“The followers of Christ have been called to peace…. And they must not only have peace but make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult. In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods…. His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others. They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce hatred and wrong. In so doing they overcome evil with good and establish the peace of God during a world of war and hate.”
The Russian army officer in full dress uniform sits on the bench of the boarding platform of the Hauptbanhof-train station in Magdeburg, East Germany (DDR). Sitting on either side of him are twin daughters, perhaps seven years old. Each girl has large, bright yellow ribbons tied to both sides of her hair. A lovely moment. However, the officer looks unhappy. I am guessing Papa is mourning the end of his post in East Germany, where food and other products are more plentiful. I wanted to take a photograph, but that was illegal.
May 1980. I am traveling in East Germany, after a week in Braunschweig, West Germany, researching for a magazine article I was writing for the Jesuit magazine America. I want to contrast the vitality of the West German Lutheran Church with the Lutheran Church in East Germany.
I am visiting Magdeburg, Leipzig, Dresden, and Erfurt, which required advanced planning. I had to secure a visa from the German Democratic Republic and reserve hotel rooms. I was traveling alone and could not deviate from the itinerary.
After checking in at the Hotel International, I went for a walk to purge the melancholy mood descending on me in the late afternoon. Standing on a bridge spanning the mighty Elbe River, I focused on the rippling waves of the water expanding outward from passing ships.
The nervous butterfly feelings in my gut tell me something important will happen. Or am I anxious this first day living in the restrictive, suppressed country I have entered?
I could have walked in different directions, deciding to wander toward a war-ruined church, the result of the British bombing on January 16, 1945, that destroyed most of Magdeburg. I passed the ruin and came upon a war-scarred and rebuilt parish church. A strange sight: a cluster of college age persons are waiting in front of the church.
In my curiosity, I came toward the group. I noticed a large poster on the bulletin board announcing Evangelishe Studentenvereinigung (Evangelical Student Union). I asked a young woman if I might attend. She disappeared into the church. I turned to leave, when I saw a short, stocky man walking toward me, with a concerned look on his face.
He wanted to know why I was there. I introduced myself as a Professor of philosophy at a college in California, being careful about my priest identity. He greeted me with a formal Prussian bow, shook my hand, and smiled warmly. He is Pastor Georg Nuglisch. He guided me by the arm upstairs into a church meeting room, where he presided at a Wednesday night seminar as pastor to the university students of Magdeburg. He had the largest university student group in East Germany.
I walked into a large hall. A dozen tables had been bunched together to create a huge square, providing seating for one-hundred students. Feeling the energy of these young people, I found a seat near Pastor Georg
Pastor Georg began the evening with a prayer. He introduced a Roman Catholic priest from Karl Marx Stadt (old Chemnitz) who presented a lecture on the Marxist and materialist elements in the Gospel of Matthew.
After the lecture-discussion, Pastor Georg introduced me. The students’ faces lit up when they heard “California” and “America.” I was an unusual visitor. I stood up and a barrage of questions hit me: concern about America’s gluttonous consumption of energy and food resources. I responded with information about church-sponsored programs seeking responsible stewardship.
Other students probed me with questions about racial justice in America and the oppression of African Americans. Marxists see race and class struggle to be interchangeable issues. The example of Black Americans showed the dialectical struggle between the “haves and have nots” as still evident in human history.
I remember my response:
“Racism against Black Americans is imbedded in American Culture. I experienced this in my family. My parents were wonderful parents, but they had strong opinions against Jews, Black Americans, and Roman Catholics. I know that I have experienced and viewed reality through the limited lens of White privilege. My journey away from my family-rooted prejudice led me to deep friendships with persons of color who were my neighbors, fellow students, and fellow workers. I saw the struggle for life within a Black neighborhood, when I lived in South-Central Los Angeles during the Watts Riot of 1965. I saw the violence, anger, and the police brutality. We had hoped for progress with the Civil Rights Movement, but racial prejudice is still there. I live in a country with freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. These are hopeful tools for transformation and social justice. The first steps are for White Americans to recognize the lens of our privilege, to confront the culture of racism in which we have been tutored, and to look for opportunities for friendship and relationship with persons of color. I am hopeful.”
At the end of the seminar, the students adjourned to the beer cellar in the church. A student grabbed my arm and guided me to join the group. We sat at small tables set up over old beer barrels. The light was dim, but the environment more gemutlich.
