Coming of Age in the DDR

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

Wächst jetzt zusammen, was zusammengehört? For that was the great promise in the euphoria around the Fall of the Wall and German Reunification, almost thirty years ago: although by then very different from each other, ultimately the former West and East Germanies “belonged” together and would “grow together.”

Has that happened? That is the central question behind a new article-series from Der Spiegel entitled Wir seit ’89: literally “We since ’89.” Already a number of interesting pieces are out – you can survey them here, of course they’re all in German – but one in particular from today informed me about something I had not known about previously: the Jugendweihe.

That was the coming-of-age ceremony, for 14-year-olds, that was prevalent during the East German Communist regime: a formal, festive occasion for the young ones to get all dressed up in suits and dresses and collectively appear on a stage, in front of doting parents and relatives in the audience, to receive the traditional gifts: a certificate, flowers, and a book.

Of course, that was hardly all that there was to that. For one thing, that wasn’t any ol’ book, but rather (at least during the DDR’s later stages) Vom Sinn Unseres Lebens, or “On the Meaning of Our Lives”; you can be quite sure that “Meaning” had only to do with “defending Socialism and the International Working Class” and that sort of thing. Just to make sure that point didn’t get lost, the heart of the Jugendweihe ceremony had the celebrants repeatedly affirm publicly (“Yes, we pledge this!”) a four-part oath consisting of those and related elements: “I pledge to deepen further our solid friendship with the Soviet Union,” “to fight for the People’s happiness,” etc. If you didn’t participate in your scheduled Jugendweihe that would be a black mark on your records that would restrict the further opportunities the regime offered to you; yet in order to be allowed to do so, you had to attend a string of “ideology classes” which featured visits to instructional places: to factories, to museums, even to a former Nazi concentration camp, if not too far away, to contemplate Fascism.

Clearly then, for the young people the Jugendweihe was a chance to dress up, have one’s impending adulthood acknowledged, and even get some free stuff. (It also marked the point at which these youths were to be addressed as Sie – the formal pronoun, as opposed to du – by strangers.) How could you even think about missing it, when all your friends would be there? (And, indeed, even in the 1980s 90% of those eligible did participate.) For the Communist authorities, on the other hand, it was a super indoctrination tool.

Religion Erased

It was also a great alternative, for human societies have shown no particular shortage of ceremonies to mark a child making the transition into adulthood. In the Western tradition, in particular – that is, Christian – there has always been confirmation, for most denominations. OK, and also the bar/bat mitzvah. But in East Germany the regime was actively hostile to religious practice. They were ever able to expunge it entirely, but hey, what a great marketing move to introduce this Jugendweihe to drive the others out. Not that these authorities were being particularly original: the specific ceremony went back to 1852, when it was thought up precisely to offer an alternative to confirmation, namely by “free thinking” and “humanistic” groups who even back then wanted to rebel against the Christian Establishment. Under the Nazis the Jugendweihe was prohibited, but it only took the DDR leadership until 1954 to re-animate it as the effective propaganda tool it became.

But now the DDR has been gone for almost thirty years – is the Jugendweihe gone, too? Not at all! The article cites around 40,000 that were held this past Spring (that’s when they happen) in the former East Germany, not to mention a couple hundred in the former West Germany (but generally conducted there by East German “exiles”). Don’t worry: neither socialism nor international working-class solidarity have anything to do with the ceremony anymore; and the highest participation-rate, in Saxony, now amounts to 1/3 of all those eligible, so slightly lower in other eastern States. (Now local Jugendweihe foundations exist to run the ceremonies; it generally costs around €120 to participate, welcome to Capitalism!)

But you could say that is still an impressive amount, and religious confirmation ceremonies in the East run at less than half that amount . . . in stark contrast to the West. Here, then, what belongs together has not grown together, and likely never will because the former West Germany lacks the Jugendweihe tradition. Stated baldly, the legacy of the DDR lives on thirty years after its demise at least in the de-Christianization it successfully accomplished and left behind, in those Eastern lands where it once ruled.

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