Cover image for Textbook Reds: Schoolbooks, Ideology, and Eastern German Identity By John Rodden

Textbook Reds

Schoolbooks, Ideology, and Eastern German Identity

John Rodden


$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05856-6

352 pages
6" × 9"
30 b&w illustrations

Post-Communist Cultural Studies

Textbook Reds

Schoolbooks, Ideology, and Eastern German Identity

John Rodden

“Put Rodden's new book on education in East Germany, Textbook Reds, next to his earlier one, Repainting the Little Red Schoolhouse, and you have all the library you need to understand the dynamics of the former German Democratic Republic, in every aspect, from its beginning to its end. Not even more specialized studies range as far and probe as deep, thanks to Rodden's astonishing versatility as a historian. He moves deftly from analysis of textbooks to personal interviews, from the teaching of the high-school disciplines to the corruption and the cult of personality in the GDR. The interviews bring an immediacy one seldom finds in a book so scholarly, and the scholarship is thorough across a spectrum of approaches. Make no mistake—using the educational system as a starting point does not narrow the perspective but opens out whole horizons instead. Comprehensive, brilliant, and vivid.”


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If one wants to know what children in communist East Europe were told to think about their nation and their leaders, their class enemy, and their so-called Soviet friends, no better source exists than textbooks. In textbooks the dogmas of communism were communicated in their most simplified form and manufactured in the millions for mass consumption. In Textbook Reds, John Rodden shows how the now-defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR) shaped generations of East German youth and how the imprint of Marxist-Leninist ideology remains today on the hearts and minds of millions of eastern Germans, more than fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Drawing on a rich and varied collection of materials—a total of more than two hundred textbooks, teaching guides, school songbooks, educators’ professional journals, and school examinations—Rodden spotlights the “textbook mentality” that permeated East German society. In the GDR’s campaign to win the minds of men, any critiques of the Party were equated with disloyalty and the bourgeois sins of individualism, negativism, and cosmopolitanism. Citizens who broke free of such indoctrination still bore marks of its influence, even long after leaving school—and long after the GDR’s dissolution in 1990.

The second part of the book offers a glimpse of post-communism today. Through interviews with dozens of teachers and students from contemporary eastern Germany, we see that East German faculty and students constitute perhaps the largest, most articulate, most traumatized segment of the population affected by events since 1989. Not just a study in comparative education, Textbook Reds is also a work in the sociology of education, literary sociology, and literary history. Rodden shows that the deepest roots of GDR society were indeed located in the institution that molded the youth of its citizens, and that the most searching questions about East German identity and the repression of its political past are in fact to be found there.

