Ideology in GDR Geography Schoolbooks John Roden1 Forward and never forget
wherein our strength resides!
or whether fed
Forward and never forget!
Brecht, “The Solidarity Song” (1931)
I have never forgotten a casual remark to me by a Humboldt University student in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and before German reunification in October 1990. We were riding the subway in East Berlin and discussing his schooldays. He glanced out the window at a large clock face and said: “Every time I looked at the Tower of Nations clock” – which features a map of the world’s time zones – “I was reminded that I couldn’t travel”.
During my school visits to the eastern German schools in 1989/90, teachers and pupils told me much the same about geography class: for many of them, it had been a constant reminder, particularly when it covered the topic of “KA” [alien capitalist territory a.k.a. the West], of what they couldn’t do. It reminded them that they might never be able to visit the republikflüchtig [illegal escaped] brother in West Germany or their relatives in America. It reminded them of the wonders of the world that they might never glimpse, except on their television sets. And thus, like the East Berlin clock, it was cause for anger.
My story serves as a representative anecdote for this essay about education in the now-defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR) and, more specifically, for the way in East German geography textbooks abridged the citizenry’s freedom of travel, speech, and even thought. How did the GDR geography textbooks portray the world’s physical horizons and thereby shape the mental horizons of its young readers? That is the key question that our close analysis of East German geography textbooks is meant to answer.
A 1952 poster reflects Stalin’s cult of personality in the GDR at its zenith. Stalin is lionized as a great statesman. A decorated military hero, an international father figure loved by children. Wearing blue neck scarves, these three Young Pioneers stand for his adoring East German public. The poster reads: “Stalin. He Is Peace”. (Photo courtesy of Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin)
But before proceeding to a scrutiny of the textbooks, a brief word both about my own standpoint as an American cultural historian and about the daunting rhetorical and political challenges faced by GDR textbook writers is appropriate. My research into the ideological and militaristic aspects of East German geography texts has confronted me not only with the stark reality of communist propaganda efforts, but also with a forceful adversarial perspective on the geopolitical intentions of the U.S. and the capitalist world. While I dispute that perspective, I do not mean to imply that the Soviet Union (and Eastern Europe) constituted a “black-and-white evil Empire.” Nor do I deny either the complexities of the Cold War (in which the U.S. also took self-compromising positions) or the validity of some aspects of the Marxist analysis (or of European scholars critical of American foreign policy).12 Rather, I respect the seriousness of the GDR’s textbook authors’ critiques by engaging their work seriously, indeed sometimes combatively, as I offer here a self-consciously Western (indeed American) response to these textbooks’ claims.
My second preliminary point has to do with the difficult task that faced the editors of GDR geography textbooks. When writing a geography textbook about capitalist nations – above all Europe, particularly West Germany – GDR educators of the post-Wall era had, of course, an especially thorny problem. It was a problem that entered every young reader’s mind, yet which the textbooks could not directly address: the frustrating irony of studying countries that you were forbidden to visit. (Several junior high school pupils whom I interviewed in 1990 were well aware of – and enraged by – the paradox. Even some socialist countries – especially countries outside Eastern Europe, such as Cuba – were near-impossible to visit.) And yet nowhere do the GDR textbooks – nor even the teaching guides – ever breathe a word about travel restrictions. It was a topic just too hot to handle.
Still, the issue lurked in the shadows, above all in units that dealt with the German border and the Berlin Wall. Like the Wall, it was there. With pupils in the uncomfortable position of learning about numerous nations to which they could never travel until retirement age, the question that dared not speak its name crouched in catatonic anguish on the tip of even children’s lips: Since we can’t go anywhere, what do we need this subject for?
The agitprop in the geography teaching guides tried, of course, to head off that question; but in the units on the capitalist world, SED educators had to perform a virtuoso balancing-act that camouflaged their violation of fundamental human rights. They had to justify the value of studying the capitalist world, and yet condemn it too. They had to douse the desire to travel to the West by making the capitalist world seem not even worth visiting. And yet, the very treatment of the capitalist world fueled the GDR citizenry’s obsession with it. As we shall see, however unsuccessfully, the textbooks attempted, in the end, simply to annihilate the question by force of sheer invective.
