Education in Germany since Unification


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About the book

This volume is concerned with aspects of education in Germany over the past 10 years, focusing on schools, teachers, vocational training and higher education in those eastern parts of the Federal Republic which formerly constituted the territory of the German Democratic Republic. The articles deal with notions of transition and adaptation at a time of considerable upheaval and rapid change. There is a particular focus in some contributions on the problems involved in conducting research on the views of teachers involved in complex processes of adjustment to a new status quo.


David Phillips. Introduction. The Legacy of Unification

E.J. Neather. Change and Continuity in Education after the Wende

Stephanie Wilde. A Study of Teachers’ Perceptions in Brandenburg Gesamtschulen

Bernhard Thomas Streitwieser. Memory and Judgement: how East German schools and teachers have been regarded in the post-unification decade

Karen Galtress-Hörl. Retraining Language Teachers in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, 1992–96: experiences of a British instructor

Nina Arnhold. The Transformation of Higher Education and Research in Eastern Germany: a review from ten years after the Wende

David Phillips. The Wissenschaftsrat and the Investigation of Teacher Education in the Former German Democratic Republic, 1991: a personal account

Hubert Ertl. Vocational Education and Training in Eastern Germany: some reasons and explanations for current problems

Rosalind M.O. Pritchard. Christian Schools and Religious Education in the New Bundesländer


The Legacy of Unification

On one point commentators on German affairs are in general agreement: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the unification of the two Germanies, East and West, took almost everyone by surprise. Even the closest observers have had to admit their failure to anticipate events of such world-historical significance, despite their detailed knowledge of the socio-political scene in which they occurred (Garton Ash, 1999, p. xiii).

Between the opening of the border on 9 November 1989 and unification as early as 3 October 1990, visions of a future Germany had to be imagined on the basis of almost no previous planning, not even at the highest levels. Indeed, although lip service had long been paid to the notion of an eventual bringing-together of the two Germanies, political leaders remained sceptical about its actually being realised: Margaret Thatcher, for example, was apprehensive about the possibilities, believing that:

a truly democratic East Germany would soon emerge and that the question of reunification was a separate one, on which the wishes and interests of Germany’s neighbours and other powers must be fully taken into account. (Thatcher, 1993, p. 792)

She was not alone among Western leaders in taking this line, and she thought that Chancellor Kohl had initially shared her view. Pulzer (1995, p. 157) argues that Kohl could be seen as ‘a prisoner of the two-state theory’, with ‘no contingency plan for the collapse of the GDR regime’. Even in his Ten-Point Programme of 28 November 1989, Kohl had envisaged an interim confederation arrangement, with a gradual development of relations dependent upon conditions like free elections, the release of political prisoners and the abandoning of a command economy in favour of free market conditions (Bahrmann & Links, 1994, p. 147). The swift developments that led to unification in the autumn of 1990 took place in far from ideal conditions: insecure GDR administrations, economic confusion [1] and hastily concocted legislation.

As far as education was concerned, there was, on the one hand, a sudden freedom and opportunity to rethink educational philosophies and, on the other, an unremarkable state of normalcy, with institutions simply continuing their day-to-day work. Indeed, it is salutary to remember the sheer ordinariness of much that happens in education, despite what appear to be huge changes at high political levels. Visitors to educational institutions in the GDR (and in other eastern bloc countries) would often be surprised at the mundane familiarity of much that they observed. The reality was that, for the most part, here were ordinary teachers teaching ordinary things to ordinary children in unextraordinary circumstances.

But the changed political circumstances after the opening of the border enabled those concerned with education in the GDR to begin the process of envisaging reform, and there were some early initiatives, including several under the auspices of the Akademie der Pädagogischen Wissenschaften [2], which were quickly overtaken by events (Hörner, 1990; Anweiler, 1990; Neuner, 1996, p. 292). Once unification was accepted as a political inevitability, steps had to be taken to create a proper framework in which it could realistically be implemented. Monetary union from the beginning of July 1990 – remarkably, at a time when the GDR was still a sovereign state – ‘had all the hallmarks of a West German takeover’ (Kettenacker, 1997, p. 204) and helped to seal the decision to implement full unification. Further impetus was provided by the Unification Treaty (Einigungsvertrag) of 31 August 1990, which included much mention of education, among other things reaffirming the power of the Länder to reshape educational provision within their jurisdictions. Article 37 of the Unification Treaty also guaranteed recognition of qualifications gained in the GDR, but this was of little comfort to those who had graduated from school or university in the east who quite naturally feared that formal parity of recognition was one thing, while equality of actual treatment (or parity of esteem) would be quite another. Many young enough opted to take further parallel qualifications in the west.

