The influence of the Lutheran parsonage in Germany

Sociologist Peter Berger on the influence of the Lutheran parsonage in Germany, particularly in East Germany under Communism:

[Chancellor Angela] Merkel [daughter of a Lutheran pastor] and [President Joichim] Gauck [a former Lutheran pastor] share a background of Protestant life in Communist East Germany. To what extent has this background shaped their worldview and their overall lifestyle? I don’t think that I know enough about these two individuals to answer the question—though it is hard to believe that the conditions under which one lived during one’s formative years leave no traces in one’s later life. In the event, one can take an individual out of a Lutheran parsonage—I doubt whether one can take the parsonage out of the individual. The powerful language of Luther’s German translation of the Bible and the powerful music of Lutheran hymnody must inevitably reverberate even in the consciousness of individuals whose ties with the Lutheran church have frayed. But we do know a lot about the story of that church in the so-called German Democratic Republic, and in East Germany since then. It is an interesting and somewhat puzzling story.

The ideology of the DDR was an aggressively atheist Marxism. Religious institutions were closely watched by the Stasi. Clergy and active lay people were harassed, frequently arrested, treated as second-class citizens. As a result religion existed in a barely tolerated subculture, tightly contained and periodically persecuted. Because of the exigencies of German religious history, the population of the DDR was mostly Protestant. By the very nature of its pariah status, the Protestant church inadvertently maintained (as it were, preserved in amber) not only a particular religious tradition, but the bourgeois culture with which it had been historically linked. Visitors to the DDR were regularly impressed by the old-fashioned appearance of its urban landscape—socialist neglect had kept away the frenetic modernization of West German cities and towns. But equally impressive was the preservation of bourgeois values and habits, equally old-fashioned by Western standards—not only in the Protestant quasi-ghetto, but especially there. Most Protestant congregations did not actively oppose the regime. Nevertheless, they constituted oases of an older, different culture in the desert of official Communist institutions. Since the Protestant church was the only institution with a degree of tolerated autonomy, it very naturally became the main locale of political opposition in the late 1980s. The regime change was inaugurated by the huge demonstrations that first emerged from the historic Thomaskirche in Leipzig (where Johann Sebastian Bach had been organist). When the regime finally collapsed in 1989, some people spoke of “a Protestant revolution”—prematurely, as things turned out. In the final years of the DDR and the first years after re-unification, a number of church-related individuals, including pastors, became politically prominent. Merkel and Gauck were not the only ones. But the role of the church diminished rapidly in the 1990s. Today the territory of the former DDR and the Czech Republic constitute the most thoroughly secularized region in Central Europe. (The Austrian sociologist Paul Zulehner has described them as two countries in which atheism is the established religion.) Why this is so is an intriguing question, but I cannot pursue it here.

A few years ago I heard a lecture by a historian about the role of the Protestant parsonage in German cultural history. The role was quite remarkable. A disproportionate number of writers, scholars and artists were the children of Protestant pastors. But the Protestant parsonage, the Pfarrhaus, was a focus of education and cultural activity beyond the family that inhabited it, especially in smaller towns and villages. The parsonage radiated the distinctive “Protestant ethic” to which Max Weber ascribed an important causal role in the genesis of modern capitalism—personal discipline, soberness, honesty, a penchant for orderliness. Did all good Protestants live that way? Of course they did not. (Deservedly or not, pastors’ daughters had a reputation for sexual laxity.) Did this ethic have negative aspects? Of course it did. It could be stuffy and stultifying, and its penchant for orderliness often led to a supine respect for authority, any authority. Yet many of the greatest cultural achievements in German history had Protestant, specifically Lutheran roots.

via The Long Reach of the Protestant Parsonage in Germany? | Religion and Other Curiosities.

HT:  Joe Carter

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://snafman.blogspot.com Snafu

    We have the same thing in Finland, called “pappila”. What I’ve been taught at school (we had a devout Lutheran teacher in elementary school who actually knew about this), was that the Finnish educational system originated from these “Pfarrhauses”. Before confirmation and the first communion, you were supposed to learn how to read and then memorize the Small Cathechism. It was tested at the pastor’s house, that also served as a sort of school for the villagers.

  • http://snafman.blogspot.com Snafu

    We have the same thing in Finland, called “pappila”. What I’ve been taught at school (we had a devout Lutheran teacher in elementary school who actually knew about this), was that the Finnish educational system originated from these “Pfarrhauses”. Before confirmation and the first communion, you were supposed to learn how to read and then memorize the Small Cathechism. It was tested at the pastor’s house, that also served as a sort of school for the villagers.

