For Uwe Holmer, the question wasn’t simple. But it was clear.
Did he believe what Jesus said?
The East German dictator Erich Honecker was asking for his help. Honecker had long been an enemy of the church, a powerful ideological opponent of Christianity who had worked to suppress and control people of faith in the German Democratic Republic, and he had personally harried and harassed Holmer’s own family for years.
But now the Communist leader had been pushed from power, driven from his home, turned out of a hospital onto the street—and he was asking the Lutheran church to take him in.
Holmer had to decide what he believed.
He knew what the answer was.
“Jesus says to love your enemies,” he explained to his neighbors at the time. “When we pray, Vergib uns unsere Schuld, wie wir vergeben unseren Schuldigern”—forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us—“we must take these commands seriously.”
The evangelical minister accepted the deposed dictator into his home in January 1990 and cared for him and his wife Margot for two and a half months. The action shocked Germans, East and West. The 40-year division of the country had just collapsed, and as the Cold War came to a surprising end, the German people didn’t know what was going to happen next or how they should treat those on the other side.
The until-then unknown pastor offered one bold answer: forgiveness and hospitality. Hate, Holmer said, is “not a good starting point for a new beginning among our people.”
“Uwe Holmer was a person who lived out of deep piety right up to the end,” said Tilman Jeremias, Protestant bishop of Northern Germany. “He was able to show charity even toward a socialist and atheist like Erich Honecker.”
Holmer was born in Wismar, about 150 miles north of Berlin on the Baltic Sea, in 1929.
As a child, he joined the Hitler youth, attracted by the camaraderie, optimism for the future, and the opportunity to learn about new things like car engines. He was impacted more, however, by the trans-denominational movement of evangelical Christians associated with the German Evangelical Alliance.
At an Alliance prayer meeting in Wismar, he saw pietists from his Lutheran church joining in worship with Methodists, Baptists, and other free-church Christians, all united by their trust in Christ. Later, when he had some health problems as a teenager, he was sent to a lung clinic for 10 months. There, he became close friends with an older boy who spent his time ministering to those who were suffering and telling them about Jesus. Holmer decided he wanted to be like that.
When he graduated high school in 1948, he decided to study theology to become a Lutheran minister at the University of Jena. The school had been mostly destroyed during World War II. But the Soviet Union took over that sector of the country and rebuilt and reformed the school as a model of Communist education. Despite an ideological commitment to atheism, Soviet authorities allowed theology classes, installing Lutheran professors known for their opposition to Nazism.
Holmer decided to continue his education at Jena even when his parents, concerned about the increasing authoritarianism, decided to leave their home and move to West Germany in 1950. Holmer said he thought people in the East would need pastors. He graduated and was ordained in 1955.
When he was assigned to a rural northern church, however, Holmer struggled to become an effective minister. The people didn’t understand his sermons. He flailed around in the pulpit, not speaking clearly. In crisis, he picked up the works of Martin Luther and became convicted that he should only preach one thing: “Your sins are forgiven.”
It changed everything about his ministry.
“I simply proclaimed the grace of God and how we can take hold of it by faith,” he later said. “And lo and behold! This offer of the gospel came alive in the hearts of many people, gave assurance of forgiveness, and made them free and joyful. For ‘where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.’”
Though he was not especially political, the young minister was committed to democracy. He ran afoul of the Communist regime in the late 1960s, when he criticized the forced collectivization of agriculture. The Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, put him under surveillance, noting that he could be a troublemaker. One of the people keeping an eye on him was Honecker, who was then the security secretary for the central committee of the German Communist party.
Honecker played a key role in the construction of the Berlin Wall at about that time and formally took responsibility for the policy of shooting people trying to escape to the West, called Schießbefehl, “order to shoot.” More than 300 people ultimately died at the wall.
When Honecker rose to the top of the Communist party and took control of the state in 1971, he made a show of liberalizing East Germany. He orchestrated the economy to provide more blue jeans for young people and allowed more freedom for authors and artists.
Honecker also worked out a deal with the Protestant church, offering them a secure place in East German life and a higher public profile, including a weekly broadcast on state-run radio, in exchange for a commitment to not criticize him or the government. The Lutheran leadership in East Germany agreed to function as a “church within socialism,” but the Communist dictator did not always honor his side of the bargain.