An early imperative for the parliaments of the new Länder was the promulgation of school laws, and this too was accomplished remarkably swiftly, with little regard to the possibility of radical departure from West German norms. Garton Ash recalls Adenauer’s catchphrase, ‘No experiments!’ (keine Experimente!), to characterise the election campaign of March 1990:

They had experienced enough experiments to last several lifetimes: Hitler’s experiments, Stalin’s experiments, Ulbricht’s and Honecker’s. They’d had quite enough of being guinea pigs. (Garton Ash, 1999, p. 13)

And this was to be the case with the development of educational policy, despite the feeling that there was a missed opportunity to retain, albeit experimentally, some promising features of the old GDR system.[3] Between April and July 1991, draft school laws were prepared (Rust & Rust, 1995, p. 189), pre-empting any recommendations that might emerge from various processes of evaluation of the educational scene in the former GDR (such as the lengthy and thorough investigations undertaken by the Wissenschaftsrat [4]). Civil servants were seconded from western ministries to help with the drafting of legislation (Boeger, 1998, 1999).

Western academics were quickly on hand to offer wisdom to eastern universities desperate for advice after decades of isolation. Some eminent figures gave generously of their time and contributed a great deal (see Becker, 1991, for example), but others were not always the most suitable or well qualified. A lot of material support was provided, though by no means enough to cope with the actual needs.[5 ]Retraining programmes were instituted to convert teachers of Russian – somewhat unrealistically in many cases – into teachers of English.

What could not be prepared for was the trauma caused by unification for the GDR population as a whole and especially for those charged with educating the young. As one observer put it:

the mood and attitutes in Germany … have shifted from short-lived euphoria after the fall of the Wall, to … resignation, anxiety, bitterness and fear on the East side to resentment, fear and condescension on the West side. (Macrakis, 1992, p. 73)

Pritchard identifies similar problems: The fall of the Wall was greeted with almost universal joy and relief. When the euphoria had died down, however, many Easterners experienced a feeling of loss, almost of bereavement, for the passing of their state and their socialist principles. The ideas and ideals which had guided their lives for so long were discredited. The result was a feeling of profound sadness and anomie. The Wende was a shock to the whole personality structure. (Pritchard, 1999, pp. 18-19)

The discrediting of what the GDR had stood for was compounded by the fact that the economic transformation hoped for following unification did not materialise. To be sure, there was much outward evidence of the new order (the western banks and insurance companies, for example, moved in with astounding speed), but the material circumstances of individual citizens were not changed overnight, and the east was quickly made aware of the realities of unemployment. Salaries in the east were pegged at a lower rate than those in the western Länder. Many teachers lost their jobs.

What did all this mean for ordinary teachers remaining in post? For the vast majority who had been pursuing a professional occupation competently within the limitations of the state’s expectations of them, the sudden doubt cast on their competence was at the very least disorienting in its effect. The undermining of their presumptions about their role as educators and the function of the institutions in which they taught – through extreme criticism from the west of all aspects of education in the GDR – was particularly unfortunate at a time when there was a willingness to adapt to new ideas and to seize the opportunities that greater freedom would offer. In the event, east German teachers accepted the structural transformations ‘with great acquiescence’ (Weiler et al, 1996, p. 58).

Of course, it was not of itself unacceptable to believe in the ideals of the 10-year polytechnical school. With the political imperatives of its curricular provision removed, it could still have provided an educationally defensible model as a ‘comprehensive’ school. But teachers had to suffer the assumption on the part of policy-makers that such a school type was fundamentally unacceptable, while West German models were automatically to be adopted in various forms, despite repeated criticisms levelled over many years at the tripartite system of secondary education so firmly rooted in the western Länder. We should not lose sight of the reality of this judgement of the GDR model: effectively it was saying, as far as east German teachers were concerned, that institutionalised equality of treatment of the pupil population was not acceptable.

