The notion that education is a «good thing,» in teaching children the skills and information they need to function in society, we tend to consider a given. But under authoritarianism, the inseparability of education from indoctrination, and the absence of critical thinking as a goal, casts it in a far more sinister light. Just what do pupils learn when shaped by such systems? Are their teachers just as brainwashed when ideologically programming their wards, or are they cynical cogs in the process of creating compliant citizens? German filmmaker Christian Bäucker had these questions in mind when he returned to the building where he spent his formative years in 80s East Germany. There, he interviewed former teachers and fellow students about what they remember of the experience decades after the fall of communism for documentary Heimatkunde – The Lasting Formation. Through what is left unsaid, just how effective that education continues to be is revealed.
In Baerenklau, north-west of Berlin, where Bäucker went to school, the goal of education was just as it was elsewhere in the former German Democratic Republic: to mould the «socialist personality.» This was someone, according to communist ideology, helpful and honest, with a sense of responsibility for oneself and others, who worked hard with class-consciousness, understanding that capitalism was the enemy. Active participation in all areas of life — social, political, and cultural — was stressed as essential, through membership in youth organisations and later, the Party. Former students say they were effectively handed over to the education system by their families, with a rammed schedule of project groups, sports clubs, pioneer afternoons designed to keep kids busy after class. Essentially turning life into a «full-time school» of overbearing guidance. Health cures routinely separated children from any parental contact for eight weeks. In this quest to manufacture conformity as if on an assembly line, emotional complaints were not tolerated. Any divergence or emerging outsider traits could be cured through collective work, poster slogans promised (or warned, depending on your outlook). One boy, the former students recall, was forced to exercise naked after forgetting his physical education garments. Punishments, in other words, were devised to humiliate — and remind children that privacy was not to be a word in the East German vocabulary.
So far, so moderately disturbing. Bäucker’s film gives an effective sense of just how little room there was in the GDR classroom for individual personalities to find their voices. But the film, for anyone with at least a cursory awareness of the historical realities of the East German repression machine, is most noteworthy for what it leaves out, as independent research is eschewed in favour of letting the subjects tell us their experience in their own words — up to the limit of what they are comfortable disclosing. Watching Western television on the sly is readily admitted by interviewees, but that is about as shocking as the revelations get.
Guilt or shame aside, silent taboos and assimilated limits are hard to break.
Where is the discussion of the extensive, entrenched system of person-to-person mass domestic surveillance that touched all aspects of East Germans’ daily lives, and operated far beyond the activities of the Stasi (the secret police), who infamously sought to know everything about everyone and keep it on file? Reporting secretly on one’s classmates, Young Pioneers’ peers and even parents (in a dark application of the values of being honest and actively helpful) with any incriminating information, from wearing Western clothes to planning to defect, was also considered an essential part of perfecting a «socialist personality.» School directors, teachers and heads of youth organisations were among those the regime considered particularly useful as potential informants and producers of model snitches. Victims of this system often did not know why their rights and privileges were suddenly revoked, and their lives derailed. The system functioned so devastatingly effective for a reason: it was internalised as self-censorship. Maybe then, it’s little surprise that both the teachers and students of Heimatkunde – The Lasting Formation, decades on, seem reluctant to talk about the denunciation complex, and exactly how it was instilled so deeply. Guilt or shame aside, silent taboos and assimilated limits are hard to break.
«I don’t think anybody feels sorry for their work here,» declares one teacher. Their role was «teaching GDR reality,» we hear, and according to this logic, liking the politics of the system or not was irrelevant to their duty of educating their wards to adequately function within it. The idea that education is intrinsically political gets little airtime here, as former teachers endeavour to distance themselves from the most ideologically problematic aspects of their roles. Hohenschönhausen Prison Complex — the main jail for those who tried to leave East Germany, and political prisoners, gets only a tentative mention, as an interviewee professes shock at finding out only after the Wall fell that detainees had been radiated there (authorities did manage to keep what went on inside, and even its existence, largely clandestine). By the end of the film, the main question we are left with is: are documentaries complicit in miseducation, if they let their subjects get away with teaching us only half the truth?
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