The Stasi continued to spy on Holmer, and his 10 children were denied access to higher education. They had good grades and qualified to attend the advanced high school that would prepare them for university. But when they applied, they were rejected without explanation. The education department, notably, was run by Margot Honecker, who was sometimes known as “the purple witch.”
When the family got angry with this treatment, however, they made a practice of giving their feelings to God and forgiving the authorities who were making their lives difficult. They understood that to be what Jesus wanted.
At one point, Holmer found himself praying for Erich Honecker. He was thinking about how much power the Communist leader had, how he was praised, flattered, and applauded everywhere he went, and how bad that must be for his soul.
He needs help, Holmer thought. I would gladly tell him about the gospel if I got the chance.
Then, to the surprise of almost everyone, the East German regime started to wobble. The Communist party attempted to restore stability by forcing Honecker out. It didn’t work, and a month later people started tearing down the Berlin Wall. The state legislature moved to end one-party control, effectively removing the Communists from power, and a prosecutor opened a case against the deposed leader. Honecker was charged with treason, embezzlement, and abuse of power. He was placed under house arrest. But then the legislature started seizing the party’s property, and Honecker was suddenly homeless.
After a short hospital stay, Honecker was forced out onto the street. With nowhere else to go and fearing he might be killed by a mob, he turned to the Lutheran church for help. Holmer, at the time, was overseeing an institute on the outskirts of Berlin where they cared for disabled people. He consulted with his wife, Sigrid, and the children who still lived with them, and then offered to help. They cleared two upstairs rooms and welcomed the Honeckers.
“They were a helpless, rather desperate couple,” he later recalled. “We … thought about it for a long time, but felt that we should not start the new era with hatred and contempt, but with reconciliation.”
The Holmers’ home was soon inundated by the country’s first media frenzy, as reporters tried to get quotes from the pastor and his strange house guest, and photographers strained to snap pictures. Protestors also arrived to yell at the minister and demand punishment for Honecker.
No grace for Honecker! one sign said.
Holmer tried to change their minds.
He reminded his neighbors of a statue of Jesus in town that quoted Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” He reminded them of the Lord’s Prayer, which they prayed in church every Sunday, asking God to forgive them as they forgave others.
“Listen, man,” one man shouted in response. “That is not the point.”
Holmer and his family protected and cared for the deposed dictator for 10 weeks. Holmer found that Honecker wasn’t very interested in talking to him about the error of his ways, however, and how he could lay hold of God’s forgiveness through faith in Christ.
“Mr. Honecker,” Holmer said at one point, “socialism made a mistake. Socialism means that people are good, but they are not. Everyone is an egoist. Jesus said we are sinners. That’s why Jesus wanted to change hearts. And when hearts are changed for good—for faith, hope, and love, and also for honesty and responsibility—then we will have the conditions for good.”
In April, Honecker left and went to a Soviet hospital where he could be treated for a malignant tumor on his liver. He later fled the country, successfully fought to have his case thrown out by the Supreme Court of the new German government, and spent his last days in Chile. He never showed any interest in Holmer’s message, but he and his wife thanked the minister and his family for their kindness and sent them a Christmas card every year.
Holmer returned to obscurity and spent the rest of his life quietly ministering to those in need. He moved to the small town of Serrahn, where he cared for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. He preached in local churches when their pastors were on vacation and regularly traveled to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to teach Bible school.
Holmer became a member of the board of the German Evangelical Alliance and urged Christians across denominations to unite around Christ and the core message of the gospel: Your sins are forgiven.
“The world is overflowing with sin, hatred and strife, war and godlessness,” he said. “It so desperately needs the offer of grace and forgiveness through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.”
In 2022, Holmer’s story was made into a documentary by Jan Josef Liefers, star of the television crime drama Tatort. The film, Honecker and the Pastor, was broadcast on German public television.
“Sometimes reality is more exciting than any fiction,” Liefers said. “If I told you that a fallen dictator had to ask for help from the most despised of his oppressed people, you would think it was a beautiful fairy tale. But this actually happened.”
Holmer was predeceased by his wife, Sigrid. He is survived by their ten children, his second wife, Christine, and her five children.