I was in Berlin last month with my family. My son had prepared his Middle School exam on Berlin after World War II: the end of the war, the four Allied zones,the rise of the Soviet zone, the Berlin airdrops, the building of the Wall, the DDR, the fall of the Wall and reunification, and he was interested in seeing the city he’d studied so much.
Certainly a lot of (baffling) history for a current middle schooler to get his head around.
We’ve traveled to a lot of countries that used to be ‘behind the Iron Curtain’, and it’s tough to explain to today’s generation just how such a division was possible – particularly in one city where the population shared the same customs and traditions, the same language and (sadly) often had relatives on both sides of the divide.
Berlin’s DDR Museum could have been better, but it provided an overview of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain: replete with customs, education, propaganda efforts, Pioneer camps, interrogation rooms, military service, etc.
When I graduated from college – where I was studying the Cold War in my history classes as the Wall was being town down – I moved to Prague, back when it was still Czechoslovakia, to work.
When I learned Czech, the classes were still using the “old” textbooks for foreigners learning Czech, so I got an earful of propaganda and can only feel sympathy at the displays of how this affected daily life in the DDR.
The pre-1989 foreigners studying Czech were almost always from other East Bloc countries or Northern Africa and, judging by the textbook conversations, they had nothing better to do with their time than to sit around discussing their overwhelming appreciation and awe for the glorious Soviet Union.
Typical ‘natural – sounding’ Czech textbook conversation between two foreign exchange students out in search of a good time:
A: Good Day, Comrade Abdullah!
B: Comrade Mustapha! Good Day to you! What a fine day to be out here on the Old Town Square studying Czech.
A: Yes, it certainly is Comrade! Did you read the excellent news today that the Glorious Soviet Union has once again surpassed the evil capitalist United States in tractor production?
B: The lofty glories of socialism, Comrade! Yes, I was excited to learn our vaunted, industrious comrades in the Soviet Union produced x tractors, while the corrupt, evil, spineless United States produced only y tractors last year. Our Soviet friends serve as a beacon of hope to us all! The end of evil capitalist society is clearly upon us!
At this point in our classes, we students (largely hailing from evil, capitalist, tractor-production-challenged western societies) were practically on the floor rolling with laughter, and the poor teacher would have to call the class to order and mention for the umpteenth time that the texts were currently being revised.
I don’t think even someone born and bred in the corn fields of Nebraska would think the economic health of a nation should be measured by its tractor production, but there was ever so much of this wisdom sprinked ad nauseum throughout the textbook. Sadly, if you are bombarded with this day after day and with no access to any other sources of information, some is likely to rub off.
And bombarded in the DDR they were. The displays at the DDR Museum show newspapers, radio and television feeding its citizens a constant diet of propaganda.
My son liked the explanation on voting, where he had the chance to write all over the ballot that the candidates were terrible and he didn’t want any of them, only to have his ballot ‘sanitized’ and the same candidates winning by 99.4% popular approval.
Of course, both kids loved trying out the old Trabants (Trabis). These – alongside the old Skodas and Ladas – I remember well from my time in Prague. I remember pushing them up hills. But it always seemed particularly cruel in Germany, where one half of the population enjoyed fine German engineering, and the other half got saddled with the Trabant.
So yes, teaching today’s kids about the old, divided Europe may be a bit of a challenge. But when you’re in Berlin, a visit to the DDR Museum can help.