The Expanding Red Earth Geography was one part of a comprehensive core curriculum of ideology in schools of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), from whose influence even the sciences and mathematics were not wholly free. Geography and Staatsbürgerkunde (civics) aggressively promoted the GDR and the Bruderländer (“brother lands,” or fraternity of socialist nations). That was their main aim: to convince pupils that, when all was said and done, they were socialists and GDR citizens first and last. Right or wrong – no, left or wrong – the GDR was still their country, still their socialist Fatherland.
Geography succeeded Heimatkunde [local/regional studies cum folklore] in the 5th grade. Known as Erdkunde [“earth studies,” geography], it took up its topographical aspects, leaving overt agitprop for Staatsbürgerkunde [civics]. But like GDR civics, geography was highly political. It served as one half of what might be termed “advanced socialist Fatherland education.”3
GDR Erdkunde thus focused not merely – and often not chiefly – on the “green earth,” i.e., the physical features of a region (climate, elevation, soil, vegetation, population, and land use), but rather on the rapidly expanding “red earth.” What educators sometimes termed “socialist geography” frankly argued the superiority of socialist nations’ use of the earth’s resources – which postwar history was rapidly demonstrating by the spread of communism throughout the globe. Indeed the inside front-cover of the standard middle-school atlas of the 1950s through 1970s gives graphic testimony to these aspirations: three maps covering Europe and Asia appear; they are dated 1914, 1917–45, and 1945–61, respectively. The first map contains no red; the next map is half-covered in red, and the third is dominated by red. The title: “Der Vormarsch des Sozialismus,” “The Advance of Socialism.”4 The military connotation of the subject noun seems deliberately chosen. Yes, the message was graphic: Der Sozialismus siegt! “Socialism is winning!”
GDR Erdkunde was, therefore, frequently less concerned with the study of the earth than with the revolutionary advance of socialism upon it. And geography teachers were supposed not merely to describe that advance but to contribute to it. “Forward and never forget! /wherein our strength resides,” as Brecht’s “Solidarity Song” expressed it. Or as the familiar slogan, derived from a speech by Social Democratic Party leader Wilhelm Liebknecht in 1872, put it: “Wer die Jugend hat, hat die Zukunft”, “Who has the Youth, has the Future.”
Geography possessed the same ideological orientation as Heimatkunde. But its range and depth were greater, especially in the upper grades, where it addressed polytechnical educational issues as well as cultural and moral ones. In the Introduction to Geographie 5, pupils received a glimpse of what lay in store in upcoming years:
We already know from Heimatkunde a great deal about our home locale, our home Kreis [small region], our home Bezirk [district], and Berlin, the capital of the German Democratic Republic. We’ve also heard about the life of people in the Soviet Union and in other socialist nations. So we have already gained our first acquaintance with geography. But that isn’t enough at all....
Many working people need geographical knowledge in their daily work. Construction workers and engineers and architects have to understand the layout of the ground when they build new houses. Farmer comrades must observe the contents of the soil exactly, in order to raise their agricultural production....5 Or as the geography teaching guide phrased it, in a unit entitled “The Significance of Geography Class in 5th grade and in the Following School Years”:
The material of 5th-grade geography is especially well-suited to further the acquisition of knowledge about the socialist Fatherland and a feeling of pride in [our] achievements and a feeling of solidarity with working people. In geography the preconditions for the educational effectiveness of [other subjects in] later grades is created, above all in the units treating other socialist states, especially the Soviet Union; here, and in the treatment of West Germany and other capitalist states, the pupil gains a partisan perspective. Beyond all this, the pupil should already in 5th grade acquire the foundations of a materialistic Weltanschauung and a socialistic way of behaving within his learning collective.6 In these ways, geography class makes an essential contribution to the formation of socialist personalities who are being trained to adopt – ambitiously, critically, and independently – the task-oriented, socially necessary perspective.7 The geography syllabus for polytechnical middle school through high school proceeded in two phases. In the first stage (5th through 9th grades), the emphasis – at least formally – was on physical geography. The regions of the world were studied according to topographical and ideological categories, i.e., by continent and hemisphere (and, secondarily, by political system – whether socialist or capitalist). In the second stage (9th through 12th grades), pupils also studied economic geography, especially “the socialist world system,” concentrating chiefly on economic development. Upper-grade elementary school geography concerned itself more with Marxist-Leninist theory. But all grades celebrated the economic successes in the socialist camp (especially the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with West Germany’s failures serving as counter-examples illustrating the weaknesses of capitalism). The following two sections deal in-depth with how these topics were presented in the first two years of the curriculum.
