German Adult Education in East Germany After Unification: Picking up the Pieces

German Adult Education in East Germany After Unification: Picking up the Pieces


German adult education in East Germany after unification: picking up the pieces

Marion Spöring, University of Dundee


The ‘social, political and economic union’ agreed by FRG and GDR in their 1990 agreement on unification has not turned out to be what many citizens of both German states had expected. The reference to East and West Germans as ‘OSSI’ and ‘WESSI’ describes the strongly perceived distinction between people divided by forty years of life in fundamentally different systems. The ‘union’ has turned out to be a ‘take over’, a turnaround (Wende) which has turned the lives of former GDR citizens upside down. ‘Democracy’ and ‘market orientation’ has led for many of them to unemployment, loss of earnings and pensions, increases in rent and a general upheaval in personal lives/biographies. A society in which full employment, also for women was guaranteed, and a social network to support employees through generous child care facilities, holiday subsidies existed - has to come to terms with a fundamentally different approach. The impact of unification on education providers was naturally significant. I will concentrate on Adult Education within the framework of the new FRG where distinction now is to be made between ‘Neue Bundesländer’ the new federal states (that is, former GDR) and ‘Alte Bundesländer’ the old federal states (that is, former West Germany).

Brief outline on the position of adult education in the FRG and GDR

Both systems have/had roots in the ‘Volkshochschule’ movement (Folk High School; VHS) of the Weimar Republic, that followed their own distinctive way of development according to the prevalent controlling economic political system. The Allies had set up their own distinctive provision which underlined their differences.

Phase 1 1940s and 1950s.

The ‘VHS’ (Volkshochschule) has always been one of the most important providers in both separate states. Volkshochschulen had been in operation again from as early as 1946, but after an initial joint congress of adult education in the Volkshochschule a ‘split between West German and East German VHS had appeared before even the foundation of two separate German states’[1]. The Western VHS was influenced by ideas prevalent in the Weimar Republic, modernised by the addition of ‘international understanding’ and the idea of ‘partnership’[2]. The trade unions had decided not to opt for their own provision to prepare workers for class struggle, but to agree to the establishment of a special section of the VHS - the ‘Arbeit und Leben’ (Labour and Life) organisation. Pluralism of providers (churches, political parties, etc) and pluralism in the context of capitalist US dominated society was another distinctive feature. Adult education was seen for many educationists as a provision for an ‘active minority’ to fight against ‘Kulturverfall’ (cultural decay). Antifascism and recent history did not feature in the programme and was not reflected upon. I am using Siebert’s recent contribution to give a brief outline in the Soviet Occupied Zone (SBZ) the emphasis was from the beginning on the integration of adult education into a state controlled public education system. The objectives of this system were:

a) socialist re-education (Umerziehung).

b) the establishment of the so called ‘Zweiter Bildungsweg’ (‘Second Path to Education’) for young people (peasants and workers).

c) the development of vocational education closely linked with the workplace.

The VHS took on the task to set up courses to gain advanced school and vocational qualifications for the existing workforce. Special outreach centres were set up in work places which later became ‘Betriebsakademien’, (factory academies) and village academies, clubs and Houses of Culture (‘Kulturhäuser’ - a kind of arts & community centre) ‘Urania’, a society for the promotion of popular science was set up to provide adult education. 1956 saw the adoption of the ‘Bitterfelder Weg’ to establish ‘a socialist workers culture to see the worker not only as a consumer, but also a producer of cultural goods’[3].

