Joachim Gauck: Freedom as leading principle of German Friedliche Revolution (U. Nagel)


Thefalloftheberlinwall1989-3The weekly demonstrations which took place in Leipzig from 1982 on were an important piece of a process which in the year 1989 led to the overwhelming event of German Peaceful Revolution (Friedliche Revolution) and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Demands for a democratic participation in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) which were articulated by the protesters might create the impression that freedom was the main value behind these political movements. But the concept of freedom is too general to be applied to the events of Eastern German Revolution and therefore has to be analyzed regarding the involved groups. Without any doubt, one of the major groups of resistance was the Lutheran church. Many protestant preachers became protagonists of the resistance movement. Later on, some of them managed to held important political offices in the reunified German government. The 2012 elected Federal President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, is a prominent example of those civil rights activists. This essay intends to explain the role of Protestant preachers in the civil opposition against the GDR regime. It also asks for the different interpretations of freedom which lay behind the various groups of resistance. There is a focus on Gauck’s concept of freedom as he refers regularly to it as a main value for Germany’s current society.

Non-religious resistance in the GDR

The opposition against the totalitarian system which based on the single party rule of the Socialist Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED) was divided into a wide range of different ideological backgrounds and motivations. There was an opposition inside the Socialist movement which had its roots in the obliged merger of the Communist (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the Soviet occupation zone in Eastern Germany which took place in 1946. [1]

They received financial and propagandistic support by the Ostbüro (Eastern office) of the Social Democratic Party in the Federal Republic of Germany. Inspired by Nikita Chruchtschew’s secret condemnation of Stalin’s violent rule, a reformer group was formed inside the SED which gathered around their speaker Wolfgang Harich. Their concept of freedom was strictly linked to Marxist ideology. Although they demanded economic freedom for small companies and free elections, they relied on worker’s councils and the existence of the SED as the ruling State party. The GDR government punished seven of these socialist reformers to several years of prison.

Marxist dissenters had some links to the SED reformers but were not able to create an oppositional network.[2] Intellectuals like the chemist Robert Havemann or the songwriter Wolf Biermann dreamed of socialism on the pillars of humanism. They recognized the danger of powerful institutions and proposed the alternative of individual engagement for the progress of a state in faithful accordance to Marx’ theories. Due to a missing structure of organization, the regime could easily punish the dissidents through arrest, expulsion or professional restrictions. As the dissenters and SED reformers were convinced of socialism as the best way to create a just society, they tended to exclude intellectual bourgeois, entrepreneurs and strongly religious people. Freedom was not the main goal to achieve in the socialist state.

The academic resistance had a liberal and pacifist attitude. [3] Students protested against the manipulated elections and the militarization in Eastern Germany which corresponded to the Russian soviet interest of converting the GDR into a military bulwark against the NATO states. When the regime noticed that various universities had voted for a student’s committee which was usually chaired by members of the liberal and Christian democratic bloc parties, the representatives were arrested and sometimes sentenced to Russian work camps (Gulag). Despite of their liberal convictions, the academic opposition limited itself to the universities. Therefore, this movement could not evoke mass protests against the SED dominion.

The working class had its own attempt of rebellion which ended up in the massacre of 17th of June 1953. [4] In 1952, the SED had introduced the construction of socialism focusing on a faster development of heavy industry. This led to an increasing labour standard and complications in the food supply system as the government’s subsidies for the peasants were notably reduced. A general strike was called, first in Berlin, which then extended to the whole country. About ten percent of the workers and employees in the whole territory are estimated to have actively taken part in the riot.[5]

The withdrawal of the increased labour standard was the main goal of the movement of the 17th of June. Hence, the rebellion does not focus on the value of freedom; it can rather be seen as a materialist uprising, as the consumption possibilities suffered as a result of the central government’s measures. Political participation and free elections did not play an outstanding role in the protester’s claims.

Nevertheless, the SED considered the collective uprising as a serious danger and called for Soviet intervention. When the Russian tanks reached Berlin, the most violent day in GDR history counted finally up to 300 people murdered and about 1.400 detainees. The 17th of June had such a strong impact in Western Germany that the Adenauer administration declared the date as the national feast day only two months after.

