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When you think about growing up in the GDR, it is impossible to avoid the state-organised »Jugendweihe« or youth initiation ceremony. However, the tradition of youth initiation did not begin in the GDR. As early as 1852, free religious groups spoke of youth initiation as an alternative to church confirmation. These free-thinking traditions were adopted by the labour movement, especially by the SPD and the KPD, and reached their first »heyday« in the Weimar Republic. The National Socialists developed their own forms of consecration and celebration, such as school-leaving ceremonies and, from 1940, the »National Socialist Youth Leadership« as part of the »Obligation of Youth«. Following the end of the war, the old tradition of youth initiation was taken up again in the whole of Germany.
In the GDR’s early years, the youth initiation tradition was centralised by the Free German Youth (FDJ). In the Berliner Zeitung from 11 February 1950, it says: »Question: Do 'youth celebrations' (formerly 'youth initiation') take place after the end of school and where can I register my child for them? Answer: The FDJ has taken over the celebrations and will provide the school headmasters with detailed information in the near future.« From the late 1950s onwards, participation in youth initiation ceremonies was compulsory for the majority of adolescents. Those who did not take part in these celebrations, but rather in church celebrations, had to reckon with disadvantages and repression.
The nature of a youth initiation ceremony had changed only minimally since the 19th century. During this period, the graduation of adolescents was celebrated in a fitting place. The youth teacher gave a lecture on the importance of having a free-spirited worldview. Commemorative sheets, a pledge and a commemorative book were also handed out.
In the GDR, too, such celebrations were usually held in large halls or suitable venues. A pledge was prescribed by the »Central Committee for Youth Initiations«. Of course, a socialist worldview also played a major role here. Three commemorative books were available during this time: the anthology »Weltall, Erde, Mensch« (Universe, Earth, Man) between 1975 and 1983, the ideologically influenced book »Der Sozialismus, Deine Welt« (Socialism, Your World) between 1975 and 1983, and the work »Vom Sinn unseres Lebens« (On the Meaning of Our Lives), which was available from 1983 until reunification. Various editions of these three books can be found in the DDR Museum’s object collection.
Our collection also contains numerous documents on this subject, such as a youth initiation certificate from Potsdam dated 28 March 1971, which contains the pledge, or an official invitation card on the occasion of the youth initiation of the Thomas Müntzer secondary school in Sonneberg. The ceremony took place on 28 April 1985 in the Kulturhaus of the VEB Thuringia Sonneberg. The invitation contains introductory words and details of the celebration programme. The front is decorated with an implied dove of peace, and the back reads »in brotherly alliance with Lenin's country for peace and socialism«.
There are also sections on this topic in the permanent exhibition. In the re-enacted children’s room, you can find a lot more information about the influence of the state on young people's lives hidden in the drawers, cupboards and installations.
Editor's note: this blog post first appeared on 26 March 2015.