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Young Christians Propose a "Social Peace Service" as an Alternative to Compulsory Military Duty (December 7, 1982)

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The Dresden text spread quickly throughout the entire GDR. It was read aloud, discussed, and signed at events and community evenings organized by Protestant youth groups [Junge Gemeinde] and student groups. Most copies of the appeal were duplicated by typewriter. In June 1981, the proposal circulated at public church congresses in Görlitz, Stralsund, and Dessau. At a “question and answer session with church personalities,” young people asked church representatives to take a stance on the issue. Although it was primarily younger people who participated in the initiative, the proposal met with general acceptance in all church circles. The strongly Protestant, almost pietistic basic understanding of the appeal, which probably could have emerged in this form only in the Saxon part of the GDR, virtually ruled out any possible Christian argument for rejecting the proposal.

A basic characteristic of the concept is that its focus is not on protecting the conscience of the individual but on fulfilling a societal duty. Peace should not only be demanded but also practiced, starting today, through “emblematic” personal sacrifice, and help should be given to those who, according to Christian understanding, need it the most. “Regarding the present proposal,” wrote the church leadership of the province of Saxony in November 1981, “two things should be emphasized as particularly important:

a) the connection between an expressed commitment to peace and peace service
b) the connection between disarmament and responsibility for the socially weak.”

Because the paper was limited to proposals that appeared feasible and were not deemed futile from the outset, it found broad resonance among the church public, and the church leadership even made it the subject of negotiations between the church and the state. But this “realism” brought the authors criticism from other supporters of the cause.

One member of an East Berlin peace group said: “I didn’t sign, because I simply see some things differently. For example, living in barracks – I spent a year and a half living in one of those structures, and I know what that means. This is exactly how they break people down; they tear you away from your social ties and prohibit all contact with the outside world. That wears you down; it is an essential part of the structural violence. Now, whether I stoke up the stove in the barracks or care for patients, there isn’t really much of a difference for me.” And a conscientious objector to all forms of mandated service explained: “I refuse to accept this heteronomy. Social action cannot be prescribed. I have to practice it all the time.”

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