Phase 2 1960s

The sixties proved to be a decade of great changes in both states. In the research literature this period in general is referred to as the time of ‘pragmatic change’. (Realistische Wende)[4]. The ‘brain drain’ from East to West of highly skilled workers moving to the West had been stopped in 1961 through the building of the Berlin Wall and subsequent closing of the borders. Migrant workers had to support the economy and international competition on the world market led to an increased demand of the highly qualified workforce. Georg Picht’s warning of a ‘Bildungskatastrophe’ (educational catastrophe) and recommendations on how to improve the education system led to an improved, better funded system which was planned on a long term basis. Chairs of Adult Education were established. Programmes changed, learning outcome oriented assessment was introduced. Changes were brought forward which had been implemented in GDR 10 years before[5]. Target group oriented programmes, integration of political education and vocational training, unpaid educational leave (‘Bildungsurlaub’) were introduced in the West[6]. The Chamber of People’s Deputies (‘Volkskammer’) adopted in 1970 principles of continuing education of employees and in 1977 the new code of labour law guaranteed the right for supportive measures when taking up continuing education[7]. The principles of socialist education are as follows :

 unity of development of personality and productivity -

 unity of learning and work,

 unity of the socialist education system,

 unity between the interests of individuals, state and society,

 unity of collectivity and individuality,

 unity of Arts, Science and Ideology[8].

In the East a highly developed system of pathways into higher education via adult education was achieved. Subjects which belonged to the traditional liberal adult education canon like languages and information technology were taught at a variety of institutions.

Phase 3 1970s

In the East these were the years of economic and political advance characterised by a limited ‘liberalisation’ towards the West and improved German and international relations. In the West the education system was renewed. Concepts of comprehensive education were put into practice. The number of school leavers with university entrance qualifications increased from 6% in 1960 to 30% in 1980[9]. The status of adult education providers was enhanced and enshrined in federal legislation. The VHS developed a highly acclaimed certificate programme, access programmes were extended, moves were made towards the integration of general education and vocational training.

Phase 4 1980s

These years have been marked by the recession which left cuts in public funds in the West. Market orientation of providers’ programmes was demanded. Qualifications were seen as the key to dealing with the rising numbers of the unemployed. At the same time, society in West Germany was in crisis. Social support systems decreased in importance, the ‘Social Net’ became less reliable.

In the East the recession hit people hard. The people’s support of the state waned in the wake of the 40th anniversary of the East German state.

Phase 5 1990s

The ‘take over of the GDR’ or the ‘union of two states’ (depending on your viewpoint) by the Federal Republic has led to a destruction of the East German education system as a whole. Existing structures have been abolished, new, especially managerial staff has been brought in from the West, existing staff either lost their jobs[10] or had to accept re-training and smaller pay packets than their western counterparts working alongside them. This is commonly referred to as ‘Buschzulage’ (roughly translated as ‘bush bonus’ for people who dared to set foot into the ‘wild unknown’ of the new federal states). This has, not surprisingly, led to dissatisfaction and disillusionment of many ‘Ossis’ whether engaged in education as a tutor/teacher/lecturer or as a learner[11].

The VHS have escaped the restructuring of the adult education system relatively well whereas ‘Kulturhäuser’ (Houses of Culture) and societies of Urania had to close, the network of VHS remained and has been organised as the Volkshochschule association, forming its own new federal organisations[12].

The programme profile of the VHS had changed, as secondary education to gain school qualifications has become less important, but taken up the Western emphasis on language and computing courses and leisure oriented provision[13]. As far as it is possible to establish, the majority of former GDR/VHS employees seems to have been able to keep their job[14].

The ‘Deutsche Volkshochschulverband’ has set up links very rapidly with Eastern VHS and incorporated them into the association, providing training and material for employees (that is, the project ‘Alltagsorientierung in den neuen Bundesländern - Unter demokratischen und marktwirtschaftlichen Bedingungen entscheiden lernen. Dezember 1994 DIE’ and a multitude of other projects). Several Eastern and Western VHS set up collaborative projects. One example to mention is the educational study tour/educational leave or ‘Bildungsurlaub’, of the Bremen VHS in Rostock in the East. The work focused on environmental and women's issues which initially appeared to be apparent in the West only, but then were seen from a different perspective, that is, problems which were in the making in former GDR because of the changes. Siebert describes the desperate situation in Germany where ‘economic development and high unemployment turn out to be a fertile soil for social envy, extremism of the right and xenophobia’[15]. The uptake of continuing adult education is comparatively high in the United Germany. W. Rudolph welcomes the fact that unification and the vocational training laws will not only not place restrictions on already existing provisions and measures of adult education but sees the opening of new opportunities in this area[16]. Siebert and Opelt point out the enormous demands that are on East Germans to adapt to a new society which asks of them to change ‘ethical values and to come to terms even with new road signs’[17]. The need to learn a multitude of everyday skills and behavioural patterns has to be acknowledged. Old skills have to be re-evaluated, forgotten, questioned. Opelt does not view the high participation figures (36% in the West and 38% in the East) in continuing education as entirely positive. 2.5 million people who took part in vocational education and continuing vocational education, that is, re-training programmes do not appear in the unemployment statistics. What will happen if they don’t find a job after training, she asks, and calls the situation the ‘quiet before the storm’[18]. ‘If workplace, profession and region offer no employment perspectives it is easily taken as a cynicism to put unemployed or potentially unemployed into re-training and other training schemes’[19].

