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A Secular Rite of Passage

Tamsin Walker, DW-WORLD.DE
March 14, 2005

While some atheist communities mark the transition from childhood to adulthood with the acknowledgement of growing pains, Germany's faithless are initiated into the grown-up world by means of an official ceremony.

Celebrating their big dayImage: dpa

Germany has a long and loving relationship with the tradition of both Catholic and Protestant confirmation, of awkward young teens taking to the altar in suits and frilly white dresses on their way towards becoming adults. But what of those youngsters who are brought up with no religion, yet still wish to experience a similar rite of passage? The answer is a specially-designed ceremony known as the Jugendweihe, or "youth consecration."

The German Humanist Association advertises for young Jugendweihe recruits with the promise that "there is much to celebrate (and many presents) even without confirmation and communion." There must be some lure in those words for the nation's teenage population, as one in every three youngsters in the states of the former East Germany signs up to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime celebration.

The 150-year-old ritual, which was mainly celebrated in eastern Germany during the past 50 years is not without controversy: While supporters see it as a non-religious way to give teenagers a forum to expand their minds, horizons and understanding of morals, opponents see it as a left-over from communist days that merely give kids an opportunity to ask their relatives for presents.

Hard-wearing ritual

Jugendweihe in der früheren DDR
Jugendweihe in the GDRImage: dpa

Originally established in the 19th century to replace the Christian custom of confirmation, the ritual became an accepted tradition for teens aged 13 and 14, who had no faith through which they could mark the passing of time.

The tradition survived the Weimar Republic and fell into the hands of the Nazis where it was tweaked and given the title "Youth Duty." Rather than being buried under the rubble of the war, the Jugendweihe was resurrected by the East German politburo.

In the GDR, the concept took on a whole different meaning and was used by the state to create youth uniformity. Although it was not strictly speaking obligatory, the ceremony became so much a part of the fabric of society that those who didn't partake were the absolute anomalies.

Sandra Wollgast, who grew up in eastern Germany, was no exception.

Friedrichstadtpalast von Außen
Berlin's Friedrichstadtpalast is still a popular Jugendweihe venueImage: dpa

"Ninety-nine percent of East Berliners had a Jugendweihe," she said. "It held no political meaning for us, but was simply a day which we looked forward to, a day where everyone celebrated together. It was great."

What she and doubtlessly many like her at the time didn't question was the meaning behind their big day. It was just something which they were expected to do, and for which they were rewarded with material goods to boot.

The modern version

But that was then and this is contemporary unified Germany. The communist structures have gone and the church is back in the fray of the norm, but still the tradition lives on.

Lachende Schülerinnen, Lachen
Not all youngsters feel the need to take part in JugendweiheImage: Bilderbox

For people like Brigitte Hillig, who still recall their own Jugendweihe and would like their own children to have the same opportunities, there is no question that the tradition is every bit as important for non-religious youngsters as confirmation is for Christian youths.

"It is a way of leading children towards their adult life, of showing them that they are coming to a turning point," she said. "They see that they are growing up and the ceremony is a way of marking this change."

But not everyone is as ready to accept the ritual as part of Germany's national youth program. Andreas Matthes grew up in western Germany and said he finds the idea of Jugendweihe dishonest.

"Most kids now don't know the meaning of Jugendweihe in communist East Germany, because their parents don't tell them that," he said. "They don't tell them about the difficulties incurred for those who went to confirmation instead, and that is false."

Morally challenged

But both Hillig and the president of the Jugendweihe association, Werner Riedel argued that the 21st century event is a far cry from that of the old communist era. In the nine months leading up to their big day, the youngsters can participate in any number of events which are designed to expand their minds, horizons and understanding of morals.

Kirchentag ökumenische Abendmahlsfeier
Many German youngsters opt for confirmationImage: AP

But given that it is all on a voluntary basis, there is plenty of scope for those teenagers who want to make a quick buck with a relatively clean conscience to go ahead and do so. And that is another one of the problems, Matthes said.

"There is no moral basis for the Jugendweihe, because those who take part don't have to do anything either before or after the event," he said. "And that renders it all so meaningless."

Hillig would counter that such attitudes are based on aging prejudices about the former East Germany. She may well have a point. But then again, is turning 14 really a mark of having made it into adulthood?

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