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… be a Student Athlete in Former Socialist East Germany?

jogger at Berlin Wall

My mother’s brother and one of her sisters with their children grew up, lived, and worked in East Germany. Her oldest sister and she herself got out as teenagers, before the Wall was built. While I was lucky to be born on the other side of the Wall in prosperous, free West Germany, I was always captivated by “the lives of the others” over there, who were our relatives yet so wondrously strange, with their different “language,” vocabulary, dress, behavior, and life’s circumstances. For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, there are two great movies about the German Democratic Republic (GDR): “Good-Bye, Lenin!” and “The Lives of Others.”

An old car (Trabant) at the old town of Quedlinburg on May 16, 2019


I know, this wikipedia entry is in German, but if you just look at the alphabetical vocabulary list there — those are all words written in German, but I don’t understand them!! That means, I can pronounce them, and their components make sense, but they have no meaning to me, because in West Germany, we don’t have those things, and “we don’t talk like this.” Isn’t that funny? I’ll give you a few examples:

CIRCA MARCH 2011 – BERLIN: historical handwriting of the former US president Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Gorbachev – Tear Down This Wall!”, Kulturkaufhaus Dussmann, Berlin-Mitte.

The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote at Southern Illinois University Carbondale about the conditions for student athletes in the former GDR. Many young people nowadays have no idea what it means to be suppressed by the political system and denied a proper education if not participating in the government’s ideology.

“Socialism With an Un-Beautiful Face”: Ideological Infiltration of Primary and Higher Education in the Former German Democratic Republic – The Case Study of Ute, the “Privileged”


            “We knew what the rewards were…. And we wanted them. The coaches and teachers reminded us every week that we were the Priviligierten. Even if we didn’t always feel so ‘privileged,’ we believed we were the elite” (Rodden, 2002, p. 139). This comes from the mouth of an East German student. Can one be privileged in the educational sector, thus having unique career opportunities that fellow students do not have? The striking case study of an East German athlete, skater Ute, shall shed light on the unethical and politically and ideologically infiltrated practices of the school system of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR; 1949-1989). The governmental impact on the educational system in the GDR had numerous faces: curricula were adjusted to match governmental goals; new intelligentsias were raised; purges were conducted to get rid of teachers of other ideologies; state funds were directed towards pro-governmental research projects; researchers were driven into emigration or committed “Republikflucht” (flight from the republic; i.e., the GDR); Church and state were rigorously separated; private schools were abolished; instructors lost their licenses or their personal freedom due to their anti-governmental activities; supervision and denunciation were ever-present; students lost their chances for higher education due to non-participation in governmental youth organizations, while other students were the so-called “privileged.”

            Alas, as Arnswald (2004) bemoans, today’s generation of German students has no recollection any more about this part of German history, two decades after the peaceful revolution in the GDR and the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (cf. Arnswald 2004, 28). Students of other countries will have even less memories of images seen on TV, or accounts read in the print media – moreover, they have not lived through these experiences. This justifies the following literature review, which will give evidence of educational inequality during the GDR regime under the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands; SED). It will be organized in five sub-chapters: 1. the case study of Ute, the “privileged”; 2. a historical overview of the East German school system; 3. the East German School system as viewed by proponents and opponents; 4. the purging of East German schools after the unification (political “soundness”); and 5. the implications for female students after the “Wende” (“Change”; unification).

Case Study of Ute, the “Privileged”

As a spring-board, the case study of a so-called “privileged” student under the GDR regime shall serve as an introduction to the following literature review. In 1994, John Rodden interviewed Ute, a 23-year-old first-year student in German literature at the University of Leipzig in former East Germany. Rodden is to become the author of the first English-language study of GDR education and the first book, in any language, to trace the history of Eastern German education from 1945 through the 1990s: Repainting the Little Red Schoolhouse: A History of Eastern German Education, 1945-1995, published by Oxford University Press, in 2002.

Ute was once an accomplished teenage ice skater in a top sports school in the GDR, and at age 16, a “privileged” student on her way to joining the elite travelling sports cadre. She tells Rodden about her expulsion a decade ago from the elect Red circle, which was followed by “the saga of her youthful rebellion against the State and her struggle to leave the GDR in 1988/89” (Rodden 2002, p. 135). Her parents were independent businesspeople, which was rare; upon gaining his high school diploma in the early 1950s, her father could have proceeded to higher education, but his own father had run a small grocery store, and after nationalizing the property, the state permitted the son to administer the store under the auspices of the state business organization. Ute’s father had little to do with the political party, and she assumes that was why he joined it (ibid.). Ute herself attended the local school and participated in after-school activities, especially sports. With her father’s coaching, she entered into competitive skating at the age of seven.

GERMANY, DDR – CIRCA 1977 : a postage stamp from Germany, GDR showing Children at the mile run.

Her career started at 12, when she received a “certificate of calling” after a successful ice skating competition to attend the major district Sportschule in the city of Erfurt which trained 900 students in 8th to 10th grades for all the major Olympic sports. (As a side note, this sports school was named after a Communist Party member and athlete who had died in a Nazi concentration camp.) The school offered a full monthly check-up at the health center on the premises, and the students received the best medical care the state had to offer.[1] The athlete’s studying experiences were as follows:

“I soon noticed that academics meant very little,” Ute recalls. Every athlete had to belong to the FDJ (Communist youth organization); “study hall” was often given over to the FDJ meetings. Teachers, all of them Party members, would lead the daily political discussions. Topics included freedom fighting in Bruderlaender [brother countries] such as Nicaragua, Western imperialism in El Salvador, and the American invasion of Grenada. (Rodden, 2002, p. 137)

According to Ute, it was better to keep quiet and say little, since silence was usually interpreted as agreement which made a meeting end sooner: “Sometimes I felt like disagreeing just because of the arrogant attitudes of some of the discussion leaders (…). But I never said anything in public – it was pointless to say anything.” (Rodden, 2002, p. 137) Ute maintained her father’s standpoint – indifference towards the GDR regime, instead of rebellion – and had no desire to watch Western TV (which was forbidden). She wanted to become a top performance athlete like Katharina Witt, the “ice princess,” to whom her brother referred as “Socialism with a beautiful face[2]” (138). The peak in Ute’s athletic career was when she made the semi-finals in her age group in the GDR’s 1984 youth Spartikaid in Leipzig. Then, Ute suffered a leg injury and had to undergo surgery. Soon thereafter, the head of the ice skating department informed her that she “had no perspective any more” and would be dropped from her skater group and put in the 10th-grade “exit class” for six months, after which she would be discharged to a regular high school. Ute was out.