Christian resistance

The Christian churches were a very important piece of the Eastern German resistance. Talking of the Christian churches, it rather refers to the Lutheran church as the Catholics were a small minority. Roman Catholics could only be found in special areas where they survived for historical and ethnical reasons. These regions are for example the Eichsfeld, a Thuringian landscape with some 50.000 inhabitants, or Saxony where the Catholic Sorbs have been living for centuries.[6] Christianity could therefore be reduced to Lutheranism, although there were only a small percentage of baptized people in the GDR. The atheist attitude of the Socialist Party which slowly was adapted by the GDR population corresponded to Karl Marx’s teachings. According to the philosopher from Trier and founder of Communist theory, religion was an element of society which would become extinct with the progress of human justice. The political power of the working class which was earlier exploited would be able to create a complete fair system. Hence, the population would no longer depend from an additional institution which aimed to impose a just treatment of everyone.

Nevertheless, the Christian churches enjoyed a free exercise of their faith, as liberty of religion was granted by both GDR constitutions published in 1949 and 1968. This article was one of the last elements which kept the doors open to a fast reunification of the country. At the same time, the regime’s protagonists were conscious of the strong opposition of the churches against the Nazi terror. Therefore, it was impossible to install another government on German ground which openly denied the value of religion for the society. However, that does not mean that the churches were exempted from persecution. The media pressure, the lack of academic liberty for Christian pupils and students and massive incentives to abandon the church were governmental means to diminish Christian influence in the socialist society of workers and peasants. But the Christians could still rely on the constitutional law. Although this did not allow them their own educational offers or even financial contributions by the state, religious services and prayers – held in churches – could be realized without restriction. The public appearance of the church was limited to hospitals, care stations for homeless persons or orphanages.[7] As a legally protected institution, the Lutheran church was a secure place for liberal thinkers, anti-communists and members of the opposition. They used their privileges for public contradiction against the decisions which were taken during the SED congresses. In 1952, the declaration of the expanding socialism was strongly critized by the Lutherans because the consequence for the church would have been its self-abolishment. Ten years later, the general mandatory for military service evoked again Christian protests. In 1963, the Catholic and the Protestant churches from Western and Eastern Germany presented ten articles in order to protect young men who refused military service for reasons of conscience. It was the first declaration in Germany to be pronounced by both Christian churches since the beginning of Reformation in the 16th century. [8] The Christians in the GDR, however, differed on how to handle the danger of expanding socialism. There was a general tendency towards cooperation with the State in order to maintain the privileged situation. Some Protestant ministers were even employed by the Ministry of State Security (Stasi). The GDR government pretended to improve the relationship between Church and State by making concessions which would never be fulfilled. But when the Stasi used violence against the Berlin Jewish Community in November 1987, the Lutheran church stopped its sympathy with socialism and began to reinforce the organized protest.[9]

Joachim Gauck: from Lutheran minister to Federal President

The 2012 elected Federal President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, was born in Rostock in 1940. As a teenager, he discovered his pleasure for German literature. His wish to convert his hobby into a profession by studying it at the university was, however, impossible to fulfill due to his and his family’s Lutheran background. It was more a pragmatic decision when Gauck opted for Protestant theology as academic alternative. He did not feel any kind of religious calling: Gauck was rather seeking an atmosphere where to articulate his thoughts about literature, philosophy and politics. The faculties of theology were in fact these assembly points for young free thinkers where they could meet and exchange their ideas. After finishing his studies he became employee of the regional church (Landeskirche) of Mecklenburg. The pastoral work with teenagers and students quickly became a passion for the young minister. With these young people, Gauck could elaborate theories and projects for a Christian future of the country. [10]

