Being Quaker in East Germany

01/02/2014 08:31 pm ET | Updated Mar 04, 2014

During the Communist period, the governments in East-Central Europe treated religious groups with varying degrees of tolerance. The Catholic Church in Poland was too large and influential to ignore, so remained powerful even under Communism. The Albanian government, on the other hand, tried to wipe out all religious identity to such a degree that Communist leader Enver Hoxha declared the country the first atheist state. The rest of the region fell somewhere along the spectrum between these two.

East Germany had numerous Protestant churches, several of which played critical roles in the changes of 1989. One of the smallest Protestant denominations in East Germany were the Quakers, who are grouped together with the two other historic peace churches, the Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren. You can find small groups of Quakers in various countries around the world -- with larger concentrations in England, the United States, and Kenya -- but the only significant Friends Meeting in East-Central Europe during the Cold War was in East Germany.

In 1990, I was working for a Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee. So, when I arrived in East Berlin in March of that year, and couldn't easily find a place to stay, I spent a couple weeks in the Quaker Meeting House, sleeping on the couch and taking cold-water baths. This last February, I revisited the building and discovered a newly rehabilitated space that was beautiful and welcoming. Quite a few people showed up that Sunday morning for meeting for worship and the simple meal afterwards.

I traveled from Berlin down to Wittemberg to talk to one of the key people in East Germany's Quaker community. Ulrich Tschirner is a scientist who also stepped forward in the 1990s, somewhat reluctantly, to serve as a local politician. He was a student in the 1960s when he heard a Quaker lecturer from the United States and was impressed with the fact that the man dispensed with the formal mode of address to emphasize his equal status with the audience. As a member of the Quaker community, Tschirner worked on peace issues and inter-German dialogue during the Cold War period. These concerns stayed with him after 1989, during his tenure as a Green politician and local activist.

We talked in his home in Wittemberg, a city about 70 miles south of Berlin that is famous for the church where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses in 1517. Tschirner described some of the environmental victories that the Greens and civic movements achieved after 1989. Progress on peace issues, however, has been somewhat more elusive.

"We have no conscription army -- just a professional army -- this is something we Quakers supported," Tschirner told me. "But it's not the end. It's just the first step. I don't see why we need an army. I can understand if the European Parliament says we need a small army, each country providing a contribution. I don't want such an army, but I can at least understand this step. But why does Germany need an army? In the Eifel Mountains, at the Buchel air force base, we even have 10-20 nuclear bombs in storage!"

Germany, as part of its foreign policy, raises a number of human rights concerns in various countries around the world. "We can protest against human rights being violated. That's okay," Tschirner pointed out. "But why doesn't our government protest against Obama's drone attacks? No, we are supporting our own drone program! Why does Germany need these weapons?"

The Interview

Were you born in a Quaker family?

I came to the Quakers through the Protestant Student Community. They invited lecturers to speak to students. One of the speakers was an American Quaker. This was in the 1960s, and he talked about whether a scientist should work in a weapons-producing factory. His name was Victor Paschkis, and he was a professor of technology. He was one of the founders of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science (1948-1976).

I went to his lecture. An African student stood up and said, "I am also a Quaker. And I want to ask you -- "

Paschkis interrupted him and said, "If you are also a Quaker, why don't you use the informal 'you'"?

I was a student. I was very impressed that a professor would put himself at the same level as the student. So, I asked myself, what are these Quakers? My first job was at the technical university in Karl-Marx-Stadt, today Chemnitz. There I also visited the lectures from the student Community. There was a lecture on Albert Schweitzer. When the lecturer finished, he said, "We as Quakers are in agreement with the fundamental principles of Albert Schweitzer."

In Chemnitz there was a small group of Quakers. So, from this time, I became a friend of the Friends. Then, in the 1980s, I became a member. In 1985, my mother died and we arranged our flat here in Wittenberg, and we went to Berlin for Meeting.

How many Quakers were there in Berlin in the 1980s?

About ten to 20.

And there was always an interest in peace issues?

Of course.

Were there any conflicts between the Quaker group and the East German government?

It is a very difficult problem. In the GDR, there was the state secretary responsible for Church affairs. This state secretary was the father of Gregor Gysi.

Klaus Gysi.

Yes. I don't know if it was Klaus Gysi or another state secretary, but one of them received support from the Quakers during the Nazi period. So, Quakers had a good relationship with the state secretary. For example, there was an English-East German peace seminar in the GDR and also in England, and five Quakers from the GDR could go to England. On the other hand, the American Friends Service Committee sent a representative to Berlin to observe the situation between East and West. The Stasi was apparently very distrustful of this person. They assumed that he'd been sent by the CIA.

I was involved with our Young Friends who wanted to make a peace march in 1985 or 1986 against the Euromissiles stationed in GDR. We spoke with the state secretary and it was not allowed.

Did the Young Friends do it anyway?

No. I think they did a fast instead. Matthias Schwerendt was involved in this.

You were living here in Wittenberg in 1985 and going up to Berlin and participating in Quaker Meeting. Did you also observe the increased activity in the Protestant Churches on peace, environmental, and human rights issues?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.