Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Uses and Abuses of History, or the Lessons of Progressive Pedagogy: An Analysis of East German History Textbooks

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Uses and Abuses of History, or the Lessons of Progressive Pedagogy: An Analysis of East German History Textbooks

Article excerpt

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.--L. P. Hartley, The Go-Betweens

The Past is KA

MODERN GERMANY, ESPECIALLY postwar Germany, is a land awash in History, and historians of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) were assigned the vital task of establishing a definitive break with the German past, addressing the immediate legacy of Nazism, and explaining the new nation to itself. In GDR history textbooks, the past was a foreign country--indeed a capitalist (or pre-capitalist) country: the past was "KA" [kapitalisches Ausland, alien capitalist territory].

This orientation toward the writing of history textbooks is the subject of this article and it ultimately resulted in a history curriculum more ideological than even that of the Nazis. And for a simple reason very much connected with history: time. Nazi educators had less than a decade to develop their curriculum (which included hurriedly devising an intellectual pedigree that featured Nietzsche as its only luminary) and Nazi history effectively "stopped" in 1939/40, before the Stalingrad catastrophe. By contrast, GDR educators had four decades to refine the GDR "heritage," not to mention the advantage of drawing on Soviet history since 1917 and a distinguished radical German and European legacy stretching back long before Marx and Engels.

History occupied a central place in the GDR weltanschauuliche Erziehung [education for a world outlook, i.e., moral-political education]. GDR civic classes were to approach that task conceptually, focusing primarily on class consciousness and socialist institutions, whereas GDR history teachers were to approach it developmentally, emphasizing how lives and events either sail gloriously atop the tidal wave of Progress or drown in the contradictions of feudalism or advanced capitalism.

GDR educators' control of the past should not be underestimated. Since most GDR citizens, even non-history majors in GDR universities, did not study history after secondary school, the officially promoted schoolbook history of the SED (GDR Communist Party) had overwhelming impact in shaping the populace's view of the past. Even East Germans sympathetic to the West often considered it "imperialist," usually on the basis of historical events filtered through a Marxist-Leninist historical lens. In general, history could be analyzed by asking, as Lenin put it, cui bono?

And when GDR historians asked, "What is history for?," they had a quick answer: to teach lessons--Marxist lessons. As we will see, GDR historians fully exploited history's didactic possibilities, using it to promote the lessons of "progressive" history, lessons that taught socialist patriotism and the related values already discussed. GDR school history concentrated on political and military history, touching only briefly on cultural and intellectual history, given the focus on cultural politics in the literature texts. The history textbooks argued that the historical process is progressive; those who understand the materialist, scientific laws of development are no longer victims of historical forces, but rather historical agents who direct History.

Let us now turn to examine the history textbooks themselves, proceeding grade by grade in our analysis of their ideological content, historical claims, and strong attempt to legitimate GDR domestic and foreign policy.

History Class, Class History

History education began in the 5th grade. The Introduction to Geschichte 5, which addresses the pre-historic and ancient world, opens:

   The GDR could only be created through the long sacrifice and struggle of
   the working class. Both this battle of the revolutionary workers and the
   indispensable years after the end of the Second World War, when the GDR was
   founded and the construction of socialism was begun, today already belong
   to history. History class will bring you numerous insights. … 
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