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The hand of the past lies heavy on everyday life in Germany

Travel in Germany and the phrase “in former times” becomes almost a refrain. It can mean, depending on the context, during World War II, during the Communist era that divided the country for more than 40 years, during the Nazi regime which so scarred the country, or during an even longer stretch of history leading back to medieval times.

Wander through Mainz, a mid-sized city on the Rhine River, and the reminders are everywhere. Judith König, an art historian, shows visitors the historic town square, near the 1,000-year-old St. Martin’s Cathedral. “They look like they are from medieval time,” she says of the buildings. “They are all from 1975,” reconstructed after the Allied bombing runs over the city. The cathedral was hit multiple times and was damaged, although the main section survived.

In nearby Hanau, 90 percent of the city was destroyed by British bombers in 1945. The baroque Philippsruhe Castle, built in 1701 as “a little Versailles in Germany,” was spared — although some of its furnishings, which had been removed for safety to nearby Fulda, were destroyed. Nina Schneider, the museum’s coordinator, who conducts tours in costume — dressed as the second mistress of one of the princes — explained that the castle’s ownership had changed frequently, “based on religion and politics.”

In Wiesbaden, just across the Rhine from Mainz, organist Hans Uwe Hielscher plays recitals every Saturday at Marktkirche, a church on the town square. Typically 300 to 400 people attend — roughly four times as many as come to Sunday worship. Hielscher also performs internationally, including at Presbyterian churches in the U.S., and said “we are happy that people come at all,” considering that so many churches in Germany have dwindled.

Our lives were completely changed” by the reunification — in terms of employment, schools, travel, opportunities, said Cornelia Hartleb, who lives in Eisenach, in the former East Germany. At the car factory where Hartleb worked, 10,000 people lost their jobs when the factory shut down after reunification.

Before the reunification, we had other problems,” Hartleb said. “No freedom. We couldn’t go on trips, we couldn’t express an opinion … Now, we have freedom, but also unemployment.

Churches fading

It is also evident, in congregations across Germany, that the church as an institution is fading. In Wittenberg, where Martin Luther taught and lived, where the restaurants serve Luther Meals and Reformation Day is celebrated in style every October 31, only about 20 percent of the people belong to a church, said Bettina Brett, a city tour guide who works in medieval costume.

Forty years of communism,” Brett said in explanation. “The connections to the church were pretty well stopped … They didn’t like the church and they didn’t want the people to go there. They would tell you that you didn’t need it,” and a person who wanted a government job could not go to church.

Of the 20 percent in Wittenberg who do attend church, about three-quarters are Protestant and one-quarter Catholic, Brett said. About 80 percent of the town’s residents have no connection to organized religion.

We had two dictatorships — the Nazis and the communists,” said Thomas Seidel, a Protestant minister who is Luther Representative of the Free State of Thuringia. “Both of them are fighting against religion at all, and the Christian religion specifically — giving 60 or 70 years of two systems fighting against people who practice religion. We have a new generation without contact” with the church.

For them, Seidel said, the idea of people reading the Bible on their own could be as fresh as it was when Martin Luther was alive.

Former East Germany

Martin Luther spent his life in what became, after World War II, the communist-controlled East Germany. Tourism officials are hoping the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation in 2017 will bring travelers from around the world. In anticipation, the World Lutheran Federation has picked as a theme for that celebration “From Gutenberg to Google.”

One former East German city now open again for travelers is Weimar, a cultural capital where Franz Liszt performed the Christmas Oratory at the Church of St. Peter and Paul, Johann Sebastian Bach composed and served as church organist, Luther preached, the poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller wrote and the Bauhaus architectural movement took root.

After World War I, the Weimar Republic was established — a constitutional democracy which lasted until the Nazis seized control in 1933. The Nazis installed an armament factory in the gorgeous neoclassical theatre building, which later was bombed and destroyed.

