1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Forgetting History

Jane PaulickDecember 16, 2007

"The GDR will be nothing but a footnote in history," said writer Stefan Heym in 1990. He turned out to be right -- but young people's ignorance of the not-so-distant past is now a cause for concern to education experts.

School children dressed in former East German communist youth organization uniforms-
Contrary to popular opinion, the GDR wasn't all fun and gamesImage: AP

Cold War rhetoric was mother's milk to most people over 30 today. Raised in a country spliced into two by the Iron Curtain, West Germans grew up with the specter of the Big Red Menace. Communist East Germany was, they believed, a joyless dictatorship where people could only dream of owning a pair of Levis or the latest Rolling Stones record, had to wait for years for the privilege of driving a smoke-belching Trabant car, and regularly grassed on their neighbors to the secret police.

Granted, this might not have been the whole truth. But 17 years after reunification, young people are equally ill-informed. Only now, they see this chapter in history through rose-tinted spectacles -- if they think about it at all.

Ignored or glossed over

A GDR military parade in October 1989
Teenagers today don't realize the GDR was a dictatorshipImage: dpa

When researchers at Berlin's Freie Universität asked 5000 high school students in four German states including Berlin, Brandenburg and Bavaria to fill out a questionnaire testing their knowledge of pre-1989 Germany, they discovered that 66 percent of students in North-Rhine Westphalia did not even consider the GDR a dictatorship.

Further misconceptions among 15-17-year-olds today are that Communist East Germany held democratic elections, that former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was one of its main politicians and that the Allies built the Berlin Wall. Rents were low, child-care excellent and the environment better looked after than it was in West Germany, according to the teenagers.

But the gaps in their knowledge are hardly surprising, according to Monika Deutz-Schroeder from the research team.

"Most of the students complain that the subject is either ignored or glossed over in class," she said. "Then in the eastern states, teachers tend to put a positive spin on the GDR, either out of political conviction or a lack of awareness."

Some teachers, according to Deutz-Schroeder, know very little about certain aspects of the GDR, such as the fact that it practiced capital punishment or that income scales were far from equal.

"We need to see improved teacher training on the subject," she said.

"A cute little country"

The Stasi museum
The Stasi museum gives people a glimpse of life in the GDRImage: Presse

Inadequate training is one problem -- a lack of interest another.

"One obstacle is that East German history -- unlike Nazism -- is seen by most West Germans not as shared history but as the history of the East Germans only," Deutz-Schroeder said.

It would be mistaken, however, to hold only the teachers responsible for this skewed view of history.

"Particularly in the eastern part of the country and eastern Berlin, students base their knowledge of the GDR on what their parents say," explained Schroeder. "Some of them idealize the GDR, emphasizing its supposed benefits such as a sense of solidarity, greater social equality and guaranteed employment."

Moreover, the movie and television industry often wallows in nostalgic humor.

"Films such as 'Goodbye Lenin' make the GDR look harmless," she said.

"Students are left with the impression that it was just a backward, cute little country. They'd be better off watching 'The Lives of Others,'" she added, referring to the 2006 Academy Award-winning drama about a Stasi officer and the people he spied on.

The political is personal

Actor Daniel Brühl in 'Goodbye Lenin'
Films like 'Goodbye Lenin' romanticize the pastImage: AP

Covering the uniquely complex range of 20th century German history, however, can be simply too time-consuming.

"The subject is on the curriculum, but teachers often devote too much time to the Nazi era, the Second World War and the post-war period," Deutz-Schroeder pointed out.

Henning Schluß, an education expert at Berlin's Humboldt University who has developed a core curriculum for teaching GDR history at high school level, agrees that a lack of time is an issue, but believes the problem is basically a more subtle one.

"Understandably, teachers are reluctant to talk about a phase of history in which they were personally involved," he said. "In the former East Germany, teachers were under extreme pressure to conform to the ruling ideology. Those who hadn't been informers for the secret police were usually able to continue working after reunification. Now they have to apply critical faculties to an era in which they played a more or less uncritical role -- or even participated in with active enthusiasm. They have to come to terms with their own past."

Living history

Ultimately, Schluß feels this could be an actual boon to the class.

"For teenagers today, the GDR is, literally, history. They grew up in a reunified Germany, which means teachers can discuss the country's division in the same way they can discuss the Thirty Years' War. It has no immediacy to the students."

There are many Germans, however, who have had a first-hand experience with the communist dictatorship. They are the ones who could paint a vivid picture of what it was really like, back in the GDR.

"The great thing is that young people have the opportunity to benefit from eye-witness accounts -- which they don't have when they're learning about the Thirty Years' War," he said.