It’s easier for you in the West, Baerbel Hintze says. You’ve been educated to think critically. I haven’t. And it’s still a great difficulty for me.
Frau Baerbel Hintze is a history teacher at the Schiller Gymnasium in Weimar”formerly the Schiller EOS [Advanced High School], one of the elite Communist secondary schools in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). We have just left her twelfth-grade class on Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo , and I have been asking her whether she taught Galileo any differently during the GDR era. No, she says. Galileo expresses Brecht’s views as a socialist, antifascist, and critic of religious dogma. I suggest that play also offers an opportunity to criticize the Communist dogmas of the GDR regime, which never tolerated any freethinking Galileos.
Frau Hintze, a former Party member herself, nods her head.
When I teach the Galileo again, I’d like to explore that. But that approach feels very unfamiliar”threatening even, though exciting. Why? Her answers are various. She was never educated toward critical thinking. Her studies and her continuing education seminars never suggested such an approach. She feared losing her job if she said anything too controversial.
We discuss Brecht’s famous line, Whoever doesn’t know the truth is an idiot. But whoever knows it and calls it a lie is a criminal. But Frau Hintze resists any attempt to apply Brecht’s line to the GDR.
We weren’t criminals or idiots. Just human beings”with vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Just ordinary people who never lost hope that they could one day improve things. Faith in ordinariness was one of Brecht’s key points. He was challenging the notion that little people are helpless, and that only the extraordinary people”the heroes”can change things. She pauses. Then she draws the connection. Holding to a faith in ordinary people is why October 1989 finally arrived. Frau Hintze repeats the phrase critical thinking several times during our conversation. It seems to be a term of high approbation for her, somehow related to the strongest virtues of the West”a bold questioning of hierarchy and of received answers, a searching inventory of one’s responsibilities in the face of unjust authority, a healthy scrutiny of oneself.
I had no Auseinandersetzung [freewheeling debate] in my studies, only Marxism“Leninism. We were fed teachers’ opinions and the verdicts of authorities. I learned to cite authorities”a Party document, a state official, a Marxist touchstone”as proof and defense of all positions. And so I never really took seriously any oppositional viewpoint. It wasn’t an occasion for thinking about my own viewpoint. It was incorrect.’ It was just oppositional,’ and an energetic standard response would neutralize its power.
Only one opinion on a topic reigned in the GDR, she continues. And I didn’t take into account other opinions. Not really. There were never any other opinions to take seriously into account. Everything was walled in-quite literally. You’ve heard the phrase? It’s true: The Wall was in our heads.
And one doesn’t unlearn all this quickly. At least not at my age. Until you spoke in class, I never thought about non-Marxist ways of teaching Brecht”even though, I grant you, it’s been five years since the Wende [turn]. I could give lip service to the statement, There are a variety of interpretations possible,’ but I never really conceived of any serious opinion outside the Marxist Weltanschauung.
You have to understand all this historically, Frau Hintze adds. Even after Prague [the Soviet and GDR invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968], I never met a critical thinker. I never learned how to do that, I never encountered anybody who was doing it. We were directed in our course of studies in college to think a certain way. And I learned that particular way of thinking. This is probably very hard for you to understand, because it is just as natural for you to think critically as it was for me to think dialectically.
The pupils here still aren’t educated to think critically, she adds, because thinking is very hard to do at all in the midst of the confusion and turmoil and upheaval of this transition from the GDR. Too many teachers still teach ideologically: they begin with the ready-made answer. And they emphasize rote textbook learning, rather than foster independence of mind and the awareness of diverse viewpoints. The kids go by others’ cues and escape into distractions and sloganeering, rather than do the hard work of thinking-whether critically’ or dialectically.’
And they still feel self-constrained and are biased against critical thinking, which really starts with what the Party called self- criticism.’ But self-criticism’ for us was really an apologia to the Party for individualistic excesses.
Self-criticism was what one hoped to avoid: it was a public act of repentance for one’s hubris or disloyalty-an acknowledgment of having been a bad Marxist. The idea of your Western self-criticism”that one includes oneself in all criticism, or even begins with oneself and one’s own side”is very unfamiliar and threatening to us.
In 1978, I began teaching at this school. In 1985, at age forty-three, I joined the Party. It was a pragmatic decision. The Schiller EOS was one of the best schools in the state. It was an important school for producing university candidates, and the director wanted more Party members, above all in my subjects, German and history. The director told us that, if there were any transfers, Party members would have the best chance of remaining at the school. So I joined.
Everybody had been saying for years that an EOS history teacher like me should be in the Party. I had a tough time fending off the pressure to join. And teaching history was so hard”especially eleventh grade, which dealt with the workers’ movement since 1848, and twelfth grade, which covered the history of the Communist Party since 1945. At times I hated it. That had to do with my family: my parents were skeptical about the Party and GDR. My father had a position in church administration; before the war, he was a civil servant. When he joined the church and began working for it, he naturally gravitated toward the opposition voices and was constantly among people who were suspected by the regime of activities hostile to the state.
I was never really a supporter of the regime, but I conformed. I was a careerist like most of my friends and colleagues”we constituted 85 percent of the Party.
What about events that were contested between East German and West German historians? Did you ever have any doubts about the Party line?
Strangely enough, no. For instance, the Nazi“Soviet Pact in 1939 was skipped in my studies. And in later years I don’t remember ever discussing it with a colleague. I never knew about it. And not just that event. I never knew much about Stalin. When all the news about his regime of terror came out, I couldn’t believe it.