Nahaufnahme der Stahlbetonreste der Berliner Mauer, Deutschland. Teile der Mauer wurden als historische Erinnerung hinterlassen.

         She had no idea why, since her coaches had told her that her injury was not that bad, and the operation had been successful. Then, she understood why: her brother, 20 years old, who was already “in trouble for expressing public criticism of GDR life” (140) had officially joined the Lutheran Church and been confirmed in the faith, and – to express solidarity with friends jailed on political grounds – had applied a month before to emigrate.[3] “GDR Kader had to come from families unswervingly loyal to the state and had to be without relatives in capitalist countries.” (Rodden, 2002, p. 140). Thus, Ute was punished for her brother’s defiance. As Rodden states,

[h]er acceptance into this elite “red” school was one of those inexplicable screw-ups so characteristic of bureaucracy – and of totalitarianism generally, where so much was being watched and recorded that accumulation far exceeded the capacity for assimilation and action: the inefficiency of paranoiac hyper-surveillance. (Rodden, 2002, p. 140)

Another feature of the GDR sports cadre became clear to Ute only much later, when she understood the scope and nature of the GDR drug program for athletes: “Although we ice skaters got only vitamins, I noticed right away that something was terribly wrong with the girl swimmers” (ibid, p. 141). Ute observes that, “[a]t 14, they had shoulders as broad and muscular as adult men – and voices just as deep, which was doubtless why the coaches wouldn’t allow most of them to give interviews.” (ibid, p. 141-142).

One girl even told me that the discus throwers and shot putters were instructed to get pregnant several weeks before an international track meet to increase their weight and strength – and thereby their throwing capacity. And then, of course, as soon as the track meet was over, they got abortions. (Rodden, 2002, p. 142)

Ute and her family had great difficulty to stay in contact with her emigrated brother, but they arranged to meet him secretly in Czechoslovakia where East Germans were allowed to travel. When Ute had gained her high school diploma in 1986, she moved to Leipzig and applied to study to become an ice-skating coach. However, in spite of her excellent entrance exam performance, she was refused admission due to her brother’s political views. By 1988, at age 20, Ute decided to emigrate to West Germany, too. However, she had no interest in religion (like her brother, who discouraged her, thinking that this strategy to leave the GDR would not work a second time). She developed a special strategy: “Waitressing at the restaurant, Ute relates with a grin, she would chat up West German visitors who were male and unmarried – she was careful to ascertain their status – and explore whether her ‘rescuer’ was truly ‘emigration material.’” (Rodden, 2002, p. 146) Finally, she met her rescuer, Heinz, a German literature student in Goettingen, West Germany. She told him the truth, and he agreed to help her emigrate out of human feeling. However, before their scheme was put to the test, the Berlin Wall fell, and Ute was free at last. In the aftermath, she was allowed insight into the Stasi files[4] (secret police files) of her brother, and found out that their alleged “friends” and neighbors had spied on her whole family and denunciated them.

Spy room in DDR museum, Berlin, Germany

Historical Overview of the East German School System

In order to gain a better understanding of Ute’s school experiences in the GDR, a brief historical overview shall shed light on the characteristics of East German education. After 1948, there were visible breaks in the political development of East Central Europe. According to Connelly (2000), actual and “bogus” coalitions were replaced by one-party regimes as Communist parties swallowed their socialist rivals: “Fields of study considered incompatible with Marxist scholarship, like sociology, classical economics, or ‘bourgeois’ philosophy, were discontinued, and replaced by Marxism-Leninism.” (Connelly, 2000, p. 126). In East Germany, a complete break in professorial continuity could be noted:

Faced with increasing restrictions to their teaching and research, the few “bourgeois” professors in the social sciences who had survived denazification began to accept positions in West Germany. Whereas in Poland or the Czech lands professors “escaped” into less ideologically sensitive topics to avoid compromise, East German professors literally escaped to other universities in their own land. At the same time, former Nazis began making their way back into the East German professoriate, especially in the natural and technical sciences and in medicine. (Connelly, 2000, p. 126)

With regard to political terror, Connelly reports many arrests of students in 1947 and 1948 who spoke out against the new regime in East Germany. He tells about Soviet secret police agents incarcerating students of Berlin University without informing their families, and sentencing students to 25 years of hard labor in work camps (Connelly 2000, p. 123). One Rostock student, Arno Esch, was abducted in 1949 and condemned to death. According to Connelly, “[o]ver 400 students were arrested in East Germany between 1945 and mid-1953” (123). Connelly maintains that faculty councils were expanded to include teaching assistants and people who “perform[ed] especially valuable services for the educational and scientific obligations of the faculty,” which means, Communists (ibid, 124). He claims that “this was probably the deepest direct Soviet intervention ever into the workings of a university outside the Soviet Union” (124).