“Put Rodden's new book on education in East Germany, Textbook Reds, next to his earlier one, Repainting the Little Red Schoolhouse, and you have all the library you need to understand the dynamics of the former German Democratic Republic, in every aspect, from its beginning to its end. Not even more specialized studies range as far and probe as deep, thanks to Rodden's astonishing versatility as a historian. He moves deftly from analysis of textbooks to personal interviews, from the teaching of the high-school disciplines to the corruption and the cult of personality in the GDR. The interviews bring an immediacy one seldom finds in a book so scholarly, and the scholarship is thorough across a spectrum of approaches. Make no mistake—using the educational system as a starting point does not narrow the perspective but opens out whole horizons instead. Comprehensive, brilliant, and vivid.”
“A perceptive and creative study of eastern German education. The sections on Wolfgang Harich and of hopeful reformers among the technical intelligentsia are very well done. I especially liked the treatment of the World Youth Games, held in East Berlin in 1973, which I attended during my first trip to the GDR. The Games were exactly as John Rodden describes them, with thousands of eager, blue-shirted FDJ students swarming among the city. Oddly, Angela Davis was the celebrity speaker for the event, who seemed at last to have found a receptive audience for her tirades.”
“Rodden eschews scholarly cautiousness and is both epic and personal in his approach to German history. I was especially impressed by his ability to link the founding and history of the GDR to the ups and downs of Soviet policy, all of which is executed in the context of a richly textured narrative of German cultural and social history. But this is not a history of education in the usual sense. Rodden is both critical of the GDR system and its current effort to mold its citizens and also deeply sympathetic with the many GDR citizens who were victims of the Marxist-Leninist hoax that their leaders perpetrated on them.”
“The scope of this book goes beyond previous investigations of the subject, both in the sense of its comprehensive inclusiveness of topics beyond education in narrowly conceived terms, and in its extension of the historical narrative to post-GDR life. Never before have the intricate interactions among educational programs, ideological motivations, and the exigencies of practical politics in the GDR been demonstrated so thoroughly and with such rich documentation. Rodden’s illumination of the interconnections among educational programming, social engineering, and political power make this study a significant contribution not just to German studies, but to the sociology of nation-building as well. But this work does not merely demonstrate the centrality of education to Marxist nation-building, it also shows the reasons and conditions leading to the successive failures and ultimate undoing of this communist project.
One of the most appealing features of Textbook Reds is Rodden’s lively, witty, and forceful writing style. This style is thoroughly compatible with the book’s sound scholarship, because it serves to highlight his basic themes by giving dramatic power to various anecdotes, personal encounters, and historical scenes. Most engaging is Rodden’s very personal viewpoint in his portraits of the East Germans that he interviewed. His vignettes show vividly the fateful determination of German lives by history, and the poignant, sometimes humorous tone brings his nuanced yet sympathetic American perspective into the foreground, often mitigating the gloom and endowing the tragedy with promise and hope.”
“Because I was a professor during the GDR era and contributed toward the formation of East German education, I am thoroughly familiar with the stories and events that John Rodden relates. His book is fascinating, sometimes even thrilling to read, and it addresses a public far beyond academic specialists. It is accessible to the general reader and deserves the widest possible audience.
I have been most impressed by Rodden's scholarly expertise, profound philosophical grasp, and power of verbal and intellectual expression. He has an unusual stance that is both sympathetic and critical at the same time, and it facilitates his penetrating understanding of the essential purposes and aspirations of GDR education and cultural politics. I say all this as a man who himself lived through most of the history of GDR educational and cultural politics, first as a supporter of the regime and then, beginning in the mid-1980s, increasingly in opposition to the dictatorship—and who experienced the events of 1989–90 as a personal and intellectual liberation from an ideological straitjacket. I can, therefore, on the basis of my own intimate knowledge of that history, evaluate with great confidence the outstanding achievement of this book as a work of scholarship and human empathy. This book exhibits an amazingly detailed knowledge of the German situation, not just with regard to its educational institutions but in its grasp of the entire cultural and philosophical context of the former GDR and eastern Europe.”
“I simply cannot praise this book enough. It is a truly impressive work. It is beautifully conceived and executed, as well as intellectually and morally engaging. Above all, it is so very, very well written with a lively style, a tempered wit, a remarkable literary and historical erudition, and a refreshing human empathy. The portraits are robust and dominant. I could swear that some of Rodden’s conversation partners have crossed my path over the years, under different names to be sure. This is the kind of work that teachers can use in a seminar on recent German or European history and politics. It will certainly stimulate interest and discussion among all students in these areas.”
“This book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the functioning of dictatorship as well as to the general processes of social change. I am most impressed by the beautiful essayistic style and sovereign command of German jokes, conversational language, and everyday slang. This is an excellent book that will be of great value to the scholar and general reader alike.”
“This stimulating book is written with grace. It is a fascinating portrait gallery of GDR life. I was particularly intrigued with the latter material given my extensive contact with GDR citizens from 1988 on.”
“The interviews he recorded with both teachers and students soon after reunification, reproduced in a section entitled ‘The Voices Behind the Page’ and encompassing nearly half the book, represent some of the most insightful original sources we have on this enigmatic process. Textbook Reds should be included on every reading list dealing with East German politics and culture. A German translation would make a valuable contribution to the ongoing—and excruciatingly slow—renegotiation of German culture and society since 1989.”

