“A Foundation of Strength in Germany,” Ensign, Aug. 2000, 42
Gottfried Richter, now 79, looks back over nearly a lifetime of service in the Church that began for him when times were extremely difficult for Latter-day Saints in his country. After four and one-half years in Russian prison camps, he returned to Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), in the communist-controlled German Democratic Republic (GDR). Through a friend who would later become his wife, he found the Church and was baptized in 1951. In 1952 he and Gertraude had their first child. The following year he was called on a full-time mission. These were times when being a Latter-day Saint automatically brought one under suspicion and under the scrutiny of the secret police. So it was for many years afterward while he served as a district president and then in the presidency of the Dresden mission. Now the former POW finds himself serving the Lord in a reunified Germany as a sealer in the Freiberg Germany Temple.
“After the war there were many older members but not very many young people, but that has changed greatly. Today there are many young members. And this is something really special,” Brother Richter says with a wide smile. “They are marrying each other within the Church and bringing up strong children in the gospel. The day after tomorrow I will seal a young couple in the Freiberg temple. They are both fifth-generation members of the Church.”
This growth from within is a fundamental reason the Church has matured and today stands on a firm foundation in Germany. Adding to this foundation of solid leadership and devoted gospel service are three other aspects in which the Church is strong: the way Latter-day Saints are viewed by the public and in the community, the way Church members face today’s challenges, and the way the gospel is being spread through missionary work.
Elder Holger D. Rakow, an Area Authority Seventy in Berlin, says: “In the German stakes we have a strong foundation. We have returned missionaries who have families. These leaders are second-, third-, and fourth-generation members now. Their children have grown up in the Church; they know what it means to have family home evening; they know what it means to pray together.” Indeed, the Church has greatly matured since Latter-day Saints first began preaching the gospel in Germany in 1840.
In 1843, four years before the Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley, the first German branch had already been established in Darmstadt, Germany. Amid much opposition, Church growth proceeded slowly. When World War I began, nearly 200 missionaries left approximately 60 branches in Germany and Switzerland, yet most of these branches remained intact. Missionaries were again evacuated during World War II, and members valiantly continued to live the gospel. Divided into occupation zones after the war, Germany was finally reunified in 1990, allowing the members from the former GDR, who had essentially been cut off from the rest of the Church, to be reunited with their fellow Saints. Today there are 36,000 members in 14 stakes, organized in 92 wards and 96 branches.
Exemplifying the growth of the Church from within is the family of Wolfgang and Karin Pilz. President Pilz, who now serves as first counselor in the Mannheim Germany Stake in south-central Germany, is a physician and fourth-generation member whose great-grandfather joined the Church in 1894. President and Sister Pilz—both returned missionaries—have five children, and their oldest daughter was recently married in the Frankfurt temple.
Echoing the words of Elder Rakow, President Pilz says, “The Church has been growing slowly but steadily here in Germany. It’s not so much because we have so many converts but because families are staying in the Church and their children are staying in the Church and having families of their own.”
In a country of 82 million, Church youth are usually only one of few members within their community and school. “The teachers know they are members of the Church,” says Karin Pilz. And because the youth have learned to stand up for their beliefs and set good examples, they are noticed. “When our daughter Kathrin went to school the first day,” Karin continues, “the teacher said, ‘You are Mormon. I know one. He graduated from school last year, and he was such a fine young man.’”
President Pilz says, “I really think our children are prepared to be strong. And this starts even in Primary. We have wonderful teachers and classes even in the smaller wards and branches.”
Because of heavy opposition for many years in the early 1900s, many Church members were not open in public about their membership. Now, through active involvement in the community and efforts in public relations, the Church is becoming more respected and better known in Germany. “As we improve the reputation of the Church and the name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes to have a good sound in the ears of the people through the work we do, more doors will be opened to our missionaries,” says Jörn Otzmann, president of northern Germany’s Neumünster stake.
Dieter Berndt of the Dahlem Ward, director of public affairs for Germany, explains that the Church has never enjoyed a more positive position in the communities and in the eyes of the media than it does today. He also says that the Church has excellent relations with national and local governments and within national religious organizations. Formerly there was almost no contact at this level.
Public relations specialist Monika Dannenberg of the Pinneberg Ward, Neumünster Germany Stake, is a fourth-generation member who typed blessings for her grandfather (a stake patriarch), and who learned from her grandmother how to go visiting teaching. Sister Dannenberg tells of efforts being made in her stake that are similar to those being made all over Germany. “We have open activities in the wards and branches and invite the public. Often journalists come, and many have written favorable articles about the Church,” she says. Neighbors, co-workers, teachers, friends, and government officials often attend baptisms, wedding celebrations, or other activities in Church meetinghouses.
This is true in other parts of Germany as well. President Hans-Joachim Egly of the Düsseldorf stake, located along the country’s western border with the Netherlands and Belgium, tells of the long-standing community orchestra organized by his stake. Twice a year, some 50 amateur musicians, most of whom are nonmembers, gather in the stake center to rehearse and hold a concert. Attendance is usually about 250 people, with members and nonmembers alike coming together to enjoy the concert.