  • Joanne

    Angela Merkel’s father was a collaborator with the DDR and functioned as a church leader who kept the state informed about any “problems” cropping up within the church. In the 1950s, he actually moved his family from Hamburg to the DDR so they could live in communism. He also lead the DDR church in cooperation with the DDR. Consequently, his children received preferential treatment, especially in the ability to attend the best schools, which was the opposite for the average DDR clergy children.
    Angela understood early on that she enjoyed many preferments that the children of other clergy could only dream of and in her college years she began to realize why she was being treated so well. This caused a split with her father and ultimately an estrangement; she deeply reacted against his collaborative function. His recent death was a cold funeral, indeed.
    His life would be a fascinating study of conflicted vocations, the pastor who serves the security needs of the atheist state. Sometimes collaboration can keep people and institutions alive long enough to out live the oppressors, but I don’t believe that Merkel pere ever claimed he was doing this. I understand that he was a true believer in the state and proud of what he did to make the church do what the DDR state wanted it to do. He also enjoyed a life of preferment in the DDR for his services.

  • Joanne

    Angela Merkel’s father was a collaborator with the DDR and functioned as a church leader who kept the state informed about any “problems” cropping up within the church. In the 1950s, he actually moved his family from Hamburg to the DDR so they could live in communism. He also lead the DDR church in cooperation with the DDR. Consequently, his children received preferential treatment, especially in the ability to attend the best schools, which was the opposite for the average DDR clergy children.
    Angela understood early on that she enjoyed many preferments that the children of other clergy could only dream of and in her college years she began to realize why she was being treated so well. This caused a split with her father and ultimately an estrangement; she deeply reacted against his collaborative function. His recent death was a cold funeral, indeed.
    His life would be a fascinating study of conflicted vocations, the pastor who serves the security needs of the atheist state. Sometimes collaboration can keep people and institutions alive long enough to out live the oppressors, but I don’t believe that Merkel pere ever claimed he was doing this. I understand that he was a true believer in the state and proud of what he did to make the church do what the DDR state wanted it to do. He also enjoyed a life of preferment in the DDR for his services.

  • Joanne

    An excellent German movie that takes us into life for the intelligencia during the DDR. It won numerous awards. I highly recommend it.
    Das Leben der Anderen / The Lives of Others.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lives_of_Others

  • Joanne

    An excellent German movie that takes us into life for the intelligencia during the DDR. It won numerous awards. I highly recommend it.
    Das Leben der Anderen / The Lives of Others.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lives_of_Others

  • Grace

    Joanne,

    Thank you for the recommendation. I will try to see it, with English subtitles, as I don’t speak or understand German.

  • Grace

    Joanne,

    Thank you for the recommendation. I will try to see it, with English subtitles, as I don’t speak or understand German.

  • Helen K

    I also will try to see it, Joanne. We are currently enjoying a British series released way back in the late 70′s to 1980. Getting the discs from our local library. About a German occupation of the Channel Islands. Don’t know how accurate it is, but it’s more interesting than most stuff on commerical TV. The title is “Enemy at the Door”.

  • Helen K

    I also will try to see it, Joanne. We are currently enjoying a British series released way back in the late 70′s to 1980. Getting the discs from our local library. About a German occupation of the Channel Islands. Don’t know how accurate it is, but it’s more interesting than most stuff on commerical TV. The title is “Enemy at the Door”.

  • Joanne

    I actually worked with a woman whose parents were working on one of the channel islands when they were invaded. They stayed there throughout the occupation and had marvelous stories. My work friend was actually born there, then. So, I’ve been wanting to see “Enemy at the Door” also.

  • Joanne

    I actually worked with a woman whose parents were working on one of the channel islands when they were invaded. They stayed there throughout the occupation and had marvelous stories. My work friend was actually born there, then. So, I’ve been wanting to see “Enemy at the Door” also.

  • Helen K

    That’s fascinating, Joanne. I think you will enjoy the series. Husband brought it home from the library as he was looking for something I might watch. I’m more of a reader than a watcher but I’ve become involved with the character and their personal stories. I believe there are 26 episodes in all. I love shows that display rural scenery and I especially enjoy the looks of English countryside. I found The Lives of Others on Netflix and added it to our list.

  • Helen K

    That’s fascinating, Joanne. I think you will enjoy the series. Husband brought it home from the library as he was looking for something I might watch. I’m more of a reader than a watcher but I’ve become involved with the character and their personal stories. I believe there are 26 episodes in all. I love shows that display rural scenery and I especially enjoy the looks of English countryside. I found The Lives of Others on Netflix and added it to our list.

  • Jacob

    Interesting how the Lutheran church maintained a kind of strength in the DDR years during persecution (it was strong even though it was also compromised). But once communism is replaced with a Western secular semi-capitalist, semi-socialist system, the church fades away to irrelevance. Similar to the church in Norway or Sweden. The church in the DDR stood up to some extent to militant Marxism, but the church always caves to Marxism’s slightly gentler brother, political correctness/multiculturalism. We need to understand the dynamics of this.

  • Jacob

    Interesting how the Lutheran church maintained a kind of strength in the DDR years during persecution (it was strong even though it was also compromised). But once communism is replaced with a Western secular semi-capitalist, semi-socialist system, the church fades away to irrelevance. Similar to the church in Norway or Sweden. The church in the DDR stood up to some extent to militant Marxism, but the church always caves to Marxism’s slightly gentler brother, political correctness/multiculturalism. We need to understand the dynamics of this.