Endangered Churches and other Places of Worship in Germany

Endangered Churches and other Places of Worship in Germany

Angus Fowler+ and Dr. Uwe Otzen,
former Council Chairmen of the Foerderkreis Alte Kirchen Berlin-Brandenburg e.V.

Overall situation
Christianity in Germany is marked by two epochal tremors: the Reformation in the 16th Century which divided European Christendom, and the division of Germany after the Second World War. Both cataclysmic upheavals left behind dislocations of historic dimensions and deep wounds in most German regions as well as in most church dioceses and congregations. The majority of church buildings were destroyed during the Thirty Years War and many were bombed in the Second World War, and in the post-war period churches were neglected, especially in the eastern parts of Germany under their atheist regime. 

Alongside the historic rapprochement between East and West and German Reunification the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches have been striving for religious reconciliation and have come to respect each other and work harmoniously together. In this time they have also managed to heal most of the physical wounds inflicted by religious turmoil and war. Protestants and Roman Catholics form the largest religious communities in Germany and each have over 20.000 church buildings. 

Following the destruction and extermination of the Jewish communities in the Holocaust under the Nazi-regime there were only few Jews left in Germany after 1945. Nevertheless, the relatively small Jewish community has greatly increased since 1990 especially with immigrants from Eastern Europe. Also Islamic communities continue to grow since the first waves of immigrant Turkish Gastarbeiter in 1960. 

Restored Village Church of Bagow

The post-war situation
During the sixties and seventies in the twentieth century most war damage to church buildings was more or less repaired in the Federal Republic of Germany. However, to meet the needs of millions of refugees from East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, and to do it according to modern theological thought, new churches and church centres had to be built. Unfortunately, in some regions, such as in the Federal State of Hesse, many old timber-framed churches were demolished. Often there were no effective preservation laws in place and, at a time when there was little sensitivity to history and heritage, there was scarcely any regard for historic buildings. Reconstruction, modernization and the rapid economic development which forged the so-called German Economic Wonder had priority. Also during this period former synagogues desecrated in the Nazi-pogrom of November 1938 were often used inappropriately or demolished. Germany stood at the brink of a new era.

Eastern Germany
In eastern Germany, the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), many war-damaged churches were left as ruins to decay, neglected by an unfriendly communist and atheist regime. In spite of that, many survived to be restored for better times. It must be appreciated that before German Reunification citizens of the GDR worked in very difficult circumstances to save many village churches.  

Restored Village Church of Malchow

Immediately after Reunification in 1990 the Foerderkreis Alte Kirchen Berlin-Brandenburg, FAK, was founded as the first regional association in Germany. It now has over 500 members. Their purpose was to restore and to maintain derelict village churches. Since then the FAK has encouraged the establishment of more than 300 local church associations. In addition assistance has come from the Stiftung Brandenburgische Dorkirchen (Foundation for Brandenburg Village Churches) which has been able to award grants for repair and restoration work from interest on trust-capital, now over a million Euros. The FAK has co-funded altogether up to 500 repair, refurbishment and restoration projects and has rescued many church buildings from decay. Even endangered and forgotten furnishings of churches (altars, pulpits, fonts, benches, organs, etc.) have been saved. Altogether about 2 million Euros have so far been generated and invested. However, increasing number of churches, even after being completely restored, remain virtually unused for worship. This is a new challenge and calls for new formats of ownership.

Restored Village Church of Saaringen

Western Germany

A wave of church demolition in Western Germany and the zeal to modernize was halted by the 1980s. The first conference on the protection of monuments (Denkmalschutz-Konferenz) at the initiative of citizens and associations was held some 50 years ago in Marburg. It condemned the destruction of historic town and village centres and particularly the abandonment of old churches and their replacement with modern, new concrete buildings. It put pressure on the Federal Government and the parliament of the Federal State of Hesse to pass an effective conservation law. First local associations were founded, more cultural use of redundant churches was made and more state and other public financial support was made available for much needed restoration work. In the mid 1980s, inspired by the work of the National Trusts in England and Scotland and the impetus of the European Cultural Heritage Year, the German National Foundation to Protect Monuments, the Deutsche Stiftung Denkmalschutz, DSD, was founded as a national grant-giving body. The DSD prepared the way for its truly great work in helping to finance often very basic urgent restoration work in all regions of Germany, especially in the east.

