East-German Pastors and do-gooders

In November 1984, a week before the annual Leipzig documentary film festival took place and extensive international presence was expected, three men in their early 20s were prosecuted for a “public order” offence, on “obstruction of passenger traffic in a pedestrian zone” and on “transmission of information to foreign powers”. They were also asked whether they wanted to give up their citizenships and leave the GDR (German Democratic Republic). Shortly afterwards they left East Germany via Auffanglager[1] Gießen to West Berlin. Three close female friends prosecuted on the same issues left in August and December of the same year.

Youth pastor Martin Lösche and his open community work with the youth in Leipzig-Leutzsch

Youth pastor Martin Lösche had known the expulsed young people since the late 1970s. He had set up a regular Wednesday evening youth group around St. Laurentius church when he moved to Leutzsch in 1978. Martin Lösche’s aim was to provide an open space for discussions to the youth in his community. The church was the only entity in the former GDR with sufficient independence from the party/the state to pursue such objectives. In an interview in autumn 2008, the pastor remembers that his work was not without criticism. The concept of Offene Jugendarbeit[2] , as he had established it in this working class district of Leipzig with a considerable share of middle-class families, was much more progressive than conventional church activities. Instead of reading the bible and singing chants he offered rock music sessions, theatre plays and practical advice and support for those who refused to enter military service. Martin Lösche faced a permanent dilemma of “genügend Freiraum zu bewahren, ohne sich zu weit aus dem Fenster zu lehnen”[3] as he describes it. Several times he was reproved by the bishop who advised him, ‘Jugendfreund, übertreiben Sie nicht’[4] .

Recruitment poster for the East-German border police

In 2008, his house and garden still stands out in the middle class neighbourhood where he lives. Plants grow wildly, a bicycle leans against the wall and no Opel or VW occupies the space in front of the house. The living room is filled with numerous books. Martin Lösche himself is a white-bearded man in his mid 60s with the talent of telling 20-years old stories as lively as if they only happened yesterday. He does not hide both his excitement and pain when remembering the events of the 1980s and the young gütigen Träumer [5] and verbissene Patrioten [6] he was working with.

They would hitchhike together to concerts in Berlin or take the train – but no ticket – to get the annual pupils’ meeting in Karl-Marx-Stadt. And they would read and rehearse poems against rearmament or subversive radio dramas and plays, which addressed their own thoughts and concerns. Träume[7] (1950) by Günter Eich, which picks up on fundamental fears such as military armament or nuclear war in surreal nightmares, Martin Lösche recalls, was very popular among his youth. One of their performances brought the group to the nearby town Borna. Since kein Schwein hatte ‘n Auto[8] , Martin Lösche and his performers travelled by public transport carrying the music boxes under their arms and Fettstullen [9] in their bags. The youth would persuade the pastor Los, rauchen wir n Zuch [10] and then they would sit and feixen[11] .

Aussteiger[12] life style

What was the motivation of the youth for joining his group? Planning a regime change as anticipated and feared by the state officials? According to Martin Lösche the youth was trying to live their way, to be different than the ideal socialist prototype. Free minds and an unconventional, alternative life style were the ultimate goal while the grey mass of Gleichgeschalteter[13] followed the blueprint life of school, training, job as Sven, a by-then carpenter trainee who joined Martin Lösche’s group as a teenager recalls.

He remembers that he intuitively noticed something was not right in a country where he was frequently harassed by the police for his long hair and hippie life style. He remembers how often he had to present his passport on the street, answer questions about his work and be insulted as asocial.

Scene Leipzig 1983
Photo: “Peter Kirch”

Opportunities for a sub-cultural lifestyle were rare in East Germany. The church offered some space for being different and for the exchange of ideas and questions about life. However, Martin Lösche remembers that he sometimes got into conflict with the “all or nothing“ strategy and the “anti”-attitude of his youth who sometimes even questioned the regime-critical position of the church in East Germany.