Some 10 years on there are still considerable problems facing the teaching profession in the eastern Länder. Teachers can still feel neglected and isolated, despite the advances in the material conditions of schools (though many buildings are still way below the standards of those in the west) and the assimilation of the teaching profession into the western framework. They are bitter about assumptions on the part of western critics that all their work in the GDR was without worth; they feel that much that was good in their former practice has been abandoned without sufficient thought. It will clearly take some considerable time yet before the psychological damage caused by the hastiness of post-unification reform can be healed.

* * *

The chapters which make up this present volume are concerned in various ways with the issues raised here. E.J. Neather, basing his chapter on a series of interviews with east German teachers and academics, analyses problems of continuity and change in education since the Wende. Stephanie Wilde and Bernhard Streitwieser have undertaken detailed studies of teachers’ views of the situation with which they are now having to cope and the circumstances which have led up to it. Karen Galtress-Hörl describes on the basis of personal experience the difficulties involved in retraining teachers of Russian during the period 1992-96. Nina Arnhold deals with the transformation of higher education and research within the context of the role of the Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat), a subject to which I return in a contribution describing my experience of a working group set up by the Wissenschaftsrat in the autumn of 1990 to report on the future of teacher education in eastern Germany. As with Karen Galtress-Hörl’s chapter, this account is by way of a record of personal experience, informed by commentary with the benefit of hindsight. Hubert Ertl looks at the background to current problems in vocational education and training, and Rosalind Pritchard contributes a chapter on the development of what was a new subject for schools in the east – religious education.

Taken together, the chapters reflect the many concerns that still have to be addressed in assessing what has been achieved over the past 10 years of educational development in the eastern Länder.

Notes [1] The East German Mark was changing hands at a rate of up to 15:1 with the Deutschmark before currency union on 1 July 1990 (Nicholls, 1997, p. 321).

[2] The Academy of Pedagogical Sciences was abolished at the end of 1990. In that year, it had produced a publication series (Bildungswesen aktuell) which made many proposals for reform of the existing GDR education system. The pages of the Deutsche Lehrerzeitung (DL), previously little more than a propaganda sheet of the regime, were filled with enthusiastic debate about future provision in education from an early point following the events of November 1989 (see, for example, ‘Thesen zur Schulreform’, DL, 51, 1989).

[3] I had argued in an early paper, for example, that an opportunity was missed to conduct a real experiment with comprehensive schooling, using the GDR’s 10-year school as a basis. In retrospect, it appears that this idea would not have been technically feasible, given guarantees in the Grundgesetz (Basic Law) about parental freedom of choice (Phillips, 1992, pp. 115-116).

[4] I was a member of the Arbeitsgruppe Lehrerbildung, appointed by the Wissenschaftsrat in 1990 to report on teacher education in the former GDR. We found when we visited Ministries of Education in the new Länder in early 1991 that it was too late for any recommendations we might make to have implications for systemic change, since decisions had already been taken on such matters as the future shape of the school system and the pattern of teacher education (two-phase rather than one-phase) to be introduced.

[5] For example, the initiative Schulbuchhilfe für die neuen Länder (‘textbook support for the new Länder’ of the Federal Ministry of Education provided some 2.5 million books in history, politics and German (Bundesministerium für Bildung, Wissenschaft, Forschung und Technologie [BMBF], 1995, p. 25).

References Anweiler, Oskar (1990) Die ‘Wende’ in der Bildungspolitik der DDR (Dokumentation), Bildung und Erziehung, 43, pp. 97-107.

Bahrmann, Hannes & Links, Christoph (1994) Chronik der Wende. Die DDR zwischen 7 Oktober und 18 Dezember 1989. Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag.

Becker, Johannes M. (1991) Ein Land geht in den Westen. Die Abwicklung der DDR. Bonn: Dietz.

Boeger, Wilhelm (1998) Der Leihbeamte. Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag.

Boeger, Wilhelm (1999) Der Leihbeamte kehrt zurück. Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag.

Bundesministerium für Bildung, Wissenschaft, Forschung und Technologie (BMBF) (1995) 40 Jahre Bildungs- und Forschungspolitik, 1955-95. Bonn: BMBF.

Einigungsvertrag (1990) Der Einigungsvertrag: Vertrag zwischen der Bundesrepublik Deutschland und der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik über die Herstellung der Einheit Deutschlands. Bonn: Goldmann.

Garton Ash, Timothy (1999) History of the Present. London: Allen Lane.

Hörner, Wolfgang (1990) Bildung und Wissenschaft in der DDR. Ausgangslager und Reform bis Mitte 1990. Bonn: Bundesminister für Bildung und Wissenschaft.

