There was a very family-like structure. The church parishes were not so much statutory bodies under public law, according to the official legal definition, but much more like life communities.”
Schleinitz is a pastor who participated in the demonstrations that broke out in autumn 1989. They began with prayers. “Within the Monday meetings, prayer was the main structure,” he recalled. “But it is also true that there is no prayer without information, and when there is information there is also dynamite. They would say: this prayer is for him and for her and for them. They were all affected people. Partly also persecuted people. So somehow the whole thing acquired a certain political meaning.”
From the prayer meetings grew the demonstrations in front of the doors of the Nikolai Church. “And then on September 4, there were attacks by the Stasi,” Schleinitz related. “They took the demonstrators and people who came out of the church and put them on trucks. I wrote letters to the authorities back then. I called it fascistic.”
As the demonstrations grew in size, from the couple hundred of early September to more than 300,000 people in late October, the overall emphasis began to shift. “We were very active in keeping the whole thing nonviolent and peaceful,” Schleinitz said. “We used candles and tape and whatever was available. It was the only option to keep everything peaceful. We had a very strong hope that something would change in the country. So we wanted to be involved in the demonstrations and in the prayers and in the discussions. We had also discussions with functionaries. It was an attempt to change something by talking about it, a change of the society, a change of the system. It was also against corrupt party comrades and the corrupt politics of the party. Later the slogans became much more individual: ‘I want my freedom. I want to go out. I also want what they have.’ Those very big and wide things from the beginning became much more personal and much more individual. I thought it was a shame.”
After the Wall fell in November, the crowds melted away. “In December there was one demonstration with candles,” Schleinitz remembered. “It was really beautiful. It reminded me of the times at the beginning. The focus was more on issues concerning both the German states. Reunification was a topic. There was also a strong impression that the future would be determined from outside. Gorbachev played a role in this. And a lot of thing had already been planned at the European level. Internally, new groups like Neues Forum and the new political parties played a big role. But actually the parties were only counterparts of the Western parties. Indeed many people from the West established themselves here in the East.”
Schleinitz is perhaps most remembered for a tape that he made at the time that was an appeal for non-violence. He made it on the condition that it would only be played in the case of an emergency. The authorities disregarded this instruction. We talked about what the message was, how it was used, and the challenge it posed for Schleinitz during that tense and exhilarating autumn in Leipzig in 1989.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
On that evening I came back home from an event, and we were watching the news journal Tagesthemen on the ARD channel, and my wife and I were looking at each other and said: “In which movie are we now?” And then we realized that this is the reality. And we started to cry. The tears came. It was incredible. Nobody could have foreseen it.
What did you think would happen next?
Well, our thoughts at this moment were ambivalent. This one thought had been there before – during August, September, October — and was very important for us: We do need another society. Something has to change here. And the other side of the ambivalence during this evening was: Well, what will happen now? Now all boundaries are missing. Now there will be no change within our society. But of course the feeling of freedom was dominant.
Did you think about immediately going and visiting the West?
Before I had not thought about leaving the East and going to the West. I was offered the opportunity to go to the West on business trips, and I declined all of them. I did not go because in our church there was a sister who was not allowed to visit her brother. So I said: I must show solidarity. I can’t do a business trip.
I did not have any ambition to go to the West. We assessed the situation in the capitalist system relatively realistically. In our view this system did not include the concept of humanity. What many of us didn’t know in our own system was the extent of misanthropy in an ideological dictatorship. We could sense it. But we were accustomed to it. From the theological view, from the spiritual view, the approach to justice and peace was closer in the GDR. And also the idea was closer to the message of the New Testament. And we wanted to shape the church in the middle of the society. That the obligatory atheism would be able to change a whole people so much was not clear from the beginning.
Were you born here in Leipzig?
No, I was born in Plauen.
Tell me about your decision to have a career in the Church.
It was during the 1950s. It was during a period of time when the Church was under a lot of attack in the GDR by the government of Walter Ulbricht. It was also a time when Stalin was still in power. As schoolchildren who had grown up in the Church, we had to suffer a lot under Stalinism. Several times I was almost expelled from school because of my political point of view and also because of my convictions. In the beginning I did not want to study theology but chemistry. Originally I am a natural scientist. But then for religious/political reasons and the implications, I decided to work in the Church.
Can you give me an example of being almost expelled from school?
