AS WE left the Hilton-like hotel for a stroll around Marx-Engels Platz, the young East German said: "We are holding up a mirror for you here. Try to see through it."
Last week I stepped into the looking-glass world of East Germany for a four-day conference of European Catholics.
The Berlin Conference has been going since 1964. This was its seventh session. It has a permanent secretariat, and this year 220 delegates and a dozen Or more guests attended.
They were flown in from all parts of Europe and housed in the best hotels in East Berlin, which are not much different from the best hotels in any other capital city.
The bill came to half a million marks (about /125,000) and the East German Government paid it.
I could not help wondering what Mgr Bruce Kent would think if the Government here offered him the Dorchester, /125,000 and full co-operation to hold a conference on disarmament.
At least you couldn't describe the motives of the East Germans as a catch. The text of the final communiques written on the first night of the conference, amply reflected the thinking of the pre-conference papers which in turn seemed remarkably similar to the East German Government's policy on peace and disarmament.
No one could disagree with it, but it reflected more than anything else the fact that if you look hard enough you can find quotations in the Bible to back up any political cause.
On solidarity, for example, it mentioned the misery of innumerable parts of Europe which suffered the effects "of a social system which places the greed for profit before everything else and gives rise to violence."
It went on to describe the mass unemployment, inflation, signs of hopelessness and demoralisation: no mention of the shortcomings of Eastern Europe.
On disarmament, the militancy of the conference was impeccable, denouncing all attempts to sabotage the disarmament talks and condemning the nuclear bomb.
The Western delegates managed to get in a clause which condemned nuclear explosions even for peaceful purposes — an activity only practised by Russia at present — but when they tried to insert a clause calling for recognition of conscientious objection the Eastern bloc delegates, priests and all, voted against it.
Earlier, an attempt to insert the phrase "and socialist" into a sentence blaming the arms race on the policies of capitalist countries, resulted in the withdrawal of the whole phrase.
The final document was a blanci expression of desire for peace from an East European point of view, except for the odd phrase which Western delegates could insert as an amendment.
But, like most conferences, particularly those set up from above, the final paper document and the grand speeches were not the most important part.
The conference acts as a meeting place: it is the only place at which Western and Eastern Catholics can meet.
The Eastern delegates were a mixture. Some came for the chance to travel and made "passport speeches," written up and given at the conference in exchange for a travel permit. One, a -Russian, spoke his piece like a bankrupt reading out his tax torm.
There were, inevitably, the straight party men, but they were pointed out in the first few hours. They resembled, to my mind, the Vatican delegates at international Catholic conferences,
But the revelation for me was the existence of those Catholics who have grown up in the postStalin period and, while recognising that everything that is not for the State must be against it, try to encourage the governments into a more liberal line towards the Church.
They are not the persecuted Church, nor are they sold out. They are greatly helped by an official conference with a final document which their government couldn't disagree with but which contains subtle encouragement towards liberalism and even, as the British amendment suggested, the possibility that Christianity could not be identified with any particular political or social system but should always have a critical role to play.
Each country is different, and Poland in a class of its own, but these Christians need contact and help as much as the martyrs and dissidents.
They are both Socialist and Catholic, and as loyal to their institutions as we are to ours. Talking with them I also realis ed how effective propaganda has been from both sides.
Just as we in the West gei little news from their countries except scares about arms buildup, infiltration and violations of human rights, they only get news of Western arms buildups, the neutron bomb, unemployment, exploitation, and Nortohtehrn societies only receive, B
the worst possible news from each other. There are many positive developments in the East European countries which are not growing out of a cynical desire to manipulate people, just as there are positive developments happening in Western society which are not the product of commercial
proi nfifto exchange would .rmation be a major contribution to peace. That is why the Church in this country needs to have an independent East European office — a man, or a nun, employed full-time collecting, information about the dissidents as well as about the situation of the non-dissident East European Christians.
A well-informed person from Western Europe could have made a very significant impact at the Berlin Conference.
But more important is the questionto what extent can Christianity exist in socialist and Capitalist states? The Third World guests and observers had no doubt at all about which system benefited their progress away fromdignity.
Capitalism just wasn't an option. It seems time, therefore, for the Church to recognise socialism as a genuine and si loternatiivnetshyessteamme, but not alternative it critical way in which Christianity in Europe has endorsed Berlin Conference has capitalism.
proved that socialism does not have to be atheist. But then, what is so theistic about capitalism?
Although I never saw it myself people say that when the sun shines at a certain angle on the massive ball on East Berlin's spire-like television tower, it appears like a vast and perfect cross. The locals with an irony common in East Europen states, call it Albrecht's Cathedral in memory of their former premier.
Symbolic it may not be but the gaudy advertisements shouting from the tops of West Berlin office blocks definitely are symbolic. And the style of life they symbolise doesn't hold much hope for the future.