Doomed to Repeat?: Growing up in East Germany – Our Education

Posted: April 6, 2021 by petrabfoerster in Tales From, UTKM Student Corner
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A collection of East German textbooks from the School Museum in Leipzig (source)

This is part 2 “Our Education” of a 5 part series titled Doomed to repeat?: Growing up in East Germany by Petra Foerster (Part 1 – Our History)

Doomed to Repeat?: Growing up in East Germany – Our Education Audio by Jonathan Fader

Okay, so we’ve established that East Germany was a Socialist system. While West Germany was lucky to have “Gastarbeiter” the situation in East Germany was a bit different. While here, too, people from other countries were brought in (mostly from other Eastern European countries, Vietnam, North Korea, Angola, Mozambique, and, of course, Cuba), there was still a shortage of workers. Though East Germany tends to brag about how progressive they were regarding treating men and women equally, I personally think that it is this shortage that forced the government to provide resources so that both men and women could contribute equally to rebuilding the country.

In West Germany you could observe a more traditional role distribution, with the husband going to work and being the main breadwinner and the wife staying at home to raise the children. In East Germany both were working, often in a very exhausting shift system. Early childhood education started for quite early many children, beginning with Kinderkrippe (nursery school) for very young children (5/6 months old to approx. 3 years old), followed by Kindergarten (garden of children) for 3-5/6 year olds, and then starting primary school usually at the age of 6.

The positive side was that every child was guaranteed a spot in the Kinderkrippe and Kindergarten. Plus there was a lot of effort put into the education of the staff. As a child you learned early on to be part of a group, which is important, but this can also be used to start feeding the children into a specific social system. In my case it was Socialism. We were taught songs, German children’s songs and songs that were translated from Russian. We would listen to fairy tails from the Brothers Grimm and stories about Baba Yaga and the beautiful Wassilissa. The Soviet Union was often referred to as “grosser bruder” (big brother), not in Orwell’s sense of “Big Brother” from the book 1984, but as a literal older sibling who, allegedly, was looking out for his younger sibling, the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

There were many exchange programs going on between East German and Soviet schools. The first foreign language most people learned was Russian, starting in grade 5. Mine was the first generation of students who learned English first in grade 5, Russian still being added grade 7. Keep in mind, when I was in grade 7 it was 1993, so this was happening 4 years after the wall came down and 3 years after the official re-unification. The changes following the collapse of the Eastern Block were implemented very slowly.

There is a big age gap between my siblings and myself. My sister is almost 18 years older than me, but we still managed to have couple of teachers in common over subsequent years. When my sister was in school one of our shared teachers reported her for wearing a blue jeans with the US flag, resulting in her suspension. To become a teacher you had to be a member of the main political party, the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands/Socialist Unity Party of Germany). When I had that same teacher in school (1993-1998) they were now a member of the CDU (Christliche Demokratische Union Deutschlands/Christian Democratic Union of Germany) which meant this person did a socio-political 180! Socialism considers religion as “opium for the people.” As a result there weren’t many active churches in East Germany. We had friends who were catholic and all of their children were incredibly smart and intelligent, but because of their faith they had a hard time getting admitted to universities. I think family friends were able to help them because I know that one of the children studied mathematics and physics at a university level. It was definitely not easy for them and I’m sure the Stasi (Staatssicherheit – the state secret service) had a close eye on them.

The first lesson my dad taught me was “don’t believe the media.” Especially in countries ruled by the Soviet Union newspapers, broadcast news, and books, where these forms of media were used to manipulate the population. We were provided with books in that promoted the idea of Socialism. Many German authors and artists who voiced their concern or openly criticized this philosophy where shunned, banned, not allowed to publish their works, imprisoned, or even expelled (anyone noticing the hypocrisy?). Critical thinking was not encouraged.

Uniform of the socialist youth league in East Germany (source)

From grade 1 to 8 students were part of the socialist youth organization called Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organization. From grade 1 to 4 we were “Jungpioniere” (Young Pioneers) and our uniform was a white shirt with the Pioneer logo on one sleeve and a blue necktie. From grade 5 to 8 we would wear a red necktie and were called “Thälmannpioniere” (Thälmann Pioneers). I think my generation was probably the last one that still got to be a “Thälmannpionier,” I remember a big ceremony related to that. But again – that was years after the re-unification. We, too, had 10 commandments. One of them was to be friends with children from the Soviet Union and all other countries (but emphasis being on the SU). In grade 8 I would have advanced into the FDJ, the “Freie Deutsche Jugend” (Free German Youth). Part of that organization included attending all kinds of camps where you learned how to dig trenches, among other things, but by the time I was that age the whole process was discontinued. The FDJ still exists in Germany, though, but is no longer important. The positive side of these youth organizations was that they provided summer camps and arranged holidays for children and young adults, which was a great relief for working parents. Our summer break being 8 weeks long (as it is in Canada), many working parents were unable to take the time off.

Our education system was structured to get us ready to be good little workers in service of the higher ideal of socialism. History was taught from the Soviet point of view and emphasized how thankful we have to be “for the Soviets to free us from the Nazis.” Facts about war crimes committed by the Soviets were conveniently omitted. I was still very young when the brainwashing started and I remember reading a book about the crimes committed by the Red Army and my first reaction was shock and disbelief, but reason kicked in and I understood that my education had been very one-sided. When you are being raised in a specific system that also conditioned you on how to think and how to perceive things, it takes a lot of time to first acknowledge it, then try to break the pattern and to step away to get a different point of view on things. The first thing that our brain learns is often perceived as the ultimate truth. When you are taught early on that the Soviet Union is your “big brother” and “looks out for you,” and they are “all that is good in the world” and that “socialism/communism is the non plus ultra, it can be a very brutal awakening when this illusion is shattered and you will become very skeptical.

Or at least I became very skeptical.

Whenever someone is trying to sell me something as the greatest thing ever, without any negative sides, I don’t believe them. Every idea, every concept, has pros and cons; it really depends on your position. One thing that really bothers me in the social structure that pushed so hard on every side to “sell” us on this ideology, was the reporting, the subject of the next part in this series.

Written by: Petra Foerster – UTKM Green Belt

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