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East Germany

Young People and the Free German Youth

East Germany considers its young people its most important asset. As a result, the party and government have expended a great amount of attention and resources on socialization of youth through schools and youth groups. Since the inception of the regime, youth activities have been strictly controlled and monitored by SED party officials. Youth organizations outside of those officially sanctioned by the regime have not been permitted. By far the most important youth organization has been the FDJ, founded in 1946 and subsequently brought under the control of the SED. As of 1984, the FDJ had a membership of approximately 2.3 million, or 83 percent of all youth in the eligible age group (fourteen through twenty-five). Membership was voluntary, but for anyone who wanted to advance politically or professionally, membership was a practical necessity. Strong pressures were exerted on young people through the schools and peer groups to join the FDJ, and the organization's near total control over recreational facilities, resort areas, and entertainment ensured a high membership. Perhaps more important, the FDJ handled university entrance examinations and scholarship programs. The most active members, therefore, were found among students and soldiers; nearly 80 percent of each group belonged to the FDJ. Participation of young industrial workers and farm youth was considerably lower. In the case of the industrial workers, the trade unions provided an alternative to FDJ membership.

The organization of the FDJ is patterned after that of the SED. The Youth Parliament is convened periodically, and the Central Council is elected to coordinate activities between parliament sessions. As in the SED, the real center of power lies in the FDJ bureau and secretariat. Most often the leadership positions are held by loyal SED members who might be considerably older than the rank-and-file membership. In 1985 the FDJ held thirty-seven seats in the People's Chamber and was well represented at the local and district government levels. The FDJ is an important ground for the recruitment of SED party cadres, and many key party officials have received their initial training in the FDJ. The FDJ is a member of the World Federation of Democratic Youth and cooperates with its counterparts in other communist countries through youth congresses and youth friendship projects. Such cooperation is an important way of developing an international socialist outlook.

The Ernst Thälmann Pioneers Organization, known as the Young Pioneers (Junge Pioniere--JP), is an auxiliary of the FDJ. In the mid-1980s, membership in the JP began with entry into school at around age six and continued through age fourteen. In 1985 the JP had approximately 1.3 million members. This figure represented roughly 85 percent of all eligible children.

The regime has used the JP to reinforce the political values and social behavior taught in the schools. The SED considers the JP to be especially instrumental in developing the collective spirit that is considered such an important part of the "socialist personality." The groups are headed by teachers and JP leaders (normally FDJ recruits), who teach the children to work toward and identify with collective goals. Ultimately the JP provides an effective, but controlled, source of peer pressure. Norms, values, and standards of behavior are shaped and guided by group leaders. The JP also provides educational, cultural, and sports programs for the young.

Two other youth-oriented organizations deserve mention. The Society for Sport and Technology (Gesellschaft für Sport und Technik--GST) was established in 1952. In the mid-1980s, the GST provided paramilitary training through sports activities such as parachuting, marksmanship, and other skill-oriented programs. The GST also held military sports games (Wehrspartakiade). In the 1985 games, over 8,000 contestants competed in 280 "premilitary" and "military sporting" events, which included stripping machine guns, hand grenade target practice, and sharpshooting. A second group, the German Gymnastics and Sports Federation (Deutscher Turn-und Sportbund der DDR), has trained athletes for sporting competition and has been the organization responsible for producing Olympic competitors. In 1985 this organization claimed over 3.5 million members. A total of 10,249 sports clubs catered to the group's members.

Despite the near total integration of youth into the political and party organizational network, a sizable minority of young people, particularly those in their teens and early twenties, have elected not to join official youth organizations. Many resent the system of controls and monitoring of youth activities that are evident in the schools and elsewhere. FDJ members, for example, are selected to monitor classes and youth activities. In addition young people in East Germany, regardless of their involvement in youth groups, have been affected by some of the same pressures as youths in other industrialized countries. Thus reports of juvenile delinquency and alcohol abuse in the larger urban areas have grown more common, and there has been some indication that crime has increased in the 1980s (see Crime and Punishment , ch. 5).

Officials have complained that the current generation of youths tends to be spoiled. Because they did not live through the troubled years of the war and postwar period, they allegedly do not understand what serious hardship really means. Party leaders, on occasion, have chided young people for lack of political enthusiasm and their growing preoccupation with the acquisition of material goods. For their part, young people have frequently complained about the restrictions placed on travel abroad and the artificiality and lack of creativity in society. The New Sorrows of Young W, a play produced in 1973 based on Goethe's famous novel The Sorrows of Young Weather, was an enormous success among the young. It tells the story of a young dropout who experiences a sense of alienation and despair that eventually leads to his suicide. Seemingly, young people want the opportunity to use the skills they have learned in school and to be challenged in their work.

In general Western observers have noted that youths in the 1970s and 1980s tended to be more critical and willing to question government policies within limits than had young people in preceding decades. Some evidence suggests that party leaders had allowed those limits to expand. The FDJ, which had always been an instrument of party control, was also allegedly becoming a forum for the discussion of youth problems and concerns. The limits of permissible criticism, however, seemed likely to remain narrow.

Data as of July 1987

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