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German Joys Uncut: Class Struggle

I'm introducing a new feature on German Joys, which I'll call 'German Joys Uncut.' One news story from a German newspaper, translated into English by yours truly, without cuts or changes. I’ll provide a short introduction to clarify things that might be unfamiliar to non-Germans, but no commentary.

The first German Joys Uncut comes from last week’s Die Zeit, Germany’s leading broadsheet newspaper. The article (G) address social tension among high-school students in a town in Saxony-Anhalt, a part of the former East Germany.

To understand the piece, it’s important to understand that fairly early in their school careers, students are separated into different skill groups, and then sent to different sorts of high schools. The top 1/3 of students are allowed to go to a Gymnasium high school (nothing to do with exercise), which provide the best chance of getting into universities. Less-prestigious high schools, which I've translated as “secondary schools,” lead to trade careers. This is oversimplified, but it's all you need to know to understand the piece. If you're interested, you can learn more here.

The article appeared in the “Life” section of Die Zeit, accompanied by a picture of the Karl Marx school and of two female Karl Marx students, who wore t-shirts, apparently printed in celebration of their graduation, which read “Even if we’ve missed out on a lot and done some things wrong, we still have chances.”

Class Struggle

In Gardelegen, in Saxony-Anhalt, secondary schoolers attacked a Gymnasium after their graduation celebration – among other things, out of anger over their disadvantages.

by André Paul

The celebrated their graduation on June 8, 2006, although most of them really didn’t have much reason to celebrate. 153 boys and girls ended their stay at the Karl Marx Secondary School in Gardelegen, Saxony-Anhalt. Most of them had an ordinary secondary school certificate in their pocket, some of them a qualified certificate. They could start their careers. But for 100 of the young people, the key word was: “could”. They had no apprenticeship slot. The employers in the local region Salzwedel can take whom they want, and they preferred others. They wanted better-qualified people, even when education ministers, teachers, employers, and parents all shy away from this word. The apprenticeship slots and the jobs, the money and the careers, don’t go to Karl Marx School students, they go to others. And the young people wanted to pay a visit to these “others” on that very morning. At the end of the day, the results were: severe property damage and aggravated assault. Their little town made it into the headlines: Secondary School Students Attack Gymnasium.

It’s not unfair to say that the Karl Marx School doesn’t exactly contribute to the good reputation of the 11,000 people in Gardelegen. This starts with the school itself, which was built during the high point of socialist mass construction. The windows are small, the corridors narrow and dark, the paint is flaking off, it smells stale, and above the entrance, ivy has overgrown the name of the patron. After a “reform” last summer which made a mockery of the word, 536 children from three formerly-independent schools were packed into this one. Directly next to the school courtyard there’s a discount store. Even in the early morning, a few men can be seen drinking beers on its parking lot.

In March of this year, the school attracted attention when its teachers sent a letter to the Personnel Director of the state Education Ministry. As of that point, 46 of the teachers’ colleagues had already gone on sick leave. The problem of the remaining teachers could be summarized in a sentence: “We can no longer handle the constant insults and threats from our pupils.” Most teachers are old enough to remember the time when students smartly saluted the former East German flag -- but now have to listen to themselves being called “assholes” and “cunts.” And it’s not just the students’ language that’s abrasive. A few months ago, a 16-year-old girl severely beat a 15-year-old boy, apparently out of jealousy. The other classmates stood by, filming the scene with their mobile phones. Later, a TV channel acquired the film. The populists among Germany’s politicians kept quiet. They had just been recommending deportation and mandatory German courses to solve the problems at the heavily-immigrant Berlin Rütli School – but at the Karl Marx School in Gardelegen, almost none of the students had an “immigration background.”

“Values are just collapsing around here,” says school principal Horst-Dieter Radtke, a man with a gray buzz-cut and melancholy eyes. “Frustration and alcohol play a significant role. Half of the parents live off government benefits.“ Also, of course, social envy plays a great role. “In ten years, the local authorities spend 60 million euros on schools, of which 52 million went to the Gymnasiums and 8 million to the secondary schools. You can make of that what you will, but it says a lot when you look at what sorts of schools the children of local politicians and well-situated bureaucrats go to. Many Karl Marx School pupils have to travel over an hour each day to read the school.