Yes, there were several. There was a very militant ideological confrontation between science and faith. That’s how they called this difference. So they would confront us with texts about creation from the Bible, like Genesis for example. And then they said: “If you believe in this, you are not entitled to learn at a socialist school or study at university.” When I said that an aggressive newspaper article about the Junge Gemeinde (the youth group of the Church which had been strongly attacked and also defamed) was a lie, they would threaten me: “You don’t believe what is written in the newspaper? You should know that you’ve already got one leg in prison.” That’s how it worked. Those are just two examples. There were more such things. There were always teachers that stood behind us, secretly so to say.
What was it like in those days to study church history and theology? Did you find many people who were like-minded or had similar points of view?
Back then, churches and church communities were niches, safe havens. And the community would give you supports, and sometimes also sanctuary. There was a strong sense of solidarity. It was like a second home. There was a very family-like structure. The church parishes were not so much statutory bodies under public law, according to the official legal definition, but much more like life communities.
You said that not to believe the newspapers was already to have one leg in prison. At what point did you feel it was important to be more outspoken in your beliefs or your criticisms?
You could find it in the Christian communities of the students at university. The one in Leipzig was somehow special because it had developed a view focused a lot on society. Therefore it was a bit missionary. Dietrich Mendt was the pastor for students back then. And actually from the beginning, the context of Christian belief was important. And the context was the society. So this means: How can we reach society with our convictions? Literature and media, also contacts from outside of the GDR, had been a crucial help.
Later we were influenced by and reflected a lot the conference on church and society in Geneva in 1966. The world determines the agenda: this was the basic thought. We stressed again and again that a church community operates in the society as an organism not only as an organization. It should ask the crucial questions. It should be an example. You could not find this kind of community anywhere else in the GDR . All other groups were obligatory: political parties, the youth groups. Nobody felt comfortable enough there to speak out. I got to know many people at school that came to us in the youth group at church. This is where they were able to talk. And there was security. Our basic thought was: the world determines the agenda. However, the groups were always infiltrated by the Stasi. But we always knew that they were there. So when we talked on the phone, we would say: “And I also greet my friends from the Stasi.” (laughs)
But gradually in the 1980s people started speaking outside the group. In other words they were not just speaking in the group. They were directing their attention outside. And I am curious how that started.
It all started relatively early and involved all who were engaged here and would not shut up in public. This all happened before 1989. Working groups started to organize themselves. Environmental groups, for example, were like a nest where a lot of oppositional thoughts came together. It was not about: things have to go away. It was about: something has to change here. The student communities were organized differently. They were not that political. The groups outside of the student community were more political. But a lot of students were also active outside of their community. Opposition could also mean alternative, critical of the system. Until the 1980s, it was okay to criticize details, but a critique of the system was not okay. Until the 1980s, there were no system-critical elements. I think it had a lot to do with Solidarność in Poland. After that, there was much more system critique. Solidarność had a totally different power over us than 1956 in Hungary or 1968 in Prague. Solidarność was maybe also more mature.
Also within the Church a movement called the Conciliar Process focused on the trinity of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. This was stimulated by the Conciliar Process. There were headquarters in Dresden, in Magdeburg, and also in Basel. It was also a big topic in Vancouver during the conference of the World Council of Churches in 1983. And of course this was dangerous for the system.
This brings us up to 1989. Because you were here in Leipzig I’d love to hear you describe everything that led up to the Monday meetings.
A PhD thesis has been written about the Monday prayers. The meetings are very well researched and documented. This might be a good source. Within the Monday meetings, prayer was the main structure. But it is also true that there is no prayer without information and when there is information there is also dynamite. They would say: this prayer is for him and for her and for them. They were all affected people. Partly also persecuted people. So somehow the whole thing acquired a certain political meaning.
Soon the Monday prayers became the Monday demonstrations. The door of the Nikolai Church became a starting point in a two-fold sense. And then on September 4, there were attacks by the Stasi. They took the demonstrators and people who came out of the church and put them on trucks. I wrote letters to the authorities back then. I called it fascistic. I had still known that fascism from my childhood. I thought, they’ve got to be kidding! We’ve already gone through such a thing before, and it can’t happen again. Something had to be changed. Letters like those were an option to change something at this place and time.
Why September 1989? Was it in response to something internal to East Germany? Or was it response to something external. I mean there were elections in Poland in June 1989, there was greater freedom in Hungary. Was it a response to something external or something internal?
The time frame for everything that happened between September and November was very short. External as well as internal aspects played a crucial role. Externally Gorbachev played a very big role. His books, Glasnost and Perestroika were loved by critical readers. We received a lot of stimuli from them. Then we realized that Gorbachev established quite a different relationship to the West. And we realized that our government – a group of old men –was fighting a long lost battle. So internally things got messy.