Pastor Georg stood beside me with his hand on my shoulder. He was pleased to have me there and assured me that no question or statement was out of place. The students opened up about their university studies. Most of them were studying heavy engineering (although most had not heard of Caltech or MIT).
Several students shared with their own litany of frustrations of life in the DDR—the poor quality of goods, the difficulty in buying automobiles which self-destruct after a year’s use, and the constant standing in long lines to purchase goods.
Most of the students came from families of practicing Christians. I remember one young man saying to me, “When I graduate, I will have to decide: if I want to have a good professional position, I cannot be a visibly active Christian.”
The next morning Pastor Georg gave me a tour of the old church, built by French Huguenots, persecuted Christians who did much to build up Prussia during the reign of Frederick the Great. The back, unrestored part of the building served as an art gallery.
“Restoration of churches in the DDR is paid for by gifts of hard West Germany currency to the DDR,” said Pastor Georg. “The Cathedral in Berlin was destined for demolition, but soon monies from West German churches came pouring in, and the church was saved.”
Over coffee, he said with pride that his weekly student meeting is the largest Evangelical Student Union in East Germany. He took out a file and showed me the planned seminars for the coming year.
“I will give a lecture on Ernst Bloch, a philosopher with a moderate critique of Marxism. The Bishop has supported me on this, and I will go ahead, even though it pushes the limits of what the state deems acceptable.
“We are supposed to study within non-critical limits. Visiting pastors from the West bring in the latest writings in theology. I want these students to know something more than what they get at the University,” he said. “We cannot counter the sophisticated critiques of Christianity by the Marxist materialists, but at least I instill some process of critical thinking into the students.”
I asked Pastor Georg, “What would happen to you, should you step over the line of permissible behavior and become known as a radical critic of the Communists?”
“They could send me to Bautzen (the most severe political prison camp near the Polish border), but I doubt that,” he responded. “The authorities most likely would send me out of the country.”
The next day, I drove with Pastor George, his wife Ursula, and young son Sebastian, to the north for a day in the country to visit the walled medieval town of Tangermunde. They admired the Mitsubishi Colt I was driving as if it were a Mercedes limousine. As we drove on country roads, a traffic policeman in a white motorcycle shadowed me for a long time. My Dutch license plate tagged me as a Westerner, a target for speed trap fines that had to be paid on the spot. We passed 300 Russian soldiers marching in full battle gear along the highway, as T-80 tanks climbed over distant hills. We were 60 km from the East/West border. If there ever was to be a Warsaw Pact invasion of the West, it would happen in this area.
We drove past a former Nazi concentration camp hidden in a dense forest, yet marked by the Soviets as a memorial against Fascism.
“We knew of the concentration camps, “Pastor Georg said. “Our Jewish friends were being taken away. There were isolated strikes in factories. But what could we have done? We have the same situation today. Someone is taken away by the Stasi, and they go to Bautzen Prison. Many are never seen again. Who knows? Who dares ask?
His voice grew more intense. “I have seen students taken out of our meetings. I know of young people in my parish who have been brutally beaten by the police. You know what happened: you see the wounds and bruises. But what can you do? Is this not the same situation.?”
At Tangermunde we walked through the old thousand-year-old walled city. We enjoyed lunch/mittagessen on a ship anchored outside the city gates. Little Sebastian was excited to be there.
How odd were my feelings as we said goodbye late in the evening in front of my hotel. These persons unknown to me two days earlier had shared with me the frustrations and hopes of their lives as I had shared my own life with them. Here we were saying goodbye. They were convinced we would never see each other again.
A week later I was visiting with another pastor in West Germany. His parish was the largest Lutheran church in the community. He was an immaculately dressed, elegant man of about 45. His office bookshelves were filled with all the current theological books.
This pastor had 2,000 people in his parish, but less than 300 came with any regularity. The German Church receives nine percent of every tax bill paid by each German citizen: that fact that almost everyone pays the tax brings the sum to millions of Deutschmarks. But there is no sacrificial giving, no significant giving.
I received more insight into the West German parish situation from a director of Christian education outside Braunschweig. His evaluation of the typical Western pastor was that, after many years in the university, he is highly educated in philosophy and clerical studies, but has been given little experience in practical theology. (His own programs were trying to make up for this by providing practical training in preaching and pastoral counseling.)
