Peace Conference in Münster 1648

1955 – Restoration and Reform Following the End of the Second World War

After the end of World War II and the experiences of the National Socialist dictatorship, both successor states of the German Reich returned to concepts from the Weimar Republic when approaching the reform of their school systems, thus reviving controversies surrounding educational policy from the 1920s. At the same time, the four Allied occupying powers were placing demands on the school system; their ideas were initially broadly similar, consisting principally in a call for democratic education and equality of opportunity, stemming from the belief that the failure of the education system was a key factor in the development of dictatorship, militarism and racial ideology. The Allied forces came to an arrangement regarding fundamental reform of the education system in the Potsdam Agreement of August 1945.
The various military governments took different approaches to implementing their ideas on education. In the Soviet zone of occupation, an ‘anti-fascist and democratic’ education reform process was swiftly initiated: legislation on the ‘democratisation of German schools’ introduced a standardised primary school lasting eight years, following which pupils could proceed to a four-year secondary school (Oberschule) or a three-year occupational training college (Berufsschule). Private schools were abolished; denominational schools were repressed and marginalised. The school system was subject to central state supervision. The Ministry of the People’s Education (Ministerium für Volksbildung), led by Margot Honecker from 1963 until the end of the GDR, ensured that schools were increasingly put to the service of the ideological and economic overhaul of society in accordance with ‘real-socialist’ principles and the realisation of socialist ideas on how a person was expected to be.
Legislation enacted in 1959 on the ‘socialist development of the school system’ (Gesetz über die sozialistische Entwicklung des Schulwesens) extended compulsory school attendance to ten years. The previously existing eight-year primary school was replaced by a ten-year Polytechnische Oberschule (POS) for general education, with a primary, middle and an upper level. These eight years could be followed by four years at the Extended Upper School (Erweiterte Oberschule, EOS), where pupils could obtain a university entrance qualification. Other routes to higher education included, most significantly, vocational training which concluded with the Abitur; this route, which served above all to prepare students for degrees in technical subjects, was taken by around one-third of school-leavers who gained university entrance qualifications. Admission to an Erweiterte Oberschule depended on pupils’ academic achievements and career plans, as well as on the political reliability and activity of pupils and their parents. A further admission criterion was related to pupils’ social backgrounds; quota systems systematically raised the proportion of children whose parents were classed as ‘workers’ or ‘farmers’ attending an Oberschule or an EOS. This, alongside financial and educational support schemes, gave rise to a rapid increase in participation in more advanced education. From the mid-1960s onwards, however, the proportion of those permitted to study for higher education entrance qualifications was tailored to the needs of the economy and scaled back from 18 percent to 12 percent of each school year, a figure that then remained constant until the end of the GDR. While the numbers of those gaining Abitur had been clearly superior to those of the Federal Republic in the 1950s and 1960s, they sank below West German figures in the subsequent period on account of restrictive policies in the East and educational expansion in the West. From 1965, in order to produce the specialists that were needed, specialist schools and classes were introduced within the mainstream system, focusing on music, physical education, Russian or mathematics and intended to provide direct support to pupils with particular talents in these subjects.
The curriculum emphasised the sciences and technology, alongside strong components of civic and physical education. The ‘polytechnic’ teaching, which consisted of theoretical and practical elements, was intended to prepare pupils for entering the world of work and industrial or agricultural production. In line with the Soviet model, the aims and content of teaching were derived from the Marxist-Leninist canon, which served as the foundation of all teaching. Together with the youth organisation of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED), the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend, FDJ), schools drew their pupils into identification with socialist ideology and placed increasing restrictions on freedom of thought and opportunities for personal development.
