Albrecht Schonherr: Evangelical bishop in Communist East Germany

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The Independent Online

Albrecht Schönherr helped to ensure that no blood was spilled during the struggles which led to German reunification in 1990. He was the longest-serving chairman, from 1969 to 1981, of the Kirchenbund der DDR (the Federation of Evangelical Churches in the German Democratic Republic), which he had been instrumental in creating.

Under pressure from the ruling party, the SED, East German churches had been forced to break organisational ties with their West German brethren. Schönherr, who became Bishop of the Evangelical church in Berlin-Brandenburg in 1972, strove for a modus vivendi with the Communist state, pursuing, as he put it, a fine line between opposition and opportunism. In doing so, he coined the term Kirche im Sozialismus ("the Church in Socialism"). By this he meant that the church should recognise the realities of the GDR, without accepting its ideology.

On 6 March 1978, Schönherr met the SED leader and head of state, Erich Honecker. Unusually, this was widely reported in the GDR media. On the following Good Friday, the Bishop was given the opportunity to broadcast an "informal message" on television. Other church broadcasts followed and churches were soon able to maintain their own structures, including hospitals, old people's homes, orphanages and homes for the disabled, and to produce publications and pursue external relations. Money and other help flowed in from West Germany.

By 1986, the Evangelical church still claimed 6.5 million members in a population of 17 million. The state's secret police, the Stasi, had penetrated the churches but it could not stop the growth of peaceful opposition to Communist policies, helped by the churches, which led to the overthrow of the SED and subsequently the reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990.

Schönherr was born in 1911 in the small town of Katscher in Silesia, which was then part of Germany. His father was killed in the First World War. From 1929 to 1933 Schönherr studied theology in Tübingen and Berlin. In 1933, after the Nazis assumed power, he took part in Dietrich Bonhoffer's illegal Finkenwalde seminar and joined his Confessing Church. Schönherr was influenced by Bonhoffer, who was executed by the Nazis in April 1945, for the rest of his life.

After being ordained in 1936, Schönherr worked as a pastor in Brüssow (Uckermark), until he was called up for war service. He ended the war as a prisoner of the British in a field hospital in Italy. He agreed with the Stuttgart "confession of guilt" that the German Evangelical church formulated in September 1945: "Through us, infinite suffering was brought over many peoples and countries." He preached this message to his fellow prisoners of war.

After his release, Schönherr worked as dean of the Evangelical churches in Brandenburg/Havel, which was Soviet-occupied territory. From 1951 to 1962 he was director of the preachers' seminar in Brandenburg. In 1958 he was a co-founder of the Weißenseer Arbeitskreises, a group which sought to break with German churches' traditional conservative line. At the same time, he co-operated with the Christliche Friedenskonferenz (the Christian peace conference), which was widely seen as a vehicle for Communist propaganda.

In 1962, Schönherr became dean in Eberswalde and between 1967 and 1972 he was administrator of the bishop's office for Berlin-Brandenburg. From 1972 to 1981, when he retired, he served as bishop of the Evangelical church in Berlin-Brandenburg.

David Childs

Albrecht Schönherr, clergyman: born Katscher, Germany 11 September 1911; married; died Potsdam 9 March 2009.