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Book reviews >

Communing with the Enemy: Covert operations, Christianity and Cold War politics in Britain and the GDR

Peter Lang £34 (3-03910-192-7)

 BEFORE 1989, no one in the West believed anything from official sources in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). After 1989, they believed everything they found in the state archives. But those materials were full of careless errors, and of malicious and misleading falsehoods. They required critical academic scrutiny, and, wherever possible, checking against the memories and private papers of those concerned. This was not always done; and many myths, especially (but not only) about the part played by the Church became current. Much of the true story remains to be told.

Merrilyn Thomas puts us all in her debt with this fascinating book, based on a doctoral thesis. It combines painstaking research into archives on both sides of the North Sea with interviews with surviving eye-witnesses. Her scope is rather narrower than the title suggests, being largely confined to a detailed analysis of the Coventry-Dresden project of reconciliation of 1965; and it benefits greatly from this sharp focus on a single example.

She shows convincingly how, behind the scenes, unbeknown to participants, a complex Cold War game was being played out at the levels of politics (civic, national, and international) and of covert operations.

That is, perhaps, not surprising — at least, with hindsight. At the time, though, many of us who were engaged in similar enterprises took it for granted we were infiltrated, under constant surveillance, and potentially manipulated. It was worth the risk, however, because, if the Communists were attempting to use cross-border contacts for their purposes, we were also using them for ours.

They afforded us rare and precious opportunities for travel, at a time when the Soviet Union, with all the resources of a modern industrialised state, was trying to seal one half of Europe off from the rest. These opportunities were used to the full simply to meet, to worship together, to bring hope and the assurance of not being forgotten, to convey food and clothing, medicine and fresh fruit, and (except in the GDR, which was well supplied) the word of God in the form of Bibles, hymn books, and works of theology. Even the fact that we were being bugged could be used to convey the messages that we wanted the authorities to hear.

The searching light that Dr Thomas sheds so effectively on the political and ideological machinations of the mighty in London, Berlin, Coventry, and Dresden reveals much in the background which had previously been obscure. Her skill in interpreting an immense amount of archival material underlies many shrewd judgements of persons and policies.

It modestly leaves in the shadows the reckless idealism of the young volunteers (of which she was one), their adventurousness and curiosity, their discipleship, and the sheer exoticism, then, of "crossing the Iron Curtain", as we used to say, to meet fellow Christians under the "real, existing socialism" of the GDR.

She tends to overestimate the uniqueness of the Coventry-Dresden project, and appears to be unaware of the international, ecumenical work camps, organised jointly by the World Council of Churches and the Ecumenical Youth Service (OJD) of the GDR, which provided similar opportunities for young people to meet across the great divide, from the mid-1950s. Her pioneering work, however, will be invaluable when that tale is told.

It is worth buying the book simply to meet the mysterious Hans-Joachim Seidowsky, Paul Oestreicher’s Doppelgänger and shadow. He is properly depicted from the outside, with objective

and academic detachment. To understand him, and others like him, from the inside, we need also the imaginative insights of John le Carré’s Absolute Friends or, better still, of Dostoevsky’s The Devils.

This book is available through

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

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