‘Bleigießen, you know it’? “Lead pouring”, the interpreter tells me as the participant shows me a photo on her phone. It’s a New Years Eve custom we sometimes do. She goes on to explain, once the lead has melted on your spoon over a burning candle, you drop it into cold water and it makes a shape. You then interpret the shape and it will tell you what the new year will bring. Similar to the reading of tea leaves or tarot cards, I ask, is this just for fun? Or do you believe the shape of the lead will hold some truth over what is to take place the following year? She smiles, I expect her to reply ‘just for fun, of course’, but she does not, she remarks ‘some truth’.
I’ve decided to keep the “tradition” of writing these initial reflections in the airport while waiting for my plane. I’ve just finished the second field trip to Leipzig, the most populous city in Saxony – East Germany. A city where 83.9% of the inhabitants in 2012 said they have no religion. Bullivant’s recent report on young people (16-29) which uses the European Social Survey (the same data we are using for this research) notes that 45% of Millenials/Gen Z Germans identify with no religion. However, if we split Germany into West and East, research has shown that only 2.5% of East Germans are certain of, or have always believed in God – and thus has been referred to as the most Godless place on Earth.
Atheism is the norm, it is not something which is discussed. Similarly, neither was religion, and agnosticism was a term which few were familiar with. Beliefs were deemed to be something private, not discussed with friends and certainly not posted on social media. Participants felt that religion did not have any impact on their lives. Although, one participant did tell me that they had recently opted out of Kirchensteuer (church tax), not because they were unable to afford it, or because they deemed religious beliefs to be a bad thing per se, but because they opposed institutional religion.
Leipzig is a beautiful city and I was lucky enough to be treated to a late night tour. I’m told the Paulinerkirche was a church on the Augustusplatz in Leipzig, but instead stands a university building with remnants of a church-like design.
I stare up at the modern building and ask what happened to the church as I walk past with a friend, was it destroyed during the war? ‘No, not during the war, It was blown up afterward’. ‘Blown up like knocked down, demolished’? I wonder if the translation is correct. ‘Dynamite to make way for the university by the communist government’ – the plaque in front of it with a miniature model of the old church confirms this… ‘blown up’ it reads underneath.
Their relationship with religion is very different from the Netherlands (my first research trip), which stems (among other reasons) from their communist past. Some Dutch participants were concerned and even feared the negative impact they believed Islam was having. I was told in the NL by one participant that ‘Islamaphobia’ was a strange term –– as a phobia is an irrational fear –– and there’s nothing irrational about fearing Islam. Yet, East Germans hardly mentioned religion, apart from one, they all grew up in nonreligious households, they did not go to Church (but they enjoyed the beauty of the buildings) and when asked about their values, they all gave the same answer: tolerance.
Returning to bleigießen (lead pouring), all participants apart from one believed in nothing supernatural, no higher power, no God(s). However, the superstition or belief that this oracle reading of melted metal could influence or predict the future was an interesting nuance, one I did not expect to find in East Germany.
Next stop Warsaw. I’m still seeking three participants, please do get in touch here if you are interested!
Here’s a photo of me looking very happy facing one of Leipzig’s artificial lakes after taking a tour of the city in a 1970 Trabi car.