It was unavoidable to draw the Stasi’s attention as the guardians of Socialist security were especially aware of charismatic intellectuals who held another concept of a just society: like for example the dissenters Havemann and Biermann, both punished for their public criticism of the SED’s abuse of power. Since 1982, Gauck was observed by Stasi officials and so called unofficial employees (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter). Nevertheless, the future president managed to dispel any suspicion by presenting himself as a GDR patriot. Like so many other opponents of the SED regime, Gauck did not aim a fast reunification by adapting the elements of Western German capitalism. When his sons told him about their plans to move to the Federal Republic of Germany, Gauck did not agree and gave up the contact with them for a long time. Due to his cautious behavior towards the State’s authorities Gauck did not accept a protagonist role in the process of Friedliche Revolution.[11] This general trust in the State as the best institution to guarantee individual and collective freedom made him a suitable candidate when the Kohl government was looking for a chief reviser of the Stasi documentation after the reunification in 1990. Unlike so many prominent members of the opposition in the GDR, Gauck could maintain his influence over two decades until our days. Although his first candidature for the office of German Federal President failed he was the only suitable alternative when a successor had to be found for Christian Wulff. In March 2012, he was elected by a great majority in the Federal assembly (Bundesversammlung). There was a person who, at first, disagreed with the idea of running for presidency but later on had to admit that Wulff’s choice had been an obvious mistake. Together with Gauck, this person is the only Eastern German who managed to be established in the elite of German political class: Angela Merkel.

Looking for freedom? Joachim Gauck and the Friedliche Revolution in 1989

The Saxon metropolis of Leipzig was the place of origin of the German Friedliche Revolution which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Europe. In 1982, the Lutheran parish of Saint Nicolas introduced a prayer for peace which gathered several hundred persons every Monday. As usual in Protestant theology, the weekly meeting was not a purely religious offer for those who were seeking spiritual attendance. The political message behind it was clear enough for all participants. That is why the prayer for peace also attracted non-religious persons who wanted to express their opposition to the SED politics .[12] At the same time, the chairman of Saint Nicolas parish, Reverend Christoph Wonneberger, started to coordinate the several Lutheran resistance groups (Basisgruppen) against the explicit disagreement of the church authorities. The movement gained its first revolutionary characteristics when a planned demonstration in honour of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, leading members of the communist uprising who were murdered in Berlin in 1919, was prevented by the Stasi. But the decisive event was the opening of the Austrian-Hungarian border in May 1989. Now, several thousand GDR citizens used the opportunity to travel to the West – for the first time since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The Leipzig prayer for peace became a focal point for all those who were willing to leave. When the SED celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Soviet satellite in Germany on the 7th of October 1989, the protesters in Berlin and several other big cities were violently dispersed. The following Monday, 9th of October, was intended to be the end of the oppositional movement in Leipzig. Erich Honecker, SED’s Secretary General, had instructed some 8.000 armed soldiers and policemen to destroy every single cell of resistance, with a special focus on Saint Nicolas and its charismatic main preacher Wonneberger. However, the events in Berlin and Hungary had mobilized 70.000 persons who were peacefully demonstrating against the Socialist state terror. It is still unknown who retained the security forces from actions against the protesters. This led to Honecker’s dismissal on 18th of October – according to the petition of the other members of the SED executive (Politbüro). The reform announcements of Honecker’s successor, Egon Krenz, lacked any credibility. The citizens had finally realized that the Socialist Party was no longer able to rule the country. On the 9th of November, huge masses of people on the streets of Berlin took advantage of the unintended opening of the frontier towards West Berlin. A misunderstanding inside the SED executive had led to this declaration which was presented to the public in a press conference. The Western German TV and radio channels immediately reacted to this announcement and sent cameras to the security posts on the Berlin frontier. The images were directly transmitted to the GDR population; the fall of the Wall was the logical next step.

Joachim Gauck was not in Berlin on this historical date. His oppositional movement, the Neue Forum which later would be integrated into the new party Bündnis 90 (Alliance of 90), rapidly lost its significance which had existed in the transitory phase between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first free elections in the GDR on 18th of March 1990. The Bündnis 90 which mainly consisted of Christian groups and civil right activists was only voted by 2.9 % of the GDR citizens.[13] Regarding these important facts, the peaceful revolution in Leipzig can no longer be identified with a common notion of freedom among all participants. The major motivation for the uprising against the SED was the desire for the freedom of movement which is nothing else than the freedom of consume. Without the images of Western German television which constantly delivered the GDR population with impressions and news of general consumption caused by a capitalist economic system, a revolution in the German socialist state would have been difficult or almost impossible to achieve.

