J. Henning Schluß

Humboldt Universität, Berlin

March 15, 2003


Session Title:

The Berlin Wall in East German Technicolor: Screening & Discussion of an Educational Video Used Before the Fall of the Mauer


One of the most difficult topics in the East German history classroom was certainly the building of the Berlin Wall.  Despite the physical boundaries imposed by the Berlin Wall and the East/ West border, it was said that on a daily basis 90% of East German citizens collectively immigrated to the West through the medium of West German television and the broadcast of the  Tagesschau” the nightly news at 8PM.  Through television and contact with relatives in the West, East German citizens and young people in particular were relatively well informed about daily life in the West.  To the extent that it was possible, East Germans actually adopted and imitated the Western lifestyle.


While the attitude and perspective of most young people were orientated in part from contact with the West and its media, East German schools were instructed to portray West Germany as the enemy and the reality of life in the Federal Republic as deeply disturbing.  This depiction of the threatening character of the Federal Republic had to be sufficiently exaggerated so as to make it appear plausible that the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 for self defense.  The task of presenting the building of the wall in this way was paradoxical, and something that can only be partially understood when one considers the schizophrenic character of GDR daily life.  The task of depicting West Germany as the enemy became increasingly absurd to teachers.  Thus, quite appropriately, Tilman Grammes refers to the GDR subject of Staatsbürgerkunde or civics as an “unmögliches Fach,” an “impossible subject.”  Given the schizophrenic nature of the teaching of this “impossible subject,” the uncovering of evidence of such teaching efforts is all the more meaningful.  Almost all of the interviews conducted after 1989 with former students and teachers veil the double-bind character of these situations to a great extent.  Moreover, such documents are scarcely available.


During the GDR there was a video documentation center at Humboldt University which from early on preserved the recordings of complete class periods for pedagogical purposes.  Among the preserved videos is a complete lesson devoted to the topic “Sicherung der Staatsgrenze im August 61”/ ”Securing our National Border in August 1961.”  As part of a research project, I converted this video into a useable format and reconstructed the background, context and “Sitz im Leben” of this recording.  The video is a unique document of recorded instruction.  Of course the recorded lesson is staged, but classroom teaching naturally involves planned lessons.  In this way, the documentary allows for a deep insight into the staged reality of the teaching of an impossible topic.


At the conference I would like to succinctly elucidate the background, the developmental context, the “Sitz im Leben” of this video and identify its position in the broader curriculum.  I would then show the audience the actual video.  I am confident that the video will spark a very interesting and fruitful discussion.