Incidents in other countries, in Hungary for example, played a role insofar as they were friendly to the people from the GDR. They let them through, opened their borders. Hungary was a channel and played a big role. It would not yet have been possible in August, and it would not have been possible anymore in December. There was also a certain time limit for the changes here.
Tell me about your own personal connection to these changes and how you became involved.
I had friends that shared my thoughts. We always wanted to promote changes here. When we realized that among those within the demonstrations more people wanted out or wanted the D-Mark to play a big role we became very critical. To me this change seemed like a betrayal of the original demonstrations. The Western media also picked up on only certain aspects of the demonstrations.
We were very active in keeping the whole thing nonviolent and peaceful. We used candles and tape and whatever was available. It was the only option to keep everything peaceful. We had a very strong hope that something would change in the country. So we wanted to be involved in the demonstrations and in the prayers and in the discussions. We had also discussions with functionaries. It was an attempt to change something by talking about it, a change of the society, a change of the system. It was also against corrupt party comrades and the corrupt politics of the party. Later the slogans became much more individual: “I want my freedom. I want to go out. I also want what they have.” Those very big and wide things from the beginning became much more personal and much more individual. I thought it was a shame.
I apologize for pushing you on this issue, especially given your last comment. But I am interested how you individually became involved. In other words: did you know the people, were they your friends, how did you church and how did the people in your church become involved? And did you fear for your personal safety?
I was afraid when – and it was not so often, not every week – when I was called to the prison. Or they sent a letter. They would write: they needed to talk me to clarify an issue. So I had to go. I’d tell my wife: “You know where I am.” And I also said to my boss: “If I don’t come back home you know where I was.” Those were the times when I was afraid. In the talks with the people I was not afraid. Even during the talks with the functionaries I was not afraid, not at all. This is when I said what I really thought. I was not afraid.
I should add that we church functionaries were better protected than the normal citizens. So I interfered a lot with the destiny of the members of my church. Sometimes young people got in trouble with the Stasi. I told them: “You can only get out if I help here.” So I called the officer: “Let him go, otherwise I will go further.” The development until the fall of the Wall was an incredible event that was welcomed by everybody. The criticism of what developed later had been there from the beginning. And there was also a fear that it would develop in a direction that had nothing to do with our spiritual approach. Those were not existential fears.
Can you describe to me this incident with the tape you talked about 23 years ago?
It was on October 16. I was a pastor in Leipzig at that time. I have been working in this job until 2003. Back then on this particular Monday, many feared that the day would end in a massacre. So one party functionary of the district council asked me to give them a call for non-violence. He was one of the “Leipziger Six” who had written their “Leipziger Call” on the Monday before (October 9). One of the “Six” was Kurt Masur, the former conductor of the famous concert hall in Leipzig . My call on this October 16 was supposed to be justified by my faith against all use of violence. It was supposed to be played only in the case of escalation during the demonstration. As we know now, fortunately there was no escalation. And it was not possible for us to have been more peaceful. But they played the tape anyway. They played it continuously in an infinite loop. So I went to the broadcasters and told them to shut it off. They said: “It’s not possible, it’s not possible” So the tape continued. Many demonstrators thought that I was on the side of the political rulers. For me it was a preposterous situation because I was right there among the demonstrators. I unsuccessfully tried to make them stop the broadcasting of the tape. The next day I made a statement in the local newspaper LVZ (Leipziger Volkszeitung). They printed it. You cannot imagine the discussions I had with my children! (laughs) And also with the people in the parish.
What did the message say specifically?
It has been published in a book by Neues Forum: “My document is the Bible. There I read: ‘Search for the best of the city.’ A few of you, maybe some hundred, who are out there in the streets right now, know me. I can call upon them personally. Before you continue even one step, reflect upon if it is the best for the city what is supposed to be negotiated in the street. I read in the Bible: ‘Search for peace and chase it.’ Whom are you chasing? Are we chasing peace or what are we chasing? The prophet Jeremiah and the apostle Paul who formulated these sentences thousands of years ago had been as powerless as I in this minute. I only have this one call: No violence, really no violence. What persists for us is the unarmed hope.”
And eventually people accepted your explanation?
Nobody criticized the exact wording. It was correct in a Biblical sense. It was appropriate for the situation and authentic. But the situation when they played the tape was terrible. A lot of people talked with me. They totally accepted the content. They just could not understand how this message was misused like that. I certainly felt that it was misused. I suffered a lot because of this. I felt betrayed, really betrayed.
