East Germany rehabilitates old heroes

In East Germany, 1983 is officially the year of Richard Wagner and Martin Luther. Locked up in the antisocialist attic for more than three decades, those native sons have been hastily dusted off by the government of Erich Honecker and placed in the gallery of the founding fathers of the German Democratic Republic.

The man who put German romanticism to music ''must no longer be considered either an anti-Semite or precursor of Nazism,'' Deputy Culture Minister Martin Meyer has proclaimed. ''On the contrary, there is a specific anticapitalist thrust in his works.''

Signs of an anticapitalist and anti-imperialist attitude have suddenly also been discovered in the actions of Martin Luther. His role in suppressing a peasant revolt has been cast aside, and the leader of the Protestant Reformation will be officially honored as ''a great revolutionary'' in a solemn ceremony in November. Numerous foreign heads of state will attend.

The ceremony will mark the climax of a loudly trumpeted process of rediscovery and rehabilitation of German historic roots that has already transformed East Berlin's main road, Unter den Linden, into a gallery of statues and monuments. One of the first put back in his saddle was Frederick II, emperor of Prussia, whose statue had been gathering dust for 30 years in a Potsdam courtyard. The gallery gets more crowded as, for the first time, every historical anniversary is meticulously observed.

Prussian warlords have also returned to their pedestals. At first condemned as militarists, they are now glorified as national heroes for their ''wars of liberation'' against Napoleon. Official ideology has often been stretched to embrace a long-forgotten past, as in the case of Karl von Clausewitz, the theoretician of war, on whom has been bestowed ideological dignity for his alliance with the Russian czar against Napoleon.

As historian Gerhard Foster has asserted, von Clausewitz reinforced ''a comradeship in arms which the East German and Soviet armed forces have raised to the highest level.''

The contortions of the official doctrine underscore its essential goal: The East German government claims the heredity of Prussian culture and traditions on behalf of an old but newly rehabilitated nationalism.

Horst Bartel, director of the Historical Institute in the Academy of Sciences , has even said that ''Hitler should be described as a fascist rather than a national socialist, because all Germans are nationalists.''

But in East-bloc countries, historical memory has always followed the pace set by ideology; and each nation's identity is often at odds with the socialist model imposed from abroad, as historian Francois Feyto has written.

East Germany - the showcase of communism, the East-West dividing line, and the country that had to build a wall to reinforce its internal stability - is now grappling with the problem of reconciling ideology with national identity. That problem has already led to serious crises in other Warsaw Pact countries.

The Prussian renaissance coincides with the most serious stagnation of East Germany's cultural life. The intellectuals' revolt against the government's decision to expel dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann in 1976 signaled the end of a long ''entente cordiale'' (cordial understanding between the government and intellectuals), which had produced the most stimulating cultural debate in a communist country. Centered on playwright Bertolt Brecht's ''Berliner Ensemble, '' the intellectual ferment had been encouraged by the regime in order ''to give the nation a strong cultural content to offset the fragility of its borders,'' an East German writer has observed.

But as soon as the intellectuals tried to apply their relative freedom of speech to the political sphere, government cracked down. The Brechtian and post-Brechtian generations have been disbanded. Many of the most prestigious intellectuals have emigrated to the West, and those who have remained have reached a gentleman's agreement with the government: freedom to move and publish in the West in exchange for a low political profile, while the Communist Party no longer issues detailed directives on cultural activities.

The new emphasis on the symbols of Prussian nationalism is seen by many observers as an effort to fill the gap left by a stifled cultural debate. The pledge made by Walter Ulbricht, the chairman of East Germany's first Council of State, that his people would have written ''the third book of Faust,'' has been forgotten. The pursuit of legitimacy and social consensus is now based on a search for things past.

The need to regenerate consensus and legitimization appears to be an urgent task. For the first time in East German history, economic difficulties (for example, foreign debts of $13 billion absorb 25 percent of exports) have suddenly lowered the East bloc's highest standard of living. Meanwhile, the only autonomous peace movement in the East is gaining momentum and posing a new and unpredictable threat to the regime's stability.

Nourished by official propaganda and encouragement of peace movements in the West, the East German peace movement developed autonomously and has the support of the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, the only institutions not dominated by the Communist Party.

According to Inge Krause, deputy spokesman of the Protestant church (with 8 million followers out of a population of 17 million), ''It is a grass-roots movement, triggered by the high militarization of the educational system which obliges even 14-year-old boys to take part in military exercises. Thousands of young and their parents, disappointed by a government which preaches peace and prepares for war, have turned to the Protestant church for guidance, and to ask it to intercede with the state for the creation of a 'social peace service' as an alternative to the draft.''

The church press office is crammed with files containing position papers on numerous issues - the neutron bomb, intermediate-range missiles, deterrence, and so on - drafted by groups throughout the country which Mrs. Krause says meet at least once a week. The files also contain ''the Berlin appeal,'' a document signed by 200 intellectuals and church leaders asking for the dismantling of nuclear weapons and withdrawal of foreign troops from both Germanys. The appeal is also signed by hundreds of youths who refuse to attend military exercises, and the 90 conscientious objectors fired from their jobs, most of whom are in jail.

The position of the church, approved by the synod, expresses ''concern that the military element is becoming increasingly prevalent in the society.'' It condemns the concept of deterrence, urges unilateral disarmament proposals as confidence-building measures, and calls on the Eastern bloc to shift toward defense-oriented security systems.

At the beginning of this year, the leadership of the Catholic Church (1.3 million followers) also began to play an active role, ending years of passivity that had led priests to draft a document calling on bishops ''to lend their voices to those who are not allowed to speak and who remain silent in embitterment.''

A pastoral letter by the Berlin Bishops Conference in January strongly condemned as ''immoral and unjustifiable every use of nuclear weapons,'' and for the first time openly criticized the official Warsaw Pact doctrine of ''just wars.''

Both churches are in close contact with their counterparts in West Germany. Last August, after two years of negotiations, the Protestant churches of East and West Germany issued a joint document questioning the basic tenets of official security policies. The document stated, ''Our churches must work for the primacy of political efforts over those of military thinking, and work for the construction of a European peace structure.''

Writer Rudolf Bahro, expelled from East Germany three years ago for allegedly revealing state secrets to the West, draws a parallel between the peace movements of both Germanys and the churches' support. He sees them as a trend toward overcoming the division of the German nation.

But the Rev. Rolf-Dieter Gunther, a Protestant church spokesman, counters brusquely, ''We are not and do not want to be the Polish church. We are not opposed to socialism. We want to remain partners of the regime.''

Nevertheless, church leaders are openly concerned about the anxious and ambiguous government reaction to the movement. Officials have proclaimed that ''peace must be armed.'' These officials praise Western peace movements but harass and sometimes arrest their own pacifists. They trumpet official peace propaganda but have banned the pacifists' swords-into-plowshares button that depicts the Soviet-donated monument to the United Nations.

Mrs. Krause observes that ''these contradictions undermine the government's credibility, hinder our ability to mediate, and help broaden the movement throughout the country. In the last few months so many groups have been formed in every region that we cannot keep track of them or control them.''

The Rev. Mr. Gunther minimizes the size of the movement but voices deep concern over its potential impact.

''This young generation does not know the scars of the past. They know their rights and will not accept compromise. We are in the same situation the West was in with the protest movements of the '60s.''

While the church organizes seminars on ''how to reconcile the hopes of the young with the harsh political realities,'' the government has put Frederick II back in his saddle, which, as an observer points out, ''supplies a new myth to cover the erosion of official ideology.''

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