Growing up in West Germany in a Catholic surrounding with just a few protestant sprinkles, it was normal for me to witness plenty of church rituals. Many of my friends were altar boys or at least spent part of their weekends at church. Most of my friends had their First Communion when they were around eight years old, my protestant mates went to their confirmation a few years later at 14. While I didn’t care much for the religious questions, I did notice that both groups received a huge amount of gifts and attention. To my disappointment, I got nothing. My family was as socialist as atheist, and that left me without any event of that kind.
In East Germany, however, nobody had to miss out. Most teens in the former German Democratic Republic attended a youth ceremony developed to replace the religious traditions of confirmation: The “Jugendweihe” (youth “consecration”) happened at the age of 14 as a step from childhood to adolescence.
What I saw with a certain level of jealousy from my position in West Germany, wasn’t joy for everybody who attended. In fact, the Jugendweihe was seen as a tool of suppression by those who didn’t fully agree with the socialist rulers of East Germany. Refusal to attend could lead to serious repercussions from government side, and the notorious Stasi (the East German state security service) kept track of the participants.
The East German government established the ceremony on direct order from the Russian leadership in Moscow, where in 1953 decisions were made to strengthen the control over the young East German republic by breaking the influence of the Christian churches. The Jugendweihe was one of the tools used for this – it came with a full year of regular youth courses, featuring political education, visits in workspaces, social functions and organized parties. It ended with a pledge to the ideals of “great and noble socialism” and to “fight imperialism”.
In this three-minute Film by the GDR-Museum in Berlin, you can see examples of how a Jugendweihe celebration looked like, and which gifts the teenagers received:
Despite this, neither the idea nor the name “Jugendweihe” was born in the GDR. In the first years of the socialist republic, youth ceremonies were even frowned upon, after being forbidden during the national socialist dictatorship. The original initiative hails from the Freethought Movement in Germany that worked hard to create alternatives to religious rituals. The free thinkers saw themselves as secular and agnostic (or even atheist) and were closely connected to religious groups like the Freireligiöse Gemeinschaft (free-religious community) that tried to free religious practice from organized religion and move it towards humanist ideals. All these philosophical movements were a result of the massive social revolutions of the early 19th century in Germany (and Europe), with new ideas springing up everywhere, questioning the status quo. It was the theologist Eduard Balzer who suggested the Jugendweihe in 1852 for the first time. In the following decades it became popular within the growing Workers’ movement and peaked later in the Weimar Republic.
Without my knowledge at the time, Jugendweihe celebrations also existed in West Germany. The freethought associations reintroduced them after 1945, with a very different concept than in East Germany, of course. It is not surprising that I never heard of it during my teenage years – the whole idea didn’t gain a lot of popularity until the reunification of the two German states. In East Germany, it’s still some 30,000 teens per year who attend a Jugendweihe celebration. Today, the tradition is carried by an own association, the “Jugendweihe Deutschland e.V.” and does not include pledges to protect socialism or fight imperialism anymore. The association organises the celebrations itself, but also the preparation and the courses, holiday camps for participants and publishes a gift book and information events. It’s a secular organisation with an educational mission, and its work has also reached West Germany, where the “Humanist Society” also offers similar rituals following humanist traditions.
The centre of this work is youth work in all its facets, encouraging young people to follow humanist ideals of freedom, human rights, social responsibility, tolerance and non-violence. Given how often religious preachers raise the issue of morality and claim that ethical behaviour can only grow based on the belief in a God, this humanist approach seems important. Even more so in times of growing virtualisation, social media and lack of real life experiences for many young people. Encouraging teenagers to take ownership of their own life and give back to the community is a sound idea that might make a good example for other countries as well.