“Our Socialist Fatherland”: How Fifth Graders Learned to Love the Heimat The 5th-grade curriculum covered the physical geography of the GDR itself. Much attention is given in Geographie 5 to the topographical distinctions: the plains and valleys of the north, the hills and mountains of the south. But the political dimension of such facts is never forgotten. For instance, Geographie 5 repeatedly stresses that the GDR land mass is “tended with care” by socialist agriculture and industry. Unsurprisingly, no mention is made of the GDR’s dying forests, poisoned rivers, and polluted air. The paragraph on socialist agriculture concludes:
The land is the most important natural foundation of agricultural production. In order that its bounty may be maintained and even increased, it is carefully tended in socialist society.8 Whereas the GDR school subject of German mixed politics with letters, GDR geography mingled ideology with geology and topography. It made passing reference to the relation between the “laws” of physical science and scientific socialism; the teaching guide advises teachers to mention the “dialectical aspect” of physical geography, i.e., how Marxist-Leninist doctrines and Nature share the same “general lawfulness.”9 But the teaching guide notes that this theme will be handled systematically in the upper grades and should remain in the background in 5th grade. Thus Geographie5 is less “ideology and geography” than a counterpart to western political geography, though this de-emphasis on agitprop is more true of the texts in the 1970s and 1980s than those of earlier decades.
Geographie5 is divided into two parts based on criteria of GDR geography: the plains of the north and the mountains of the south. Its sub-chapters, however, are organized according to the GDR’s administrative system of 15 Bezirke;10 this allows for a political emphasis to the text, with local political achievements and economic geography featured. For instance, sub-chapter and unit titles include “The Development of Rostock,” “Big Chemical Firms,” and “The New Residential City of Eisenhüttenstadt.”11
The first chapter of Geographie 5, “The GDR – A Socialist State,” gives the flavor of the text. It presents a map of the Berzirke and an overview of the physical facts of the GDR: size, population, population density, major rivers, and so on. The opening paragraphs make clear, however, that a strong political emphasis in geography class is to be expected:
Under the leadership of the Socialist Unity Party [SED, or Communist Party], the working class rules in the GDR. In alliance with the comrade farmers, the intelligentsia, and all other working people, the working class promotes the interests of the whole Volk. All the important means of production are the property of the Volk or Party....
The GDR is cordially allied with the Soviet Union and all other countries in the socialist community of nations. Many socialist countries co-operate closely in the RGW [Rat für Gegenseitige Wirtschaftshilfe, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance a.k.a. COMECON, the East European counterpart to the Europe Community]. In this way, people from the allied countries get to know and understand one another better and better.
The GDR maintains diplomatic relations with almost all nations of the earth. It conducts peaceful trade with many nations and helps young national states with economic reconstruction.12 Featuring units entitled “The GDR – a Socialist State” and “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic,” the chapter on East Berlin is the longest and most detailed in Geographie 5. East Berlin – always referred to simply as “Berlin” in official language (West Berlin was termed “Westberlin”) – is described as “the political center of our Republic,” “a modern socialist capital.” In the style of the Heimatkunde textbooks – and anticipating the more extensive attention to the political history of modern Berlin in history class (10th through 12th-grade history) – the opening unit on Berlin gives a quick, five-paragraph overview of wartime and postwar Berlin.13 For example:
In the Second World War, large parts of Berlin were destroyed. After the liberation of Berlin by the Soviet army, the city was occupied by troops from the Soviet Union, the USA, Great Britain, and France. A separate administration was introduced in the three western zones with the support of the western occupation powers. These measures destroyed the unity of the city. Berlin was split into two parts....
