On its way toward a unified socialist society, the East German Communist (SED) regime did not countenance civic self-organization in associations or societies outside of the official mass organizations of the state. Catholic lay organizations, which had been the pillars of German Catholic life well into the Weimar period, had their means of existence stripped away. Nevertheless, Kolping ‘Families’ – what had been local chapters of the German Kolping network (previously the Katholischer Gesellenverein, the Catholic journeymen’s association) – continued to exist in the GDR in considerable numbers. The Catholic Church, which together with the Protestant Church was the only large-scale organization in East Germany that was not reshaped by the totalitarian structures of the state, provided the necessary room for maneuver.

After being forced to give up its entire program of temporal vocational training in the Nazi dictatorship, the Kolping Society was able to reestablish itself in the Federal Republic as a democratically constituted Catholic welfare association that was active within wider society. In eastern Germany, by contrast, association law and the right of assembly were already hollowed out step by step under the Soviet occupation government. The only possibility for the Kolping Families there to secure their existence was to work as ‘parish groups’ without any temporal program under the protective umbrella of the Church.

The integration into the Church, which was supported by large parts of the episcopate, and the resulting separation from the West German Kolping association, did secure the continued existence of the Kolping Families in the GDR. Yet the process of becoming an official Church agency, which exposed reservations on the part of some clergy toward the previously independent lay organization, was accompanied by a certain paralyzation of the Kolping Families’ activities. Only the upgrading of the role of laypeople in the Church (‘lay apostolate’) promoted by the Second Vatican Council and the resulting increased scope for action led to a revitalization of activity. Henceforth, the ‘Kirchliche Kolpingsarbeit’ (‘Church based Kolping ministry’) were an integral component of the diaspora church in the GDR, not only in an organizational but also a pastoral sense.

The existing conditions in a socialist dictatorship and the resulting dependence on the Church shaped the programs, self-understanding, and sphere of action of the ‘Kirchliche Kolpingsarbeit’ (‘Church based Kolping ministry.’) These took the shape of a generation-spanning community of men and women within the Church who worked to strengthen the Christian life of faith in an atheistic society. The community also served as a place where people with non-academic vocations could have contact with the Church, thereby complementing the existing outreach efforts toward university graduates and students. With the aim of supporting their members in all areas of life, the Kolping Families provided a program of religious education, and of strengthening marriage and the family, as well as Christian conceptions of work and vocation. They played an active role in Church life, supported their members in taking on responsibility in their parishes, and became involved in diaconal activities. Above all, they committed time and material to maintaining church buildings (in what was called the ‘craftsmen’s diaconate’). If nothing else, these efforts helped create autonomous living spaces within socialist everyday life, e.g. by establishing two smaller holiday resorts where Kolping and other Church members could vacation together outside the bounds of state control. In this way, the ‘Church’s Kolping efforts,’ which encompassed roughly 4,000 members, fashioned a Catholic minority counterculture that remained outside mainstream GDR society.

Within the diaspora pastoral care organized at the parish level, the Kolping Families were always keen to preserve their own separate profile. This happened through orientation on the person of Father Adolph Kolping (1813–1865), cultivation of separate Kolping traditions (such as anniversary celebrations or pilgrimages), and – not least – ‘inner-German’ partnerships with Kolping groups in the Federal Republic. In particular, the society’s management based in Cologne took advantage of increased opportunities for cross-border contacts resulting from political détente between East and West to support Kolping Families in the GDR more intensively than before. In the process, a more highly developed associational self-awareness began to emerge within the ‘Kirchliche Kolpingsarbeit’ (‘Church based Kolping ministry’) in the 1970s. Inspired by their exchanges with West German representatives of the Kolping Society as well as the post-conciliar discourses, the Kolping Families began to increasingly address the problems of wider society. Yet their scope of action remained limited to within the boundaries of the Church. What is more, the Kolping Families observed the policy of ‘political abstinence’ set by the leadership of the Church, by which public statements regarding current political issues were the exclusive preserve of the bishops. As a consequence, the Kolping Families were not among the driving forces of the democratic revolution of 1989.

Although the work of the Kolping Families had only a limited impact on society, the East German communist regime attributed to them a certain leadership role within the spectrum of Catholic lay organizations. For this reason, and also of course because of the contacts they maintained in Western countries, the Kolping Families were from the start placed under surveillance by the Stasi. In the 1950s, a decade of open political repression against the churches, individual Kolping members were subjected to criminal prosecution, but starting in the 1960s, the Stasi shifted to subtler forms of surveillance. Using a network of ‘unofficial collaborators’ (IM’s) in Berlin, they kept abreast of all important structural and personnel developments within the Kolping network. Nonetheless, the Stasi never managed to achieve steering influence over the ‘Kirchliche Kolpingsarbeit’ (‘Church based Kolping ministry’).