Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Keep On Rocking In the Free World

I’m not going to get into the details here, since most of you have already heard them, but I’ve had some problems at work lately. Suffice it to say that someone in a position of power has been bullying me. At any rate I’ve been really, really stressed out lately and haven’t had time to blog. My prevailing mood is one of dread.

I’ve had the song “Rocking in the Free World” stuck in my head for days now. Probably because I don’t feel like I live in the Free World. The Wall fell, but 55 years of totalitarianism, Nazi and Leninist/Stalinist, left its mark on East German culture.

The best adjective I can use for rural East German is “unreconstructed.” West Germany went through a dramatic cultural overhaul in the 1960s, trying to come to terms with the Nazi past and to develop a new way of doing things. For the most part the cultural overhaul in the West was a success. Unfortunately the East never underwent anything similar. The Socialist Unity Party took the position that since Communists were brutally oppressed by the Nazi regime, East Germany was the successor state of the victims, not the perpetrators. Innocent of any wrongdoing, it was best if their new country ignored its brutal past and tried to move on. –They neglected the fact that most East German citizens were not Communists during the Nazi period, and were just as likely to have supported the Nazi dictatorship as their relatives on the other side of the Wall!

The Nazi legacy is not so deeply buried in rural East Germany. Racism and xenophobia are socially acceptable, as is the arrogance toward Slavic cultures that led Germany to invade most of Eastern Europe during WWII. Poland and the Czech Republic are viewed as suburbs of Germany, places where you can buy gasoline and cigarettes at reduced prices. Even though residents of border areas tank up in “the east” on a regular basis, few bother to learn even a smattering of Polish or Czech. They expect the “foreigners” “over there” to speak to them in German. –It seems to me that most fail to grasp that they become foreigners the moment they cross the border.

Then there’s the Communist legacy, characterized by rigid hierarchy, social conformity, and unthinking adherence to rules. I see it all the time in my school. Rote learning is emphasized at the expense of critical thinking skills. Teachers worry more about the fact that the students don’t stand up to greet them at the beginning of class than that they leave campus to smoke during the breaks. Students receive a grade for “orderliness.” There is no grade that takes problem-solving ability or creativity into account. Such skills were not valued under the Communist system, and most Communist-trained teachers don’t make a big effort to cultivate them.

These attitudes will take a long time to change.

Technically, all of my students (except a few of the older 10th-graders) were born in the Free World, and none are old enough to remember the DDR period. But in many ways they think like Ossis (East Germans), because they were brought up and educated by Ossis. This is not entirely a bad thing, of course. There are some things I prefer about East Germany—the people tend to be friendlier and more helpful toward strangers, and they have a stronger sense of community.

But then there’s that dark side. Like the Neo-Nazis sitting in Saxony’s State Parliament. They actually managed to get 8% of the popular vote during last fall’s elections!

I compare it to the American South. 140 years after the end of the Civil War, racism is still more acceptable there than in the northern states.

This still isn’t the Free World. Quite.


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