As a child 9 years old, Gudrun Engelhardt — who now works for the Weimar tourist office — stood in the historic town square in April 1945 as the American tanks rolled in. Although Engelhard had been warned by her parents to stay away, she ran up to a jeep — then drew back when she saw the driver, the first black man she had ever encountered. He leaned out, and handed the children chocolate.

The day before, American soldiers had liberated the nearby concentration camp at Buchenwald.

Living history

Wittenberg, where Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church, is located in the state of Saxony-Anhalt — a formerly East German region that’s attempted a complete economic overhaul following reunification. Reiner Haseloff is the prime minister of Saxony-Anhalt, a member of the Christian Democratic Union party and a physicist who was born in Wittenberg in 1954.

During communist rule, Wittenberg — a town of about 45,000 today — was home to about 25,000 Russian soldiers, with a barracks in the town hall and rockets bearing nuclear warheads housed nearby. Haseloff grew up illegally listening to Radio Free Europe and watching Western television in secret — shaping his views of the U.S. through the opulence of “Dallas,” the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the political and cultural unrest symbolized by the Beatles and the Vietnam war protests and the Black Panthers. He heard President Ronald Reagan stand near the Berlin Wall in 1987 and implore, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Haseloff remembers well the days in 1989 when East Germans began crossing from Hungary into Austria, to freedom.

Before that, “nobody was able to leave,” Haseloff told a group of visiting journalists. “Only if you applied for permission, but they would rather put you in jail than let you leave.”

When the door began to open even a little, the pressure grew. “When you can foresee something, it’s like it’s coming from God,” Haseloff said, speaking partly through a translator. People gathered for prayers and demonstrations, in what was called the Peaceful Revolution. Germans demonstrated on a Monday in Leipzig, and on Tuesday they filled the churches in Wittenberg. “People went out with candles,” Haseloff said, and the police — who had expected a violent confrontation — didn’t know what to do.

Haseloff describes himself as being from a “mixed marriage” of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. After communist rule ended, “90 percent of the Catholic side is in the church and 90 percent of the evangelical side is not in the church,” he said. “It is very difficult to make an evangelical church in a dictatorial situation.”

While many Germans “still have their beliefs and they still have their values,” the influence of the institutional church waned, Haseloff said, through a process of erosion.

The Nazis already had eliminated a lot of the church life.” When the communists took control, they said, `If you want to be part of us, you cannot be in the church.’ ” They eliminated church rituals such as baptism and confirmation. And “you didn’t really have a chance to have a career when you were in church.”

Wittenberg today has a small Jewish community, consisting mostly of immigrants from Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Of 200 Jews who lived in Wittenberg during the Nazi regime, only seven survived.

Along with religious and political change, the former East Germany has seen tremendous economic shifts as well. By the early 1990s, after reunion, employment levels had dropped by 50 percent as the socialist and capitalist economies merged — it was a time of enormous transition. While the population in Saxony-Anhalt has declined, due to emigration and a falling birthrate, the economy now is relatively strong and significantly different from 25 years ago.

Haseloff travels annually to Israel, as Israeli firms have established chemical plants and alcohol and food production in his state — which now produces most of the kosher vodka sold in Europe, the U.S. and Israel.

Eastern Germany — once an intensely polluted region — received an influx of government money to turn brownfields back into green fields, and also has become deeply invested in solar and renewable energy, with about 20 percent of farmland in Haseloff’s state now being planted in biodiesel crops and with windmill fields a common sight along the roadways.

Twenty kilometers from here was the dirtiest town in Europe,” Haseloff said. “Now you can go for holidays there.”

As one travels through the region, the physical scars of the communist years are still easily visible — from the block-style apartment buildings to the historic old buildings that were allowed to crumble, some of which are still awaiting repairs. There was no money or material available for repairs.

Today views on life in Germany before reunification are mixed — based partly on whether people have work or not. If you ask five people, Brett said, “You will probably get 10 different opinions.”