The western Allies had also planned a standardised school system with at least six years of school attendance for the areas they occupied. It was to replace the vertically structured system of secondary schools, which were seen as elitist and authoritarian, thus rendering equal educational opportunities available to all pupils, an aim also to be furthered by the abolition of school fees and charges for textbooks. Nevertheless, the individual occupying forces placed divergent emphases in the reforms they effected to the schools in their spheres of influence. The Americans aimed for comprehensive ‘reeducation and reorientation’ towards democracy in both schools and the wider culture; to this end, they ran reorientation courses for Volksschule teachers lasting several weeks and used ‘reeducation teams’ to impart the democratic forms of instruction which teachers were to use in future. The British were more restrained in their educational policy, while the French placed their hopes in the instilment of cultural values in the classroom as a route to democratisation.
Unlike in the Soviet occupation zone, however, it was not possible to implement more than a handful of the Allied forces’ proposed reforms in the western zones. One reason for this was the underdeveloped nature of the reform plans. Another was that educational reforms could not be carried out in the western zones without the support and assistance of German politicians and institutions, who saw the causes of the failure of the German education system to resist Nazism not in the authoritarian and ideological manipulation of young people on the part of the National Socialist system, but rather in that system’s undermining of schools’ authority, with the Hitler Youth having weakened the influence of schools and teachers. For these reasons, conservative education policymakers in the western occupation zones spoke out in support of the re-establishment of the traditional German school system, including the re-introduction of denominational schools. This view of the issues perceived the Gymnasium as reliable bastion of the German educational tradition, and a denominational education in Catholic or Protestant schools was assumed to protect pupils from falling under the spell of radical ideologies.
The Federal Republic of Germany was founded in 1949; its Basic Law ultimately returned legislative and administrative responsibility for education and schooling to the federal states. It was not until 1969 that constitutional changes granted the federal level power to set framework legislation on education. The Standing Conference of State Education Ministers (Kultusministerkonferenz, KMK), which had been established in 1948, ensured, however, that the particularism and heterogeneity that arose as a result of federalisation were kept to a minimum. The Standing Conference was supposed to regulate issues of significance beyond the boundaries of individual states, such as the dates of school years, terminology for different types of schools, and to ensure that the school-leaving qualifications of the individual federal states were comparable nationwide. Its resolutions, however, were not binding before they had been accepted and ratified by the federal states.
Refederalisation complied with the requirements of the Allied forces and appeared only logical in view of the experience of the Nazi period. It did, however, also reinforce some tendencies to stasis within the German school system. With the exception of Berlin, the extension of primary school to more than four years was never implemented. The ‘Agreement between the States of the Federal Republic on Standardisation in the School System’ that was reached in Düsseldorf in 1955 ultimately established as the standard school system in West Germany the traditional three-tiered structure consisting of Volksschule, Mittelschule and Gymnasium – the latter now officially and uniformly labelled as such. In some states, compulsory school attendance was, at least initially, only for eight years. Even the ‘Hamburg Agreement’, which replaced the Düsseldorf Agreement ten years later, only made a few essentially cosmetic alterations, renaming the Volksschule the Grund- und Hauptschule and the Mittelschule as Realschule.
Instruction at the West German Mittelschulen and Gymnasien was given in single-sex classes, and at all schools tuition was to a certain extent gender-specific. Subjects such as home economics and handicrafts were to prepare the girls for their social roles as housewives and mothers in accordance with the family policies of the time. Unlike in the GDR, where the school system was deliberately rendered more accessible to children from working-class families, the West German system reinforced social boundaries and gender-specific opportunities. Equality of access to education was thus de facto non-existent. While curricular content at GDR schools was designed along Marxist-Leninist lines, schools in the Federal Republic of the 1950s focused on Christian western culture. The primacy accorded to such values as the home, the family, the state and the church was intended to convey a sense of tradition and security; there were no plans to encourage pupils to engage with National Socialism.
Post-war school policy in both German states thus picked up on and continued – in extremely different ways – the legacy of the Weimar Republic. While fundamental changes were introduced in the Soviet occupation zone and in the GDR, the western occupation zones and the Federal Republic ultimately saw the reestablishment of the traditional German school system.

Susanne Grindel
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