Lothar Kreyssig – a visionary realist

Lothar Kreyssig was born 125 years ago today. Initially a staunch national conservative, he developed into a staunch opponent of National Socialism, Righteous Among the Nations and co-founder of Aktion Sühnezeichen and other initiatives such as Brot für die Welt and MISEREOR. For Joachim Garstecki, he was a “visionary realist”.

Lothar Kreyssig visits a summer camp in 1962.

A remembrance on the occasion of his 125th birthday on October 30, 2023

In the fall of 2023, Christians in Germany will remember the lawyer, controversial churchman and ecumenist Lothar Kreyssig, who was born 125 years ago on October 30, 1898 in Flöha, Saxony. After the Second World War, he worked in Magdeburg for 18 years as President of the Consistory and Synod President of the Protestant Church of the Church Province of Saxony (KPS). The stages of his eventful life were characterized by his commitment to the people in the war and post-war period, for law and justice, for reconciliation and peace. He founded Aktion Sühnezeichen in 1958.

Kreyssig became known throughout Germany in 1958 as the charismatic founder of Aktion Sühnezeichen. What were the main motives behind Lothar Kreyssig’s activities? Three recurring basic patterns can be recognized:

Calling reality by its name: Saying what is.

Throughout his life, the lawyer and professed Christian Lothar Kreyssig reacted with great sensitivity to the social and political signals of his time. He speaks his mind and does not mince his words when it comes to exposing injustice and unfairness. Whether as a guardianship judge in Brandenburg in the resistance against the destruction of so-called “life unworthy of life” by the Nazi state in 1940; whether as a representative of the Protestant Church in Magdeburg and farmer from 1950 against the forced collectivization of GDR agriculture, or as an advocate for reconciliation and peace in the founding of Aktion Sühnezeichen in 1958 – Kreyssig always wants to “give an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Listening to God’s word led him directly into committed action, into taking on political responsibility, for example in rescuing the Jewish woman Gertrude Prochownik from the Shoah, whom he hid at home.

This can be seen in the founding document of Aktion Sühnezeichen “Wir bitten um Frieden” (“We ask for peace”) from April 1958. In the midst of the Cold War, Kreyssig formulated the foundations for dealing with German guilt towards neighboring nations and European Jews that are still valid today. “Saying what is” – in this highly sensitive subject area, this is the starting point for an exemplary insight: “The main reason we still have no peace is because too little reconciliation is happening […].” Kreyssig thus sets standards for the German culture of remembrance in the post-war period. This is confirmed by the symbolic actions of over7,500 young volunteers who, from 1959 onwards, have carried out and continue to carry out reconciliation work in Aktion Sühnezeichen projects in 14 European countries. Truth, honesty and humility of speech are the only currency that counts. What was heard from Bavaria in the summer of 2023 about the handling of the Aiwanger case, on the other hand, represents a shameless relapse into the impenitence of the perpetrators. The half-hearted distancing of the presumed author of a disgusting anti-Semitic hate newspaper, which the Süddeutsche Zeitung had reported on, shrinks to a forced apology for having “hurt feelings”. A German politician could not disavow the victims of the Shoah and the Jews in today’s Germany in a worse way.

Trusting your own visions

Helmut Schmidt is known to have said that anyone who has visions should see a doctor. Lothar Kreyssig would have protested against this view. He was a man for whom having a vision was the starting point, indeed the indispensable condition for any change.

In 1954, Kreyssig traveled to Evanston in the USA as a delegate to the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches. He wanted to win over the churches to his vision of an ecumenical mobilization against hunger in the world and against the unjust distribution of economic resources. He even hopes to get the Vatican on board. But the visionary initiator fails all along the line. Nevertheless, he does not give up. “In confident despair”, he sought to realize his goal in more modest coin. In 1957, he founded the Action Group for the Hungry in Berlin, an ecumenical solidarity initiative to help the world’s needy. Determined to transcend denominational boundaries, in 1959 he co-founded the Bread for the World campaign and the episcopal aid organization MISEREOR. A church in solidarity with the poor became a lifelong challenge for him.

Lothar Kreyssig understands visions as an activating reality in the conflicts of our time. They can be particularly powerful when they are not immediately realized. He wants to inspire people for their visions and drive their realization even in the face of resistance. The fact that the biblical vision of “swords into ploughshares” (Mi 4:3) became a mobilizing symbol of the Christian peace movement in the GDR from 1980/1981 and was a major inspiration for the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 is impressive confirmation of the visionary Lothar Kreyssig. Has this vision failed today because another bloody war is being waged in Europe? Has the vision of “swords into plowshares” lost its plausibility, even its fascination, because Russia has been waging a war of aggression against Ukraine since February 2022 in violation of international law, against which the country is rightly defending itself? Does the German Chancellor’s proclamation of a “turning point” mean that people should now forget their conviction of the primacy of non-violent political conflict resolution because all that matters now is military means and capabilities, funded with 100 billion euros? Then the vision of “swords into plowshares” would be an illusion, a nice dream image, but unsuitable as a “blueprint for the future”.

Not so Lothar Kreyssig. He would give us a leg up and insist that it is precisely in this war that the vision of “swords into plowshares” should be held up as an image of the future and hope. Contrary to all appearances, it emanates great power. It can clear our heads and help us to think and act in a way that creates the necessary scope for peace. Doesn’t this war in particular, with its thousands of deaths and millions of refugees, show how urgently we need to return to a just peace? How can the actors find their way out of the prevailing logic of war, which is becoming increasingly self-destructive, and back into a political logic of peace? What would it have to look like in order to give us a glimpse of the vision of “swords into plowshares”? However, Kreyssig leaves us alone with this question.

The liberating deed: ” … but you can just do it”

Hardly any other sentence by Lothar Kreyssig is quoted as often as the justification for his decision to found Aktion Sühnezeichen: “The fact that an unresolved present suffers from an unresolved past, that in the end peace cannot be achieved without reconciliation, is neither legal nor programmatic, but it can simply be done.” Kreyssig did not proclaim reconciliation, but he knew that reconciliation had to happen and that it could only happen through active change. That is why he mobilized young people to give active signs of their desire for reconciliation through their practical physical work at sites of German war crimes. The fundamental conviction with which he summed up his political and social-diaconal commitment has become legendary:
“The law by which we have set out is the primacy of action.”

The primacy of action seems to have been largely lost on many social and political actors today. Declarations of intent, announcements and evasive maneuvers in the subjunctive determine their rhetoric. Behind a jumble of obstacles, responsibilities, complexities and excuses, the most important things often don’t get done at all – to quote Lothar Kreyssig: “… but you can just do it.” A task never completed.

Joachim Garstecki


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