Restored Village Church of Niederjesa

Foundations to support restoration and further use of churches

Since German Reunification very much has been done to restore church buildings, former synagogues and other places of worship for sacred, appropriate cultural and memorial use. Also, church organizations themselves, along with state and local support, have done much to maintain and restore their buildings. Financial support has also come from a special programme for much-needed repair to church roofs (Dach und Fach Programm). Further support has come from various parts of the European Union, particularly for regional development, and from the Robert Bosch Stiftung. The most significant support comes from the Protestant Church of Germany through its foundation to save and maintain church buildings, the Stiftung zur Bewahrung kirchlicher Baudenkmaeler in Deutschland, KiBA (www.stiftung-kiba.de). KiBA has supported up to now over 1.000 churches.

Theatre performance in a village church in Brandenburg

The rise of regional and local associations
Organizations and engaged citizens from the western part of Germany helped East German citizens with the development of regional and local associations to restore and culturally use church buildings. Local village and small town populations, of which only few people today are still members of the organized churches, passionately wish to preserve and use their churches. They see village church buildings not only as important landmarks in the countryside but also as essential symbols of their social and cultural identity. An association for village churches in need (Dorfkirchen in Not) has been founded in the former East Germany in the Federal State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. And the foundations Entschlossene Kirchen (Unlocked Churches) and, more recently, the federation of associations for the restoration of churches (Verband der Kirchbauvereine in Sachsen-Anhalt) have been formed in the Federal State of Sachsen-Anhalt. In southern Brandenburg, in the Niederlausitz region, there is a particularly active organization. All these associations and foundations are working hard to save especially endangered church buildings. Eastern Germany is perhaps – apart from England – the area with the greatest concentration of such local associations in Europe, with over a thousand members. 

Restored angel from the Village Church of Wismar

The work of all these local and regional associations is considered a major development in community responsibility and action especially in East Germany where experience of non-governmental civil organization was unknown before the fall of the Wall. An example would be in the Federal State of Brandenburg where there are now about 1000 churches open for projects, for art and culture, for music schools and for restoring dilapidated furnishings, all organized by the FAK. The Deutsche Stiftung Denkmalschutz, DSD, has taken many local trusts for village churches under its umbrella (Treuhaenderische Stiftungen). There is now also a number of local associations looking after former synagogues. Quite a number exist in the countryside in the Federal State of Hesse where there were many Jewish rural communities and some 250 synagogues survived the pogrom of 1938. 

Church service in the restored village church of Kuestrinchen

Keep the cement of cultural and social identity
Both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in Germany still wish to retain as many as possible church buildings for worship although more and more are opened for extended use or are maintained just for timely preservation. The vast majority of the population, including people who do not belong to a church congregation, fiercely resist closures. Rural churches are often the main and only place left in their villages for communal, social or cultural gathering. They form a constitutive part of their cultural identity. Secularization, demographic change, continuous withdrawal of church membership and tight financial means will cause severe shortcomings in maintaining this vast cultural heritage in future. This problem does not exist solely in Germany.

 A study tour in the village church of Waldow

Against this discouraging background we cannot expect a renaissance of traditional religious life and care of churches. New ways have to be found. This will have to come from all levels of society, gifted in human and financial resources and inspiration. A spark of hope is the awakening of a fragile Christian spiritual life practiced in old churches here and there. Germany had already stressed at the biannual FRH conference in Halle in 2012 the need for the FRH to forge a European Alliance of all segments of the society: a) churches, b) civil organizations, c) states and their organizations for the conservation of national heritage d) science organizations, e) business federations, f) communal representations and g) even new religious groups. They would all have to become stakeholders playing an innovative role in preserving Europe`s richness of religious heritage. The FRH-Note addressed to the European Commission on Europe’s Religious Patrimony in 2015 called for further energetic action in this direction.

Berlin, January 2021

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