Religion and Morality in Eastern Germany

Irene Becci
Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin
Rehabilitating Ex-Offenders in Eastern Germany: The Interplay of Religious and Secular Values

Birgit Huber
Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin
Religion as a resource for the formation of moral action in Eastern Germany: Striving for civility in Hoyerswerda

Esther Peperkamp
Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin
Money and Gospel in Eastern Germany

Małgorzata Rajtar
Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin
"Heaven on Earth": Conversion and Morality in Eastern Germany


The geographical idiom ‘eastern Germany’ today refers to a wide range of issues. As a region, it is part of Germany, and is situated at the heart of Europe. At the same time it is still remembered in both East and West as having belonged to the socialist East. It has been considered as opposed to the capitalist West, from which point of view it belonged to the historically excluded part of Europe. Furthermore, the region that once constituted a country in itself is generally depicted as one of the most secular societies of Europe – after the political Wende, no revival of traditional or “new” religiosity was registered, as has been the case elsewhere.
However, the emergence of the secular in eastern Germany is very specific and linked to its main distinctive features – Protestantism on one hand and socialism on the other. Much has been written on religion in this region from a quantitative-sociological, historical or theological-institutional point of view, but little is known about actual practice today. This project will undertake the study of religion in eastern Germany from ethnographic perspectives.

Narratives of secularisation

Both the concepts of the secular and of secularisation have been subject to major criticism in the past decades. Nevertheless, secularisation has remained the dominant paradigm for studying and analysing religious change in eastern Germany. At least three major scientific narratives of religious decline in this particular region can be distinguished in this argument.

  1. One narrative of secularisation stresses the governmental policies of the past – the Nazi-Regime on one hand and on the other hand “real existing communism”. From this perspective, in East Germany the atheist policy of the communist regime was most successful.
  2. Functionalist-oriented narratives stress that in the GDR, in particular in its final years, the churches were part of the opposition and that after the fall of communism they could no longer play this role, resulting in turn in the decline of religious participation.
  3. A further narrative indicates that in eastern Germany secularisation set in much earlier, well before the political divide into East and West, that is, probably with the Enlightenment and that it was therefore not only the result of communist policy. This long-term perspective follows a Weberian approach to secularisation with its underlying assumption that the more ‘modern’ a society is, the more ‘secular’ it will be.

Social scientists observing the changes in church membership, church attendance and beliefs and practices of a religious character in eastern Germany after the Second World War have demonstrated that there is a general decline in religious interest and involvement. During 40 years of socialism church membership declined from about 90 to about 30 percent. Since the end of socialism there has been no significant change in membership or attendance. While western Germany has also been affected by secularisation processes, this tendency here is much weaker and church membership is much higher, 84.4 percent in 1998. The major change that took place in the Protestant and Catholic churches in eastern Germany after Unification was probably a political one, that is, that they were re-established as public bodies receiving public funding. Still, those persons who are in some way engaged in religion or church life do so as a minority with all the implications this involves (‘wider den Strom’). The secular is thus an inevitable part of any research project on religion and its meanings and practices in eastern Germany. It cannot be assumed that religion is the dominant source of morality. The study of religion must necessarily be linked to considerations of the legal and demographic status of religious communities and institutions.

Axes of the Research Project

This research project will take into account the results of previous research in eastern Germany. However, instead of adopting one narrative of secularisation fully, more appropriate answers will be sought out. Therefore, the investigation will work along the following two axes.

East vs. West
East Germany was regarded by its neighbours to the east as the wealthiest socialist country, an image that was reinforced by the many investigations of consumer culture in the GDR. On the other hand, East Germans could follow discourse of West German prosperity and freedom closely, for instance on West German television. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the socio-economic differentiation between inhabitants has changed fundamentally resulting in feelings of disappointment, followed by experiences of unemployment and loss of social security. A major element creating tension in this regard is hence located within one Germany: East Germany was united with West Germany. However, contrary to what the rhetoric of unification seems to suggest, this ‘unification’ did not occur on equal footing. In this context, prevailing ‘Ostalgia’ need not come as a surprise. Everyday life in eastern Germany seems to be ridden by sentiments that are linked to moral discourses in which the socialist past itself comes to be regarded as a source of morality, even by religious communities.
For the research project it is important to take into account not only the increasingly mixed population in this area (persons raised in East Germany, West Germany and abroad), but also how East and West have influenced one another in the sphere of religion and its separation from a secular sphere. For instance, during socialism, some churches in East Germany maintained their contacts with West German churches, which resulted in financial support, but also in the adoption of West European pedagogical models.

Public vs. Private Religion

One valuable critique of the secularisation thesis has questioned the assumption of religious privatisation in modern society. In the case of eastern Germany, this critique seems to be particularly pertinent. The developments in eastern Germany seem to indicate that secularisation did not necessarily imply privatisation; instead, it affected the various religious communities differently. More generally, the concepts of privatisation and de-privatisation are problematic for post-socialist societies. It is under the specific circumstances that exist in eastern Germany that the interplay and tension between private and public as well as the very meaning of private and public have to be analysed. The focus on morality will be valuable in assessing assumptions about privatisation of religion in modern society because the notion of morality necessarily draws attention to the public dimension of religion.

Four case-studies

The project argues that it is necessary to jointly analyse how religious traditions, practices and discourses are embedded both in institutions (family, politics, economy) and in people’s biographies and how these in turn inform religion. The project is made up of four inter-related case studies in different settings. The four case-studies can be compared along lines relevant for the study of religion in contemporary society such as individual vs. community, social and economic inclusion vs. exclusion that will link these projects to current debates in anthropology. Taken together, the projects demonstrate the richness and diversity of the “eastern German” relationship to religion.

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