John Rodden is Adjunct Professor in Speech Communication at the University of Texas. His books include Repainting the Little Red Schoolhouse: A History of Eastern German Education, 1945–1995 (2002) and Performing the Literary Interview: How Writers Craft Their Public Selves (2001).


Foreword by Wolfgang Strauss


List of Abbreviations


Prologue: Creating Young Comrades

Introduction: Ideology as Core Curriculum

Part I Of Politics and Letters—and Numbers

1. German for the East Germans: Language and Literature

2. Terra Verde, Terra Rosso: Geography

3. My Country, Left or Wrong? Civics

4. Progressive Lessons of the Past: History

5. Socialist Science: Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics

Part II The Voices Behind the Page: Conversations about Post-Communist Education and Eastern German Life with Faculty and Students

6. Arts and Humanities

7. Physical and Social Sciences

8. Education for Tolerance: Of Ideology, Identity, and Intolerance, or Among (German and Jewish) Schoolchildren

Epilogue: Curriculum Without a Core




Introduction. Ideology as Core Curriculum

1945: Textbooks and German Re-Education

Nazi rule placed the entire course of German education, from nursery through university, in the service of fascist ideology, racial hatred, spiritual and physical preparation for war, chauvinistic baiting, and military drilling. . . .

—KPD-SPD Joint Declaration on Education, 11 June 1945

Even before the Russians occupied eastern Germany in May 1945, the topic of German schoolbooks was already one that occupied Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the Kremlin. Like the western Allies, the Soviets wanted to avoid giving Germans the impression that their children would be stuffed with Allied propaganda. Above all, the Soviets sought not to repeat the fiasco that the British and Americans had unwittingly created during the early months of the Italian occupation in 1944: After the successful Anglo-American invasion of Italy in late 1943, schools had been reopened in 1944 under Allied administration. London and Washington had decided, on a temporary basis, to continue using the fascist schoolbooks and simply excise those pages that glorified fascism. But some families had retained old—and intact—copies of the books at home, and predictably, the excised pages had become the object of intense interest among Italian schoolchildren. Allied policy thus had achieved exactly the opposite of its main goal, political “re-education” of the vanquished fascist enemy.

Plans to implement German re-education with non-Nazi textbooks hit an immediate roadblock: The Nazis had burned all German schoolbooks before 1935. And so the Allies were forced to search outside Germany for old German textbooks. The biggest source of copies was found at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, which sent microfilms of twenty textbooks to London shortly before the war’s close. These books were republished in Germany, with some alterations made for political content, and remained in use until 1947.

But these textbooks were circulated only in the western zones. By the war’s end, political tensions between the western Allies and the Soviet Union had become so exacerbated that the two sides could not agree on how German re-education should be conducted. Both the western Allies and the Soviets concurred that re-education was a program of moral reconstruction that would entail a complete revamping of the values of the Germans. The aspiration was to foster a new Fatherland: Whereas the West sought a Germany committed to popular democracy and to the freedoms of speech, press, and religion, the Soviets wanted a Germany committed to Marxism-Leninism under the guidance of the communist Party and the Kremlin. Thus the Allies’ fight about re-education policy eventually became a battle over which “un-lessons”—the democratic or the Bolshevist—would be taught in German schools.

Of course, disagreement over textbook content was just one aspect of a larger battle—extending far beyond education policy—between the western Allies and the Soviets. The conflicts would ultimately lead to the complete end of cooperation between occupation authorities of the West and the Soviets—and, after the 1946–47 Berlin airlift and a series of other small crises, to the formation of separate Germanies: the German Federal Republic (Bundesrepublik Deustchland, West Germany) in May 1949 and the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik East Germany) in October 1949.

