Religion and Church


The ideological basis of the GDR, which defined itself as a socialist state, was the dialectical materialism. The philosophical basis was Marxism-Leninism, with its clear definition of religion, including atheism, as "the opium of the people" (Marx) or "opium for the nation" (Lenin). Faith and religion were regarded as ‘unscientific’ and were therefore rejected.

In spite of guaranteed freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, formally specified in the constitution of the GDR, the church was in a state of latent legal uncertainty, since they had no actual means to enforce their rights.

Religious communities were natural opponents of the state, as they diametrically contradicted its ideology. For the SED, they represented the last standing obstacle of the bourgeois social system, which they had to overcome and were seen as outposts of the capitalist enemy in their own country.
© Harald Hauswald, Agentur Ostkreuz Berlin

The activity of the church was to be limited only to their practice within their cult. In the course of enforcing the socialist system, the extinction of all religion was expected.

To accelerate this process, a full-fledged war against the church began in the 1950’s. Anti-religious press campaigns, expulsions of Christian dedicated to secondary school pupils and students, massive advertising for leaving the church and church space searches and arrests marked these years. In addition, the religious influence on children and young people was to be pushed back. In particular, the introduction of socialist replacement rites in the second half of the 1950s was aimed at the displacement of religion from the life of the "socialist man".

Responsible for the attack on the church at government level from 1957 was the office of the Secretary of State for Church Affairs. In the Ministry of State Security the mein department V (later XX) took over handling church affairs from 1952 onwards.

Since all attempts at ideological usurpation of the church failed, the state attempted to use ‘positive forces’ to win over the church in order to exploit their power for their own use – without necessarily disabling religious lifestyle. However the intended divisions within the church and religious community, through these ‘differentiation policies’, only occurred in few cases. The Marxist-Christian dialogue of academic provenance starting in the 1980’s was regarded as suspicious.

Altogether, churches remained a foreign body in the ‘socialist society’ until 1989. Christians had expected, albeit in different ways, discrimination. A professional career was impossible without adhering to ‘adjustment processes’. Many lived with the inner conflict between a socially marginalized Christian existence and the need for a ‘social commitment’. They did not want to face professional, social and economic exclusion. A result of anti-church and anti-religion activity is the drop of members of the church from originally 95 percent in 1959 to about 30 percent in 1989.

The churches themselves were often only publically active in the field of social welfare work and charity, in order to be effective for the nation. However, they remained the only ideologically free institutions within the state, in spite of all pressure.

While the portal will be expanded gradually, illuminating all facets of everyday life in the GDR is impossible. Instead, we want to encourage discussions on the topic, enhance textbook knowledge, as well as offer those interested quick access to the major topics.