Communism as practiced in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc didn’t satisfy itself with aiming for the complete transformation of the societies under its control, but rather sought to create a new type of person as well. In the U.S.S.R., he/she was referred to as the “New Soviet Man” (or more pejoratively, Homo Sovieticus). In the GDR, the bar wasn’t raised quite so high and here the Party sought “only” to mold their citizens into so-called “socialist personalities.” One important part of this process was the Jugendweihe (literally “Youth Conscrecration”), a ritual marking the transition to responsible, socialist adulthood for 14-15 year old East Germans and the first time they were required to explicitly pledge their loyalty to the GDR and its values.
The Jugendweihe had its roots in 19th c. German society and was conceived of by so-called “freethinkers” as an alternative to religious confirmation ceremonies. Participants completed a program of “morality-focused” instruction which was intended to introduce young adults to both the responsibilities of adulthood and the wonders of the world. The program culminated with a ceremony featuring a speech, pledge and the presentation of a book. During the Weimar Republic era, a number of left-oriented political organizations including the Social Democratic and Communist Parties began offering this instruction to its members. However, even, during this “golden age”, more than 95% of German youth continued to attend church-led confirmation courses.
“Socialist Consecration” As A Weapon in the Ideological Struggle
Interestingly, the Jugendweihe tradition was not initially embraced by GDR authorities after the founding of East Germany in 1949, though the practice was allowed to continue in a limited way. In 1953, however, Moscow intervened and ordered that this ritual be implemented across the country as a means of both inculcating youth with the state ideology and challenging the authority of the Church. For the Socialist Unity Party (SED), this order dovetailed nicely with its commitment to “intensify the class struggle” (i.e. confront those groups or individuals it had identified within East German society such as Churches, remnants of the so-called bourgeois political order, etc.) as adopted at a 1952 Party Congress.
In implementing “Socialist Confirmation”, East German authorities were rather clever. They did not formally require young people to choose between religious and “socialist” consecration and even ensured that the Jugendweihe pledge did not explicitly reject such concepts as God or the Church. The Party’s intent with the ritual was clear, however, and deciding to be confirmed in a Church had considerable consequences. For example, those young person who chose a religious confirmation were often placed in less desirable apprenticeship programs or had their applications to attend academic high school (necessary for admission to university/college) rejected. As a result, even if the state refrained from making an explicit ultimatum, the choice placed in front of young people and their parents was stark.
For the Lutheran Church in the GDR, the introduction of the Jugendweihe had profound effects on participation in the church’s Confirmation classes. Friedmut Wilhelm, a Lutheran pastor who served in the GDR between 1966 and 1976 and who was raised in the house of a pastor, recalls that, although participation in “Socialist Consecration” was not officially mandatory, authorities made it clear that they were making note of children who didn’t participate and it didn’t take long for the new measures to have their desired effect. Friedmut remembers how the number of confirmands in his stepfather’s parish “declined dramatically” after the new regime was introduced in 1956: “Most people just wanted to be left alone, didn’t want their children to experience any problems and if that meant ‘Socialist Consecration’ instead of Confirmation, so be it.” (Author’s interview with F. Wilhelm, September 27, 2017).
But Everybody’s Doing It!: Peer Pressure and Participation
While there is no question that the “Socialist Consecration” was seen by the state as a means of indoctrinating East German youth with the ruling ideology, the program of study (the so-called “Youth Hours”) was organized in such a way that it was not entirely unattractive to participants. For example, in addition to classroom instruction on Marxism and related matters, the curriculum often included field trips intended to kindle the young people’s interest in culture, history and science. The relative attractiveness of this program, coupled with the fact that the vast majority of youth took part, helped create a powerful type of peer pressure on some individuals, something that was often passed on to the parents by the young people involved.
Over the years, the pledge made by participants in “Socialist Confirmation” was changed to reflect the political trends of the day. For instance, the initial version spoken in the mid-1950s had young people promise to “put all their energy into the service of a unified, free, democratic and and independent Germany” (www.DDR-Schulrecht.de), wording that reflected East German (or more accurately Soviet) foreign policy on the “German Question” at that time. This language was jettisoned in subsequent versions in favour of texts which required participants to pledge their allegiance to socialism, the Workers and Peasants’ State and the defence of both.
The state’s challenge to Church authority as embodied by The Pledge did not go unnoticed by religious leaders who recognized the inherent contradiction in the the pledges being made in their state’s and their confirmation. A minister from Eisenhüttenstadt interviewed in 1987 as part of Lutz Niethammer’s masterful oral history project, The People’s Own Experience (Rowohlt: Berlin, 1991, pg. 239), outlines the dilemma posed by the “Socialist Consecration” succinctly:
“It’s true (that the Jugendweihe does not explicitly reject God or the Church),
but it is interwoven into and embedded in an ideology which Christ Jesus has
no place. And it was against this that we defended ourselves. Either you came
to us or you went to them.
Interviewer: And don’t you think in taking this hard line that you – to put it bluntly – came out with the short end of the stick?
Of course we did . . . We didn’t just lose the children; many, many members left
the Church during those years.”
