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East Germany Table of Contents

East Germany

Origins, Language, and Culture

The Germans are the descendants of the Germanic peoples who settled in the north-central plains of Europe sometime around the end of the sixth century B.C. (see Early History , ch. 1). The Romans, who first encountered the Germanic tribes in their conquest of Gaul, called the people of the area the Germani, after certain tribes in Belgium and the Rhineland. Although the Germanic people comprised many tribal groups, the name German has come to describe the people who remained in central Europe.

The Germanic people were originally organized into numerous small tribes that gradually united into larger groups in order to increase their political and military power as they spread across and conquered much of Europe. Many of these peoples were the forefathers of present-day European populations. The Franks and Burgundians were the ancestors of the French; the Lombards conquered northern Italy; and the Angles, Saxons, and Danes moved into England and Denmark. Other members of the Saxon tribe, in addition to Bavarians and Thuringians, settled in the northern plains and began to extend eastward along the Elbe and Oder rivers. These early tribal designations survived, and their names designate the territories inhabited by the German people. In a very rough sense, these ancient tribal groupings, correspond to modern-day regional groupings, whose distinctive identities are manifested in differing customs, dress, food, and dialects. The Germans, particularly the pre-World War II generation, are extremely proud of their regions of birth and their unique dialects. Regional distinctions have been blurred in East Germany since the end of the war as a result of an influx of those expelled from Eastern Europe, universal and standardized education, urbanization, and greater mobility in general. Generally, regional differences are less pronounced than those between East Germany and West Germany. East Germans are commonly characterized as typifying the Prussian traits of orderliness, cleanliness, and obstinacy (an adherence to rigid Prussian principles), whereas West Germans are more often seen as selfassertive , lively, and fun loving. Of course these are caricatures of reality, but significantly the government has used what regional differences do exist in an effort to create psychological and social boundaries between the two German states.

Regional loyalties, however, have not obscured the overarching feeling among Germans that they share a common nationality and are bound together ethnically, linguistically, and culturally. National consciousness is especially strong among the Germans, and in the past their strong national spirit has been exploited by ruthless leaders to muster support for expansionist policies.

Language is perhaps the most significant expression of a common German nationality. The German language is spoken by millions of people of Europe, including peoples living in the two German states, Austria, Switzerland, and various regions of East European countries. In addition the language has a significance beyond its everyday use. German-speaking people have made important contributions to science, literature, and philosophy. Modern German, which belongs to the family of Indo-European languages, evolved from proto-Germanic or Common Germanic, the collection of languages spoken by the tribes that inhabited the area. Although there are many regional dialects, the language is usually divided into three major subvarieties: low German, spoken in the north; middle German, spoken across the central lowlands; and high German, spoken in the uplands of the south.

A standard form of written and spoken German developed very slowly. A move toward standardizing the written language began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The invention of printing made impractical the continued use of innumerable local dialects that varied in spelling, style, and grammar. The translation of the Bible into German by Martin Luther usually is considered the milestone in the development of a standardized written language. Luther's translation, based on the Saxon dialect, was accepted by the educated classes as a model. The new written German was championed by literary societies and improved upon by grammarians and stylists in the seventeenth century and eventually adopted, in a refined form, by some of the great German writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Gotthold Lessing, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Johann von Schiller.

The spoken language, however, continued to reflect the proliferation of local dialects until the end of the nineteenth century. These dialects were the individual's way of expressing identity and independence and therefore were carefully preserved. As commerce, travel, and communication in general increased among the various towns and regions of Germany, the numerous dialects became increasingly restrictive, and a standard spoken language began to evolve. The schools and the media were especially instrumental in pressing for a standard form of German. The standard spoken language is today based on the pronunciation of educated northern Germans. Most Germans write and speak the standard form of German with little difficulty, although dialects continue to be used among family and friends and on informal occasions. (Differences in dialect are based on divergences in pronunciation, use of expressions, intonation, syntax, and the meaning given to specific words.)

Like all living languages, German is constantly influenced and modified through interaction with regional dialects and foreign languages. The influence of French, English, and various Slavic languages is apparent in the adoption of loanwords and idiomatic expressions. The Germans have initiated purification programs at various periods in modern history aimed at eliminating all traces of foreign influence from the language.

In addition to a common ethnic heritage and language, the German people share certain social values. The German world view and value system are products of Teutonic pagan cosmology, JudeoChristian tradition, and modern eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury philosophies. The pre-Christian conception of the world pitted the bravery and stoicism of man against the harsh and oppressive forces at work in the world. A thread of tragedy ran through life, but it was blended with romanticism and mystical idealism. Lutheran Christianity, the religious tradition that most profoundly influenced German thinking, emphasized individual morality and conceived of man as essentially frail and full of guilt. Man could cleanse himself only through penance and devotion to the Almighty. The rationalist systems of Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel represented the culmination of Enlightenment philosophies. Materialism and atheism lay at the basis of Karl Marx's philosophy and economic view. Friedrich Nietzsche was a forerunner of twentieth-century existentialist thought.

These different and, in many cases, contradictory religious and philosophical currents have produced a German who is stereotypically characterized as inward looking, vulnerable, sorrowful, and full of self-doubt. He combines the sober qualities of industry, intelligence, honesty, obstinacy and cleanliness with a certain sentimentality and gaiety. He is extremely disciplined and exhibits a penchant for order and authority. He admires courage and physical and moral strength. There is a certain validity in this character description insofar as it is based on a common set of experiences and traditions. As with all stereotypical descriptions, however, it constitutes a distortion of reality when applied to the individual.

Data as of July 1987

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East Germany Table of Contents