            The German Democratic Republic (GDR; derogatively called “Russenzone” (“Russian Zone”) in its early years) was founded on October 7th, 1949 through the self-constitution of the German People’s Council as the “Provisional Volkskammer”  as the answer of the Soviet Union to the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG; West Germany) in May 1949. It was comprised of the five states of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg, Saxonia-Anhalt, Saxony, and Thuringia. In 1950, the first elections to the “Volkskammer” (People’s Chamber) took place, which were by no means free, since there was only a single list of candidates. They were not secret, either, for casting an open vote was regarded as the citizens’ duty, and not going to the polls, rejecting the list, or using a booth could threaten individuals’ career paths. The distribution of seats was already predetermined, with no permission of opposition; the power lay inclusively in the hands of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED (Socialist Unity Party), giving the “Volkskammer” no power of its own – it merely had the task of adopting the already formulated laws. After the mass demonstrations and the “friedliche Revolution” (peaceful revolution) of 1989, the “Volkskammer” became a real parliament with its first free elections in 1990 in favor of the Christian Democrat (CDU)-led alliance.                     

The unification of the two German states in 1991 brought more than ideological divergences (the real “Wall” was in the head of the people, humorously nick-named “Ossis” versus “Wessis”) and economic and job-market-related difficulties with it: the five former East German states did not only have to develop their own constitutions and administrative structures, but also to redefine their educational systems. The West German school system had been marked by the ideals of a pluralistic society, whereas the East German school system was completely centralized, politically controlled, teacher-centralized, and followed the ideals of socialist education. After 1989, the five former East German states (the “new” states of the reunified Germany) came more and more under pressure to adopt the former West German states’ (the “old” states’) school system, while many East German citizens wanted to maintain the advantages of their system, so that according to different political majorities in the new states’ parliaments, the educational system began to show different educational solutions.                                                         

As far as the high school system is concerned, the most crucial difference between the West German and the East German states was that in the East, the final examinations took place after 12 years of school, and in the West after 13 years. It was not unusual for the typical West German student to finish high school at the age of 20, and university at the age of 25 with a “diploma” (as corresponding to today’s Master of Arts). After the unification, the 12-year-system was acknowledged as a valid Abitur (baccalaureate) by the Conference of the Ministers of Education in 1993 which heated the debate in the old states about shortening their high school education period for one year. After this interim period of acknowledgement of the 12-year-system, the Conference of the Ministers of Education invented the 265-hours-rule to regulate the mutual acceptance of high school degrees in East and West: this rule came into effect for all German states in 2001, and mandated a certain number of weekly hours until the reaching of the Abitur, which meant that already from fifth grade onwards (the entry grade of German high schools), the study time had to be more condensed (cf. Der Tagesspiegel 2008). In the cause of the Bologna process which attempted an alignment with international practices, the unified Germany tried to further shorten the period of higher education through the substitution of the “diplomas” by Bachelor and Master degrees, thus reducing university studies from seven years to three or maximal five years. This reform of higher education is expected to be completed in 2010 (Der Tagesspiegel 2008).

The East German School System as Viewed by Proponents and Opponents

In the following, in order to inspect both sides, a hearing of pro- and contra-regime voices shall provide discussion ground concerning the political impact on East German faculty selection, dissemination of ideology, and instructional methodologies. In order to understand how the East German school system could be infiltrated and suppressed by political ideology, it is crucial to know about the psyche of the East Germans their conformity with regard to political happenings. Thomas Gertler (1991) describes his typical countrymen and -women as follows:

Our cities and our people are gray. Therefore, we developed the strongest of inferiority complexes. We never learned (never dared learn) what we now need most of all: initiative, decisiveness, the will to "show one's colors!" We have become all too accustomed to the opposite: "Don't step out of line, don't speak first, wait and see what the others are doing, test the waters." (Gertler 1991, p. 85)

Gertler further delves into the passivity of the East Germans, arguing that in the G.D.R., there was no situation in life outside the realm of the state, which had everything under control: work, residence, insurance, hospital, travel, justice, and administration (ibid.). He claims that since the state had a finger in everything, it could make life difficult for people fallen out of favor – and although it not always did, the climate was influenced by the sheer possibility. Control, supervision, and impeding threat lead to total dependability and obedience of authority:

From this rule of life we learned to have incredible expectations of others (those above us or, now, those in the West). We took in and passed on this fundamental message: The state (party chairman) will take care of everything; you don't need to worry (think) about anything. "The state (party chairman) also will pay for everything out of his own pocket for you: kindergarten, grammar school, university, graduate school. He will take care of you completely, but you must therefore surrender all your thoughts and cares to him." (Gertler 1991, p. 85)

Let’s look at the behavior of typical students in East Germany, before the role of the teachers will be inspected. Gertler describes the deeply-rooted complex of East Germans culminating in the need of hiding their thoughts: “From kindergarten onward we learned that one was not allowed to say what one did or thought, e.g., the fact that we watched Western television programming. From the age of toddlers we have learned to keep our thoughts under lock and key, to hide ourselves away.” (Gertler 1991, p. 87). Children growing up this way and entering the school system were further brainwashed and conditioned. According to Gertler, the entire school system had two principal purposes, a) the unconditional and enthusiastic support of Socialism, and b) the faithful giving-back what was fed into the people (cf. Gertler 1991, p. 87). He maintains that the East Germans were punished when they dared to confess any other allegiances, wherefore they learned to say what they judged their party wanted to hear. East German students never learned to have their own opinions, nor to express or defend them; critical reflection on material taught was unwelcome and discouraged (ibid.). Gertler’s main statement is that generations of youths had thus been robbed of the joy of thought, learning, and speaking, and an atmosphere of doubt and confusion was created (Gertler 1991, p. 84).