“In recent years, there have certainly been new jobs created, especially in automobile distribution”, says Jörg Marten, editor-in-chief of the Gardelegener Volksstimme. “But you don’t need the unemployed people from the city for these jobs. Instead, they bring in highly-qualified employees from Magdeburg, Stendal, or even further away.” Principal Radtke adds: “Most of these folks have already given up.” The resignation of the parents transfers to the children. What sort of economic growth are they supposed to hope for?

Disappointment, alcohol, envy, desperation – perhaps this combination drove the 50 adolescents who on that Thursday morning traveled through the city towards the Gymnasium. Many of the pupils were drunk; they had just put a turbulent graduation ceremony behind them. In the early morning hours, persons unknown had glued all the school’s outside door locks shut. The principal transferred the ceremony to a nearby sporting complex. The ceremony was supposed to have involved a re-creation of the Heartpage Show from TV and a fashion show, but quickly went down in jeers and alcohol fumes. Afterwards, the teachers cleared away the garbage. Their pupils had something else in mind.

On days like this, the custom in Gardelegen is for boys and girls to pay a visit the other schools. In the Scholl-Siblings Gymnasium, nobody wanted to actually receive the drunken secondary-school students. Nobody is accusing School Director Dietmar Collatz of class prejudice because of this. He was acting on experience. “A few months ago, two boys from the Karl Marx School came by and smashed things up,” said the wiry, tanned man. “When we tried talk to them, they just gave us a false identity. These young people simply don’t accept authority.”

As 50 Karl Marx School pupils stood in front of the locked door to the Gymnasium, it’s possible that some of the Gymnasium students yelled insults over the fence; the Director doesn’t rule that out. The students who’d been locked out felt provoked. Many just yelled insults back, but 20 of the young people ran to the rear of the school grounds. The Gymnasium teachers, not practiced in building surveillance, hadn’t paid any attention to the 2-meter-tall fence in back. “The fence was already broken in places,” student Nancy Rosenberg later told the local newspaper. “It was an invitation.” In the meantime eleven o’clock had come, classes were underway.

The raiding party was armed with flagpoles. “One of them started smashing lights one after the other,” said Nancy, “we tried to hold him back, but it was no use. He was totally out of it.”

Some of the invaders began storming the classrooms, jeering. “They took the knapsacks away from the children, dumped them out and sprayed them full,” said Principal Collatz.  Some windows were also broken. Some teachers actually “opposed the Karl Marx pupils pretty forcefully,” says the Principal, “one can’t just sit by and watch such things. These days it’s far too often accepted when people break the rules, there’s a climate of silent acquiescence.”
One of the older Gymnasium students didn’t have the necessary strength. He got a knot on the head from the leader of the Karl Marx students, and his nose was broken. At a quarter past eleven, the Principal called the police. “And they took a long time to arrive,” he criticized. As the officers showed up at the Gymnasium, Nancy and her fellow pupils disappeared.  “We didn’t want to get blamed with the rest of them.” The police took down everyone’s information, and prepared charges for assault, trespassing and property damage.

The damages in the school building, which amounted to 1200 Euro, have been repaired in the meantime, the excitement among the Gymnasium students died down. Their fellow teenagers speak rather soberly over the uproar. “What I can’t stand to hear is all this about frustration,” says 18-year-old Timm Benecke. “If something’s gone wrong in their lives, that’s hardly our fault.”

Margarete Wegner from Project Hey! wants to give the problem teenagers in and around Gardelegen some chances.  The clever acronym stands for “Strategic Competence in the Association of Teenagers in Regional Development.” Margarete Wegner wants to make sure even the secondary students get apprenticeships. With success? “A car dealership has hired several Karl Marx students,” says the energetic woman with the friendly smile. However, after a few months, they started showing up to work irregularly or not at all, and broke off the training. “Naturally, nobody else wants to hire them.” The local bakery chain, however, is still searching in vain for 22 apprentices. “But then the students tell me it’s just too demanding, having to get up on time and all that.”