From Hymns to Paint Bombs:
A Brief History of the German Protestant Kirchentag

To the surprise of many Berlin residents the city seems even more packed than usual these days. People wearing scarves throng the underground and buses. They flip through programmes – weighty tomes in themselves – look around as if searching for something, and sometimes even spontaneously burst into song. The Kirchentag (church assembly) has come to Berlin. The city is hosting this major event, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors, for the fifth time.

The German Protestant Kirchentag arose following the Second World War. Contrary to what one might expect from the name, however, the Kirchentag is organized by laypeople, not by the regional Protestant churches themselves.

1951: The Kirchentag presents faith as a private matter and stands for brotherhood in a divided city

A glass case in the permanent exhibition at the Deutches Historisches Museum displays a small, inconspicuous pendant. It bears the inscription ‘Wir sind doch Brüder!’ (Yet we are brothers!). The pendant is a conference badge from the Kirchentag of 1951, which took place in Berlin. This room in the museum is split in two, Germany is divided into East and West. Museum visitors must repeatedly choose one of the two histories, either that of East or of West Germany. The conference badge lies squarely in the middle between the two countries. The motto of brotherhood (no-one mentioned sisters yet back then) drew 200,000 visitors to the divided city of Berlin for the conference in 1951. The event was intended to promote movement and contact across the new border.

In 1951 the Kirchentag intentionally ignored the political tensions between the two German states, appearing apolitical. The small conference tags allowed visitors to recognize each other, and groups gathered spontaneously in buses, trains, and public places to sing hymns. The division of Germany, apparently transcended when citizens of the East and West sing together, nonetheless had an unspoken political dimension: at this point in time the Federal Republic refused to recognize the GDR, and presented itself as the sole nation of all Germans. By seeking brotherhood between East and West, the gathering of Christians denounced the division of Germany by the GDR. It thus, perhaps unintentionally, became a symbol of Bonn’s policy towards the existence of the GDR – specifically during the years when the division of Germany had not yet been concretized in the form of a wall. The event thus carried veiled criticism of the division of Germany, directed at the GDR. And that could only be pulled off if the Kirchentag treated religion as a private matter, even for high-ranking politicians.
In 1954 another Kirchentag was held in Leipzig, within East German territory. Hermann Ehlers, President of the (West German) Bundestag, attended, but not in an official capacity and only as a private individual. He did not take part in the programme, and met privately with Johannes Dieckmann, President of the East German People’s Chamber, for a chat. The meeting only took place because the topics of conversation, family and the weather, were agreed upon in advance.

At this point German Protestantism had not yet developed a democratic political tradition. The majority of Protestants had rejected the Weimar Republic and welcomed Hitler’s rise to power. Democracy at this point in time was a relatively new concept for Protestants in Germany. Developing a basic understanding of topics such as the constitution thus became the first task of the Kirchentag. Following the catastrophe of the Third Reich, which many members of the Confessing Church interpreted as a judgement of God, a new political beginning was equated with a new moral and religious beginning. The Kirchentag aimed to take on the role of missionary to the people, and political topics were addressed as topics of faith.

1981: The Kirchentag becomes openly political with demonstrations for peace, the environment, and women’s rights

Fast-forward 30 years, to 1981. And Hamburg looks like a different city! The Kirchentag is explicitly political. It sparks a Protestant civil rights movement calling for peace, environmental consciousness, and women’s rights, and the first major demonstration for peace begins at the Kirchentag. The motto ‘Fürchte Dich nicht’ (Be not afraid) expresses the fear of a third world war in the face of nuclear threats. A disturbance suddenly breaks out in Messehalle 13 when Minister of Defence Hans Apel starts discussing his missile policy. A group of protestors, clad in white with their faces dramatically smeared in red, marches in. They yell ‘be afraid, be afraid’, an allusion to the Kirchentag motto, and pelt the minister with paint bombs.

Two years later, in Hannover, visitors to the Kirchentag no longer wear small tags to identify themselves. Instead, they sport purple scarves. One such scarf is now displayed in the permanent exhibition at the DHM. It bears a picture of a church with a ‘stop’ hand extending from its door, and below it the inscription ‘Die Zeit ist da für ein Nein ohne jedes Ja zu Massenvernichtungswaffen’ (The time has come to say ‘no’ for once and for all to weapons of mass destruction). Distributed by a peace group, the scarf sparks conflicts. The audience is young: two thirds of the participants are under 25. At the beginning of the closing service the executive committee of the Kirchentag asks visitors not to wear the scarf, but does not repeat the request after a number of scarves are thrown onto the stage.

1997: The first reunited Kirchentag in Leipzig addresses inequality between East and West

1997, Leipzig: Visitors to the Kirchentag identify themselves with small badges pinned on to their jackets. The eastern city hosts the first reunited Kirchentag since 1954. Back then, before the construction of the Berlin Wall, the motto ‘Seid fröhlich in der Hoffnung’ (Rejoice in hope) still emphasized the hope of a normalization in relations between East and West. Now, after the fall of the Wall, equality takes centre stage. The motto: ‘Auf dem Weg der Gerechtigkeit ist Leben’ (In the path of righteousness there is life). Some 80% of the participants come from the former West. The dynamism and euphoria of 1989, when a peaceful revolution arose from Monday prayers in the Nicolaikirche in Leipzig, has long since died away. Now topics such as unemployment and the lingering inequality between East and West come to the fore. A wailing wall where visitors can post their thoughts is constructed in front of the Nicolaikirche.

Kirchentag today: a de-Christianised environment without hot topics

These days the Kirchentag takes place in a de-Christianised environment. The church is increasingly losing its appeal, evidenced by the consistently high numbers of members leaving the church. The Kirchentag, however, remains a major event and continues to draw large crowds. The number of participants consistently hovers around 100,000. In recent years it has become difficult to find major topics that motivate all the participants, as the calls for peace did in the 1980s. Various spiritual approaches to faith have found their place at the conference. A large number of church groups present themselves at the ‘Market of Possibilities’, while music and even techno church services give the gathering the character of a festival.

2017 is a significant year for Protestants, commemorating the beginning of the Reformation. Because of this, the Evangelical Church has co-organized the lay event for the first time. The conference takes place in a time of turmoil and rising complexity. Many people are seeking orientation. The participants gather under the motto ‘Du siehst mich’ (You see me). What they will wear to identify themselves in 2017 remains to be seen.