Disciplining Young People’s Emotions in the Soviet Occupation Zone and Early German Democratic Republic

Juliane Brauer introduces us to some of the themes in Chapter 10 of Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives.

By Juliane Brauer

In the post-Second World War Soviet Occupation Zone the communists saw young people as bearers of hope and conceived them as ‘tomorrow’s heads of house’. That fed into political campaigns, attempting to control and regulate young people’s emotions and expectations. Because of this assumed connection between singing and reaching young people’s inner core, there was a widespread conviction that group singing in particular had the power to bind communities closer together. It was thus claimed that it should be used to shape collective identities and to communicate political messages, as well as to propagate a single emotional style. The chapter explains that the emotional dispositions targeted and propagated in emotional education included feelings of happiness, cheerfulness (ideally leading to commitment), activity, vigour, and ‘combative’ patriotism. Moreover, it seeks to show that education of the emotions was motivated by the presumed link between the young generation and the future of the socialist state.

Focusing on collective singing and newly composed songs shows that the education of young people aimed to foster young people’s hopes and wishes by orienting them towards visions of a socialist future. For the sake of the socialists’ utopian project, functionaries had to win over not only the minds, but also the hearts of young people. Communist expectations that young people would serve as bearers of hope fed into political campaigns directly addressed to them, attempting to control and regulate young people’s emotions, expectations, and notions of the future. Political programmes based on young people’s sponge-like capacity to receive education were a major feature of communist social systems. In the post-Second World War Soviet Occupation Zone, the education of young people aimed to summon them to action by promising them joy and jolliness, while at the same time turning the practice of these emotions into a duty.

10.1

Looking at the longer history of the GDR, however, shows that educating hearts and minds could also fail, precisely because of those optimistic visions, from which the youth chose to distance themselves. As Peter Stearns concluded, communist youth leaders were of the conviction that ‘children had to be remade’ and that ‘communism as an ideology was deeply imbued with the belief that children were born good, innocent, and improvable’. The socialist authorities made all their political decisions on education on the basis of this principle. At the centre of these decisions was thus the young person, conceived as a malleable object.

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One thought on “Disciplining Young People’s Emotions in the Soviet Occupation Zone and Early German Democratic Republic

  1. If I understand you correctly in that the focus of GDR social education by way of group singing was to propagate feelings of happiness and jollieness, then I fear I must disagree. The individual or collective emotional well-being of kids was never a primary concern of GDR education ( cynics might even say the opposite was true). A joyful experience was probably more of a happy side effect, if it happen to work out that way. The entire educational system (emotional and otherwise) was at its core of a military focus. If you look at books, posters, and other marerial, there is almost always an underlying militaristic reference. The youth organizations (Jung Pioniere, Thälmann Pioniere, FDJ) all had militaristic sub-functions, designed to keep kids in line and limit a child’s emotional experience. Even (perhaps especially) the ubiquitous group singing was there to limit a child’s emotional experience and diversity, but served to have kids to fall in line. Thus, singing and other activities were there to “define” a child’s emotional state rather than it to find happiness.

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