Minister and Regime Critic

When he was 18, Rainer Eppelmann worked as a roofer assistant to earn money for his mother and two younger siblings. His father, a carpenter, lived and worked in West Berlin. He had a West Berlin passport, too. When the Wall was erected on August 13, 1961, the family was separated. After that the oldest became responsible for the family. Before the Wall was built, he and his siblings had attended high school on the west side of the city. They had been taught in an “east class,” a special class set up for students who had been denied the opportunity to achieve the university entrance diploma in East Berlin. The class enabled them to take their final examinations. But the 13th of August put an end to this. By September 1961 they had to be registered in the East where they were disparaged as “border profiteers.” They were initially also denied the right to receive vocational training which is why Rainer Eppelmann first got a job as a roofer before he was allowed to begin training as a mason a year later. The hope that he might acquire a West Berlin passport through his father was soon shattered. And anyway, the family depended on him. After his two-year training was over, he worked as a mason in a PGH (Artisan Production Collective). Several people that he knew from the amateur church theater group of the Protestant Church in East Berlin also worked there.

Rainer Eppelmann was conscripted into the army but he refused to “bear arms.” A resolution had been passed by the National Defense Council of East Germany in September 7, 1964 that called for the training of construction working units within the military. The initiative to have people trained as construction soldiers had been instigated primarily by the Church and it remained the only way to get around having to use a weapon. Rainer Eppelmann recalls that the oath of allegiance still obligated these soldiers to honor unconditional obedience. He was unable to reconcile his Christian beliefs with this pledge of absolute obedience to a person or state. He and one other person from their group refused to take the oath and were sentenced to eight months in prison. During his time in the military prison in Ückermünde, the 22 year old became even more convinced that East Germany was a place where decisions were made for him – telling him both what to do as well as whether or not he could leave.

After his release from prison, he had to go through ten months of training as a construction soldier. As a consequence of having refused to bear arms, he was denied the opportunity to study at a national university, technical school or college in East Germany. The only positive experiences he had in “walled-in East Germany” were inseparably linked to his time with the Youth Congregation and the Protestant Church. Hence was a logical decision for him to attend the Paulinium Preacher School. This was one of two theological colleges in East Germany that offered a theological degree related to the pastor profession. The degree had been established out of need -- there were not enough ministers in East Germany -- but it did not lead to an academic career. During his five-year studies, Rainer Eppelmann married and had two children. Afterwards he became a minister and later worked for the regional youth office of the Samaritan Parish in Friedrichshain.

As minister he often heard parish members speak of the difficulties and injustices they experienced in East Germany. “With each of these fates, the rejection and contempt I felt towards the regime grew stronger,” he recalls today. His experiences led him to believe that something had to be done against the people who were responsible for putting people in these difficult or even dishonorable situations in which they were encouraged to act against their own will. Rainer Eppelmann began to conduct a special kind of prayer service that evolved into the Blues Mass. In 1979, 250 people participated in services which included music, bible text readings and short political sketches. In 1983 the number of participants had risen to 7,000. People from all over East Germany crowded into the Samaritan Church. The government felt the church mass was “sabotage against official youth policies.” The services were banned in the fall of 1986: Peace groups were formed instead and the Blues Mass was replaced by other central events.

Rainer Eppelmann is one of the most well-known members of church peace and human rights groups. In early October 1989, he co-founded the opposition party “Demokratischer Aufbruch.” In 1990 he was appointed Minister without Portfolio in the administration under Hans Modrow. Following the first free election on March 18, 1990, he was appointed Minister for Disarmament by Premier Lothar de Maizière. He was a representative in the German Bundestag until 2005.

Anna von Arnim

Rainer Eppelmann 2007

Rainer Eppelmann, 2007, photo: Seyerlein

Rainer Eppelmann 1986

In front of the Samaritan Church in Berlin, November 9, 1986, photo: Klaus Mehner, Bundesstiftung Aufarbeitung


Important meeting in the parish

Blues Mass in the church

November 9, 1989 at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing

From an interview on February 9, 2001, Berlin Wall Memorial (in German)