Second Class Victims East German Children's Home Prisoners Ignored

Sexual abuse, solitary confinement and complete lawlessness -- children's homes in the former East Germany were hell on earth for many of the young people who passed through them. But unlike their fellow sufferers in the West, they are still waiting for a full reappraisal of the past.

By and

Heidemarie Puls will never forget the director of the children's home where she once lived. The good comrade called the girl to his office too many times to forget, touching her breasts and pressing his mouth against her neck. "Please stop," Puls begged. Instead, the teacher grabbed her, forced her onto a bed and ordered her to gratify him. The abuse was followed by what he considered a part of her education: a sound beating with a stick.

Puls suffered the same fate as many other institutionalized children in East Germany -- also known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Placed into government care to protect them from abuse by their stepfathers, they fell victim to the desires of strangers instead. Their fate is comparable to that of the institutionalized children in West Germany whose plight is now being addressed by a group called the "Round Table for Institutionalized Children" in Berlin.

But Puls, 53, is a second-class victim. When the round table, chaired by former Bundestag vice president Antje Vollmer of the Green Party, recommended in December that former institutionalized children should receive €120 million ($164 million) in compensation through a fund, her case was excluded. The thousands of youngsters who had been institutionalized in East Germany, at the mercy of an arbitrary and inhuman foster education system, were not mentioned in Berlin. Some 21 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the commission had effectively resurrected the border between the two Germanys.

The Most Notorious Childcare Facility in the GDR

Manfred Kolbe, a former public prosecutor and judge in Bavaria and later the justice minister of the eastern state of Saxony, is today a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag. His district includes Torgau, the site of the most notorious childcare facility in the GDR. Kolbe believes that the cases of abuse in the former communist state were "probably even more severe" than those in the West. And they were "not isolated cases" but instead were based on "an education system that involved the systematic destruction of individuality." For Kolbe, the commission's ignorance is "bitter."

The victims of East German children's homes have been waiting at least as long as their fellow sufferers in the West for a full accounting of their past. With the exception of a brief visit to Torgau by German Family Affairs Minister Kristina Schröder and Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, nothing has been done. Manfred Kappeler, a social worker in Berlin, argues that public criticism of the conditions in institutions in the West "should have been applied just as radically to the system of public education in the GDR." According to Kappeler, conditions in institutions were "more or less the same" on both sides of the divide during those dark decades. The only difference was that victims in the East could not even theoretically expect the help of police officers, public prosecutors or journalists.

East Germany maintained a complicated system of normal children's institutions, reception and observation homes, youth homes, special children's homes, youth work institutions, and even a "Combine of Special Homes" in Berlin. It produced hundreds of traumatized victims who were to supposed to become "full-fledged members of the socialist society."

The Clutches of the Socialist System

The children, who often came from troubled families, could not expect much in the way of affection once they were in the custody of the state. The motto of Soviet educator Anton Makarenko ("The modern person must be created in a new way") was applied many times over in East Germany.

In 2004, the Berlin Appellate Court ruled that the goal of the East German 're-education system' was to "convey to the pupils the feeling of individual powerlessness and to break their individual desire for self-assertion." This was "incompatible" with the "fundamental principles of a liberal and democratic constitutional order."

Young East German citizens could easily fall into the clutches of the socialist system of youth institutions. Party officials were always horrified by youth subculture, with its "Präsent-20" suits and brown horn-rimmed glasses. Long hair and Western music were seen as suspect. Walter Ulbricht, the general secretary of the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED), had set the standard for musical taste early on, insisting that East Germans should not copy "any garbage that comes from the West, and put an end to the monotony of the yeah-yeah-yeah, or whatever it is they're singing."

In the files of the youth welfare agencies, young people were characterized as dropouts, hooligans, hippies, bums, punks and skinheads -- all government categories for "normal deviants," people who were under observation. The state justified its actions, as an East German youth welfare agent wrote in her final report, with the argument that "it's a short path from dropout to criminal."

The GDR Institute for Youth Welfare Services in Ludwigsfelde near Berlin published teaching materials in which the term "poorly educable" was defined. According to the definition, a young person could be considered a problem case simply if he or she had a "relatively stabile feeling of self-worth" and only displayed an "occasional recognition or experience of his or her own incompetency, or lack of any psychological strain." Egocentrism was considered suspect, while bed-wetters and nail-biters were believed to be on a fast track to failure.

Living Hell

With boys, transgressions were usually brutality, rowdiness and poor grooming, while the girls were accused of "frequently changing sexual relations," having an "asocial lifestyle" or "belonging to a negative group." The authorities were quick to institutionalize young people who stood out from the crowd. The Berlin Appellate Court later wrote in its decision that the authorities in the GDR had completely failed to consider "that the youths, because of their backgrounds and the conditions in which they had lived, would in fact have required the enhanced care of society." The "poorly educable" were sent to expropriated manors, estates, castles, hunting lodges and former monasteries. But despite the attractive surroundings, life inside the castle walls was a living hell.

Ralf Weber was 17 when he lost everything: his clothing, his freedom and his pride. Standing naked in front of his tormentors, his head shaven, he was asked: "Do you believe in socialism?" When his eyes began to turn red the teachers shouted: "We don't cry here!" They beat him unconscious, pushed his head into a toilet and flushed it. Then they dragged him into a damp, empty cell and locked the door. Weber remembers being put into solitary confinement. But how long did it last? Four days? A week? He was cold, had nothing to eat and couldn't sleep. The toilet was a tin bucket. He was given the same treatment as all new residents at the children's institution. "The teachers had only one goal: to break us," says Weber.

In 1967, the East German youth welfare agency issued a set of regulations for solitary confinement, but prudently never published it. Under these rules, even 12-year-olds could be placed in isolation if they refused to work, tried to run away or needed to be "protected" from themselves. The cell was to measure six square meters (65 square feet) and be "solidly constructed" with "iron bars with a diameter of least 12 millimeters." The bed was to be folded up against the wall during the day, and unruly behavior was prohibited. "If found guilty of damaging the cell, the minor shall be held liable," the rules stated.

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