Without any doubt, Joachim Gauck as a representative of the Christian resistance in the GDR has a very different understanding of freedom. In his first speech, the recently voted President said in the Federal assembly: “We have got a challenge for the ruled members in our country, the citizens: You are not mere consumers. You are citizens, i.e. you are designers [of your country]. Those who enjoy the access to political participation and, at the same time, voluntarily renounce on it, do ignore one of the greatest and most beautiful possibilities of human existence: the living of responsibility.” [14]

The German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski refers to Gauck’s theological background and explains the President’s joy for freedom: “[According to Gauck] only those who abandon themselves in the mark of their mission will gain the real value of life. These are thoughts which are not popular at all in our days.” [15]

The Christian interpretation of freedom which marked the Lutheran Reverend Gauck necessarily includes responsibility and service for the others. It is doubtful if this freedom was actually desired by the GDR protesters in 1989/1990. The different groups of resistance which had arisen on the course of the GDR history rather show that freedom can hardly be described as their main value. For the Christian groups, freedom has always been in the core of their political message. Gauck follows this tradition and stresses the importance of freedom for the German society on every occasion. However, many Germans do not understand him or even oppose his message. This is, above all, the case in the former GDR. The fact that the newly created party PDS which was erected on the ruins of the SED currently participates in three local governments and a psychological phenomenon like the Ostalgie (a pun made of nostalgia and the German word for Eastern) clearly show that a remarkable part of Eastern German population did not welcome the freedom which has been the key factor for the social and economic success of the Federal Republic of Germany. Despite of his purely “Eastern German” biography Joachim Gauck stands for a very Christian concept of freedom. Hence, he cannot be understood or even estimated by his former compatriots. However, the Federal president keeps on stressing the value of freedom as not only applicable but also necessary for every human society: “The nations strive after freedom.”[16]


[1] „ DDR – Mythos und Wirklichkeit“ (online publication by Konrad Adenauer Foundation): (12/01/2015).

[2] „ DDR – Mythos und Wirklichkeit“ (online publication by Konrad Adenauer Foundation): (12/01/2015).

[3] „ DDR – Mythos und Wirklichkeit“ (online publication by Konrad Adenauer Foundation): (12/01/2015).

[4] „ DDR – Mythos und Wirklichkeit“ (online publication by Konrad Adenauer Foundation): (12/01/2015).

[5] MÜLLER, Helmut: Schlaglichter der deutschen Geschichte, Leipzig / Mannheim 2002, p. 345.

[6] „ DDR – Mythos und Wirklichkeit“ (online publication by Konrad Adenauer Foundation): (12/01/2015).

[7] „ DDR – Mythos und Wirklichkeit“ (online publication by Konrad Adenauer Foundation): (12/01/2015).

[8] „ DDR – Mythos und Wirklichkeit“ (online publication by Konrad Adenauer Foundation): (12/01/2015).

[9] Ibid.

[10] ROBERS, Norbert: Joachim Gauck. Vom Pastor zum Präsidenten, revised edition, Leipzig 2012, p. 10–60.

[11] ROBERS, Norbert: Joachim Gauck. Vom Pastor zum Präsidenten, revised edition, Leipzig 2012, p. 82–104.

[12] „ DDR – Mythos und Wirklichkeit“ (online publication by Konrad Adenauer Foundation): (12/01/2015).

[13] MÜLLER, Helmut: Schlaglichter der deutschen Geschichte, Leipzig / Mannheim 2002, p. 345.

[14] Speech at Federal Assembly (23/03/2012): Vereidigung-des-Bundespraesidenten.html (12/01/2015).

[15] Article at Die Welt (16/03/2012): Freiheit-die-Joachim-Gauck-meint.html (12/01/2015).

[16] Speech at Federal Assembly (23/03/2012): Vereidigung-des-Bundespraesidenten.html (12/01/2015).