The three former western sectors form the politically autonomous area of Westberlin. From this center the economy of the GDR was damaged year after year. Therefore, on August 13, 1961, our government decided on protective measures on the border of our Republic and Westberlin....14
The unit concludes:
Berlin, the capital of the GDR, is a major, modern socialist city. Working people from all Berzirken of our Republic co-operate to make the city ever more beautiful.15 The East Berlin chapter also spotlights the GDR’s political structure, featuring photographs of the State Council headquarters and of “Red City Hall,” the site of the municipal administration of Berlin that was built with reddish brick. The unit (1967 edition) begins:
Our capital Berlin is the site of the highest body of the People in the GDR, the Volkskammer.... Between the meetings of the Volkskammer, the direction of the state and society lies in the hands of the State Council. It is under the direction of Walter Ulbricht.... The leading party of our state is the party of the working class....16 This paragraph exemplifies how socialist educators determined that geography could make a contribution to the formation of the desired socialist Weltanschauung. The various regions of the GDR are primarily treated as occasions to present the state philosophy and structure of government of the GDR, as the end of the closing chapter of Geographie 5 evinces:
The GDR is a socialist state. All measures of the Party and State are directed toward the constant improvement of citizens’ lives. The economy is developed systematically, under the direction of the Party, in the interest of all citizens.... On account of their productive labor, all working people have a share in the development and execution of the plans [Five-Year Plans]....17 “Elementary” Political Geography Elementary geography for 6th through 8th grades devoted roughly equal space to both capitalist and socialist nations: 6th grade covered Western Europe and “the socialist countries of Europe”; 7th grade treated the USSR and Asia; 8th grade addressed North and South America, Africa, and Australia.
Geographie 6 is divided into two parts. The division is not geographic (west vs. east), however, but political: “Capitalist Countries of Europe” and “Socialist Countries of Europe.” And the Introduction (“Overview of Europe”) signals that the textbook will be blending geography and ideology in order to develop a “partisan perspective.” Geographie 6 begins with a table that ranks the rivers of Europe according to length: the Volga and Donau are 1st and 2nd; the table then skips to the Rhine, which comes in a poor 9th. (The Elbe is 10th.) The editors then state:
One can order the states of Europe according to their geographical position. (See illustration 8 above.) All of Eastern Europe belongs to the European part of the Soviet Union. The entire Soviet Union is the biggest country of the world.
If one divides the states of Europe according to their political organization, they belong partly to the socialist and partly to the capitalist countries. Until the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union was the sole socialist country in Europe. Since then, the number of socialist countries in Europe has significantly grown....
The Introduction concludes with the sentence:
The biggest part of the land mass of Europe is occupied by socialist countries.18 Given its division into east and west on the basis of political systems, Europe was the perfect setting for comparing the relative successes of socialism and capitalism – and, of course, of the two Germanies – and it is fascinating to see here how Geographie 6 employs geographical facts, often in the form of charts or lists, to imply – without ever actually stating – that socialist nations are superior to capitalist ones. Nothing is falsified. But the impression of the overall superiority of socialism is effectively communicated. That socialist nations occupy a greater land mass than the capitalist ones implies other sorts of superiority. That the USSR contains the biggest rivers (the Rhine is the only western European river even mentioned in the chart) and is the “biggest” country in the world geographically leaves the implication of its greatness in other areas of interest.
Here again, however, the difficult problem for GDR educators of both “studying” the West and stifling the pupil’s desire to see it presented itself. How to make the West seem bad that it was not even worth visiting? The solution, as we have already seen, was to condemn capitalist nations as – to borrow Ronald Reagan’s notorious phrase about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – an “Evil Empire.” Consider, for instance, the presentation of West Germany and Great Britain in the chapter “Capitalist Countries of Europe” in Geographie 6. More than a third of Part One is devoted to West Germany. In the opening paragraphs, under the heading “The FRG [West Germany], a Capitalist Nation,” which is accompanied by photographs of young workers on strike, we learn:
As in all capitalist countries, the raw materials, industrial firms, and banks belong principally to private property owners, the capitalists. Even the land and terrain is, in largest part, private property. The capitalists represent only a small part of the population, but they govern the economic wealth of the state. The actual earnings of the working people are really received by them as profit....
