In the Hausarchiv: Penpal in East Germany

In the Hausarchiv: Penpal in East Germany

Amateur history nerd that I am, I’m quite pleased to have married into a family which has retained all sorts of books, newspapers and magazines dating from about 1920 onwards. The “In the Hausarchiv” series gives an occasional look at the things I’ve come across in our own “house archive”.

Since I’m in the middle of commemorating the Fall of the Berlin Wall here at German History Blog, I was desperately searching our “archives” for anything pertaining to East Germany or the actual events of November 1989 so that I could write an “In the Hausarchiv” post that would fit this ongoing theme.  Well, the usual stacks of archives contained nothing relevant.  So I turned to the head archivist, Mrs. Dawson (my wife), and asked her if she was aware of any East Germany-related material hidden away somewhere.

Intro of a letter from an East German penpal to my wife.  1986.

Intro of a letter from an East German penpal to my wife. 1986.

Bingo!  She recalled that as a teenager she had a few penpal correspondents behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany.  She gave me their letters and I perused them for something “significant” that I could post about.

I’ve not finished perusing them (honestly, I’ve opened only one so far), but I’ve found something that is — to me anyway! — interesting.  A young man had written to her about one of his teachers complaining that he (the boy) had a copy of West Germany’s “Bravo” teen magazine:

According to my Stabülehrer [a type of teacher, explained below], “‘Bravo’ is a profit-seeking magazine full of anti-communist overtones; as a ‘socialist [school?] figure’ I particularly disdain it.” [The teacher’s] hatred goes so deep that I get myself a copy of “Bravo” and write to a female class-enemy [Klassenfeind].

(The construction of that final sentence confused both me and my wife — a native German speaker — but we assume he is saying that the teacher told him that he — the teacher — particularly hates that the boy has gotten a copy of “Bravo”, found a penpal advertisement in it [from my wife] and written to her, a “class-enemy”.) (Hey buddy, don’t call my wife a Klassenfeind, even 22 years ago! :) )


The East German penpal describes his teacher's very negative reaction to the boy having a copy of the West German "Bravo" magazine.

So what is a “Stabülehrer“?  Even Dani — being from Austria and not the GDR — was not certain. It’s some kind of teacher (Lehrer), that’s clear. “Stabü“, Dani thought, could be the abbreviation for “Staatsbürger“, or citizen; so she thought “Stabülehrer” could be short for “Staatsbürgerlehrer“, i.e., some kind of teacher who teaches you to be a model citizen. Dani was quite close with this guess.

To be sure, I turned to the man of the hour, Wolfgang Welsch, whom I know personally.  I sent him an e-mail asking him about Stabülehrer and he clarified everything for me. “Stabü” is actually short for “Staatsbürgerkunde“.  Indeed, a Google search for “Staatsbürgerkunde DDR” returns loads of results, including a Wikipedia page describing it in German. Staatsbürgerkunde was in fact a required subject of study for East German students.  It focused on class consciousness and marxist-leninist ideology.

So this teacher whom the boy refers to in his letter to my wife taught this subject. One can indeed imagine what he thought of “Bravo”! If you look at the Bravo website, you’ll get the idea.

The boy went on to complain about this reaction from his teacher.  “I don’t understand these teachers, how they can say such crap! (wie sie so eine Scheiße erzählen können …)”

I found that this frustration over indoctrination made for interesting reading and show-and-tell here in the Hausarchiv series.  My wife and this penpal did not remain in contact for long (not because anything bad happened to him!)  It would be interesting to know if his opinions ever got him into trouble.  I was, in fact, able to find him in Google — he appears to own his own business now in the same town where he was growing up.  I wonder how he feels now about the GDR.

About the Author

Bill Dawson is an American citizen who, having married an Austrian, lives and works in Vienna, Austria. A programmer by trade, he studied history as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley.