Bonhoeffer offers clues to being church in ‘religionless’ eastern Germany

By Stephen Brown
June 13, 2011

More than two decades after the end of communism in eastern Germany, a widespread “everyday atheism” requires a new understanding of what it means to be the church, according to Berlin theologian Dr Wolf Krötke.

“This is a social environment in which life without religion, without the church, and without belief in God is simply taken for granted,” said Krötke, professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

After the Second World War, more than 80 per cent of the population of eastern Germany belonged to the Protestant church.

Yet three-quarters of people there now have no links whatsoever to religion, Krötke noted. In the Saxony-Anhalt region, the heartland of the 16th century Lutheran Reformation, fewer than 15 per cent of people belong to the church. In east Berlin, the figure is about 10 per cent, and still lower in some districts of the German capital.

Krötke described such widespread atheism as “the most successful legacy” of the communism that ruled the former German Democratic Republic for 40 years, from 1949 to 1989.

He recalled how Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian executed for his opposition to Hitler, wrote in 1944 from his prison cell, “We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore”.

Though this prognosis is widely seen as having been proved wrong, it is an accurate description of the situation in eastern Germany, said Krötke, a noted Bonhoeffer scholar.

"God or institutionalised religion is simply not needed to deal with the basic questions of what it means to be human,” said Krötke in a lecture delivered during the 1-5 June German Protestant Kirchentag (church convention) in Dresden, in eastern Germany.

“Whether openly expressed or not, religion is seen as ‘unscientific’, a collection of absurd ideas about the world. Whether it be Christianity, Islam or anything else, people do not expect religion to offer anything for how they should live their lives,” stated Krötke.

Born in 1938, Krötke was imprisoned for two years while a theology student in East Germany for writing a satirical verse about a lecture on Marxism-Leninism.

On his release, he decided to remain in East Germany and went on to become a lecturer at a Protestant seminary in East Berlin. After German unification in 1990, he became professor of systematic theology at the Humboldt University.

Unlike the militant atheism seen in some parts of Europe, said Krötke, that in eastern Germany is an “everyday atheism” where life without God is simply taken for granted.

Krötke recalled a survey in which young people were asked whether they would describe themselves more as Christians or more as atheists. They had answered, “Neither. Just normal.”

Families no longer had any experience of Christian traditions, he noted. "Even the grandparents, and sometimes even the great grandparents, did not belong to the church."

At the same time, people had internalised values propagated in the GDR such as the well being of the community, a readiness to help others, solidarity, and a sense for justice.

Still, the failure of the system to live by the values it propagated had led to a widespread distrust of all institutions, whether they be political parties, trade unions or churches.

Against the background of such atheism, asked Krötke, “What does faith mean, what does it mean to be the church?”

He recalled how Bonhoeffer, in his prison writings, had said the task of the church is to be there “for others”. Often, however, the church appeared to be occupied with itself, in “endless debates” about its structures.

Still, the widespread lack of knowledge about the church is also an opportunity, said Krötke.

“Where very little or nothing is known about the Christian faith, then the ideas and notions that people have of the Christian faith depend on us,” he said. “We can put them off through our words and actions. But we can also stimulate them to discover anew the meaning of Christian faith for a truly human life.”

At the same time, atheism makes no distinctions between the different faiths. “All religions are in the same boat,” said Krötke. “Therefore we are particularly challenged not to profile ourselves through disputes, quarrels and demarcation from each other.”

If someone is won for Christianity, however, it is not obvious why they need to be either Catholic or Protestant. Neither is it obvious why they should get involved in a clash of religions.

“The ‘world without God’ challenges us to invite people to a ‘world with God’, a world of reconciliation and not religious fanaticism,” he said.

In eastern Germany, underlined Krötke, the church needs to get used to a situation whereby widespread atheism would continue to exist for the foreseeable future.

“In our region we are not the triumphal followers of a so-called world religion,” said Krötke. “We are a minority that has to invite individuals to experience the vital force that God offers.”

* The full text of lecture (in German) is available here, in a *.PDF Adobe Acrobat document:


© Stephen Brown, an Ekklesia associate, is a Geneva-based journalist. He is also the author of From Disaffection to Dissent: The Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation as a precursor of the peaceful revolution in the GDR, published in German in 2010 by the Verlag Otto Lembeck, Frankfurt/Main.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.