            In order to demonstrate the consequences students had to face when they dared to speak up, Tilman Grammes and Ari Zühlke report a case study published by the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Center for Political Education) about the expulsion of three male students and one female student from a high school in Berlin Pankow in the autumn of 1988. This happened following an order from the Ministry of Education of the People, and meant for the students that they would never get a high school degree and be admitted to a university. The process was coupled with an expulsion from the youth organization FDJ. Four other students were transferred to different schools or received a “warning.” The “crimes” those students had committed were labeled “traitor-like group formation,” “anti-Socialist behavior,” “aggression against the Socialistic justice,” “activities of enemies of the state, carefully planned….” (cf. Grammes & Zühlke, n.d., p. 5). What the students had really done was that they had written articles under the consent of their school’s administration which dealt with their opinions about sensitive topics such as the strike situation in Poland at that time, and the sense and necessity of a military parade for the 39th anniversary of the GDR. The students had posted their articles as a “wall newspaper,” and had collected signatures. After pressure from the school administration, 30 of the 38 students from a total of 160 retracted their signatures, and the remaining eight students were punished as mentioned. This incident gained much attention by the public; the Protestant Church as well as several famous authors tried to revoke the school expulsion. In November 1989, the expulsions were annulled by a commission of the Ministry of Education of the People, and in the middle of November 1989 – after the fall of the Berlin Wall – an investigation committee was installed. In January of 1990, the parents of the students concerned sued the responsible authorities.

            This case study of eight expelled high school students is another piece of evidence of ideological infiltration of schools, including brainwashing and severe punishments for uttering one’s own opinion. It is obvious that a student who had grown up under such conditions under the GDR regime would not only benefit from the changes and the newly-gained freedom, but also have adaptation difficulties once the two German states were reunited. Moreover, after the reunification, West Germany “did away” with all remains and reminders of East German ideology: German governments throughout history have shaped and nurtured their teachers, orienting them towards the current ideological trends, and after each of these periods’ demise, there was a general purge which got rid of the now unnecessary ideologically brainwashed teaching cadres in lieu of teachers serving the new ideology – which, by the way, has a parallel in the U.S. anti-communist purges of its universities’ faculty during the McCarthyite period 1948-1954. Pritchard (1999) compares the “anti-fascist post war cull” (Pritchard, 1999, p. 152), i.e. the elimination of teachers of Nazi ideology in preparation for the communist regime, to the second cull which happened in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall when the socialist teachers of the former GDR were replaced by Westernized free-market and democracy-oriented instructors to introduce the new era of the unified Germany:

Teachers in the GDR were entrusted with the special responsibility of
inculcating socialism in the new generation, particularly during the
first two decades of the GDR's existence (1949-69). The SED believed in
the omnipotence of education, and teachers were sworn to uphold and pro­
mote the establishment of socialism and the leading role of the Party. One of
its major objectives was to break the influence of Nazism and fascism, and
this necessitated the replacement of a large number of the existing teachers.
In 1946-47, 28,000 new teachers (Neulehrer) trained on short crash courses
were put into position; by the end of the 1940s, this figure had risen to
about 40,000 ( Schreier, 1991:36). The anti-fascist post-war cull prefigured a
second cull -- this time anti-socialist -- after the fall of the Wall. (Pritchard, 1999, p. 152)

As Pritchard puts it, the central long-term goal of the East German government was to rid the dominant classes of their educational privilege, based on Lenin’s maxim that property owners used education for exploitation purposes to keep the majority subdued. Prichard argues, “[t]he German Education Administration (Deutsche Verwaltung für Volksbildung (DVV) set out to create a new intelligentsia based on a much broader student intake to higher education than hereto­ fore” (Pritchard, 1999, p. 152), and adds that this had already happened during the Weimar Republic. In his article, “Prolonging inequality? Education in Germany after unification,” Sebastian Arps (2005) outlines that the primary goal of the GDR was to make educational institutions an obvious means of advancing those from previously disadvantaged groups; however, the government was committed to universalizing outcomes only up to the lower secondary school level. (Arps 2005, p. 161) He claims that with respect to the most advanced secondary and post-secondary institutions, government strategy was designed to equalize opportunity for, or to give preferred access to, those from disadvantaged backgrounds through a quota system, but not to equalize overall outcomes (cf. ibid).

As in other state socialist societies, education at these upper levels in the GDR

remained a scarce resource (Mateju, 1993; Szelényi & Aschaffenburg, 1993; Heyns & Bialecki, 1993; Gerber & Hout, 1995; Solga, 1997). In the post-war transition to communism, the SED regime did indeed invest much energy into the transformation of schools and universities, and specifically into providing opportunity for disadvantaged youth. However, in the later years of the so-called ‘scientific-technical revolution’ at the height of the Cold War, other issues and goals eventually forced even the GDR’s official commitment to equal opportunity into the background. (Arps 1005, p. 161)

Arps describes how educational institutions provided the opportunity for a break with the past through the removal of former Nazi students and teachers, and for the reshaping in the Soviet image. He explains that the traditional tripartite system as the cornerstone of German education since the 19th century had differentiated children at an early age into separate schools, depending on future aspirations (ibid.), and points out that in 1946, the leadership of the eastern Soviet zone passed the “Law for Democratization” of the German School, “which for the first time in German history established non-differentiated eight-year comprehensive schools, part of a new ‘unity school system.’ (ibid.). In the year 1959, another Bill extended these comprehensive schools through 10th grade (Arps 1991, p. 161). Thus, a few decades later, a certificate from the new ten-year polytechnical comprehensive school (POS) had become almost universal in the GDR.      

