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An East German School Official Reports on her Experiences during the Wende (October 1, 2003)

A school official in the Marzahn-Hellersdorf district of East Berlin describes the legacy of the GDR dictatorship in the East German education system, analyzes the various challenges associated with the introduction of Western structures and practices, and tries to summarize the successes and failures of German unification in the area of education.

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Schools in Upheaval: Teachers and Teaching in the New Federal States during and after Unification

1. The East German School System in the Year before German Unification

After I had worked for about a month at the Ministry of Education of the last (democratically elected) GDR government, a coworker led me to a safe in his room, opened it, reached into the back corner, and took out a bundle of papers tied together with a string. They were copies of letters addressed to Minister of Education Margot Honecker.* The 250 or so letters were all written in the lead-up to the 9th Pedagogical Congress that convened in June 1989; they contained diverse proposals by GDR citizens to improve the educational work of the schools. For example, they called for equal education opportunities for all, for the de-ideologization of the curriculum, the abolition of military instruction, and instruction in nonviolent conflict resolution. Some called for instruction that would spark students’ creativity, imagination, and their desire to learn, instruction that would promote greater self-reliance and that would, above all, give students more individual attention and support. The letters also commented on the introduction of new subjects and on methods and forms of instruction. Here, I should note that members of the public had been expressly asked to comment in writing on current education issues.

I quickly realized why these letters were lying in the safe. All of them had a stamp on the front that had been blacked out but could still be deciphered: “No response, MfS [Ministry for State Security].”** Because of the critical nature of their contents, Margot Honecker’s undersecretary had evidently sent them directly to the Ministry for State Security. Luckily, the feared secret service only had a few more months to “process” these well-meaning but unwanted letters.

[ . . . ]

This episode speaks for itself. It shows the mercilessness with which the leadership of the state party [i.e. the Socialist Unity Party] of the GDR followed and prohibited any and all criticism of existing conditions. The need to reform the long fossilized education system was ignored since it called into question the control and instrumentalization of the education system. For the SED, the education system was an instrument they believed they could use to achieve a permanent ideological influence on individuals and, at the same time, political stability and ideological conformity within society.

[ . . . ]

The outcome of the first free elections on March 18, 1990, marked the end of the GDR as a state. At the time, however, hardly anyone suspected that the unification process would gather such a strong forward momentum. This momentum meant bidding a swift farewell to the original plan to initiate the GDR’s own, comprehensive education reform. At the very latest, after the signing of the State Treaty on the Creation of a Monetary, Economic, and Social Union on May 18, 1990, and after the Law on the Establishment of the Federal States in East Germany on July 22, 1990, it was clear to everyone that German unification was going to take place in the foreseeable future. A new or re-organization of East Germany’s education system in accordance with the West German model seemed to be the only sensible approach to reconciling two German education systems that were so diametrically opposed – on the one hand, there was the socialist unity system, which was subject to the power monopoly of the SED and the state; on the other hand, there was the Federal Republic’s system, which was marked by state federalism and social plurality.

[ . . . ]

* Margot Honecker was also the wife of East German leader Erich Honecker, the last General Secretary of the Central Committee of Socialist Unity Party of Germany [Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands] and the last Chairman of the Council of State of the GDR – eds.
** The Ministry for State Security [German: Ministerium für Staatssicherheit] was commonly referred to as the Stasi – eds.

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