Kettenacker, Lothar (1997) Germany since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Macrakis, Kristie (1992) Wissenschaft and Political Unification in the New Germany, in Kurt-Jürgen Maas (Ed.) From Two to One. US Scholars Witness the First Year of German Unification, pp. 72-85. Bonn-Bad Godesberg: Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Neuner, Gerhart (1996) Zwischen Wissenschaft und Politik. Ein Rückblick aus lebensgeschichtlicher Perspektive. Cologne: Böhlau.

Nicholls, A.J. (1997) The Bonn Republic. West German Democracy 1945-1990. London: Longman.

Phillips, David (1992) Transitions and Traditions: educational developments in the new Germany in their historical context, in Maurice Whitehead (Ed.) Education and Europe: historical and contemporary perspectives, Aspects of Education, 47, pp. 111-127.

Pritchard, Rosalind O. (1999) Reconstructing Education. East German Schools and Universities after Unification. New York: Berghahn.

Pulzer (1995) German Politics, 1945-1995. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rust, Val D. & Rust, Diane (1995) The Unification of German Education. New York: Garland.

Thatcher, Margaret (1993) The Downing Street Years. London: Harper Collins.

Weiler, Hans N., Mintrop, Heinrich A. & Fuhrmann, Elisabeth (1996) Educational Change and Social Transformation. Teachers, Schools and Universities in Eastern Germany. London: Falmer Press.


NINA ARNHOLD completed her MSc in Comparative Education in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Oxford in 1996. After teaching in Poland for a year, she returned to the University of Oxford where she is now a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Studies. Her research interests include: higher education in Europe, education for reconstruction and processes of transition in education.

HUBERT ERTL is currently working at the Institute for Vocational Education (Institut für Wirtschafts- und Sozialpädagogik) at the University of Munich, where his research is concerned with EU policies for vocational education and training. The research for the chapter in this volume was conducted during his time as Research Officer at the Department of Educational Studies, University of Oxford. More specifically, the chapter resulted from involvement in the EU-funded project PRESTiGE (Problems of Educational Standardisation and Transitions in a Global Environment). His book Modularisation of Vocational Education in Europe: NVQs and GNVQs as a model for the reform of initial training provisions in Germany? will be published by Symposium Books in 2000.

KAREN GALTRESS-HÖRL is an English teacher at Munich’s Institute for Foreign Languages and at the Department of English of Munich University; she is also a CELTA teacher trainer. During the period 1992-96 she was involved with the retraining of language teachers in Güstrow, eastern Germany.

E.J. NEATHER, until recently Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Exeter, was a frequent visitor to the GDR from the early 1970s onwards and was Visiting Professor in the Education Department of the Technical University of Dresden in 1992. His publications include ‘Streitfall Lehrerbildung’ in F. Busch (Ed.) Tradition und Erneuerung in der Erziehungswissenschaft (TU Dresden, 1993); and ‘Education in the New Germany’, in D. Lewis & J. McKenzie (Eds) The New Germany: social, political and cultural challenges of unification (University of Exeter Press, 1995).

DAVID PHILLIPS is a Fellow of St Edmund Hall and Professor of Comparative Education in the University of Oxford. His main research interest is in education in Germany, and he has published many books and articles in this area. He is Editor of the Oxford Review of Education and served during 1998-2000 as Chair of the British Association for International and Comparative Education.

ROSALIND M.O. PRITCHARD is Professor of Education at the University of Ulster with particular responsibility for postgraduate programmes in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. She is interested in problems relating to foreign countries and cultures, and has developed particular expertise in the field of German education. She is the author of The End of Elitism? The Democratisation of the West German University System and of Reconstructing Education: East German Schools and Universities after Unification. She is joint editor with Eva Kolinsky & Christopher Flockton of The New Germany in the East: policy agendas and social developments since unification.

BERNHARD THOMAS STREITWIESER completed his PhD in Comparative and International Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. His area of specialisation is eastern German secondary school education and the educational transition process of former GDR teachers since unification. His other interests include issues of European educational policy and school reform.

STEPHANIE WILDE completed her doctorate at the University of Oxford Department of Educational Studies. She is now undertaking research into education for citizenship, based at the Max-Planck Institute for Educational Research in Berlin. She has been awarded the Theodor Heuss Fellowship and is a Research Fellow of the Oxford Department.

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