Not only did the school year requirement change; also with regard to religion one could observe political infiltration of the school system: the territory of the former GDR was where Martin Luther had published his 95 theses in Wittenberg in 1516, and translated the New Testament at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, and thus served as the birthplace of Lutheranism and the Reformation. According to Pritchard, the reformed church was “the agency that confronted the SED Party over educational matters” – “education as the key to forming the outlook and value system of the young” being indeed the “most bitterly contested issue dividing Church and state” (Pritchard, 1999, p. 80). In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church kept its distance from the SED Party, the block parties, and the CDU (Christian Democratic Party), and was on a less heated confrontational course than the Lutherans, although both Churches had no choice than to recognize de facto the existence of the GDR state (Pritchard 1999, 80). The government possessed an education-shaping monopoly and emphasized the complete separation of Church and state with no possibility of a partnership throughout this co-existence:

The SED Party claimed a total monopoly on education and used this monopoly to promote its own goals. Schools, colleges, universities, institutions, both formal and informal, and the laws of the land were made to serve the ideological monism of Marxism-Leninism. No private schools were permitted, and the Church was not accepted as a partner in policy-making or in shaping the curriculum. The state
authorities defended this stance by pointing out that to give the Church a
consultative role of this type would be to contravene the principle of the
separation of Church and state. (Pritchard, 1999, p. 80)

In opposition to this criticism of GDR practices, one needs to hear the proud report of a member of said regime who exclaims in utter praise, “we set about planning the organisation of higher education at a time when, in other parts of the world, the mere thought of it was taboo” (Nast, 1974, p. 202). One has to keep in mind that the author, Manfred Nast, is pro-regime and convinced of his party’s course, and therefore conceives as achievements what regime-critics would consider as flaws. Moreover, he talks to a like-minded audience in another communist country, Croatia, where he held the presentation from which the following quotes were taken. Among his references, he cites Marx and Engels’s “Manifest of the Communist Party,” and two directives of party conferences about the five-year-plan for the development of the GDR political economy, which speaks for itself. In his paper titled “The Planning of Higher Education in the German Democratic Republic,” originally presented to the 17th International Seminar, “The University Today,” in Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 5th, 1972, Nast as a GDR representative talks about what kind of social, educational, and political goals are to be pursued in higher education, and who would be responsible for the planning of higher education. He explains that  

[t]he points of departure, objectives and methods of higher education planning are subsumed within the total context of the social, scientific, technical and cultural development of a country and dependent upon that country’s social order. In the socialist countries, all deliberations on educational planning involve all-round development of the socialist personality. Economic goals and factors also play an important role, but they must be seen as a means to the end of a superordinate goal. (Nast, 1974, p. 201)

It is evident that the market-driven factor only comes in at second place; ideology – the development of the “socialist personality,” was the driving force of higher education in the GDR. Nast alludes to the earliest works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels about the class character of education, and concludes that, “if the aims and content of education possess a class character molded by the specific economic formation of a society, then educational planning, and the theories which form the basis of that planning, must possess it too.” (Nast 1974, p. 203) Nast justifies the system of which he is a part by its real-life applicability and validity: “If it from this point of view that marxist [sic] research in education and socialist planning of education in the German Democratic Republic proceed, and have proved in real life to be valid.” (Nast 1974, pp. 203-204) Not only does he justify the present system by observable, real-life data and practical experience, but also emphasizes that the “recent years have witnessed the development in the GDR of a form of educational research which is concerned, in close collaboration with colleagues in other socialist countries, with solving the new … questions” (Nast 1974, p. 202). This seems to have been a goal of the seminar where he presented; to bring together representatives of socialist states to discuss research and planning of higher education. Concerning the practical implications of higher education as providing the future workforce for the market-place, Nast concedes that

(…) educational planning is faced with a number of important tasks. It must allow its goals to be determined by the requirements of society; it must work in close collaboration with other areas of political and economic planning; and it must help to create those conditions which will result in the achievement of the overall goals of society. Even in socialist society, there is no automatic agreement between society’s needs for graduates in certain areas of study in higher education and the preferences of applicants. In socialist society, however, all the powers of society can be and are being set in motion in order to make the goals of the plan a motive of action of the individual citizen. (Nast, 1974, p. 208)

And how should this work? Nast explains that by establishments of goals, by clarifications of vocational prospects, educational information, and individual counseling conducted through organs of the state, social organizations, schools, and universities all working in unison, a lot could be achieved in this direction (Nast 1974, 208). To a regime-critic, this would rather sound like afore-mentioned state organs exercising their power and will on educational institutions and individuals, leading them in a predestined path to become “socialist personalities” and thus supporters of the system.   Nast lists several constitutional mandates that GDR educational planning had to guarantee, namely a) the admission to universities and colleges in accordance with the principle of achievement, the requirements of society, and with reference to the social composition of the people and equality of sexes; b) the right to work; and c) the social security of the graduates (Nast 1074, 201). Here, the shift from prior elitist privileges to an opening for mass education becomes evident – not only with regard to gender-related issues, but also to class problems: women and the working class gained admission to higher education. Nast proudly states that, “[i]n terms of the number of students admitted to and graduating from higher education, the GDR has arrived at a high level.” (Nast, 1974, p. 201).                       

He supports his stance by citing the growth of student numbers as recorded in the Statistisches Taschenbuch (Statistic Pocket-Book) as having risen form 31,512 students at GDR universities and colleges in 1951 to 152,315 students in 1971 (Nast 1974, 204). Nast lists further evidence by citing the numbers of graduates from GDR colleges and universities as having risen from 4,631 in 1951 to 22,730 in 1971, and the number of women students in higher education and their percentage of the total numbers of students as having grown from 6,510 (21%) in 1951 to 54,127 (37%) in 1971 (Nast 1974, 206-207). He engulfs in praise stating that, “[t]hanks to the possibilities inherent in socialist society, we were able to achieve a more rapid growth in the applied sciences than in other disciplines and, too, to show an increase in the numbers trying to become teachers…” (Nast 1974, 209). With regard to the responsible authorities for the planning of higher education, Nast purports that it “takes place in accordance with the principles of democratic centralism” (Nast 1974, 209).  He maintains that proceeding from the resolutions of the SED, the central organs of the state are responsible for carrying out the tasks of a) development of higher education with regard to its qualitative level; b) its quantitative order of magnitude; and c) the relative proportions of its study fields:

It is an established practice in the GDR that basic resolutions as to the development of the education system, and of higher education in particular, are prepared and thoroughly debated by committees, often for several months on end, before they are passed as law. The points in the annual and in the five-year plans are also subject to wide-ranging discussion in universities and colleges, in their sections and in the consultative committees attended by all categories of college and university members, together with representatives of social practice. The resolution as to the plan follows only after these discussions have taken place, and the resolutions are consequently to be realised as law. (Nast 1974, 210)

Nast favors the involvement of the party by stating that, “it is clear that the political tasks of persuasion and guidance are of considerable importance within the planning process” (Nast 1974, 210), and justifies his stance by adding that the party’s resolutions must be “accepted, understood, approved and acted upon by the people themselves” (ibid). This collective agreement would logically not be without opposition, which, however, would only “ensure achievement of new insights and arguments through the conquest of obsolete ways of thinking.” (Nast 1974, 210). One has to note that Nast does not explicitly talk about purging or incarceration of teachers of different ideologies, but does denounce alternative ways of thinking as “obsolete,” and therefore useless for the economical and social circumstances of the country. He praises the GDR which was “able to overcome the complex social problems of the present by this very means of conscious and united action on the part of all its members” (ibid), an achievement based on the riddance of class-conflicts: “Socialist society can pursue this course because it has eliminated antagonistic class-conflict and is, therefore, in a position to attain a unified will on the part of the vast majority of the people.” (Nast 1974, p. 210) Nast describes in his final point the role of Marxist educational research in the GDR:

The social sciences are called upon to make their contribution both to the realization of the resolutions of the 8th Party Conference of the SED and the five-year plan from 1971 to 1975 and, too, to the long-term planning of the educational system. Among other things, educational research is called upon to devise “fundamental principles for the further development of the education system after 1975” (Zentraler Forschungsplan, 1972). (Nast 1972, 210; citing from the Central Research Plan)
Berlin / Germany – May 04 2013: Memorial for fallen people killed during escaping East Berlin at the Wall

What this call for contribution means in detail is further explained when Nast emphasizes that when speaking of Marxist-Leninist research in education, he does not only refer to a pedagogical concern, but to a conglomerate where “[e]conomists, sociologists, philosophers, historians, theoreticians, and representatives of science and of other disciplines all work in collaboration with educationalists.” (Nast 1974, 210) He underlines the importance of the co-operation of those various disciplines, and admits that “[e]ducational research is still at an early stage in the GDR” (Nast 1974, 210); however, in order to accurately and convincingly determine the tasks of planning in higher education after 1975, there would have to be a high quality of scientific preparation based on an investigation of this young science of the “trends in the further organisation of the developed socialist society; the combination of its advantages with the achievements of scientific and technical progress; and the growing problems of the development of the individual within socialism” (Nast, 1974, p. 211).                                            

Having heard an ardent proponent’s view about the GDR and its educational system, one should give voice to teachers of the former East German state who have undergone the purging after the fall of the Wall. How did they perceive their Socialist past, and how valuable is their newly-gained freedom to them? Do they appreciate the changes the West brought them? Stephanie Wilde (2002) interviewed teachers of three schools after the reunification to ask them about what they had liked about the GDR school system. She found out all of the teachers interviewed were of the opinion that    

the most important aspects of the GDR school that would have been worth preserving were the perceived higher standards of both behaviour[5] and learning on the part of the pupils. The teachers’ comments indicate that many of them enjoyed a higher level of job satisfaction in GDR schools, and also sensed that they had achieved more with their pupils, in terms of both the standards of learning achieved and teacher-pupil relations. (Wilde, 2002, p. 287)
A photograph of remaining Berlin Wall taken on Aug.20, 2013 in Berlin, Germany.

However, Wilde interjects that one needs to keep an important point in mind with regard to the teachers’ assessment of perceived levels of student achievement in GDR schools:  the unitary POS under the GDR regime encompassed the full range of ability, including high-performers, whereas today’s Brandenburg Gesamtschule attracts the middle to lower range of ability. She concludes that, “[t]he negative selection that operates at the Gesamtschule unsurprisingly leads the teachers to believe that standards were higher at the GDR school.” (Wilde, 2002, p. 287) Rosalind Pritchard (1999), who also reviewed studies about former GDR teachers’ opinions of the new Westernized school system of the reunified Germany, found that “[d]espite all the difficulties and problems, few teachers really wanted to return to the old regime; they found many more advantages than disadvantages in the new order” (Pritchard, 1999, p. 199). She interviewed a group of high school teachers and found that they were 1) relieved about the removal of intense pressure to get through all of the syllabus by a specified time; 2) enjoyed the opportunity to adapt material to the needs and interests of their pupils; 3) developed a higher quality of their relationship with the children; 4) came to a genuine exchange of opinions; 5) were not afraid any more to be betrayed by pupils or the youth organization FDJ for expressing dissident opinions; 6) welcomed the new freedom of self-expression, although it sometimes caused discipline problems in the classrooms (cf. Pritchard, 1999, p. 199).

