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The role of Protestantism in the German Democratic Republic (the GDR) has been strongly disputed since the ‘turn’ and reunification of 1989/90. Many of the disagreements derive from different interpretations of the relationship between State, Church and Society in the GDR. This paper first describes the state institutions which formulated and executed church policies for the Communist Party of the GDR (the SED), and then surveys relations between Church and State, offering an explanation for actions and motivations on both sides. The thesis advanced is that the decisive phase of the transformation of a ‘bourgeois’ Church into a ‘Church within socialism’ took place between 1958 and 1978, and that the preceding and subsequent periods merely had the character of ‘past history’ and ‘epilogue’.
A variety of institutions influenced Church–State policies in the GDR. First, at government level, there was until 1957 a department for ecclesiastical affairs controlled by the deputy prime minister ; after that date, there was an official secretary for church affairs, answerable to the chairman of the government (Ministerrat). At party level in the SED, there was a working group for church affairs which was part of the secretariat of the SED's central committee, answerable to the first secretary or the secretary-general of the central committee. The central committee office included a member with specific responsibility for church affairs, generally the second in line after the party chairman. In the Ministry for State Security (MfS), those involved were the head of the so-called ‘main department for social superstructure’, together with a representative of the minister or the minister himself, and the heads of administration in individual ‘Lands’ or districts.