In a later passage, the same pastor relates how some parishioners didn’t understand the Church’s hard line on this issue:
“Many parents didn’t understand why we took this matter so seriously. They
said, ‘Please understand, Pastor, we just go (to Jugendweihe) because we have
to on account of the child’s job or school or university.’ Etc., etc.. ‘But we’ll come
to Church afterwards and make a clear pledge to Jesus Christ.’ We didn’t give
in to those people, but rather we said, ‘You have to decide.'” (Niethammer, pg. 243)
There can be no doubt about the truth of the pastor’s interpretation of the Jugendweihe as an ritual which left no room for religious beliefs as this translation of the pledge made by participants of “Socialist Confirmation” between 1969 and 1989 clearly shows:
Dear Young Friends! Are you ready, as young citizens of our German Democratic Republic, to take your place along side us and, in accordance with the constitution, to work and struggle for the noble cause of socialism and to keep the revolutionary inheritance of the people in honour? If so, respond:
YES, WE VOW TO DO SO!
Are you ready, as loyal sons and daughters of our Workers and Peasants’ State, to strive for higher education and culture, to become masters of your field, to study with all your effort and to use your knowledge and ability to help realize our great, humanist ideals? If so, respond:
YES, WE VOW TO DO SO!
Are you ready, as valued members of socialist society, to always act in a spirit of comradely cooperation, consideration and help, and to ensure that in pursuing your path to personal happiness is connected to the struggle for the realization of the happiness of the entire Volk? If so, respond:
YES, WE VOW TO DO SO!
Are you ready, as true patriots, to deepen the firm friendship with the Soviet Union, to strengthen our brotherly bond with other socialist countries, to struggle in the spirit of proletarian internationalism, to protect peace and defend socialism against any imperialist attack? Is so, respond:
YES, WE VOW TO DO SO!
We have heard your pledge. You have set yourselves a high and noble goal. Solemnly we welcome you into the great community of working people which under the leadership of the working class and its revolutionary Party, are united in will and deed in creating the developed socialist society in the German Democratic Republic.
We place on you a large responsibility. We are ready to assist you at any time with our counsel and deeds as you contribute to the creative shaping of the socialist future.
Social Outcomes Resulting from the Jugendweihe
The ramifications of introduction of the Jugendweihe for East German society were dramatic. For the Lutheran Church, by far the largest confession in the GDR, its position on the matter led to dramatic membership loss and helped marginalize it as an institution within East German society. Indeed, the result of this process continue to be felt in the former-East and the region is now widely seen as one of the most irreligious in the world; a recent article in The Guardian even went so far as to label it “the most godless place on earth”.
For the state, however, “Socialist Consecration” was largely viewed as a complete success with 97% of East German 14 and 15 year olds completing the “Socialist Consecration” by the mid-1980s (Niethammer, pg. 238).
Jugendweihe in the 1980s
While there is no question that “Socialist Consecration” was firmly anchored in East German society of the 1980s, accounts I’ve read by participants over the years suggest to me that it was another example of a duty imposed by the East German state on its citizenry which was not taken on with any great enthusiasm. Given this, I’d argue that the Jugendweihe should be seen as part of a myriad of acts intended to require demonstrations of loyalty to the state and its socialist ideology, but which were in reality hollow of any real meaning. Other examples of such activity would have included membership in the Society of German-Soviet Friendship, hanging GDR or Soviet flag from one’s window on the Republic Birthday or participating in the May Day parade. Participation in these rituals was often compensated with ample food and (often alcoholic) drink. Here the Jugendweihe was no different as it typically involved a family party, something recollections of this event usually begin with.
While “Socialist Confirmation” served an ideological purpose for the state, for most East Germans it was something to endure and just another example of the “ideological marinade” (‘That’s Communism you’re soaking in!’) that was omnipresent in their daily lives. When I’ve encountered accounts of individuals’ recollections of the “big day”, they invariably start with the family party afterwards and gifts the young person received. (Interestingly, the most desired gift appears to have been a cassette recorder, a very expensive, but necessary item if one wanted to be able to tape the latest pop hits broadcast into the GDR by West German radio!)
Uncle Erich, You Shouldn’t Have!: The State’s Gift to the Consecrated
One gift rarely mentioned in such accounts, but always received by the ritual’s participants, was a book presented them by the Party and which was intended to give a comprehensive account of the “socialist worldview”. As you might imagine, preparing this book was a pet project of the Party and nicely emblematic of its concerns: a project that took up much time and energy to no discernible outcome as most recipients simply left it to gather dust on a bookshelf
Over the years, four different books were produced for use as Jugendweihe gifts, each updated and revised (read: censored) annually to reflect the current political line of argumentation. After assuming the Party leadership in 1971, Erich Honecker made the introduction of a new Jugendweihe book a priority. The result was Socialism. Your World. which made its debut in 1974. As the title might suggest, this work had a pronounced emphasis on socialist ideology and the duties young people had as GDR citizens including service in the National People’s Army.
The tone of Socialism. Your World. proved divisive, however, and this resulted in the book being retired after only eight years of use. The replacement work, On the Meaning of Our Lives, toned things down a bit, but over half the book is still focuses on the GDR itself and the expectations it had for its young people.
As you can imagine, with one of these books given to practically every East German 14-15 year old from the mid-1950s onward, it’s not hard to find copies in flea markets, on eBay or in junk shops. Most are in excellent condition.