There is a semiannual radio broadcast in northern Germany that regularly includes positive information on the Church. A few years ago a major television station featured the Church prominently and told about the Young Women–Young Men organizations, Family History Centers and temple work, and family home evening.
In southern Germany, Stuttgart stake president Heinz Schwing explains that 9 of the 13 meetinghouses in his stake have Family History Centers that are receiving record numbers of nonmember visitors. He also talks excitedly about reaching out to the community with free videotape programs about the Savior. The tapes are personally offered by members to their friends and neighbors. Often members invite guests to their homes to view the program and then present the video to them as a gift.
President and Sister Pilz, members of the Darmstadt Ward, tell of their daughter’s recent temple marriage. “We invited many people to a wedding party in the meetinghouse cultural hall,” says Sister Pilz, “and we had about 300 come. Many of them were nonmember visitors.” President Pilz adds, “Even teachers and classmates attended. In my day, they would never have done that; they wouldn’t have entered an LDS church.” The guests were impressed with the Church, says Sister Pilz: “The teachers that came told other teachers. This is the kind of missionary work we can do now to let our friends and neighbors see what a wonderful community we have within the Church.”
Each year, members and missionaries from northern Germany’s Hamburg and Neumünster stakes and the Hamburg mission work together at Germany’s largest consumer fair, “You and Your World.” The Church’s exhibit focuses on family history work and families in general and includes computers for searching genealogical records. Visitors to the exhibit even have the opportunity to have their pictures taken electronically and printed on a personal family tree. At this fair and the many other events where the exhibit is used, copies of the Book of Mormon and other materials are available to the public. At the 1999 consumer fair, missionaries collected over 50 names and addresses of people who wanted to know more about the Church. Referring to more than just names of relatives, President Jörn Otzmann says, “Many people said they found things they had been looking for for a long time.”
Within this European nation—one of the top five economic powers in the world—there is even now a striking juxtaposition of economic realities in the former eastern and western parts of Germany. While Church leaders in former GDR areas refer to the challenges of unemployment and difficult economic situations, leaders from other parts of Germany speak of a social contentment that can lead people away from religion. President Heinz Schwing of the Stuttgart stake in southern Germany says, “People in general are content with their position in life and society and are not interested in hearing about religion.”
When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, newfound liberties entered the GDR. “We now have a lot of freedom,” says Brother Richter of Chemnitz. “But there are dangers that come with freedom,” particularly the misuse of newfound liberty. President Siegfried Sacher of the Dresden Germany Stake puts it this way: “With all the new opportunities and freedom comes the responsibility to manage that freedom—to organize your time and means to serve the Lord.” But President Sacher explains that the priesthood leadership and the women and youth of the Church are diligently using their time and talents to strengthen the Lord’s kingdom.
Linked to this challenge of increased freedom is the same difficulty confronting much of the world today: a secular climate that breeds immorality and indulgence. “Immodest dress is considered normal,” says President Otzmann. “Some other churches are beginning to declare that homosexuality is acceptable and that living together without marriage is all right in our society. Drugs and alcohol are destroying more and more families. We must protect ourselves and our young people from these dangers.” The gospel provides a haven from these harmful trends, a haven that is recognized even by those outside the Church.
When Francesca Morelli met the missionaries three years ago in northern Germany, she was 16 years old and facing harmful pressures from peers: “Two weeks before I met the missionaries,” she says, “I had friends who wanted me to start using drugs. Then I met the missionaries and everything changed.”
After several weeks of discussions, Francesca wanted to be baptized, but her mother was vehemently opposed to the Church. Only after much pleading and heartache did Francesca finally receive her mother’s permission, and she was baptized on 23 November 1997. Members of the Altona Ward, Hamburg Germany Stake welcomed her with love and fellowship. The other young women have been especially supportive. “My closest friends who have never left me alone are from the Church,” says Francesca.
Since her baptism, Francesca’s mother has followed her example and joined the Church, and her younger brother is hearing the discussions and looking forward to his own baptism. “I’m just thankful I met the missionaries when I was so young,” says Francesca. “I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had not found the gospel.”
Missionary work has changed dramatically since Brother Richter returned from Russian prison camps to serve a mission within the GDR in 1953. In fact, when full-time foreign missionaries were allowed to enter the GDR again in 1989, it had been 50 years since they had served in that part of Germany. That same year, the first group of missionaries from the GDR were allowed to leave the country and serve in other parts of the world.
Now there are six missions in Germany, and more young people from all over Germany are serving missions than ever before. President Otzmann looks back on his mission call in 1972: “Before I went on my mission there had been only two full-time missionaries from my ward in Lübeck, and that ward had been in existence for 100 years. After this time nearly all the active young men and several young women have gone on missions. In the Neumünster stake we now have 14 missionaries in the field. And since 1991 there have been about 65 missionaries from the stake.” In 1999 there were 172 full-time German missionaries serving all over the world.
