At a meeting of Protestant church leaders here earlier this month, the 69-year-old bishop of this region near the Polish border, Hans Joachim Frankel, told his fellow clergymen that there was a danger to East German teenagers in the government's new policy of introducing preliminary military training into ninth and 10th grade schoolrooms.
"The danger," said the bishop, "is that young people of this age group can form a premature picture of friend and foe which, combined with the influence of emotional factors, can turn into hatred." This, he went on, "can block training for peace, hinder the chances for finding peaceful solutions and result in seeing violence as the means of settling conflicts."
Furthermore, the bishop warned, "outside of East Germany, these military lessons are being seen as in direct conflict with the Helsinki agreements, which were meant to increase trust."
In a country where public political dissent is rare and risky, the bishop's comments seem courageous. Yet Bishop Fraenkel is not alone on this issue. Leading Protestant and Catholic East German clergymen in many cities have spoken out in recent months against the Berlin government's lowering to 14 of the age for beginning military courses in the classroom and summer camps.
On the one hand, the church opposition constitutes one of the most serious open challenges to state policy here by any organized group in recent years. Yet the matter is more of an issue between church and state than a heated controversy.
This is so in part because the students in many cases do not appear particular concerned and the church is trying to avoid an avalanche of Western criticism of East Germany or disruption of the general improvement in church-state relations over the past year or two.
Officially, the Communist government has not provided many details on the courses and camps, except to say they are made necessary by Western military threats and "to make young people ready for their future life under socialism."
Party members say privately, however, that one reason for the controversial new program is that the East German Army is finding it hard to recruit and retain career officers. East Germany has about 200,000 men in the regular Army, about half conscripts.
Church leaders and churchgoers in several cities say the government also sees the need to regain and reassert more control and authority over teen-agers whose tastes often run to Western clothes, music and television.
By dropping the age level to 10th grade, the government also has another crack at influencing many students who might normally move on to vocational schools at that level and miss the military training that normally comes in higher grades.
"Actually, the government faces a problem with the whole youth movement here," said one lay officials. For the past 20 years or so, education was relatively liberal, but now I think the government feels things have gone too far. They are getting back more to Prussian ideals of militarism and teaching. But it is a false method. The young people do not and won't accept it.
"We are all against the defense instruction for the teen-agers," he says, "and so are many parents who are not church members but simply parents who say they don't want guns in the hands of a 14-year old. The government knows the extent of the opposition. They know it would be better to make it only a civil defense program. But they can't go back. They can't say they made a mistake. But it is a mistake. A real mistake."
At the Technical University in Dresden, students said their brothers and sisters for the most part don't take the program seriously. A few are enthusiastic, but most are not, they say.
Thus far, says Bishop Fraenkel, only a few youths have openly protested.
Several weeks ago, 21-year-old Uwe Reimann of Goerlitz was arrested here and charged with possession of a controversial issue of the West German magazine Der Spiegel and with posting handbills to protest the courses, to demand abstention on the grounds of conscience, and protection against persecution of youngsters and their families who refuse to take part.
The government, according to Bishop Fraenkel, has pledged not to discriminate against nonparticipants, to enter a note for "unexcused absences" on their report cards.
About half East Germany's 16.7 million people are Protestants and another 1.5 million are Catholics. Actual church membership is very much less than that and East Germany's churches, though outspoken on the military issue, are nowhere near as powerful an internal force as, for example, the Catholic Church in Poland.
Still, church leaders here, in Dresden and elsewhere report a small revival of youth interest in the church. "Christian youth are optimistic," Fraenkel said during a brief interview here in which he declined to elaborate on his public remarks about the military project. "They know what they want and are not without hope. Others are indifferent."
The inability to travel to the West and see for themselves is the single most widespread source of unrest and disbelief in their own government among East German youth, many interviews here indicate.
West German television penetrates about 80 percent of East Germany and, students say, they are well aware of the difference between official government propaganda, which is everywhere, and what they feel they know about the West.
On the other hand, there is a sense of pride here in what has been accomplished by the postwar East German government in education social welfare and housing.
Finding a job is no problem in this labor-short country. But finding a satisfying job is another question, said an engineering student from Dresden. A vistor from Jena, a biology student, said her biggest worry is whether she and her husband will be able to find jobs and an apartment in the same town after graduation.
East Germany, despite its postwar housing expansion, remains critically short of housing for individual familes, something it is trying to solve by 1990.