The morning after the Berlin Wall came crashing down in November 1989, nine-year-old Thomas Töpfer was one of the few East German kids who turned up for school.
He found his teacher in tears and half his classmates gone, having fled with their families to the West.
Everything Töpfer and his fellow pupils had been taught to believe had collapsed overnight.
In the months that followed, the syllabus was scrapped. Teachers underwent retraining. And joining the country’s official youth organization — known as the “Pioneers” — with its distinctive neckties and caps was no longer a rite of passage for every pupil.
A political education
In some ways, Töpfer never really left an East German classroom. Today he is director of the School Museum in Leipzig, a city around two hours drive from Berlin, that was also home to the peaceful revolution that helped bring down the wall.
The classroom walls are adorned with paintings of communist utopias — workers in flowery fields and scientists diligently tapping away at nuclear control boards. Textbooks with Lenin’s silhouette on the cover line the shelves. Even the curtains have authentically garish retro patterns.
A big part of this indoctrination was the Pioneer program. It resembled a Scout association — but with a twist: songs around the campfire were more militaristic and stories featured Socialist heroes defending the self-defined peace-loving state from the big bad West.
As a six-year-old boy he was “very excited” to become a Young Pioneer — the first of three ranks organized according to age.During his initiation, children created a “shrine” to the socialist state, in this case, a bust of Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann draped with dirty workers’ hats.
Socialism was rooted in almost everything the Pioneers did, said Schleif, now a 49-year-old consultant at a flooring company in Leipzig. Once a week, local factories would give the children tours, introduce them to workers and explain how the machines worked.
‘The West is bad’
Like any school, pupils distinguished between teachers they liked, and those they distrusted. In the GDR, the stakes were much higher.
Saying the wrong thing to a particular teacher, could “put a black mark on you for the rest of your life,” said Fulbrook. Such a student might be barred from doing the school leaving exam, studying certain subjects at university, or even going to university at all.
As for the emotional toll this had on young people, there was the “full spectrum,” said Fulbrook. “From terror and fear at one end, through to not really caring very much about it and treating it as normal at the other end.”+
‘Good morning children’
Not all teachers agreed with this curriculum. Elke Urban was a music and French teacher, also in Leipzig, who quit in the mid-1970s to look after her five children.
“I grew up in a Christian pacifist household,” she said, adding that she refused to sing the school’s military songs or do the Pioneer salute.
Each lesson would begin with a distinctive salute. Teachers would say: “For peace and socialism be ready.” And students would reply in chorus, “always ready,” while simultaneously moving their right hand to the middle parting of their head.
A new era
“We were still careful about speaking aloud,” said Schleif. “But we were no longer intimidated as we were before.”
Textbooks showing cartoon soldiers defending the mighty Soviet state no longer held true. Military singalongs rang hollow.
Teachers were forced to report if they’d ever worked for the Stasi — though whether they answered truthfully is up for debate. “Most teachers were afraid since they just lost the floor under their feet,” said Urban.
By the time of reunification in 1990, all of the state schools in what had been East Germany had been dissolved. They were replaced with a national education system that pretty much resembled the West German model.
That said, East German schools did have redeeming features,such as lessons that were “geared towards practical day-to-day life,” according to Urban. Students regularly visited factories, and they “learned a lot from this,” she said.
They were brought up respecting the working class, “who worked very hard under often difficult circumstances,” she added.
After all, East German children were still children, said Töpfer. “They laughed, they made jokes, they got up to mischief,” he added. “Just like anywhere.”