How the ecumenical movement helped mobilise ecological protest in East Germany

By Stephen Brown
January 28, 2015

Churches and religious leaders are at the forefront of efforts to mobilise action for a legally binding agreement on the world’s climate at the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris at the end of 2015. The motivation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) for its role in this arena is summarised in the title of its environmental programme: Care for Creation and Climate Justice.

The WCC has played a prominent role in placing the issue of climate justice on the world’s agenda, even before the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 that agreed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

What is less well known is the action of the WCC more than four decades ago in raising environmental issues, and in the process helping to galvanise the ecological movement in communist East Germany.

This became the soil for the independent ecology groups in the 1980s as one of the forms of dissent that culminated in East Germany’s 1989 peaceful revolution and eventually led to the opening of the Berlin Wall, the 25th anniversary of which was marked late last year.

In many cases it was Protestant churches that provided an umbrella for such independent groups, enabling them to speak out on ecological issues, often in defiance of the state.

Two world conferences organized by the WCC in the 1970s played a key role in the growth of environmental awareness in the churches in the then German Democratic Republic (GDR).

The first conference was in 1974 in Bucharest, Romania, on Science and Technology for Human Development. It ended with a call for a “sustainable and just society” – said to be the first time that sustainability was applied to society in relation to the environment.

The Bucharest conference occurred during a period of increased global environmental concern, after the “Limits to Growth” study was published in 1972 and the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm the same year.

The WCC decided in 1976 that the “Search for a Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society” would be a major emphasis for the future work of the Council. This in turn led to a 1979 conference on “Faith, Science and the Future” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, near Boston in the United States.

“We quite intentionally used the discussion in the wider ecumenical movement to create an awareness of this issue in the GDR,” said Heino Falcke, a prominent East German Protestant, in an interview published in 1999. Ecology was largely taboo in the GDR, but environmental problems were increasing as the state desperately tried to increase industrial production to catch up with the West.

Falcke, the chairperson of the Church and Society committee of the GDR's Federation of Protestant Churches, had become a member of the WCC’s Working Group on Church and Society after the 1974 Bucharest conference.

Following the Bucharest conference, at which Falcke had been a delegate, the GDR churches made the issue of ecology a standing agenda item on their Church and Society committee.

The GDR Protestant churches organised two events in preparation for the 1979 conference in Boston: a consultation in early 1978 for local groups, parish representatives and church institutions at Buckow, to the east of Berlin, and a meeting convened in Erfurt later that year for representatives of Eastern European churches assigned to attend the Boston conference.

A study paper drawn up by the Church and Society committee, under Falcke’s leadership, and presented to the Buckow and Erfurt meetings, not only criticised capitalism for damaging the environment but also pointed to the aspects of East German socialism that were at odds with the goal of a sustainable society.

According to the paper, symptoms of the GDR bias included a priority given to the economy rather than ecology, as well as the state's insistence on the political ideology, “truth claims” and “democratic centralism” of Marxism-Leninism. These hampered alternative perspectives and needed to be countered by churches promoting open dialogue and strengthening “active participation from below”.

The ecology movement

The Buckow conference was the “first step towards the formation of a critical ecology movement” in the GDR, according to East German activist Ehrhart Neubert in his 1,000-page history of the opposition movement in East Germany.

Meanwhile, delegates from the GDR to the WCC conference at MIT found themselves overwhelmed by requests from local congregations, ecology and study groups and governing bodies of churches, both before and after the gathering.

The MIT conference of 1979 offered the opportunity for churches in East Germany to promote literature and resources about environmental issues in their journals and publications, raising awareness in congregations about the ecology.

“The widespread follow-up to the Boston conference in study groups and congregations of the GDR churches marked a beginning,” concluded Harmut Lorenz in an article for the East German Protestant news agency ena. “This was followed by the formation of new environmental groups, and reviving and giving clearer direction to those that already existed.”

Church synods in the GDR discussed the results of the Boston conference, most notably in East Germany's northern region of Mecklenburg. Here the synod, encouraged by the discussion on future energy needs at the MIT event, called for debate about the GDR’s own nuclear power programme. Meanwhile, in 1980, the national synod of the GDR Protestant churches underlined the need for state media to provide information about ecological issues.

Church groups started tree planting actions and mass bicycle rides to draw attention to environmental issues. Though at first sight such activities might appear uncontentious, they meant church groups were organising independently of the state.

Perspectives such as these would become more important as the 1980s progressed, and church-linked environmental activists in the GDR became more vocal, active and critical, eventually calling into question the rule of the communist party itself.

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© Stephen Brown, a programme director with the Geneva-based global ethics network Globethics (www.globethics.net), was a speaker on the growth of environmental awareness in the World Council of Churches (www.oikoumene.org/) and the GDR churches at a recent conference organized in Berlin by the Archive of the Heinrich Böll Foundation on “Transformations of the Ecology Movement. From the 'Limits to Growth' (1972) to the Rio Conference (1992)”. He is an Ekklesia associate.

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