You see, I knew’”and I didn’t know. I had heard various things over the years, but I had never discussed Stalin”he was effectively screened out of my course of studies and the history curriculum of the school. There was a wall around him. I never knew that he murdered millions of people.
And that was a blind spot of mine. Pupils would occasionally ask in history class: But did the Volk know about the Holocaust? I would say: the Nazi grandparents could have known if they chose to see. I took a hard line on that: Who wanted to know, did know. But who really wanted to know? The very knowledge made you complicit”or put you in great danger. And who would take the risks? For most people, it all depended on the people with whom you were in close contact, and whether they were being directly victimized or not.
Who wanted to know, did know: I always said that about the Nazi years. That’s what I believed”and, for the most part, still believe.
Frau Hintze pauses. Her eyes are pools of tears. And what about us? she finally asks. Us meaning citizens of the GDR. She does not imply that the crimes of the Nazis and the Communist dictatorship are equivalent. Her question simply exemplifies, she says, Western critical thinking.
I gathered that there were some excesses’ of Party zeal [in Stalin’s USSR], attributable to the difficult post-revolutionary [post-1917] conditions and, later, the war. I knew that Khrushchev spoke about a cult of personality’ around Stalin, but I had never participated in that cult, and I didn’t think it was anything more than hero-worship. I was a fourteen-year-old girl in 1956, very unpolitical. Khrushchev’s speech, Poland, Hungary”they all swept by me. In the 1970s and 80s, I heard the name Solzhenitsyn. But I knew nothing about his work. It simply never filtered down to me.
And if you”as a history teacher in an elite school didn’t know any of this history”then certainly the general population of the GDR would have had little likelihood of knowing, of developing the informed skepticism of critical thinkers.
Right. The Wall was in their heads too.
What about the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961? Certainly that event was”and remained”inescapable.
Yes, but I was studying in Dresden at the time. We were far from Berlin. I never really reacted strongly to the erection of the Wall. The West was already inaccessible to us-you couldn’t go there unless you had a special reason. And I never thought of emigrating. I couldn’t have taught school in West Germany”GDR teaching credentials weren’t recognized there. And though I had been in Cologne and West Berlin a few times in the 1950s, my relatives were in the GDR. And they were aging and needed me to help care for them. I had a strong Heimatgefuhl [feeling of home]. The Wall didn’t change anything for us-just made us turn further inward.
The truth was kept at a distance from us. The government kept it from us and didn’t cultivate, or even allow, critical thinking. And so that is the question: In a society like the GDR, how do you get to the truth?
The truth is difficult, Frau Hintze acknowledges, and poses difficulties once it is ascertained. Difficult to discern, difficult to express if discerned, difficult to share publicly if capable of expression. If you did ask, you would receive only a confused, ambiguous answer, anyway. And if you kept on asking, that would be dangerous. You had to be ready to go to jail. You had to be prepared to part forever from your family. You had to be ready to lose your career and your friends.
Frau Hintze looks out the window. Then she turns and faces me. You had to be a hero. I was never a hero. I couldn’t be a hero. I just didn’t have it in me.
But I had a limit, she continues. I wouldn’t inform. I never did work and never would have worked for the Stasi. That was a line I wouldn’t cross, and I have little sympathy today for those who did.
Her voice is steady. She looks me directly in the face. Should I be ashamed that I’m not a hero? Well, I’m not ashamed. The voice remains low and even. The statement betrays neither defiance nor defensiveness.
Again and again the exchange between Andrea and Galileo in Brecht’s Galileo runs through my head. Pity the land that has no heroes, says Andrea, a pupil of Galileo. Pity the land that needs heroes, Brecht’s marxified Galileo corrects him.
Which is it, really?
Frau Hintze continues, Although I now judge all the lying and deception to have been wrong, I just wasn’t strong enough to pursue the truth. In hindsight, I couldn’t have done things much differently. I wish that I had developed a mode of critical thinking, but I hadn’t.
Only now is she beginning to think critically about the Communist dogmas of the GDR era, she says. She is confronting the overwhelming task of coping with the past. But I am ashamed in another sense”not of myself, but rather of the nation that I lived in, a nation that effectively dictated that the only truly decent human beings were those with the courage to be heroes. It was a nation that, by cutting us off from the truth, made cowards of us all.
As Frau Hintze escorts me to the bus stop, we talk of her career in the Schiller school. She mentions the names of some of the pupils that I met during my last visit-a few of whom are now teachers in the school themselves.
Waiting for the bus, I look at the faces of the playing children as they scamper by me. The old Party slogan of the GDR youth organizations comes to mind: Who has the Youth, has the Future.
Do they”do we”need heroes?
Perhaps it is my own weaknesses”or only the relative immaturity of the Andrea in me”but I conclude that we all still do. It would be soothing and self-satisfying to think that we do not. But the assumption of Galileo”and Brecht”that a special few heroes exclude the possibility of heroism for the rest of us, that public heroism elevates those special few at the expense of the vast majority”may be misconceived.
Maybe indeed just the reverse is the case. Heroes might show us what we’re all capable of. They might blaze a trail for the rest of us to follow, in whatever way, and help us become heroes in our own right-men and women with the courage to speak truth to power.
John Rodden is Professor of Speech Communication at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Politics of Literary Reputation (Oxford University Press).