Outcry over language reform and spy revelations

27th December 1996 at 00:00
TES correspondents look back at the controversies and turbulent events of the past 12 months. GERMANY

This German school year has seen parents and leading writers taking on the state, revelations about former child spies in the classroom and a study showing how today's children in the former East and West are far from united.

It started with a German teacher called Friedrich Denk listening to his son's fears about the state controlling language, after reading George Orwell's 1984, and ended with the nation's leading novelists taking to the barricades and joining his one-man protest. The bone of contention was the first reform of the German language for nearly a century.

Changes meant to simplify will only complicate, claim the nation's intellectuals. The reforms were agreed and introduced by the German, Swiss and Austrian governments in July.

The changes have Germanised foreign words, relaxed the rules for commas, changed the letter ' to ss, separated many composite words and moderated use of the capital letter. With leading book publishers now joining the protest and refusing to introduce the reforms, next year will be the beginning and not the end of the matter.

That the infamous Stasi, the former East German secret police, employed thousands to spy on their fellow workers was well known. However, the revelations in Der Spiegel magazine that children as young as 14 were forced to spy on classmates resulted in an outcry.

The child spy idea was the brainchild of the head of the Stasi, the all-powerful Erich Mielke. A Stasi document revealed how the state was worried about the high number of youths who committed crimes against the state and had negative tendencies.

Parents knew nothing of their children's activities or their special spy training. After German unification, some of the child spies were discovered and immediately fired from their jobs. The exact number of those affected is still unclear; only a few, like those quoted in Der Spiegel, have gone public. Of those who have told all, most are scarred by their past activities and are now on medication and in receipt of psychological support.

A study of schoolchildren in both parts of the once-divided city, started by the Free University in Berlin in 1990, came up with some startling findings this year, revealing, if anything, deepening differences between east and west Germany.

In the eastern part, "nationalistic and racist tendencies are ever-increasing", and children there are considerably more "ruthless" than their western counterparts in the classroom.

The study, conducted with the Centre for European Educational Research, focused on 600 children between the ages of 13 and 16, who were questioned every year.

This year saw students taking to the streets. The situation is likely to worsen in 1997. In August, students who had completed their military service were offered a chance to rent somewhere to live for only Pounds 64 per month. With the defence ministry forced to make cuts, what better way was there to raise funds than to rent out barracks across Germany?

But just in case the incumbents got too comfortable in their one-room flats, the government limited the contracts to one year. A condition of the contract was that students kept their homes tidy.

The government, in a desperate bid to bring the unemployment figures down, is mounting pressure at present on employers who do not fulfil their legal obligations to provide training posts.

The opposition Social Democrats are getting so angry about the tens of thousands of training possibilities that have gone begging, they are demanding that companies are fined in future. The matter is likely run on into 1997.

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