Another distinctive feature of the new ‘education market’ in the East is that new private providers have been flooding the country with courses of low quality. Many institutions have closed down - too many had been founded in the wake of unification, either in the hope of fast cash by unscrupulous providers or by Eastern employees looking at setting up a training organisation as a job creation scheme for themselves.


v. Küchler and Kade stated that ‘the transformation process of adult education in the new federal states provides the opportunity to reconsider your own position and prejudices in a critical manner and to reflect on the impact the changes in the structures of adult education have on the federal republic as a whole’[20].

It seems to me that there is a distinctive gap between the expectations and actual practice. There was for one, not even the option of evaluating concepts which have proven to be successful i.e. the ‘Betriebsakademien’ (work place based training centres) which in conjunction with other providers contributed to a highly skilled workforce in the East and the polytechnic comprehensive education in schools - the dual qualification schemes which allowed to gain university entrance qualifications and a skilled workers certificate at the same time. The market forces which swept a wave of market providers into the new federal states, have deepened the mistrust of citizens into the new system. The ‘Volkshochschule’ has to be praised for setting up initiatives for tutor organisers to work on a more equal basis on staff development issues. A question to be investigated remains - why have the VHS in former GDR remained? One might speculate that beyond the obvious advantage of an already existing network - which was market led anyway - the idea of an ‘ideologically untainted’ system and workforce, which allowed easier co-operation with the West German system was high on the agenda.

Although the take up of political education programmes is equally low in the West and the East[21] people seem to have been politicised by the changes, even if they might not put it in these terms.

How can these developments be seen as relevant to Britain? Despite Germany's unique historical development several issues of importance can be identified.

A pluralism of providing institutions is not a guarantee for quality education.

Public – that is, communal providers are viewed by learners and practitioners as the most reliable source of education and training.

Private providers are not able to compete on the market because of quality issues.

Certificated programmes are in demand. A tendency can be identified towards qualification oriented learning on one hand to courses which deal with personal development and growth in a society which places high emphasis on employment and material values but offers no employment.

Participation in adult education will only increase if there is real motivation to take up learning either in order to improve job prospects or to fulfil personal ambitions. Participation in cultural education in non-formal provision, (that is, museums, libraries, theatres) has decreased in the East due to lack of finances of providers and by the public. The time of hope, confidence and commitment referred to in the conference theme is applicable only in small parts to adult education in East Germany now.

The survival of the Volkshochschule is an occasion for hope.

Further Reading

Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung (DIE) (1994) Abschlußbericht des Projektes ‘Alltagsorientierung in den neuen Bundesländern- Unter demokratischen und marktwirtschaftlichen Bedingungen entscheiden lernen’. Frankfurt/Main.

(final project report ‘Everyday orientation in the new federal states - Learning to take decisions under democratic and market economy conditions’)

Linicke, Marita and Dienel, Elvira. (1991) Bildungsurlaube der Bremer Volkshochschule in Rostock. Volkshochschule II, 25-27.

[1] Siebert, Horst. (1994) Erwachsenenbildung in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Alte Bundesländer und Neue Bundesländer. In Rudolf Ti