Entrenched in a parish, the Western pastor can be there for many years, without having made a single parish call. His sermon usually consists of philosophical lectures since not a few of these men chose the study of theology because the medical and law schools were full. They can live well (in 1980) on an income of $35,000 a year, housing provided, and make a satisfactory life for themselves studying philosophy and theology.
As my main, original intention in this journey was to contrast the church in East Germany with the West German church, I was surprised at the result. I had discovered that the vitality of the church is most strongly felt in a milieu that lacks state affirmation and state support, and that is a struggle for survival, where the cost of discipleship is experienced with intensity.
Janice and I have been traveling for the past 21 days through the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, visiting Vienna, traveling up the Danube to Budapest, into Czechoslovakia: Brno, and Prague. Few people from the West travel in a private car in these countries behind the Iron Curtain. We have been shadowed by local police, secret police, and everything we have said in our hotel rooms has been bugged. I could use my German to communicate, as that was the dominant language in these countries until 1945.
We left Prague that morning, passing through vast, green farmlands. The road made a slow but steady climb into the dense green forests of the Lusatian Mountains.
From one country under surveillance, we entered East Germany, driving on to Dresden, still very much in ruins after the infamous bombing of February 13-15, 1945.
We followed the Reformer Martin Luther, visiting Erfurt, where he was an Augustinian monk and had his life-changing enlightenment about Grace in the Epistle to the Romans. We toured the castle of the Wartburg, where Luther, under the protection of Frederick the Wise, translated the New Testament from Greek into German, and threw a bottle of ink at the Devil.
My heart was beating hard in anticipation of our exit from East Germany when we would stop in Magdeburg and see Pastor Georg and Ulla again.
The door to their home opened. Georg and Ulla greeted us as old friends, meeting Janice for the first time. Janice and Ulla found a common connection in their hospital nursing.
We walked to dinner at our Hotel International, passing a former Luftwaffe Officer’s compound. Looking over the wall, we could see laundry hanging from windows and piles of trash.
“Look what those Russians have done to this place,” shouted Georg. “They live like pigs. This was once a lovely complex. Now the buildings are falling apart.”
Georg’s loud complaints made me nervous. I thought they could arrest us.
Georg walked beside me on a street leading to our hotel; Janice and Ulla, arm in arm, sauntered behind us. We entered the Hotel International, heading toward the restaurant to the right of the lobby. A burley man in a dark suit blocked the way, holding an armload of menus. He whispered to Georg: “What are you doing here? You should not be here!”
“Alles in Ordnung (Everything is OK)”, I responded. “They are our family.” This restaurant was off limits to DDR residents. It was only for visitors, who paid in hard Western cash, and government VIPs. I showed my hotel room key to him.
Yes, we had entered a special world of privilege: push green carpets, live piano, and violin music.
The host guided us to a prominent table against a back wall with a wide view of the tables surrounding us.
As I read the menu, I flashed back on the three weeks Janice and I had already spent in Budapest, Prague, and Dresden. When there was food available in a local market, people lined up for fatty sausages, brown-wrinkled oranges from Cuba, shriveled Bulgarian beets, and a strange meat mélange of “parts” that looked like a giant baloney, sliced to order.
This menu revealed a world of dreams: fish, steaks, Italian pasta, and fresh vegetables. Georg and Ulla ordered the beef steak. Georg had a whiskey.
“How is your ministry going with the University students?” I asked Georg.
“Last month we began peace demonstrations at the Cathedral every Monday evening. We call them ‘Peace Prayers.’ It is a small crowd; many of the students were hesitant at first. After prayers in the church, we march through the main street past the Bahnhof.”
A flash of hope-filled energy brightened Georg’s eyes as he spoke about this movement for political change. His parish and the Cathedral hosted opposition groups, who actively protested Communist Party policy. He felt compelled to preach stronger sermons against the oppressive policies and action of the DDR.
“Isn’t that dangerous: public demonstrations that could be perceived as critical of the government?”
“The Church is the only voice permitted to speak critically and openly about the government. We know the Stasi secret police come to these meetings and the peace demonstrations. They take photos and write down names. Participants can receive threatening phone calls and harassment at the university or at work. But the church is the only place in the DDR when one can speak freely.”
I asked Ulla, “How do you deal with threats and harassment? Do you feel more fearful about what the government might do?”
“We have lived with this for many years, especially as the family of a Christian pastor. When I was sick in the hospital, they put me in isolation, cut off from contact with other patients. You remember that our daughter graduated from Gymnasium last year at the top of her class, but she couldn’t go to the better universities.”
