Information society

Lessons from East German textbooks

We went to the Neuruppin town library and browsed through the bookshelves. Many of the old DDR-produced books are still on the shelf; they can’t afford to replace them all at once. I had a look through some of them.

The Modern English textbook was interesting. It started off in the usual way: “This is John. John lives in a house in England. John has a dog called Fido.”

However, by chapter 8, John was attending Trades Union rallies and campaigning for workers’ rights. Set texts included speeches by union leaders from the British Labour movement. Questions included “Why do workers in capitalist societies need to join Trades Unions?”

There was also a short paragraph which (the book helpfully explained) was what a capitalist had said when asked about an “investment” he had made. This paragraph was followed by some questions:

The capitalist said “I had to risk everything”. What was he risking? Who does it belong to? Who would have suffered if his investment had been foolish? What are the effects on society of his behaviour?

Later, in a chapter on shopping, questions included this one:

Why did John worry that he would not have enough money to buy the goods he needed? How do we avoid such problems in a modern Socialist society?

A follow-up question said:

Write about a shopping trip of your own to your local store. You may find the following phrases useful:

  • wide selection of goods
  • good quality products
  • cheap and affordable prices
  • friendly and efficient service

Even XQ laughed at that one. She’s been to Russia.

The picture books are no less bizarre. I looked through a picture book of Berlin. The pictures of happy, smiling people in 70s clothes (this was a book printed in the mid 80s) were interspersed with little poems, like:

Many happy people live and work in Berlin
capital of the DDR
A modern socialist society
liberated with the help of the Soviet Union

The picture book of London was more subtle. The pictures of shopping streets, for example, weren’t taken in Oxford Street, but instead in a run-down district near Soho. There were plenty of pictures of the House of Commons and Buckingham Palace, and pictures of policemen staring sternly at the camera. Pictures which showed people in close-up seemed to be around ten years old; obviously they didn’t want to show 80s fashions or cars.

We wandered through the library to the literature section. Charles Dickens had been incredibly popular under the old regime, although now his novels were clearly labelled Fiction. The old DDR reprints were still on the shelves, though. The English textbook had included some passages from Dickens, of course, with the expected questions about why young children in capitalist societies were forced up chimneys and made to steal by capitalist men.

The text was laughable to my eyes, but the picture books were really quite subtle. They were propaganda exercises of course, but spotting the bias was quite tricky, even for me.

Of course, the fact that many of the pupils in the school remember being a student in the DDR only makes things more uncomfortable for the teachers. Even the non-Party members had to read out official announcements—and read them out with every ounce of enthusiasm and sincerity they could fake lest one of the pupils report them to the Stasi.

As late as 1988, all the teachers in Neuruppin had had to read out a class announcement which had basically said:

“I’m afraid your fellow pupil insert name will not be joining us again. He and his family have defected to the West. This is a time for great sorrow. It is bad enough that his parents decided to defect, but he has betrayed his country by going with them.”

Obviously even the most naïve pupils in the Sixth Form now take what teacher tells them with a large pinch of salt.