Unwilling to use the textbooks from the Weimar era—especially after they were revised by the western allies to show strong sympathy to capitalism and hostility to socialism—the SMAD [Soviet Military Administration of Germany] had to issue its own textbooks. Having located a few Weimar-era textbooks that could serve as models, Soviet educators worked with returning German socialist émigrés to write several textbooks for grades one through four. Verlag Volk und Wissen, the state educational publishing house, rushed out these temporarily usable books in late 1945 for the 1945/46 school year. (Given paper shortages, fiscal crises, and the quickly changing political lines in the Kremlin, the Ministry of People’s Education issued no non-science textbooks until 1951. Even in the sciences and mathematics, teachers in the upper elementary school and secondary school grades had no textbooks until the founding of the DDR in 1949.)

The Red—and the Brown?

The old Party slogan trumpeted “Stürmt die Festung Wissenschaft!” “Storm the citadel of learning.” Marshal Stalin himself had issued the call to arms, declaring educational institutions “the citadel of learning” that “we must capture at any price. This citadel must be taken by our youth, if they wish to take the place of the old guard.” The youth could be persuaded of the superiority of communism, even if their elders were a lost cause. The Soviets called their agit-prop educational campaign vospitanie [moral-social development]; the East Germans termed it weltanschauliche Erziehung [education for a world outlook]. Whatever the name, the intent was the same: creating the new socialist human being.

From the earliest days of the SMAD, textbooks were the foundation in eastern Germany that undergirded the “citadel of learning.” As we shall see, no subject—not even spelling, penmanship, inorganic chemistry, or linear algebra—escaped the Red paintbrush. Marxist-Leninist (M-L) indoctrination thus “replaced” fascist propaganda in eastern German textbooks: “the Red replaced the Brown.”

Of course, that formulation is a vulgar and misleading oversimplification. The word “replace” suggests a simple historic transfer from the Nazi regime to East German communism. There was no such easy transfer. The totalitarianism theory behind it, first propounded by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), is too reductionist to grasp the historical intricacies of the transition in German society between 1945 and the official founding of the two German states in 1949. Those four intervening years were crucial in the formation of two entirely new societies, whose complex development defies simplistic “from brown to red” theories of the East German society.

That new starting point in German history after 1945 in both German societies does not accomadate for a simple “replacement theory” of red = brown. The theory of a mere replacement of the Nazis by the Communists overlooks the liberties which the communist regime offered. It underplays the gravity of the racial hatred that the Nazis stamped in the minds of many Germans—including committed communists and political liberals. The generational change that was taking place within East German society in the late 1950s and 60s also goes unnoticed. Thus, the “red = brown” concept only serves to obscure the complexities of the East German society.

DDR society was founded upon the belief in the equality of all human beings (black, white, Jewish, Muslims, men and women) as equal—and it upheld that creed in the main (despite a degree of anti-Semitism and sexism).

I do not say that social and political reality ever matched these beliefs: in numerous cases I think they turned out to be vain beliefs. Nevertheless, as mental and social constructs, these beliefs were part of DDR reality. A “red = brown” approach thus ignores the many layers of East German social and political reality. Quoting from school textbooks and pressing the citations into an artificial framework of “Nazi ‡ DDR transition” promotes a myth rather than illuminating history.

So the “red” did not simply “replace” the “brown”—the historical transition to the DDR was complex and partly discontinuous with the immediate past. Moreover, at least in 1945/46, it was not evident that M-L would come to dominate eastern German education. Largely to satisfy the western Allies—and to preserve the possibility that a reunited Germany would one day stand in the socialist camp, the policy of the SMAD was anti-fascist rather than explicitly pro-communist—anti-Brown rather than overtly pro-Red. A directive on syllabus revision published by the Ministry of People’s Education in October 1945 makes it clear that SMAD re-education policy sought merely to assure that eastern Germans would learn to scorn Nazis and fascist Brownshirts and to appreciate socialist and Soviet culture:

In Biology, Nazi racial ideology and the teaching on which it is based—the supposed superiority of the German people over other peoples—is to be removed. Likewise to be removed is the application to human society of the teaching about the struggle for existence in the animal world. Students are only to learn about the lawfulness of nature and the development of plants and creatures, and to see how human beings learn to master nature through the recognition of these laws.

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