Textbook Reds: Schoolbooks, Ideology, and Eastern German Identity

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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.”
—Sterling Fishman, University of Wisconsin at Madison

“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.”
—Walter Sokel, University of Virginia

“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.”
—Wolfgang Strauss, University of Jena

“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.”
—Christian Söe, California State University at Long Beach

“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.”
—Vincent Kling, La Salle University

“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.”
—Karl-Heinz Fuessl, Institute for Education and History, Humboldt University, Berlin

“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.”
—A. James McAdams, Director, Nanovic Institute for European Studies, University of Notre Dame

“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.”
—Randall Bytwerk, Calvin College

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271058566
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 1/30/2013
  • Series: Post-Communist Cultural Studies
  • Pages: 482
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

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).

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Table of Contents

Foreword   Wolfgang Strauss     xi
Acknowledgments     xiii
List of Abbreviations     xvii
Glossary     xxi
Prologue: Creating Young Comrades     xxv
Introduction: Ideology as Core Curriculum     1
1945: Textbooks and German Re-Education     1
From Brown to Red?     3
The (East) German Ideology     7
Of Politics and Letters-and Numbers
German for the East Germans: Language and Literature     13
Reared in the DDR     15
Mother-Tongue Education     21
Socialist Fatherland Education     27
Excursus: Thalmann uber alles? Vicissitudes of a Socialist State Icon     33
Living Heroes, or the DDR Cult of Personality     41
Canon Fodder for Young Revolutionaries     47
Excursus: A Bruderland Comparison: Soviet and Post-Soviet Textbooks     56
The Advanced High School Curriculum     65
Books Are Weapons     68
Terra Verde, Terra Rosso: Geography     69
The Expanding Red Earth     69
Excursus: &lsOur Socialist Fatherland&rs: How Fifth-Graders Learned to Love the Heimat     72
Excursus: "Elementary" Political Geography     74
Excursus: Amerika ThroughEastern Eyes     81
The Upper Grades     84
Of Class and Soil     87
My Country, Left or Wrong? Civics     89
Marxed Menschen     89
Excursus: Socialist Morality for Tenth Graders     94
In Lenin's Corner: The Model Socialist Citizen     95
Education for Hatred     97
"Trust Is Good, but Control Is Better"     109
Progressive Lessons of the Past: History     111
The Past is KA     111
History Class / Class History     112
Modern Times     121
Excursus: Marx and Engels as Role Models     124
"Socialism Is Winning!"     126
"Made in East Germany," or the Historical (Re)Invention of the DDR     129
Overtaken by History? 1989 and the Perestroika of DDR Historiography     136
Excursus: The Black Book as Anti-Textbook: History Turns a Corner?     138
Bearing the Double Burden of History     145
Socialist Science: Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics     147
Science, Western versus Eastern     147
Biology     148
Biopolitics?     149
Excursus: Social, a.k.a. Socialist, Hygiene     152
Chemistry     155
Chemical Reactions, Progressive Results     155
Excursus: "Organic" Chemistry, or the Law of M-L     156
Of Applied Science and Agitprop     158
Mathematics     161
The Simple Arithmetic of Progressivism     161
Excursus: Army Algebra for Ninth-Graders     165
Party Figures, or the Higher Calculus of M-L     167
The Voices Behind the Page: Conversations about Post-Communist Education and Eastern German Life with Faculty and Students
Arts and Humanities     195
"History Lessons" for Would-Be Revolutionaries     195
Pedagogy of the Distressed: A German Teacher's Self-Criticism     198
"My Post-Communist Brecht": A Weimar Student's Weltanschauung     207
West Side (Hi)Story I: A Wossi's Postcommunist Critique of Humboldt Historians and Jammerossis     220
The Strains of Silence: A Music Teacher's Brave (New) Career     232
"My Teachers Ignored the Ideological Crap"     243
"French Leave": A Gifted Language Student Goes AWOL     247
West Side (Hi)Story II: A Wossi in Wittenberg     265
Running On, or Training for the (Russian) Olympics     271
Varieties of Academic Experience: A German View     279
"Proud to Be German"     288
Physical and Social Sciences     299
Of Biophysics and Metaphysics: Post-Communism Meets McUniversity     299
Post-Communist Social Studies? A Teacher-Student Conflict of Generations     313
"I Was a True Believer": A Convinced Communist Student Looks Back     321
"My Father Was in the Party": A Daughterly Diptych     329
Education for Tolerance: Of Ideology, Identity, and Intolerance, or Among (German and Jewish) Schoolchildren     345
Border-Crossing after Checkpoint Charlie     348
Forward and Never Forget-Tolerance? A Berlin Teacher's Post-Communist "Class" Struggles     362
Return of the Pink Rabbit?     367
Breaching Walls, Breaching Faith     375
The Strains of Silence II: Hospitality or Hitlerism in Weimar?     379
"Re-Education for Tolerance": A Civic Leader Speaks Out     383
Epilogue: Curriculum Without a Core     391
Notes     393
Bibliography     421
Index     433
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