Purging of East German Schools after Unification: Political “Soundness”

            “Der Mauerfall” (the fall of the Berlin Wall) has caused massive changes in the educational system of the former German Democratic Republic. The term “political soundness” already implies that the post-1989 unified German government did not conceive the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the GDR as “sound”; however, this can likewise be said of the communist system trying to eradicate fascism and Nazism as “politically unsound.” It is thus a biased term and applies to the current regime’s ideological trend. Arps states that the very sudden, top-down, Western-directed changes following the unification affected different educational institutions in the East in different ways:

In structural appearance, secondary schools changed most. Although two of the three West German school types were often conflated before adoption by eastern states, these states did officially begin to differentiate students much earlier than the 10th grade. Even comprehensive schools, which enroll a significant number of students in some states (e.g. Berlin and Brandenburg), differentiate students earlier than was the case in the GDR and grant curriculum-specific leaving certificates. (Arps 2005, p. 1650) 

With regard to the hiring and firing situation, Arps reports that secondary schools retained approximately 90% of their personnel upon unification, unlike universities, which brought in a huge number of faculty members from western states (ibid.). Thus, one can say that in terms of school personnel, the post-communism transition was marked by more continuity than the post-war transition to communism (ibid.). Historic documents about the hiring process of faculty to work at schools in the Eastern part of the reunited Germany offer interesting insights in how “political soundness” of personnel was measured. For example, Pritchard (1999) offers as Appendix II to her research “A Questionnaire Used to Evaluate Teachers for Political Soundness. Declaration of Activities before 1990”:

1.1 Have you ever officially or unofficially, as part of your main employ­ment or otherwise, worked for the Ministry of State Security/Office for National Security of the former DDR? □ Yes □ No If yes: In what way, where and from when to when? For what reason did the activity cease?

1.2 Have you ever worked for the Ministry of State Security/Office for National Security of the former GDR, occasionally, or on an unpaid basis, through indirect contacts, by way of a duty as travelling cadre, or through contacts to whom you were responsible as a co-worker of local state organs, as leader, or by reason of societal functions? □ Yes □ No If yes: In what way, where and from when to when? For what reason did the contacts cease?

1.3 If you answered 'No' to questions 1.1 and 1.2: Did you have contacts which were intended to lead to an increase in your involvement which you declined? □ Yes □ No If yes: When and for what tasks were you meant to assume responsibility?

2. Prior to 9 November 1989, did you exercise mandates or functions in or for political parties or mass organisations of the former GDR (for ex­ample FDGB, FDJ, GST, DFD, DSF)? In this period did you assume any other prominent position in the former GDR? □ Yes □ No If yes: Which functions, mandates, positions? When? Where?

3. Prior to 9 November 1989, were you active in a firm of the former GDR or in one outside the former GDR in a leadership capacity? □ Yes □ No If yes: In what firm? What activity? Where? When? (…)

It further needs to be mentioned that the process of educational differentiation has generally become more overtly parent-influenced than it was in the GDR: “Some new eastern states (e.g. Thüringen) have adopted a policy that requires an elementary school’s recommendation for the Gymnasium, while other states (e.g. Brandenburg) give parents full control over school choice” (Arps 2005, p. 165).

Implications for Female Students after the “Wende” (Unification)

In personal communication with the Ministry of Culture of the federal state of Saxonia-Anhalt on May 11th, 1995, Pritchard was told that the introduction of a new federal German school system had caused great changes in all domains of school life, and that they have been admirably well mastered in the schools, which deserves highest admiration:

Especially in Social Sciences and in Foreign Languages, new subject areas and indeed completely new subjects, had to be mastered in a short period of time. In vocational schools, the changes were such as to confront teachers with special burdens. In all domains, the new technology took teachers by storm and pupils suddenly had to be prepared for jobs which had never existed before in the GDR. New syllabuses had to be worked up and the methodology was different from that in the GDR. New school structures were introduced. In many places buildings had to be erected and specialist rooms equipped, often on the basis of local initiative. (Pritchard, 1999, p. 198)
Watch tower at the border from East to West Germany

The teaching strategies of faculty were also affected: instructors had to undergo a wide variety of Further and Continuing Education courses including university in-service education. But the most difficult change was obviously in the heads of the people: “for many young people and also for many adults the familiar structure of values and norms collapsed and they had to acquaint themselves with new democratic rules” (Pritchard, 1999, p. 199). The job market situation was not rosy, either: “Looming over them was the problem of very high unemployment – for GDR citizens a completely unknown phenomenon[6].” (Pritchard, 1999, p. 199)

            So what is the outlook for female students in the Eastern part of the reunited Germany with regard to career choices? The GDR proponent, Nast, had uttered a rather positive anticipation when saying that “[i]n the GDR, equality of the sexes is a constitutional mandate” (Nast 1974, 207). He stated that the past 20 years until 1974 have marked a success to the realization of gender equality; however, he still saw a problem concerning the choice of area of study of women – the proportions of women choosing medicine and teaching being above average, and the proportions of women in pure and applied sciences being comparatively low (ibid). He believed that educational planning would gradually modify set ways of thinking to alter this effect. In how far has educational planning after the reunification affected the situation of female students?           

According to Pritchard, “[i]n East Germany it was taken for granted that job and family life could be combined” (Pritchard, 1999, p. 200). After the “Wende,” the supportive GDR structures, such as institutional child care, were removed, so that it has become more difficult for single mothers now to study and raise their children simultaneously. Pritchard reports that in the GDR, most students were married by the end of their university time, and over half of those had children – from 1991 to 1994, the percentage of married students in the new German states (former GDR) fell by half! (cf. Pritchard, 1999, p. 201). Also, the participation of women in higher education has begun to fall after unification: in 1990, there were 7% less than in 1989 (although the absolute number of female students rose, as did that of men) (cf. Pritchard, 1999, p. 201). Pritchard’s outlook is gloomy; she states that the reduction of job security and the child-bearing and family responsibilities have discouraged women from studying:

... women suffered disproportionately from job losses, although there was a special funding programme[7] to help them to obtain the high-level qualifications they needed to get ahead. West German social policies discouraged women from working, and the application of these policies to the East quickly forced women into dependency status (...). (Pritchard, 1999, p. 201)

She concludes by mentioning that women had been just as badly underrepresented in the upper echelons of academe in the GDR as they had been in the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany; West Germany). It was not until the middle of the 1980s that the East German government began to see the gender imbalance in top university positions as a problem (see the comments by Nast, the proponent of the regime, cited in a previous section). According to Pritchard, there was about the same low percentage of female professors (about 5 per cent) in the new German states as in the old ones in the West (ibid.). What remains is the hope that the Ute’s of former East Germany will use their new academic freedom to improve the status of females in higher education and work towards social justice.

