Old communist ceremony reinvented

19th January 2001 at 00:00

Politicians from across party lines are hoping an alternative to the popular east German rite of passage, the Jugendweihe, will signal an end to the socialist tradition 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Jugendweihe ("youth initiation") was adopted by the Communists in the 1950s as a compulsory rite for teenagers. Many thousands of 14-year-olds still take part though they no longer sit through ideological speeches by party functionaries, then swear allegiance to the party and solemnly promise to defend socialism "against any imperialist attack". But the big party after the speeches are over has survived.

Workshops on socialist thought in the run-up to the ceremony have been replaced by breakdancing or computer courses, careers advice and seminars on human rights.

Around 100,000 youngsters still take part each year - almost half the population of 14-year-olds in the former east.

The church has always opposed the ritual as anti-Christian and believes that, without it, more would attend confirmations which attracted only 35,000 in the whole country last year.

The new ceremony, offered in time for the Jugendweihe season between March and May, will include popular rites such as presenting participants with a bell, a hallmark of the east German ritual, but will aso include"visits to Christian communities".

The idea is to break the"secular monopoly" and introduce more co-operation with the church. However, it will not be like a confirmation, said Richard Schroeder, an east German politician and Christian theologist who helped set up the multi-party group "May-Bell" which is behind the new ceremony.

Gregor Ziese-Henatsch of the secular Humanist Association which organises many Jugendweihe celebrations, rejects the view that it is a throwback to the communist era. "We have been adapting for years to reflect changes. We never agreed with indoctrination but we don't want to empty the ritual of all content, or replace it with something artificially Christian."

In the light of the rise of the extreme right in the east no one wants to get rid of the Jugendweihe altogether. Also it is now one of the few shared experiences between east German parents and their post-reunification children. Grandparents, aunts and uncles are invited to make the Jugendweihe a family gathering.

"I decided to do it because my parents wanted me to, and I also wanted to," said Julia Wedel, 15, from Berlin, who took part last year."But I know some who prefer not to and just have a small ceremony at home. A big party costs money. But the best part is all the presents."

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