School and training programs: My youth in the German Democratic Republic

The school and training system in the former German Democratic Republic had a different structure than the education system we have today. What did daily life look like in schools and training programs? This question is answered by our colleague Hans-Georg Neumann from the Mercedes-Benz plant in Berlin-Marienfelde. He spent his childhood and youth in the German Democratic Republic. In this text he reports on his experiences and reflects on the policies of the SED regime.

A photo of me in the middle of the 80’s as a harvest helper

The school system in the German Democratic Republic

Like all pupils in the German Democratic Republic, I went to a polytechnic secondary school until the tenth grade. Pupils who wanted to continue their schooling and receive a high school diploma needed to have outstanding grades. For pupils from families that were openly critical of the political system, receiving a high school diploma was unthinkable. By contrast, pupils that were well integrated into the system had a broad range of opportunities for professional and social development.

My parents did not voice open criticism, but they didn’t conform to the system either. We kept our contacts with the regime to a minimum, tried not to attract any attention, and thus could have a normal life according to German Democratic Republic standards.

From school to the arms industry

Thanks to my grade point average, I had the option of studying for a high school diploma. However, at that point in time I didn’t want to. Instead, I applied for an apprenticeship as a toolmaker in the armaments division of the Carl Zeiss combine, a well-known major company in the German Democratic Republic. Back then I considered this an interesting sector. My application was accepted.

During the hiring process at Carl Zeiss, I became aware for the first time of how the German Democratic Republic system worked. My family members and I had to fill out countless documents. Our entire lives were scrutinized and put under the microscope. It was an absolute taboo to have any contact with abroad in the west. Especially in the armaments industry, secrets had to remain secret. The division I was in produced weapons for the entire Soviet Union. The west could not be allowed to know anything at all about the military plans of the east.

I was one of the lucky ones; the vetting process went smoothly. I began my apprenticeship in the fall of 1987. I left the small village in the state of Brandenburg where I had grown up and moved to the city of Gera for two and a half years. There I lived in a company-run dormitory for the apprentices. Before my move, my parents warned me that during my apprenticeship I had to abide by the rules and that I was obliged to maintain absolute secrecy about my work at all times. I took this advice to heart, but I was also aware of fellow apprentices who broke the rules and were punished. Their contracts were abruptly terminated, and they were transferred to another Carl Zeiss plant in Jena, far from the company’s military and armaments division.

What exactly did we produce that was supposed to be so secret? I still don’t know today. The production employees had no knowledge whatsoever about the end product. We produced individual components that were subsequently assembled — in strict secrecy — in a restricted-access area.

Photo from the year 1990: After reunification with the Bundeswehr (navy)

Labor Day, the most important holiday in the German Democratic Republic

For the SED regime it was crucial to put the solidarity of all the comrades on display. The first time I realized that was in 1988, before the annual major demonstration on Labor Day, May 1. On this, the most important holiday in the German Democratic Republic, it was everyone’s duty to participate. That was the year when my father celebrated his fiftieth birthday, shortly before May 1. I wanted to go home so that I could celebrate it with my family. But first I needed a travel permit from my workplace. My supervisors objected. They were afraid that in the small village where I had grown up I would not take part in the demonstration. In Gera they would be able to check. Eventually I negotiated a compromise: I would provide them with a confirmation of my participation from the mayor of my village. My foreman instructor agreed to this proposal. After my return I immediately handed in the confirmation document. That was the end of the story.

The military aspect of school and university studies: My personal experiences

The militant nature of the SED regime was already evident during my schooldays. Starting as early as the ninth grade, all the pupils had to complete a course of pre-military training. This meant that 15-year-old pupils were learning how to handle an automatic rifle, how to march, and other military skills.

At the end of my training, I once again came into contact with the military orientation of the state leadership. After completing my apprenticeship, I decided to study at a university after all. That was not a problem in itself, but there was one catch: I was told that I would only be admitted to a university if I committed myself to serve in the army for three years. In the German Democratic Republic, this period of military service was the final pressure applied against everyone who aspired to have an academic education after completing vocational training. Those who did not agree to do military service had to wait without knowing when they could start their studies.

I committed myself to three years of army service and was called up immediately. I was lucky: This happened in the spring of 1990. After the reunification of the two Germanys in October, I completed my compulsory military service at the beginning of 1991 and was allowed to leave the German Army.

My first journey to the West

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, I got into a train and traveled from Gera to Nuremberg. Back then this was the simplest and cheapest train connection from Gera to the west. When I arrived in Nuremberg, I experienced a culture shock: For the first time, I saw booming businesses as an expression of a flourishing economy, and I experienced the significance of consumption. I saw the benefits that a well-developed infrastructure provides. But the thing I considered most important of all was the basic right to freedom of opinion. I had a sense of freedom I had never known before.

In the reunified Germany I received the opportunity to begin studying engineering at the Chemnitz University of Technology to complement my vocational training. After four and a half years of study, I received my engineering degree. I started in another job, and have been working in the Production Planning unit at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Berlin-Marienfelde since 2001.

My visa to leave the GDR. The exit visas were stamped into the identity card of GDR citizens without formalities.

Conclusion: Safeguarding freedom

Only after the wall came down did I really understand what kind of system we had lived under in the German Democratic Republic. There it was not a matter of course to freely express our concerns through demonstrations, openly declare our personal opinions, and in these ways to gain a hearing for our own convictions. Demonstrating for our rights is freedom of opinion in action. I think that even 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall our civil rights and liberties are still not something we can take for granted. We also have a duty to future generations to preserve these rights and liberties and to promote them beyond our national boundaries as well.

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