National Lutheran News

Berlin re-emerges following “second dictatorship”

Lutheran ministry in Berlin and Brandenburg is centered in this office building.

Lutheran ministry in Berlin and Brandenburg is centered in this office building.

Lutherans in the German capital maintain an ambitious social ministr program

A visitor to 21st century Berlin with even a vague awareness of the history of the place can find abundant evidence of this city’s legacy of military power, and its abuses.
The same visitor quickly realizes that residents of the newly-reunited German capital have learned the lessons of militarism and want almost desperately to banish it from their future.

A bus ride along Unter den Linden Boulevard takes the visitor past markers of Prussian grandeur. In the middle of the enormous green Tiergarten park, Otto von Bismarck looks down from his pedestal, reminding Germans (and tourists) that it was Prussia that united the country in the 1870s. Further down the street is the now reopened Brandenburg Gate, and further east are Hum-boldt University and Mu-seum Island. There, the recently renovated, domed Berlin Cathedral shouts of hubris (the Kaiser wanted it to rival St. Peter’s in Rome; it’s not as large, but it’s impressive, and its basement crypt is full of dead Hohenzollern kings and queens).

Also on the island is an impressive collection of museums, including one with treasures taken from Turkey and Iraq in the days when Germany first began to behave like an empire.
In Potsdam, in the southwest suburbs, the summer home of the Prussian kings speaks of excess (even the ruler’s hunting dogs got a royal burial).

And, there are the painful reminders of the obscene twelve years of Hitler’s rule, what Berliners call “the first dictatorship.” The Reichstag (parliament building), which burned suspiciously shortly after the Nazi leader came to power, has been restored (with an amazing glass dome and a winding walkway to the apex). From there you can spot the Victory Tower in the middle of the Tiergarten, with its winged golden image on top. And, tracing the line of Wilhelm-strasse, south of the Brandenburg Gate, one can visualize the row of buildings used by the Third Reich to organize the subjugation of Europe and the liquidation of the Jews. Nearby is the basement ruin of a prison where Nazi resisters, including Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once languished.

And there are telltale signs of the Soviet “second dictatorship,” including a museum and lookout tower with a view of a surviving one-block section of double wall, enclosing a “death-strip.” Metal markers embedded in city streets tell where the Wall once was.

Where is (and was) the Lutheran Church in the midst of all this turmoil? Since the 18th century Enlightenment, church participation has diminished in Europe. People made the naive assumption that hu-man wisdom makes religion obsolete.
Further weakening participation in the churches is the seductive establishment of religion and its appealing (but deadening) “church tax” system. Even in 1890, in the city of Berlin, less than 2% of the Lutheran church membership showed up at worship. (It’s not gotten any better in the 100 years since.)

But Lutheran ministry continues in Berlin. A lot of energy goes into care programs. According to staff members at Johannesstift Berlin, a 150-year-old ministry to the mentally challenged, their work creates a powerfully positive impression in the minds of secularized Berliners, both those inside and outside the church. And, the fact that this Lutheran care facility in suburban Spandau advocated for (and saved) the most vulnerable, during a time when the Nazis would have murdered them, has deeply impressed a German population with a lingering guilty conscience about what Na-tional Socialism did to Jews, gays, dissenters and other “undesirables.”

Closer to downtown Ber-lin (in the Wedding district, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer once taught confirmation classes), Lazarus Haus cares for the elderly and operates a hospice program. Said the hospice director, “People who come here, facing the end of life, often drop their secular resistance to God and allow us to talk to them about Jesus and stories from Scripture.”

At the church center for the Evangelical Church in Berlin-Brandenburg, a re-tired administrator admitted that attendance at worship is pathetically low. But, he reminded his visitors, “When we have public concerts in the churches, they’re filled. And, you know, these people are hearing the choruses of J.S. Bach, whose music speaks powerfully of Christ. So this may be a possible way for us to do quiet but effective evangelism today.”

Said Renate Obst, who coordinates a hospitality program for church visitors in Berlin, “Most Lutheran pastors didn’t stand up to Hitler, and even supported him at the beginning. That didn’t help the church’s credibility, but one has to remember the context. The pastors were out of touch with the lower classes. And, they thought Hitler would help people in a time of chaos. Of course, they didn’t know what he had planned.”