Friday, March 12, 2010

Communism Was Really Bad

That may not seem like an especially daring statement, and we suppose it's not. Several generations of North Americans were raised to take it for granted, and at least one young generation of Eastern Europeans does too.

On the other hand, as recently as twenty-one years ago, somebody sitting in the exact spot where Father Anonymous is now sitting, were he to type those words -- "Communism is bad" -- or even to say them aloud, would have been making a statement of enormous, and life-endangering, moment.

Tonight, we attended a presentation by an historian who has spent years poring through papers of the Securitate, the former Romanian secret police. This gentleman has made a special study of one narrow range of papers: those pertaining to the Securitate and its relations to the Lutheran church. He has done this at the behest of the church itself, which wants to understand its own story. (And by the way, the Romanian government gets high marks for its willingness to make a vast archive of sensitive intelligence documents available for research, without redaction.) Although his public presentation wasn't comprehensive, it was certainly detailed enough.

He showed us, courtesy of Powerpoint, samples of the dossiers that the police kept on church leaders. They are just what you would expect: long, banal, bureaucratic, and largely worthless. Even in their own time, it is impossible to imagine that anybody cared, or had reason to care, what a particular bishop or pastor ate for lunch, or where he ate it. Often, during the presentation, we wondered who could stand the sheer tedium of reading these reports.

And yet an authoritarian state found the Church terrifying, so much so that it made astonishing efforts to infiltrate, co-opt and even destroy it. After all, the Church (not merely the Lutheran church, but Christianity taken as a whole) was and remains a challenge to every form of idolatry, and governments specialize in creating idols. The Lutherans, as part of the Hungarian ethnic minority, were that much more of a challenge. They spoke an incomprehensible language, had friends and colleagues abroad, and seemed, to the paranoid and unintelligent apparatus of the security state, inscrutable.

It is said that in Romania, at one point, roughly one person in ten was an informer. Within the bishop's office, the percentage was far higher. In the 1940s, Argay Gyorgy's home was searched, and a map of "greater Hungary" -- that is, one which showed the borders before World War I -- was discovered. Based upon this, he was sent to prison. However, he was released and continued to serve as bishop until his death in 1974. During that time, no fewer than three of his closest advisors are known to have been filing detailed reports on his daily routine.

And -- because national-security bureaucracies are above all bureaucracies -- every report was filled out in triplicate.

Imagine your own diocesan office, dear reader, if the bishop's assistant, secretary and attorney were all writing notes and sending them to an unmarked office in Washington. How much ministry would get done, even under the best of circumstances? Imagine the atmosphere of distrust, and try to imagine an entire society in which this atmosphere prevailed for decades -- and in which it has by no means entirely dissipated all these years later.

There is much more to the story. Seminary professors were encouraged to spy on their students, and vice-versa. Church diplomats were sent to Geneva, to some ecumenical gathering, with specific instructions to spread lies about the well-known defector, Richard Wurmbrand. And on, and on.

We would all it "Kafkaesque," or "Twilight-Zone-y," except for one thing. Lives were at stake. Lives, families, and freedom were all in constant danger, which means that trite comparisons to literature are not really appropriate. The story that we heard tonight, as much as we could hear in whispered translation, isn't really a "story" properly so-called. It is one fraction of an extraordinarily grim history, one which was extraordinarily painful to live through, and which is surely no joy to write -- but which must be written, so that it can be known, and remembered, for generations to come.


Anonymous said...

Most Lutherans were "Saxons", i.e. ethnic/linguistic Germans. The ethnic/linguistic Hungarians were mostly Catholic or Calvinist, with a very small Unitarian minority.
Ethnic Romanians were/are overwhelmingly Orthodox.
The situation in East Germany was even more spy-intensive; nearly one fourth of the population was involved with the Stasi at one point or another.

Father said...

"Were" being the operative word. The Saxon church (in English, the ECAC) has shrunk to almost nothing because of repatriations, both during and since the Communist era. Since it still has responsibility for a number of beautiful and historic churches, which are of course expensive to maintain, I'm curious to see how it will work out.

As things stand now, the Hungarian church (in English, ELCR) is much larger than the Saxon one. It is, however, still very small, especially in comparison to the Reformed.

I take for granted that readers understand that all these [Hungarian] religious communities are minorities in a country that is 85% Romanian Orthodox. However, that number can be a smidge misleading when we talk about Transylvania, because -prior to World War I -- the numbers were balanced a bit differently, and much more civil power rested with the Hungarians.