There is only one political party in the FRG that openly and fearlessly battles for a just order. That is the [West] German Communist Party (DKP)....19
This text is followed by this lone unit question, which is phrased as a command (complete with exclamation point):
Contrast property and power relations in the FRG with those of the GDR! Prove why there cannot be any exploitation of people here!20 The section on Britain is cast in similar terms:
Great Britain is the country where capitalism originated.... Back then, the ruling classes of Great Britain governed the greatest merchant and war navy. They had conquered huge territories in Asia, Africa, and North America and had oppressed the peoples there. Such a subordinated and exploited country is called a colony.21 The Summary for Part One opens with:
All capitalist countries possess these distinctive features:
1. The same property and power relations prevail in capitalist countries. Almost all the means of production, above all the industrial firms, belong to a small minority of the population. The great mass of the working people is exploited by the capitalists for their own profit. All essential measures of the government serve to maintain these capitalist relations.
2. The capitalist class is opposed to the working class. The workers battle for improved working and living conditions. They struggle for secure jobs, good educations for their children, and suitable medical insurance as well as a beautiful and natural environment. The capitalists ultimately have only one interest: the protection and increase of their profits....22 By contrast, the chapters on the “Socialist Countries of Europe” in Part Two are an inspiring story of progress, persistence, courage, and human dignity. After contrasting the distinctive features of “socialist relations of production” point for point with those of capitalist, the Introduction explains the “developmental path” of Eastern Europe with a short historical overview. Interestingly – perhaps to heighten pride in the success and independence of the Bruderländer – any expression of gratitude to the USSR for its role in this history is omitted:
In the era of capitalism (until 1944/45), Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria – already industrialized Czechoslovkia was an exception – were among the most economically-backward countries.... The need became even greater during the Second World War (1939–45), when troops from fascist Germany invaded....
With the liberation in 1944 and 1945, the peoples drew the correct conclusions from their experiences suffered during the capitalist era. They first altered the political relations. The Volk assumed rule.... Then property relations were altered. Against the bitter resistance of the capitalist exploiters, the exploiters were dispossessed of their firms, which were acquired by the Volk. Under great hardships, the Volk proceeded to overcome their war losses and develop the young socialist countries from backward rural countries into modern industrial countries with sophisticated agricultural production. In all this, they have proven that workers and peasants are able to govern a state successfully and to develop its economy for the welfare of all.23 Geographie 6 stresses that, despite their awful past, socialist countries are committed to peaceful cooperation with their capitalist neighbors and can rest confident in their superiority. Class conflicts will continue under capitalism; under socialism, all conflicts are resolved in comradely fashion. The future belongs to the socialist nations, because the laws of History are on their side. As the Summary for Part Two notes:
With the Great Socialist October Revolution, the lawful transition from capitalism to socialism began. The Soviet Union forged ahead on this path as the first country..... [Under socialism], emergent difficulties and problems are overcome and dissolved in the common socialist interest and in comradely character.....
The socialist countries of Europe decisively campaign, in the interests of their peaceful reconstruction, for cooperation between socialist and capitalist nations.24 Similar arguments and modes of presentation are to be found in 7th-grade geography, which covers the USSR and Asia. Unlike other texts, however, Geographie 7 lionizes the USSR explicitly and in unrestrained language:
Everywhere in the Soviet Union, modern science and technology are used.... For the first time in the history of Humanity, affairs are decided by working people.... The successes since the Great Socialist October Revolution show that no other social order can produce such achievements.... The socialist world order has become the decisive force of the present....
