1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Lost in oblivion

Michael Hollenbach / sadOctober 3, 2013

Despite the Protestant Church having played a major role in the collapse of former East Germany, churches there today appear to have lost out - the region remains among the most non-religious in the world.

Church of St. Nicholas in Leipzig (Photo: Waltraud Grubitzsch)
The St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig was a key space in the anti-GDR protest movementImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Under the dilapidated church roof in the town of Nechlin near Berlin, Pastor Ulrich Kasparick meets with monument protection officials to assess the cost of restoration. Some of the balconies are rotted out, and you have to be careful where you step.

In the movement to bring down the Berlin Wall, Protestant pastors and churchwardens opened their doors to protesters in the peaceful revolution. Many church leaders sought political change, and fought for German reunification. Joachim Gauck, now president of Germany, was one such religious leader.

But despite the church's paramount role in Germany's reunification, hardly any other region in world is considered as "godless" and non-religious as the former German Democratic Republic. So did Christianity lose out in the peaceful revolution that led to German reunification? Some eastern German churches have sought to evolve in response.

Berliners sing and dance atop the Berlin Wall to celebrate the opening of East-West German borders November 10, 1989 (Photo: AP/Thomas Kienzle)
Germans celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall on top of itImage: AP

Antiquated congregations

As is typical for rural churches in the region, Pastor Kasparick is in charge of 20 localities, with 11 churches and nine cemeteries. He explained that among the three generations that grew up in eastern Germany post-WWII, about two-thirds of the population were raised without religion.

"By now, your typical grandfather doesn't know much about Christianity anymore. We have to keep this in mind," Kasparick said. The average age in these communities must be something around 70, he added.

Kasparick considers himself shepherd of all the Christians in the Uckermark region, though they only form a small minority here. Indeed, there are plenty of atheists to go around in Uckermark, and other regions in former East Germany.

Eastern German churches profit

Former Magdeburg Bishop Axel Noack, who is now a professor at the University of Halle, sees things in a positive light, despite the disappointments of the early 1990s.

"Eastern Germans, after living under repression for decades, were not prepared to take leadership roles after reunification - neither in politics, nor in the church. But today, east and west are meeting again as equals."

Churches in eastern Germany have even profited from reunification, Noack thinks. "We've renovated more churches and cast more church bells in the past 20 years than we have in the previous 100," he added.

Pastor Stephan Elsaesser in dilapidated church in Schöngleina near Jena (Photo: AP/Jens Meyer)
Many rural eastern German churches were in a state of disrepair at reunificationImage: AP

There are also more actual houses of worship in eastern Germany than in the west. Noack also considers it positive that communities in the former GDR were used to taking care of the buildings themselves: "Our congregations are far more self-sufficient than in the West."

Bernhard Bock, a Catholic deacon in the eastern German Bad Salzungen region, has a similar perspective - he's noticed that when western Germans visit, they have certain expectations. "They don't understand that churches only work when they take part - they're still very oriented toward a 'service church.'"

Bock added that the sense of community in eastern German congregations has become somewhat lost. "Before, also under the [single-party] regime, we were all of the same opinion, while today everything is so much more noncommittal and pluralistic."

Recruiting Christians

There are less Christians in eastern Germany than before - not only because they've moved west, but also because fewer children are being born. Noack described how children share religious topics from school with their parents, who would otherwise not be exposed to this. "With us, the children teach the parents. Now if only there were more children, there would be no problem."

Ulrich Kasparick holding a sign to the rose garden at the church in Uckermark
Kasparick hopes to gain visitors - and potentially converts - with the rectory rose gardenImage: Ulrich Kasparick

Kasparick is trying a different tack to gain new followers: he's planted a rose garden behind the rectory at his church. Growing in the garden are more than 50 types of roses, including one that is 2,500 years old. "It smells wonderful," he said.