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Past isn't past

October 29, 2009

20 years after the fall of the Wall, communist East Germany is an enigma for young Germans. Some do not even know who built the Wall that divided Germany for decades, but educators are trying to change that.

A man hammering away at the Berlin Wall in November 1989
Germans don't know much about the history of East GermanyImage: AP

Germany's high school history curriculum allows little time to discuss East Germany, so teacher Nicole Abendroth decided to take her 10th-grade class to Berlin to visit the museum dedicated to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and other important Cold War sites.

"In the end, I think the GDR amounts to a feeling," said Abendroth. "What people experienced here, essentially confined to this place," she said. "And that is truly hard to convey. That's why I think it's important to come here, so that the students really get a chance to get to know what it was like."

According to GDR Museum tour guide Hans-Michael Schulze, there's a need for knowledge - and he helps fill the gaps little by little.

Young people writing on remnants of the Wall in 2009 art project
How much do 20th anniversary projects help raise awareness?Image: AP

"When I give tours like this now, 20 years after the end of the GDR, I'm amazed at how little is known about it," Schulze said. When showing the Trabant exhibit, he doesn't just explain the quaint charms of the polluting plastic car, but also talks about how long people in East Germany waited to get them, and why they were nearly the only autos available.

Further east in Berlin, the Stasi Museum explains to visitors how the East German secret service covertly documented every aspect of people's lives with hidden cameras, from daily commutes to children's birthday parties.

Eighteen-year-old Kathrin Weiss was visiting the museum with a group of girls from Bavaria. She had just starting studying the GDR in school, but had also heard a bit about it from her godmother, who grew up there. The GDR wasn't so bad, her godmother said, as long as you didn't criticize the system; you could have a normal family life just like in the West.

"It's not right what she said, but she probably just didn't know or never realized," Kathrin said. "And when you're not seriously confronted with it, you don't really deal with it."

Democracy or dictatorship?

In fact, a student's background is more important than where they went to school in determining their opinions and knowledge base about East Germany, said Uwe Hillmer, a researcher at Berlin's Free University, who also organizes education programs with young people at the Stasi Museum.

Hillmer and his colleagues spent three years talking to students about their knowledge of the GDR. Students like Kathrin, from southern Germany, often know more about the GDR than their eastern counterparts, he said. But in general, many young people are unfamiliar with East Germany: A majority don't know who built the Berlin Wall or whether Willy Brandt was a politician in the East or the West.

Two mothers holding up their children, who are reaching out their hands to each over the barbed wire that was the first Wall
Construction of the Wall, in 1961, started smallImage: ullstein - Hilde

"The division of Germany and the postwar period are probably some of the most documented times in history. There are endless shelves full of books on the subject," Hillmer said. "But the collective historical memory is at zero. All these countless 20th anniversary events aren't changing anything."

The country as a whole, both East and West, he said, has never really come to a full understanding of what life was like for East Germans, especially concerning the cruelly effective psychological and social manipulation by the Stasi and the ruling SED party.

The Westerners don't quite understand the comfortable sense of predictability and security that the Easterners lost after reunification, according to Hillmer. And the Easterners miss the social state, while overlooking the intensive state surveillance and control they may not have even been aware of.

"The main finding of our study is that young people today, from both the East and the West, are not really able to differentiate between democracy and dictatorship," said Hillmer.

Laden with history

In Berlin - a city that's a living history lesson, with constant reminders of the Wall, World War II and the Cold War - a shocking number of students are uninformed about what went on, according to Hillmer's study. The GDR is part of school curricula - at the end of the 10th grade, after the unit on World War II. It's taken decades for the educational system to grapple with how to teach about National Socialism, let alone communist East Germany.

Some teachers say they just never get to the GDR, because their students need more time to digest all of the heavy history before it. Other teachers and parents simply don't want to relive their past.

Not far from the Stasi museum, 16-year-olds Robin and Robert attend a special East Berlin school for athletes that, in GDR days, was synonymous with both world-level sports victories and the regimented doping of athletes. But they have never visited the Stasi Museum, the GDR Museum, the Stasi prison in Hohenschoenhausen near their school, or the Berlin Wall Memorial.

That's not uncommon for Berlin. Hillmer reported that 80 percent of visitors to the Stasi Museum are from the West - and the GDR Museum very rarely gives tours to classes from the East.

Robert said he would like to visit the museum with his father, to give them a better venue for discussing the history than the car, or the breakfast table. Robin hasn't talked much about these things with his parents, but he does remember this:

"My mother told me that it was a very socially-minded time," he recalled, "that there was work for everyone, not like today where we have so many unemployed people just sitting around. Actually, it wasn't such a bad time. I think it was good."

Female tourist looking through concrete slabs, which are part of the Wall Memorial in Berlin
Tourists are often the people who visit the Wall Memorial, not BerlinersImage: AP

Getting the bigger picture

Leopold Gruen, a filmmaker and educator originally from the eastern city of Dresden, said that it's not fair to ignore the moments of good in the decades of bad, but it's not always easy to recognize them.

"There's still a wall even in the question: 'how can we talk about these things?'" he pointed out.

Gruen was a teacher in the GDR from 1989-1990, when the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunited. He is from the East, his wife from the West, and their family is intricately bound to the country's reunification, which he sees as inseparable from Germany's pre- and postwar history.

"For me, the most important thing in relaying history is that you have to search for traces in your own biography, in your own family," he said. "Then, you can perhaps share that experience. Private histories are the mosaic stones, the pieces of a puzzle that can somehow be put together."

As successive generations grow up in Germany, have their own children, and struggle to pass on their complex histories while also analyzing them, it's important not to forget what's been learned. Hillmer said that, in the end, teachers and educators need to make it clear to students that they must come to terms with the past, not just for good grades in history class, but so that they are prepared to recognize destructive tendencies when they arise.

"If we don't deal with this modern German dictatorship, then we're closing our eyes to possible risks to our democracy today," he said. "And that's why we have to carry on with memorial sites and keep remembering what happened during this time period."

Author: Susan Stone (als)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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