“Where do you find the spiritual ballast to push ahead like this with these demonstrations and what reactions they could spark?”, I asked.
“We pray the psalms every night. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The Word of God is our ballast. There is powerful solidarity with others, including non-Christians, who hope for a better, freer Germany.
It was a lovely, surrealistic evening with our East German friends. The food was the best we had eaten in a month. But there was an anxious ache in my gut. I was afraid for Georg and Ulla. I knew about the brutalities of the Stasi. I also identified with the urgency of this public witness and the hope for change.
Janice and I walked Georg and Ulla back to their home through the quiet, dark streets. The fragrance of spring flowers scented the night air. I was grateful for this reunion with our friends, knowing we may never see each other again.
I lost direct contact with Ulla and Georg until 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had sent carefully written letters to them, but knowing now that any letter for a pastor had been steamed open and read by the Stasi agents, I suspect that they trashed my letters.
The Internet and Google Search could not help me during those years. As I created this blog, I have been back-filling information I could find about Pastor Georg and the Peace Prayers movement.
What I discovered was that these parochial gatherings and demonstrations became the foundational seeds for much larger demonstrations leading up to the opening of the Berlin Wall and deconstruction of the DDR.
Recently, I found a resource that revealed the important peace work that Pastor Georg continued after my last visit:
“The working groups for peace and ecology were founded in Magdeburg under the student pastor Georg Nuglisch. They established networks with other activist groups. They took part in the environmental meeting in September 1981 in Halle and in November 1982 in the working meeting of the ESG (Evangelical Student Association) peace groups. Nuglisch also disseminated the Ten Theses on Possibilities for Nonviolent Actions.” 
Pastor Georg’s grassroots work with his student ministry and peace activism linked with other student groups in the DDR, developing into a populist movement, drawing in hundreds of thousands of citizens in massive demonstrations.
John S. Conway summarizes this liberation process:
“The churches’ courageous stand against political corruption and the misuse of power was hailed as a significant factor in undermining the credibility of the regime. So too was the readiness of church-led ‘basis groups’ to challenge the ubiquitous secret police, commonly known as the ‘Stasi.’ These were valiant demonstrations of the popular demand for fundamental rights to freedom of expression, and for liberation from the oppressive structures which had for so long characterized the Marxist-dominated society. The image of a small indomitable band which refused to bow the knee to Baal, but instead defied the might of the all-powerful atheist state, received widespread acknowledgment and approbation. A large banner paraded through the streets of Leipzig said it all: “Kirche, wir danken dir!”
This year, 2020, Germans celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Reunification. There is a renewed popular regard for the Christian churches in Germany and their prophetic voice amidst new struggles for peace and justice.
“One Berlin pastor put it, ‘We can’t just say, ‘Now we’ll be pious again.’’ The church cannot afford to change its character as a forum for thought and political or social innovation. It must continue its role as public educator and must endeavor to continue its role as a dialogue partner to the government on behalf of the people. Perhaps most importantly, said the same Berlin pastor, the church must not stop being ‘the speaker for the weak.’ ‘After all,’ he said, ‘that’s what we’ve always been.’ “
photoWWII By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-14898-0002 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5340274
Neubert, Ehrhart. “Geschichte der Opposition in der DDR 1949-1989: Forschungen zur DDR-Gesellschaft,” Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 1997. (Translation by Brad Karelius).
CONWAY, JOHN S. “The ‘Stasi’ and the Churches: Between Coercion and Compromise in East German Protestantism, 1949-89.” Journal of Church and State, vol. 36, no. 4, 1994, pp. 725–745. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23919417. Accessed 1 Oct. 2020.
Harris, Todd W. (1992) “The Revolutionary Church? The Role of East German Protestants Amid Political Change,” Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe: Vol. 12: Iss. 6, Article 2. Available at: http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ree/vol12/iss6/2
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, “The Cost of Discipleship.”
 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “The Cost of Discipleship.” Pp. 126-127.
 Geschichte de Opposition in der DDR 1949-1989, Ehrhart Neubert. P. 466.
 Conway, John S. “The ‘Stasi’ and the Churches: Between Coercion and Compromise in East German Protestantism,” p. 725.
 Harris, Todd w. The Revolutionary Church? The Role of East German Protestants Amid Political Change., p. 34.