Approaching the German unification process using the example of history teaching in Bavaria and Saxony

Jan Dreyer, history teacher, has been examining and researching the ways in which the transition process and reunification period is approached German history text books and has written this report that compares his findings across textbooks in Bavaria and Saxony. 

Within the short period of time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the Peaceful Revolution eliminated without violence the SED dictatorship, and for the East German population a new phase of life in an all-German, democratic state began. In terms of different historical narratives and discourses in the public sphere, one has to look at the different motivations of the actors during the Peaceful Revolution as well as analyse the experiences of the last three decades that led to different perceptions of the state system and everyday life in the GDR. Ultimately, the question also arises as to what significance is attributed to the Wende period in history and social studies lessons, and what narratives are being communicated. To answer this question, it is useful to compare the curricula and textbooks of different federal states, using Bavaria and Saxony as examples.

Change of perspective

The experiences of GDR citizens from 1989 onwards during the unification process could hardly be more different. For staunch supporters of the system, reunification was tantamount to a personal and state failure of the socialist experiment. By contrast, there were those citizens who had criticised human rights violations in the GDR and as a consequence had experienced exclusion and retaliation by the state intelligence service. Many of them demanded reforms along the lines of a “third way” between socialism and capitalism, and quite a few were also disappointed by reunification. A further perspective is provided by the stories of citizens who left the GDR in the summer of 1989. Some of them had also had personal experiences of oppression, others simply hoped for better living conditions in the West.

Even if the focus around the unification process is often on East Germany, it should not be forgotten that the citizens of the “old” Federal Republic of Germany also experienced the Wende in different ways. The overthrow of the system in the GDR was not met with undivided enthusiasm and approval.

The results of the first free Volkskammer elections on 18 March 1990 showed that the desire for reunification and economic alignment with the FRG was central to most citizens. This contributed significantly to the victory of the “Alliance for Germany” (CDU/DA).

The unification process brought about changes that had a profound impact due to changes in the system in the East. The transition from a planned to a market economy caused a significant decline in production and led to the loss of millions of jobs in East Germany. The high expectations of many East Germans were often not met, leading to frustration and a feeling of neglect and objectification/disenfranchisement. In addition, perceptions spread that reunification was more of a takeover of the GDR by the FRG. Many people felt that their own personal experience was devalued and that they had the status of “second-class Germans”. These trends are also evident in opinion polls conducted since reunification.[i] According to these polls, a considerable proportion of East Germans, and an increasing proportion between 1990 and 2001, feel more connected to the former GDR than to a united Germany.

So it is not surprising that in the 2000s a veritable wave of “Ostalgie” began, which contributed to a glorification of the GDR. Everyday life became the focus of memory and revealed a longing for a time of greater social security like that which had been experienced in the GDR. Simultaneously, the darker aspects receded into the background or even took on a positive connotation.

Postmemory and history teaching

It is obvious that discourse on the unification process and the GDR is defined by contemporary witnesses from the time of the fall of communism. However, this raises the question of how the following generations perceive and evaluate them. The most important sources of information for pupils are people in their environment, the media and, not least, history lessons at school.

Adolescents in East Germany can draw on a wealth of experiences from their families, in contrast to young people in West Germany, who generally have few opportunities outside of an East German migration background. These give them very direct access to history. At the same time, however, there is a danger that they will fail to sufficiently question the possible emotionality and subjectivity of the eyewitness accounts.

In Germany, the Council of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs has formulated binding educational standards for all federal states, so it is not surprising that these standards are also very similar in history, a subject whose purpose is to impart historical factual knowledge and to enable pupils to arrive at well-founded value judgements on their own. In doing so, students can be guided in a reflective way in dealing with controversial historical narratives.


The history curriculum for grade 10 in Bavaria includes, among other things, the learning area “The Dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and German Unity” amounting to 8 lessons per week. The learning objective is that the pupils understand the conditions and causes of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and recognise the historical opportunity to overcome the division of Germany through the end of the East-West conflict. By looking at developments after 1990, however, they should also learn about the challenges that state unity posed for Germans.[ii] In the 11th grade section “The GDR – a German alternative?”, it is also specified that pupils should deal with the “problem of individual and collective historical memory of the GDR”.