A close friendship exists between the Soviet Union and our Republic.... The working people in the Soviet Union and in our Republic pursue common goals: Under the direction of the Party of the working class, they both are building a future that offers peace, security, prosperity, and happiness for all people. That’s why the citizens of our Republic have such heartfelt feelings of friendship toward the Soviet Union.25 As the 7th-grade teaching guide notes, the emphasis should be on “socialist ideological education”:
In the foreground is the goal of making the pupils aware of the political significance and economic strength of the first and most important socialist country of the world....
In the sense of proletarian internationalism, the conviction should be deepened that the Soviet Union pursues consistently a peace politics and stands as a model for the further development of socialist states, and also that close friendship exists between other socialist states and the USSR. These educational goals constitute the leitmotifs in the entire handling of the Soviet Union.26 The 7th-grade units focus on the leading nations in socialist Asia: China, Korea, and Vietnam. The “educational emphasis” when discussing the “historical-geographical” dimension of China, according to the teaching guide, should be “Education for hatred against the oppression and plundering of peoples by the imperialists.”27 The opening paragraph of the unit on the Democratic Republic of Korea – North Korea – runs: “Korea was divided by the imperialists. The attempt of the USA to annihilate the Democratic Republic of Korea failed.”28 The Vietnam unit is titled, “The War of Independence of the Vietnamese Volk.” “Education for hatred” against US imperialism and “solidarity” with the Vietnamese Volk is the “educational emphasis” in all editions of the teaching guide.29 Pupils recognize especially in the portrait of the criminal war of aggression by the US that imperialistic nations are not above even making war in order to halt Asian progress. But their wars are opposed by aid for economic reconstruction from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.... The victory of the Vietnamese Volk should be especially honored .30 The heroic struggle that the Vietnamese Volk have carried on for years against the aggression of US imperialism is the focus in the treatment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The portrait of the development of this battle for liberation serves, on the one hand, as an example for the national liberation movements in Southeast Asia, and on the other hand, characterizes the brutality of imperialism, which violates human rights and sovereignty in the service of its interests....
The pupils must gain the conviction that US imperialism, which has taken over the positions of the earlier colonial powers, tries with all its means to halt the independent and progressive development of peoples, but that in Asia too, developments are increasingly defined by the growing strength of the socialist world system.... The pupils can establish with emotionally effective and current press clippings that the US is conducting a barbaric war of aggression in Southeast Asia... .31 Geographie 8 focuses on Africa and the Americas, particularly the US.32 The opening paragraph on Africa heralds the liberation movement that has led to “50 independent nations” in the postwar era, concluding with the question: “How has it happened that the African independence movement has achieved success and imperialistic colonialism has almost collapsed?” The answer is not hard to fathom:
The cornerstone for this development was laid with the Great Socialist October Revolution. For the first time, in a sixth of the globe, capitalism was overcome and workers and peasants began to erect the first socialist state, the Soviet Union.... With the victory of the workers and peasants in the Soviet Union began the epoch of the worldwide transition from capitalism to socialism. A characteristic of this epoch is the independence movement among the colonially enslaved peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America..33 Geographie 8 extensively discusses neocolonialism in Africa, which is described as a continuation by the capitalists of the old imperialistic aims of the colonial powers. “The imperialist powers exploit toward these ends their monopolies and the dependence on exports and imports of the African states.”34 Teaching guides advise referring to “so-called ‘economic aid’” from “the imperialistic states.”35 Special attention is given in Geographie 8 to the “Suez aggression” of 1956 and the “Israeli aggression” of 1967. The text spotlights model socialist states such as Zaire, which gained independence in 1960 and, under the socialist government of Mobuto, nationalized the mining industry in 1967.36 Pupils encounter the following unit questions:
(a) In what form and under what conditions do the monopolies draw their profits from Africa?
(b) What possibilities do the imperialistic states exploit in order to gain influence over the developing countries?
2. Explain via the example of the historical development of the Republic of Zaire the features of colonialism and neocolonialism!
3. Report on the penetration of FRG monopolies in Africa! Take a position!37 Recognizing that identification with the continent of Africa is hard for GDR pupils, the teaching guide on the Africa units issues classroom instructors a challenge: “Educational success will essentially turn on the partisan position of the teacher.”38