Case Study

Rules of the Thälmann Pioneers (20th c)

Why I Taught the Source

National and state level world history curricula include study of 20th-century political and economic regimes, namely communism and capitalism. As students learn about these political ideologies and economic systems, they often embrace black and white thinking. They are easily persuaded that communist societies were (are) totalitarian and unjust while capitalist societies were (are) democratic and just. This thinking may be supported by learning about the activities of state security agencies, secret police, and other arms of the state that sustained communist regimes through intimidation and terror.

Under these circumstances, though, how can students explain the trauma and confusion many people of central and eastern Europe experienced after the collapse of communism in 1989? How can they make sense of the continuing appeal of communist parties and ideals in many central and eastern European societies? By examining a source that focuses on youth organizations in East Germany, students can develop a more nuanced view of communist society. It helps students see that communist organizations offered positive experiences that supported values they share. This helps students develop empathy for individuals who lived under communism, and paves the way for understanding the enthusiasm with which some individuals lived in communism, and the ambivalence many experienced at its end.

How I Introduce the Source

To introduce this topic, I ask students to identify the youth groups that exist in our democratic society (Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H, community-based organizations, etc.). We talk about why young people participate in the organizations (have fun, be with friends). We talk about the symbols and rituals of the organizations (uniforms, pledges, moving up ceremonies, bronze/silver/gold awards in Girl Scouts, Eagle Scout award in Boy Scouts) and their social meanings. We also talk about the kinds of activities young people participate in through the groups.

I explain that communist societies had similar organizations in addition to the official organizations of the communist party with which students are already somewhat familiar. I explain that in the German Democratic Republic, elementary and middle school students (using American terminology) belonged to a group called the Ernst Thälmann Pioneers, while students in high school and older (again, using American terminology) belonged to a group called the Young Pioneers. Children generally joined the organizations through school. They received uniforms, met regularly, and participated in activities including recreation, community service, day trips, camping and other excursions.

Reading the Source

The source is set up almost like a catechism, in a "call and response" format. I have one or more students take turns reading the statements in bold type, while the other students in the class respond out loud with the statements in regular type. After reading the source out loud, the students work in groups to summarize its main ideas and to discuss questions such as: What are the values conveyed by the source (pride, respect, discipline, cleanliness)? Who or what should Thälmann Pioneers love, respect, or honor (their parents, the Soviet Union, their bodies, health)? What is the main symbol of the Thälmann Pioneers, and what does it stand for (the red scarf, the working class). What other themes or main ideas can the students find here (opposing imperialists, loving peace, study and learning, etc). I have students chart or list their observations, then comment on them. What, if anything, do they agree with? What, if anything, do they disagree with?

Reflections

To reflect, I ask students to return to the conversation we had prior to our study of the source, and think again about youth groups in the United States. I ask, rhetorically, who wouldn't want to be a part of an organization that all your friends were a part of, that conveyed such positive values, and offered fun activities and service? Students overwhelmingly embrace the idea of the Thälman Pioneers. Then we discuss some of the differences between American youth groups and comparable organizations in communist societies.

The first divergence is the intense social and political pressure to join, as well as disadvantages experienced by those who did not participate (being left out, ostracism, pressures felt by parents at work, limits placed on educational and professional opportunities later in life). Second, youth groups in communist societies had a strong political dimension (refer to the students' analysis for examples). Third, for these reasons, communist youth groups served to coordinate and indoctrinate youth in values and ideals that supported the state regime.

Students begin to see that the picture is no longer black and white—even among East German youth. The youth groups offered fun, social experiences for young people—yet participation was almost compulsory. In addition, it was very hard for many people to experience the problems of daily life in communist society and at the same time embrace the positive beliefs included in propaganda such as this. Many young people participated in communist youth groups with a high degree of cynicism, which, in the long run, served to undermine the state.

I find students are very responsive to the source and the conversations we have about it. They appreciate the insight into the daily life of young people in a communist society. Many become curious about this and other youth organizations. They may make comparisons to youth groups under National Socialism, if they learned about them previously. This is a rich, interesting activity for high school students that sharpens critical thinking by drawing upon an already familiar aspect of youth culture.

How to Cite This Source

"Rules of the Thälmann Pioneers (20th c)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #21, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/case-studies/21 (accessed September 18, 2014).