In the history curriculum for the 10th grade in Saxony, the Wende period is not defined as a separate learning area, but is addressed in the broader teaching unit “The Divided Germany and Reunification”. According to a specific competence goal, “the pupils discuss the preconditions, causes and consequences of reunification in a multi-causal way and use their findings to assess the significance of the turnaround of 1989 for German and European history. In grade 11, the pupils discuss “the opportunities and challenges of the social dynamics in reunified Germany since 1990 [and] take into account in particular the goal of equalising living conditions between East and West Germany, as well as questions of migration”.

The curricula in Bavaria and Saxony are almost identical in terms of the subject skills to be taught, in accordance with the educational standards of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs. The learning content is largely identical despite the different structure. In contrast to the Bavarian curriculum, however, the Saxon curriculum does not explicitly mention the problem of remembering the history of the GDR.

History textbooks: Bavaria vs. Saxony

This difference is not so evident in the history textbooks in Bavaria and Saxony. In the introductory text of the Saxon version of the “Kursbuch Geschichte” by Cornelsen Verlag (2014), the “wall in people’s minds” and problems of “Ostalgie” and glorification of GDR history are addressed alongside structural change and economic conversion problems in East Germany. In addition, it addresses right-wing extremism as a social challenge after reunification. The accompanying materials for source work allow for in-depth study of labour market activity and unemployment after reunification and of right-wing extremism and xenophobia in East Germany. The historical memory of the GDR is not illustrated by other sources.

The Bavarian edition of the “Buchners Kolleg Geschichte 11” (2013) goes into detail about the problem of historical memory in the chapter “Nostalgic view of the GDR – a transitional phenomenon?”. The chapter begins with an anecdote: the parents of a young person regularly celebrate “Ostalgie” parties. The young person himself has no memories of the GDR and knows of other narratives that stand in contrast to his parents’ romanticisation of history. Starting with a discussion on the economic development after 1990, the term “Ostalgie” is explained in detail. The chapter’s topic is further illustrated with several statistics on the “GDR as reflected in surveys since reunification” and various text sources that critically examine this “Ostalgie” concept. Right-wing extremism after reunification is not mentioned in the Bavarian textbook in this chapter.

The comparison of Bavarian and Saxon curricula and textbooks leads to the conclusion that the content taught in East and West Germany does not differ on the whole. Nevertheless, there are different emphases in places. It is interesting to note that the problem of remembering the history of the GDR is not explicitly included in the curriculum in Saxony. The historical narratives from the students’ everyday environment presumably have a stronger influence on their view of history than is the case for students in Bavaria. It would therefore certainly be advisable to critically address different narratives in history lessons in Saxony and to counteract a glorification of the GDR.

[i] Thus, between 1990 and 2001, the proportion of respondents who thought that “many things absolutely had to change” fell from just under 70% to about 45%, while the proportion of those for whom “conditions were actually quite tolerable” doubled from about 20% to 40% in the same period. Whereas in 1990 77% of East Germans were still positive about the principles of the market economy, in 1995 it was only just under a third of them. Katja Neller wrote that in the new federal states “the pessimistic rather than the optimistic assessments of the merging of the two political cultures in East and West Germany have been confirmed”. See: Neller, Katja 2006: Getrennt vereint? Ost-West-Identitäten, Stereotypen und Fremdheitsgefühle nach 15 Jahren deutscher Einheit. In: Falter, Jürgen W. u.a. (Hrsg.): Sind wir ein Volk? Ost- und Westdeutschland im Vergleich. München: Verlag C.H.Beck, S. 13–36.

[ii] In particular, the “problems and successes of economic and social integration in a united Germany, [the] dealing with the GDR past [and the] self-image as a nation state” will be addressed.