Did you feel at any point that the situation might escalate here in Leipzig?
No. Well, there was the escalation here on September 4 that I mentioned. But this escalation was initiated by the Stasi when they put people on the trucks. But there were no escalations during the demonstrations in the streets.
What happened to the spirit of the demonstrations here in Leipzig after the Wall fell?
The calls, the banners, the speaking choirs all went in the same direction: to go out and to get money. This is what I mean by individualization. It was very obvious. In December there was one demonstration with candles. It was really beautiful. It reminded me of the times at the beginning. The focus was more on issues concerning both the German states. Reunification was a topic.
There was also a strong impression that the future would be determined from outside. Gorbachev played a role in this. And a lot of thing had already been planned at the European level. Internally, new groups like Neues Forum and the new political parties played a big role. But actually the parties were only counterparts of the Western parties. Indeed many people from the West established themselves here in the East.
What about for you? What was your relationship to the new parties and to Neues Forum in the period of time between the Fall of the Wall and the March elections in 1990?
Neues Forum tried very hard to establish free schools. They tried to change something in the educational system, to deprive the old doctrines of power. The schools had been influenced for a long time by the GDR. The new groups nominated candidates for the elections. But it was not a real election campaign. Nobody knew how to do this since it was their first experience.
In terms of what happened between the fall of the Wall and the elections, I headed the Round Table here in Leipzig North-West. This was really exciting. I’ve kept all the files in my basement. We sat in the town hall, which I then saw for the first time. The hall was full of people. I sat at the front of the table and all the parties, old as well as new, wanted to make their requests, express their expectations, talk about where the country should go, what needed to be done, what had to be omitted. It was an exciting time. They asked me to do this because I was well known in this part of town, and they knew that I was not in the Party. Also, I considered what was necessary for the current situation. You need somebody like this. The people and the functionaries both trusted me, so they could agree on me. It was an important precondition that I was able to deal with everybody. So I did this for three months.
The Round Tables started in Berlin, with De Mazière and the others. There were Round Tables in all the bigger cities. We had one big Round Table in Leipzig, headed by Frieder Magirius. And then there were two or three more in the outskirts of the city. I was in North-West. There was also one in the South and one in the East.
And the Round Table covered all issues?
All the issues that were important for the respective region, let’s say in the North-West. It was also a place where people could express their fears about how things were going to develop. Everything was still open. There were no rules. So it covered everything, yes. There were also confrontations between the old comrades from the SED and the new groups.
Do you remember what were the most controversial issues?
Most were municipal issues. The question of leadership: who’s in charge, who was supposed to give instructions. Because nobody knew. Everything was unclear. But it had to go on somehow.
And the recommendations of your Round Table were adopted?
We had minutes, and the participants of the groups would take those minutes in their groups. With these minutes we would check from time to time whether this or that had been done. But the Round Tables were not authorized to issue instructions. They actually only needed us for communication and discussions. We weren’t functionaries. We weren’t an institution. It was more about the orientation of those who participated: What shall we do? The groups did not talk with each other otherwise. We always had the impression that this was a big experiment. Something like that had not happened before.
Did it have any lasting influence beyond those three months?
Hardly. It was just a transitional process. Everything else became structured and institutionalized.
Were you involved after the Round Table negotiations, or was that the end of your participation in the transition period?
I was heavily involved in establishing a neighborhood school, an alternative school together with Neues Forum. The neighborhood school still exists today. We worked a lot with teachers. And I also do supervision in the social sector. So I worked on issues concerning the prison. In the political sector, I am not bound to any party. I sometimes wrote newspaper articles if I was asked to do so, and then I would take a position.
What do you think remains from the GDR? Anything positive?
Concerning the church parish, what remained is the sense of community and the sense for justice. If I just take the circle of people I know – and I know a lot of people –the desire for justice and against false hierarchies is still very strong. We still have a very strong consciousness-raising. Also, before the fall of the Wall the parishes had many questions concerning their part in the society, concerning their, I don’t want to call it mission, maybe mandate from the Bible. Today these questions are not that common anymore. If I want to sum it up I would say that today people rather ask: What is in accordance with the Grundgesetz [the Basic Law] and they don’t ask what is in accordance with the Bible. And back then we had a very strong distrust of the things the government said. This has remained, too: a healthy distrust.
What about the process of reunification, if you had a chance to do it again how would you do it differently?
