“At the moment this war legitimizes everything,” says Jan Gildemeister. “The budgets of all federal ministries are being cut, only the Ministry of Defense is seeing an increase. And weapons systems are being procured that have nothing whatsoever to do with Russia,” he complains.
Gildemeister is the managing director of the “Action Group Service for Peace”. At the Evangelische Kirchentag in Nuremberg, the largest church event in Germany in 2023 with a good 60,000 participants, he and some of his fellow campaigners are promoting the “Ecumenical Peace Decade”, an alliance of many church groups, at a stand in Hall 1.
“Swords into ploughshares?”
The hall also houses the “United War Service Opponents”, the Civil Peace Service Forum and the Berlin Anti-War Museum. Names and titles of the groups may be complicated – the logo of the “Peace Decade” is internationally known. “Swords to ploughshares” is written on stickers and posters, beer mats and badges.
The biblical word stands for peace between peoples. In the 1980s it became a symbol of non-governmental, often church-based, disarmament initiatives in the former GDR. The West German peace movement adopted it. The accompanying drawing shows a blacksmith turning a sword into a ploughshare.
Anyone who went to one of the big Christian meetings in Germany 30 or 40 years ago often had a sticker with exactly this motif on their pocket. Protestant Church Days in Germany shaped political debates. At the Church Days in Hamburg in 1981 and in Hanover in 1983, hundreds of thousands took to the streets and opposed rearmament.
And now? In view of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, in view of the war in Europe? They are also an issue at this Church Congress, but they no longer cause much controversy, it seems.
Steinmeier: Putin’s “campaign of extermination”
That became clear at the opening. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, himself a Protestant Christian, spoke. Quite a few experts have criticized him for his course towards Russia during his time as foreign minister under Chancellor Angela Merkel; For far too long the German side, including German Social Democracy, had courted Russia and accepted its claims to power.
Now Steinmeier speaks at the Church Congress of “Vladimir Putin’s brutal, inhuman war of aggression in Ukraine” that brings “infinite suffering, destruction and death to the Ukrainians”. Steinmeier literally accuses Putin of a “campaign of extermination.”
“I couldn’t have imagined that I would say: It’s also time for weapons,” he says. “I know that I don’t have to ask you to discuss for a long time. Just don’t stop, that’s my wish to you. Get involved!”
Steinmeier’s speech is occasionally interrupted by applause. In the end, she only gets the usual applause for church days. When he comes to the subject of Ukraine during the speech, individual, probably critical calls can be heard from corners of the square.
The “Moscow” replies, to which individual critics yelled back, can be heard more clearly. But none of this interferes in any way with the President’s flow of speech.
The massive condemnation of the war of aggression – that is the tone that characterizes further statements by federal politicians during the first two days of the Kirchentag. CDU leader Friedrich Merz calls the “war in Europe” a “deep turning point”. Britta Hasselmann, chairwoman of the Greens parliamentary group, makes a similar statement.
And Manuela Schwesig, SPD Prime Minister of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, at some point briefly included “the terrible war of aggression from Russia on Ukraine” during her performance, a so-called “Bible study” on a text from the New Testament. But not a word about her personal connections to Putin confidants, which have been discussed in Germany for months and for which she has been criticized.
Otherwise, the following applies: the support of Ukraine with weapons, the topic of arms deliveries does not cause major debates or protests. This will also be due to the fact that the most prominent evangelical admonisher was not present in Nuremberg.
Margot Käßmann, once the most important Protestant in Luther’s country as chairwoman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany and a star at church conferences for decades, decided not to take part.
A planned concert reading by Käßmann with the singer-songwriter Konstantin Wecker under the motto “Be indignant! – About the enduring power of pacifism” did not make it into the program. The theologian then announced her non-participation. Käßmann and Wecker – they had the format to impress thousands and to question the political evaluation.
The greatest tension now applies to an appearance by the Inspector General of the German Armed Forces, Carsten Breuer, who will be discussing things with EKD peace officer Friedrich Kramer, among others.
Never before has the top German soldier sat on a Kirchentag stage. In the 1980s, one can assume that he would have hardly had a chance to speak because of the protests.
Jan Gildemeister and his comrade-in-arms Thomas Oelerich, spokesman for the “Action Decade”, will perhaps follow the debate. Oelerich told Deutsche Welle that the discussion about the Ukraine war had led to strong polarization. “People no longer know exactly what the answer to aggression can be today, whether ‘swords to ploughshares’ is still the answer today.”
Fear of “armament spiral”
But similar to Gildemeister, Oelerich also warns of a “new armament spiral” that was brought into being with “the turning point in the era propagated by Chancellor Olaf Scholz”.
They don’t have great expectations for the Nuremberg Christian Meeting, which will last until Sunday. “I don’t have the feeling that there are still broad discussions about the armaments issue here at this church congress,” says Gildemeister. It is so important to question information and political decisions and to discuss them broadly in society.