Berlin Wall graffiti seen on September 14, 2013


Arnswald, U. (2004). Zum Stellenwert der DDR-Geschichte in schulischen Lehrplänen. (About the role of East German history in educational curricula.) Aus Politik und Zeitscheichte 41-42: 28-35.

Arps, S. (2005). Prolonging inequality? Education in Germany after unification. Journal of Education Policy 20(2): 159-187.

Connelly, J. Captive University: the Sovietization of East German, Czech, and Polish Higher Education, 1945-1956. North Carolina, U.S.A.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Der Tagesspiegel (February 10, 2008). Vom Osten Lernen. Ostdeutschland ist Vorreiter beim achtjährigen Gymnasium. Warum klappt dort, was im Westen nicht funktioniert? (Learning from the East. East Germany is pioneer with regard to the 8-year high school. Why does it work there, while it does not work in the West?) Retrieved May 1, 2009 from;art693,2474341

Gertler, T. East Germany: A spiritual discernment. America 165(4): 84-88.

Grammes, T., & Zühlke, A. (n.d.). Ein Schulkonflikt in der DDR. (A school conflict in the GDR.) Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.

Nast, M. (1974). The planning of higher education in the German Democratic Republic. Higher Education 3: 201-212.

Pritchard, R. M. O. Reconstructing education: East German schools and universities after unification. New York: Berghahn Books, 1999.

Rodden, J. G. (2002). Repainting the Little Red Schoolhouse: A History of Eastern German Education, 1945-1995. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilde, S. (2002). All change? Secondary schools in Eastern Germany. German Life and Letters 55(3): 282-295.


[1] Author’s note: To non-Germans, this might sound bizarre, but “ordinary” people in the GDR had no access to good health care; only politicians and athletes. The author’s own cousin had a difficult pregnancy causing kidney failure, and was treated in a low-quality hospital where the doctors performed a tracheotomy and total removal of the female reproductive organs. The girl became deaf after the treatment, but at least gave birth to a healthy son. This would not have happened under “privileged” health care.

[2] This joke stems from Dubcek’s famous remark during the Prague Spring of 1968 that he sought to build “socialism with a human face.”

[3] Author’s note: Again, non-Germans need to know that both the Lutheran and Catholic dioceses could sponsor a limited number of emigrants from the GDR on religious grounds. One of the author’s cousins and her husband (a former Catholic priest) were thus “expelled” from the GDR as “un-worthy” of living there, since they did not contribute productively to the Communist state but rather undermined it due to their Catholicism and political views. This cousin (21 years old at that time; the author was 13) lived with the author’s family for a year, and then found a job and established a family in West Germany. Her own parents and sister still live in the Eastern part of Germany. They were not allowed to visit her as long as the Berlin Wall stood. Married couples could not leave the GDR together to visit their relatives in the West; only older people could go to West Germany for a short visit if their spouses stayed behind in the GDR, and only if there was a birthday-related reason which ended in a 5 (like becoming 65, 70, or 75 years old). This made sure they would always return to their loved ones in the GDR!

[4] After the fall of the Wall, the Gauck Behoerde was established, and people were allowed to read the secret police files written about them during the GDR regime. There will be some about the author’s family, too, since her uncle was imprisoned after having been denunciated by a neighbor for saying, “If our politicians weren’t that stupid, we would all be better off.”

[5] Author’s note: Many people in the Eastern part of the reunited Germany bemoan that nowadays, there are punks and skinheads, and other disobedient, disruptive youths – groups that did not exist under the GDR regime where non-conformist behavior was not tolerated! Some of the author’s cousins who are now in their 40s still say, “In the GDR, everything was better,” because now all of a sudden, they face job insecurity and observed “moral decline” of their youngsters growing up with the privilege of freedom of speech.

[6] Note by the author: It has to be explained to non-Germans that in the German Democratic Republic, there existed no unemployment prior to the unification; everybody had a “job,” even if it would not have counted as a job in Western and more modernized countries: for example, a job could be to sit in a little cabin at the foot of an elevator in a shopping mall, in order to stop it if a person falls on it (as can still be seen in St. Petersburg, Russia). Many manual jobs in GDR factories were done by machines in West Germany; all those workers lost their jobs after the unification, when machines were introduced to East Germany. (The reason for this was that after World War II, the Western allies demounted West German machines and transferred them to their countries, especially to France. The West Germans had to invent and construct new machinery, and experienced a boom in manufacturing, whereas the East Germans kept sitting on their old and rusty pre-war technology and never saw the same industrial bloom.) The author’s Eastern part of the family has experienced this first-hand; cousins became jobless and basked in the never-before experienced joys of welfare: they received unemployment benefit and were excited to be paid more for doing nothing than in their entire “work life” during the GDR! They were also excited to be allowed to travel to Western countries now. One of the author’s cousins actually went to Benin, Africa (from his unemployment money) and married an illiterate, French-speaking native with whom he opened a pub. When voodoo people laid dead cock’s feet on his steps and made his business go bankrupt, he was lucky to have his passport at the German embassy so that he could take flight back to his home in the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge) of East Germany…. that on the side (Christina Voss).

[7] One of the author’s cousins underwent such a program in order to learn computer skills. One can imagine that for people in their 30s and 40s, there are not many job chances ahead even after absolving such programs, since the young stream onto the job marked, already well-equipped with the new communication technology – especially the competitive young from West Germany!

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