Later on, international politics became the topic of the group’s concerns. The fact that the Polish government had declared martial law in 1981, and the related fear that other Warsaw pact countries would be obliged to invade the country, stood in contrast with the youth group’s belief that it is a great success if a trade union manages to attract 10 million members within a few months.

Similarly, the NATO Double-Track Decision and the subsequent agreement by the West German government to deploy the first Pershing II mid-range nuclear weapons on its territory accompanied by rumour that the Soviet Union would deploy SS 20 mid-range nuclear missiles on East German territory (1983) rose concerns and provided ground for discussion, so Sven recalls.

Again it was the pastor who provided a platform for political discussion that would have been risky outside of this protected area. According to Sven the intention was neither to overthrow the regime nor to flee the country but to be Sand im Getriebe[14] as in Günter Eich’s “Träume”.

The documentary festival “Filme der Welt für den Frieden der Welt” [15]

In the early 1980s the youth group got more and more involved in debates and actions in the context of the “peace decade” initiated by the Nikolai church in Leipzig, as well as mingling with like-minded people in Berlin and Jena. The sign “swords into ploughshares”, taken from the Old Testament where it stands for peace and ceasefire, became a symbol of the group.

The approaching annual documentary festival in Leipzig in November 1983 was thought to be a great opportunity for peace actions since it attracted a large number of guests. The presence of foreign correspondents, which was rare in the former GDR, was believed to prevent the police from reacting violently.

About 20 – 30 persons moved to the “Capitol” on 18 November 1983, sat down in the passenger’s walk in front of the cinema and lit candles in front of themselves to protest against the arms race. Within a few minutes, the police arrived, demanded “Aufstehen. Gehen Sie weiter[16] and arrested 13 of the protesters. Seven were released within 24 hours, one woman among them received suspended sentences later on, and others were only cautioned. Six persons were taken into custody.

Dr. Aribert Rothe, also youth pastor in Leipzig, later commented on the security context around the festival: “’Quiet and public order!’ The highest dictate in the GDR. Every autonomous impulse which demonstratively entered public space was a taboo break. The street belonged to the state. Disruptions are not permitted, in particular when international guests arrived at the closed system.”

Source: Wikipedia

Martin Lösche together with three other pastors in vain wrote protest letters to Stasi, the East German intelligence service, and the Spiegel, a well-known West German weekly magazine reported about the incident.

Deportation from East Germany

The expulsion of the six Leipzig youths was not an exception. Several members of the East German peace movement from different regions were imprisoned and deported in those years. According to www.jugendopposition.de, an online archive with interesting material on youth opposition including a timeline, images and portraits of witnesses to GDR history, 40,974 persons left East Germany to the West in 1984. Between the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and its collapse in 1989, almost 500,000 GDR citizens re-settled to West Germany with permission, 15,287 were requested by the West German government and about 460,000 fled.

In contrast to the Federal Republic of Germany, deportation of native citizens was permitted in the former GDR. It was an instrument used by the power to expel citizens who appeared to be dangerous to the regime by openly criticising its politics and proceedings.

Two days after the deportation of the three young men from the GDR, a formal reception took place in Gießen, West Germany to officially welcome the newcomers. Strikingly, two of the guys were approached by attorney Neumann, the mediator on the West German side, who personally welcomed them with the words ”Even in this country it will be punished if you threw stones on peace demonstrations”.

The author wants to thank both Pastor Martin Lösche who welcomed her with much openness and humour on a very early Sunday morning, and Sven for sharing his memories and reflections while looking after two kids.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. reception camp
  2. open community work with the youth
  3. preserve sufficient free space but not leaning too far out of the window
  4. Youth friend, do not exaggerate
  5. benignant dreamers
  6. dogged patriots
  7. dreams
  8. nobody had a car
  9. sandwiches with fat
  10. Come on, let’s smoke a drag
  11. giggle
  12. droup-out
  13. synchronised
  14. a spanner in the works
  15. World film for world peace
  16. Stand up and move away
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