Wednesday, January 02, 2008


When you’re a kid, your entire life seems to be structured by school holidays, your birthday, Christmas, Carnival and all the boring bits in between. Certain smells, symbols, events, even the clothes you wore were deeply associated with that structure so that your whole life became an advent of nearby excitement. Switching from winter clothes into summer clothes became almost ceremonial, and then again back into winter clothes promising the approaching Christmas season, the magic of winter, snowball fights and sled races.

We had a week long break in October, our first school break of the year, and we couldn’t wait to get away from the daily school drudgery. But there was always one thing that drew me back to to there.
Our teachers asked us every year if we wanted to go, and not everyone was up for it, because it would be the first Saturday of said autumn break. But some of us always wanted to go... because you didn’t meet at school to, well, go to school.
Instead, we were invited to go to the Initiation and Adjuration of new soldiers of the NVA (Nationale Volksarmee – the National Army of the People).
Real soldiers. Dude.

Looking at it from a historical perspective makes this a rather surreal memory. There were us kids, in our pioneer uniforms, to be some sort of live propaganda material at a military ritual held in the Stasi (secret police) Headquarters in East Berlin. Our school was just a stone’s throw away.
But back then, it was an adventure. And yes, it was an honour, too, they told us. It made us feel part of something, involved us in a serious grown-up ritual.
It boggles my mind a little what effect this was meant to serve. Indoctrinate us? Create some sort of bond to an idea by playing on our being impressionable?Not that we noticed at the time. Back then it was all just good clean fun.

October was when the crisp cold air of first frost set in. I was dressed in my uniform, way too thin underneath my red anorak, a woolen hat and mittens against the cold, quietly excited about the snug comfort of my winter clothes that still smelt of last winter, carrying memories like a sponge. We stood, lined up in an assembly - not what we were used to from our pioneer assemblies at school, but a proper, serious, grown-up assembly, at a serious, honourable occasion. We were expected to be on our best behaviour, and it didn't even occur to any of us to do or act otherwise. We were the kids, the future, the adults of tomorrow, witnessing and celebrating those who swore an oath to protect our country to keep it for us as it was, a socialist haven. Back then, occasions like this formed us into the believing followers we were supposed to be as adults. Obviously, we didn't realise. We were just excited about the opportunity. This was no playing soldiers at the playground and the Little Forest. This was the real thing - grown men in uniforms, who would solemnly swear an oath to serve their country, protect its borders from the warmongering class enemy (anything West of us, with special emphasis on America). The ceremony seemed to take an eternity, especially for a nine-year-old who had to stand attention and not discredit this sacred moment with foolish child's play. The cotton of my pioneer shirt felt cold and inappropriate for this weather, but it would have been unthinkable to wear anything else. I wore a cap as well, borrowed from the school because I did not own one; it would not stay tucked on my head because I wore an alice band, trying to look perfect for this occasion. I had to stand even stiller to prevent it from falling off, and with every passing minute I felt more like an ice statue, despite the low yellow pre-winter sun that gave only light, not warmth, leaving us freezing communist child martyrs, or at least the light version of it.

But once the ceremony was over, it was our turn; we'd run up to the soldiers and smile and shake their hands and give them flowers (carnations, of course), and they would smile back at us, full of goodwill and kindness, the embodiment of the handsome men we saw in the Russian and East German propaganda pictures, of working class men with square jaws and straight white teeth, throwing small children up into the air playfully, just to catch them again, without a trace of malice and full of laughter, against a backdrop of picturesque farmland, above which a dove, the bird of peace, would circle, ensuring that the Imperialist warmonger would never disturb this perfect peace.

After the ceremony, we were led inside, into a conference room which had been cheered up as much as possible into something child-friendly. On a long table was set up places with napkins and mugs of hot cocoa, and platters full of biscuits, sweet pretzels, some covered in chocolate, and we indulged in that heavenly goodness, thawing the frost in us and exciting even more the anticipation of Christmas.

Historically, there may have been something sinister about this whole event, but to me it was nothing but an adventure.

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