Thomas Gehlauf from the Dresden Ward was among the second group of missionaries allowed by the communist government to serve in other lands. He left from the GDR in May 1990 to serve in Colorado and returned from his mission to a reunified Germany. He remembers the excitement among Church members within the GDR when full-time missionaries entered the country after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Brother Gehlauf says that serving as a stake missionary at the time “was wonderful preparation for going on a full-time mission. We had teaching appointments almost every day till 9 or 10 in the evening. And there were baptisms almost every Sunday for about six months after the missionaries came to Dresden.”
As new members embrace the gospel in Germany, adding strength, new life, and vitality to wards and branches, the Church continues to grow from within. Thousands of righteous parents, who were taught the gospel message as children by their parents, who in turn had learned it from theirs, and they from theirs, are bringing up another generation of faithful Latter-day Saints.
The strength to overcome the many challenges faced by members in Germany comes in knowing they need not face these challenges alone; they are united in a worldwide community of Saints. Even before the reunification of Germany, while members in the GDR were still cut off from the rest of the Church, Brother Richter of Chemnitz (then Karl-Marx-Stadt) did not feel removed from his fellow Saints.
While serving as a member of the Dresden mission presidency during this time, Brother Richter had to request permission for a Church meeting; religious gatherings needed official sanction before they could be held. The government authority in charge refused permission, saying that he disliked the Church because it was American and because its members no longer needed the government due to the care and support the Church afforded them. He believed the Church had no place in the GDR.
“Our Church is international,” said Brother Richter in reply. “You can put me on a parachute and just drop me somewhere—anywhere in the world—and I will be perfectly at home in the next LDS chapel. Can you do the same?” The official didn’t know how to answer and ended up giving permission for the meeting.
President Siegfried Sacher of the Dresden stake says, “It is wonderful to know that worldwide there are 11 million people who have the same testimony of the Savior and the same testimony of His Church.” In Germany and across the world comes fulfillment of the Apostle Paul’s words, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
President Thomas S. Monson, today First Counselor in the First Presidency, visited the communist-controlled German Democratic Republic (GDR) for the first time in 1968. Meeting with a group of Latter-day Saints in the city of Görlitz, President Monson grieved as he realized these members could not fully enjoy many of the blessings of the gospel: they had no patriarch, no wards or stakes—only branches, and they could not attend the temple. “I stood at the pulpit,” he said, “and with tear-filled eyes and a voice choked with emotion, I made a promise to the people: ‘If you will remain true and faithful to the commandments of God, every blessing any member of the Church enjoys in any other country will be yours’” (“Thanks Be to God,” Ensign, May 1989, 51).
Seven years later, President Monson returned to the GDR, and on 27 April 1975, he offered a prayer rededicating the land for the advancement of the gospel. This plea was among appeals for divine help in establishing peace and opening missionary work: “Heavenly Father, wilt Thou open up the way that the faithful may be accorded the privilege of going to Thy holy temple” (Thomas S. Monson, Faith Rewarded , 36).
The fulfillment of these blessings could not be imagined at the time they were given. Manfred Heller, first counselor in the Dresden Ward bishopric, explains that before 1985 very few had the possibility of temple blessings. Permission had to be obtained from government authorities to travel out of the country. In exceptional cases, people who were retired sometimes received permission and traveled to Switzerland for their endowment.
After years of exploring every possibility, the answer came. President Monson said: “Through the fasting and the prayers of many members, and in a most natural manner, government leaders proposed: Rather than having your people go to Switzerland to visit a temple, why don’t you build a temple here in the German Democratic Republic? The proposal was accepted, a choice parcel of property obtained in Freiberg, and ground broken for a beautiful temple of God” (Ensign, May 1989, 51).
Four years before the Berlin Wall fell, the Freiberg Germany Temple was dedicated on 29 June 1985. During the two-week public open house that preceded the dedication, more than 90,000 people toured the temple; thousands stood as long as five hours in the rain to see the new temple. And now thousands of faithful German Latter-day Saints have received their temple blessings in this holy house.
“I remember when President Monson came and dedicated the land,” says Winfried Batzke, president of the Berlin Germany Stake. “And I have seen how, piece by piece, his promises have been fulfilled.”
First known Latter-day Saint arrives
First branch established in Darmstadt
First mission president in Germany arrives; Book of Mormon available in German
Missionaries evacuated from Germany at the beginning of World War II
Missionaries return to western parts of Germany but are not allowed in the Soviet zone of occupation
About 5,000 members celebrate the Church’s centennial Pioneer Day in Dresden
Berlin Wall erected the night of 12–13 August
Elder F. Enzio Busche of Dortmund sustained to the First Quorum of the Seventy
Freiberg Germany Temple dedicated on 29 June; 29,900 members (compared to 13,829 in 1975)
Frankfurt Germany Temple dedicated on 28 August
First foreign missionaries in 50 years enter the GDR on 30 March; first missionaries leave GDR to serve in other lands on 28 May; Berlin Wall falls on 9 November
Germany is reunified on 3 October
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of Frankfurt sustained to the Second Quorum of the Seventy; sustained to the First Quorum in 1996
137,803 square miles (356,910 km2)
2 (Frankfurt and Freiberg)