There are two directions where I would change things. Concerning the Church, there was not a reunification but an assimilation. It was enforced conformity. Everything, really everything was taken over. We have been different as a region for 40 years. It was not right that a strange mentality was imposed. Our own development should have played a much bigger role. Also, until today the Western Church pays a lot of money to the Eastern Church. This is wrong. We should have our own possibilities to develop.
Concerning the state, we should have asked whether certain places of production and means of production should have been preserved and improved. Everything was cut away. The Treuhand is in my view one of the worst mistakes. You can still see its effects. We’ve always said that ever since there is no large business here in the East that does not have its mother or father in the West. Most of them are only branches. Everything was bought up.
But according to the unification principle they should have said: you are partners, you are not an object. Already shortly after the Wende, we felt that we were in neo-colonial circumstances. And then it turned out that this was true. There should have been more self-development: Give the East a chance!
What about interpretation of the Bible? Was there a different interpretation of the Bible here in the East that was not acknowledged in the West?
Not so much. Those issues are more easy to communicate East to West. Concerning the focus there were similar developments in East as well as in West. There is only one example that didn’t develop either in the East or in the West: liberation theology. But I realize now that this was because the universities in the East, especially the theological faculties, worked a lot with literature from the West. So the exchange of ideas happened very strongly via literature in these faculties.
When you think back to 1989 and 1990, have you had any major second thoughts about your assumptions about society, about politics, about religion? Has your thinking changed in any major way over the last 23 years?
But this has nothing to do with the Wende now, does it? It’s more about global developments. For me a lot has changed in my worldview and my image of God. My worldview changed a lot because of the natural sciences. I am a chemist, and thus I’ve come back to questions of physics. Nowadays there is a huge development especially in America, where the boundaries between biology, chemistry, physics, philosophy, and theology have become more and more blurred. Everything concerning the theory of evolution that is happening right now is just incredible. It is not about one universe but about many universes. This is what changed my worldview.
Concerning the image of God, many things changed because of my encounters with different religions, which was not possible before. If all religions – including our religion – remembered the things we have in common much more, if they built upon this, then the danger of war would be much, much smaller. But if there are still religiously motivated – Christian or any other religion – wars or invasions, something is wrong. That’s the direction I am moving in with my thoughts and discussions. Let’s go back to our common sources and focus on the exchange of spiritual affinity.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed here from then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being least satisfying and 10 being most satisfying?
I would say 7. The possibility to change something was later bigger than before. I said during the Wende – and I said it also in the West, when I was at conferences — that we have just exchanged one dictatorship for another. We came from the dictatorship of Bonzen (ideological leaders) and entered the dictatorship of the coins. Nevertheless I think that in the second dictatorship there is more room for change.
Same period of time, same scale: but your own personal life?
I can certainly say 8.
When you look into the near future and you evaluate the prospects for Germany in the near future how do you evaluate this on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
I am optimistic. I have to say 8 because without the potential of hope I cannot live.
Leipzig, February 8, 2013
Interpretor: Sarah Bohm
Gottfried Schleinitz is a pastor in Leipzig and also was influential in the events of the Fall. He is perhaps most known for a miscontrued recording. Apparently, while everyone was worrying that October 9 would end in bloodshed, he and several other pastors prepared a tape calling for non-violence, gave it to the authorities on the condition that it be played only if tensions were escalating. As it turned out, however, tensions did not escalate and the authorities played the tape anyway. The demonstrators therefore thought that Schleinitz was on the side of the authorities. He and the others tried to get a letter of explanation printed in the newspapers, but they wouldn’t print it. So they had to wait until the October 23 prayer meeting in order to read the letter out loud. And then his name was cleared.
We talked about the role of the Church after the government fell. During the round table negotiations, for instance, the Church filled a necessary position as mediator: after all there were no laws and no real authorities. The Church could ensure fair play when moderating discussions between the citizens’ movements and the party.
But he was not altogether happy with the path the Church has subsequently taken, toward greater integration with the West. “If the Church falls victim to the market economy and capitalism, then I will leave the Church.” He also worries that, under unification, the Church will become closer to the state, through the Church tax and other economic mechanisms. The Church in the GDR, he noted, never had to establish its identity as an East German church: it has always looked either to the past or to the West. The government too, followed this pattern. This was, in his opinion, the beginning of the end of the GDR government. When the governmentstri used the West as the model (when we do things as well as the West does, then we have succeeded), GDR citizens soon realized that, by comparison, the GDR had not succeeded. The government was destroyed, then, with its own arguments.