Typically, portrayals of GDR society found in the public sphere and in parts of academia depict it as a thoroughly controlled society (durchherrschte Gesellschaft), with its members primarily indoctrinated by representatives of the party apparatus. Jan Kiepe’s study of the ‘SED-Funktionärsausbildung’ (party officials’ education) in Thuringia between 1949 and 1965 focuses on the political-ideological training of future functionaries by analysing facets of everyday life and expressions of ‘Eigensinn’ (Alf Lüdtke) at the party schools for political training. The study draws on research that calls for a systematic investigation of the social dimension of communist parties and analyses party rule on a local level by focusing on the protagonists and their education. Kiepe reads the political training and the interpretation and implementation of SED directives that took place in these schools as local educational practices. Their combined purpose was not merely to educate, but also to regulate future party officials in an effort to secure the development of the revolutionary movement within the system of state socialism through the development of each individual. The book raises two main questions: firstly, to what extend did participants, teachers and officials in the party apparatus try to safeguard the movement within the socialist system, and how did the understanding of the movement change? Secondly, the author asks how the participants saw themselves and how they internalized the movement’s mandate and implemented it in society. Challenging current historical interpretations of the party and its style of governance as a rigid bureaucratic apparatus, Kiepe analyses party schools in the districts of Erfurt, Gera and Suhl. He argues that Thuringia used to be the cradle of the socialist labour movement in Germany and the origin of innovative educational ideas of the left-wing political circles in the 1920s and 1930s. The period of examination follows the major changes made to political educational training between 1949 and 1965. Methodologically, Kiepe links his study directly to the approach of Alltagsgeschichte, the history of everyday life, and to the key concept of ‘Eigensinn’. With this perspective in mind, Kiepe argues that actions of individuals or groups in specific contexts should be the centre of interest. Kiepe’s study takes a close look at episodes of everyday life in communist party schools and examines both teachers and students at the school and the inner logic of their interactions. The book’s main narrative is structured chronologically, following major historical events. Kiepe first outlines the goals of educational training in the workers’ movement before 1945 (Chapter II), then the SED and the party’s future officials between 1946 and 1948 (Chapter III), and the period from 1948 to the uprising of 17 June 1953 as a period of challenges (Chapter IV). The subsequent period (1953 to the late 1950s) is examined in Chapter V, which focuses on the changes after de-Stalinization when a time of normalization began (Chapter VI). Kiepe discusses specific episodes at the schools that serve as case studies at the micro level. The book draws on a variety of sources, such as SED-official resolutions, directives of the departments responsible for training and several report bulletins from individual schools. The book’s narrative starts with an investigation into the origins of the educational ambitions within the labour movement before 1945. Kiepe discusses the party’s self-understanding as a ‘living organism’ and the collective experiences of the rise and persecution of communists and social democrats during Weimar and National Socialism. During these periods, members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Communist Party (KPD) and the SED came to consider private studies and exchanges with other like-minded individuals to be highly important. Cadres of the newly created SED assigned themselves to represent the interface between political and social order, supported by the SMAD (Soviet Military Administration Germany). In order to work closely with Soviet officials, these cadres were educated in political theory and thereby prepared for their task to represent the party’s ideas of socialism in society. Early ambitions to develop a common schooling system exploited the unstable political future of post-war Germany by seizing the moment to establish political authority rapidly and efficiently. Kiepe considers the years between 1948 and 1953 as particularly challenging. The daily practices of political training (which took four weeks at ‘Kreisparteischulen’ and four months at ‘Landesparteischulen’) challenged students to negotiate the tension between openness and guardedness which was a general characteristic of the communist party. Paradoxically, future functionaries were supposed to learn how to work in secret while at the same time being encouraged to keep no secrets from the party. In practice, attendees of communist party schools had to deal constantly with mistrust, disguise, deception and rumours. Another tool of communist party education was the Soviet concept of criticism and self-criticism. Through several well-chosen examples, Kiepe shows how local protagonists experimented with forms of (self-)criticism when facing a lack of standardized procedures. Chapters V and VI deal with changes to and challenges arising from teaching and learning practices. In particular, Kiepe examines how the history curriculum changed in the aftermath of the building of the Berlin Wall. As Kiepe highlights, students were not merely governed and indoctrinated, but were individuals who asked questions and made sense of the curriculum in unique ways. From Kiepe’s point of view, the concept of GDR society as a ‘thoroughly controlled’ one cannot be found in the daily practices of party schools. Kiepe’s study provides insights into particular sequences of party schools’ daily life and unique incidents in order to demonstrate how participants acquired the theoretical and practical skills to function as a party official. The author shows the benefits of a perspective that focuses on the practices of daily life, and the intertwining of the three cases to analyse specific events at the party schools makes for a highly readable text. While several examples are well chosen and offer innovative approaches to the topic (e.g. in the focus on gender in chapter IV), other examples and their interpretation do not completely unlock their significance (e.g. the incident, discussed in chapter II, involving one particular participant who sharpened his pen instead of reading). Even though Kiepe describes specific practices (for example autodidactic studies), a stronger and theoretically more reflexive framing of practice would have helped provide more analytical depth and clarity. For example, Kiepe uses the term ‘conspiratorial practices’ without providing a specific definition or examples of those practices (p. 168). Kiepe’s book reveals the challenges of writing a history of the communist party from the perspective of everyday life given that almost all sources are written from an official party perspective. While Kiepe has written an ambitious study, in particular with regards to his usage of ‘Eigensinn’, he ultimately does not succeed in bridging the gap between the official party perspective and individuals’ often idiosyncratic usage of the official language. Nevertheless, his study offers important insights into the training of communist party officials between 1949 and 1965. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 29, 2018
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