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Education and Social Mobility (1982)

The role of social background as a criterion for professional and career advancement in the “Workers’ and Farmers’ State” of the GDR is subject to caricature in the following excerpt, which also examines the positive and potentially “dangerous” aspects of a well-educated populace for the government.

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Worn-Down Coins or Socialist Rules of Play

[ . . . ]

Family Tree
Belonging to the ruling class cannot be commuted into values or privileges. Laborers and farmers are part of the workforce like almost all citizens. Assignment to a class or social stratum is asked in questionnaires; it is still essential for statistical purposes. But this was not always the case. In the 1950s, when the bourgeois privilege of education was abolished, children of workers and farmers had priority in receiving places at secondary schools and universities. In 1949, the ABF [Workers’ and Peasants’ School] was founded to make it possible to attain the Abitur through special courses. In 1950, thirty percent of all college students were the children of workers and farmers, and by 1966 their share had risen to 55 percent. A new intelligentsia thus emerged. The former ABF graduates today have leading positions in politics, industry, and culture. [But] they are fighting so their children will not be classed as belonging to the “intelligentsia,” so they won’t carry the mark of Cain of that background.

Once the “socialist human community,” the “kingdom of humanity,” was proclaimed in the 1960s, and every citizen had to develop his socialist personality and the classes and strata were supposed to embrace each other as brothers, the 8th Party Congress of the SED in 1971 posed the class question anew. It was about the proletariat, about communism, and about how the working class has to be deliberately fostered through social policy and cultural measures. The old slogan from Wismut* days, “I am a miner; who is more?” reappeared. As a professional group, construction workers received a propagandistic value-increase because building housing had been declared the economic focus. Although no one assessed how it could pay off, it once again became important to belong to the working class – best of all to one of the trades of the construction industry. Heated discussion started in union meetings and also in public. Its only purpose was for everyone to prove personally that they had the proper pedigree. The former ABF graduates were leaders at this; they asked if only every second generation of a family was allowed to belong to the “ruling class,” and they impressed upon their children the reasons to leave school after ten years. In cultural and intellectual circles it became trendy to boast: “Our son is becoming a laborer.”

*Reference to the Soviet-German Wismut corporation located in Saxony that mined uranium ore for the Soviet Union – trans.

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