An Interesting Coming of Age Ritual in Germany

A personal account of the youth consecration in Berlin - Germany

coming of age
Coming of Age Ritual in Germany. Adriana Varela Photography @getty-images

This weekend my soon to be 14-year-old son took part in a ceremony that I had known only from my knowledge about the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the Jugendfeier also known as Jugendweihe. 

A quick history of this coming of age ritual

It marks the coming of age of the participants with a memorable celebration and it thought as an alternative to religious initiations like the Kommunion and Firmung (Catholic Church) or Konfirmation (Protestant Church) where children declare that they choose to be self-declared members of these churches.

While the concept is from 1852, the Jugendweihe was adopted in 1954 by the socialist GDR and turned into a ritual where the young had to make an oath (scroll to the end of this article to find the oath with translation into English) in favor of the socialist state.

The Jugendfeier nowadays does not require the participants to make any vow or swear an oath. The only tradition that has survived the GDR is that they all get a rose and a book with thought provoking texts about becoming an adult. You can read a bit more about this event that still is popular among former inhabitants of the GDR or their descendants here on Wikipedia.

From a father's experience

We took part in this event due to the fact that my son Simon goes to a school in the Eastern part of Berlin with many parents that still seem to feel some (N)Ostalgy and brought this topic up in class. As 20 out of 28 classmates of Simon wanted to participate in it, we didn’t want him to stand out and asked him whether he’d like to participate or not.

At that age it is important for him to be part of the group and so he decided for it. 

As I was born in Western Germany and had gone through a rather Catholic education and initiation I didn’t have any idea what to expect but neither had I any rejection of that idea nor was I much excited about it. I took Simon to parachute jumping last year which we inofficially declared to mark his transition into an adolescent.

His mother, originating from Poland, another formerly socialist country, didn’t really know the Jugendweihe either but we were on the same track regarding our participation.

It's seems still pretty popular

The fact that we had to register for the event in 2013, almost 18 months ahead of time, shows how popular it still is. There were also several seminars planned that would cover certain topics of adolescence and start a thought process in the children about who they wanted to be and become. Many of those seminars where also thought to be lead or at least organized by the parents. But this task seemed to be more difficult than many had hoped. In those months until the Jugendweihe, Simon took part probably in two events and I didn’t really get the impression that he took much from it. In socialist times, those preparations would have been organized by the state and would have included quite some propaganda. 

It's not the ritual, it's what you make of it

I’m not blaming others. I understand that our lack of deeper interest and conviction in the sense of such an initiation also had a huge influence on everything. Another parent with more enthusiasm would have described this experience probably quite differently.

 

When the great day came, we were invited with approximately 2000 other people to meet at the Friedrichstadtpalast, a revue theater in the evening. There the Humanistischer Verband Deutschlands (HVD, Humanistic Organisation of Germany) had organized quite a show with professional dancers and singers and has managed to get some popular entertainers like e.g. Joko Winterscheidt or actress Anna Loos to leave a few encouraging words to the children.

My interim conclusion

Parts of it I personally found a bit over the top and it all was a bit surprising as neither of us really knew what to expect of that day. On the other hand it was mainly entertaining and short enough to enjoy it and the message for the young participants was to trust in themselves, to question authority and to understand that with growing up they will be confronted with new rights and obligations in their life.

I can’t really object to that, can you?

The rest of the day

As everything started at 8.30h on Saturday morning, we were home by noon and both families (my son’s mother remarried a while ago and has two little adorable daughters today) had a nice brunch  in a café next door and then just enjoyed the rest of the day with my half of the family.

A unique experience

I am very thankful to have been able to witness this event. In a way it was inpiring, though I would have also enjoyed a more humble approach to it all. Coming of age is a challenge for all members of the family and I would have integrated the parents and siblings way more into the preparation. But as I don’t expect others to take care of my responsibilities, my overall experience was a positive one.

I hope you enjoyed this little insight into the German culture and I would like to know what you do in your culture to mark the coming of age of your children. If you are religious: do you consider the existing religious rituals to also cover the coming of age or is it rather focussing on being a more responsible member of your church/religion?

 

Das öffentliche Gelöbnis 

The public oath of the GDR Jugendweihe (not in use nowadays)


(as found first on this page which also contains many more information on the topic of GDR but unfortunately only in German language.) My translation is at times very literally so that you can also learn something about the German sentence structure and grammar here. Where a literal translation would be difficult or impossible to understand, I have put a more comprehensible version into parenthesis.

Liebe junge Freunde!
Dear young friends.

Seid ihr bereit, als junge Bürger unserer Deutschen Demokratischen Republik
are you ready as young citizens of-our German Democratic Republic

mit uns gemeinsam, getreu der Verfassung, 
with us together, according the constitution

für die große und edle Sache des Sozialismus zu arbeiten und zu kämpfen
for the big(ger) and noble cause of-the Socialism to work and to fight

und das revolutionäre Erbe des Volkes in Ehren zu halten, so antwortet: 
and (to keep) the revolutionary heritage of-the Nation in honor to keep, so answer:

Ja, das geloben wir!
Yes, this-is-what we pledge!

Seid ihr bereit, als treue Söhne und Töchter 
Are you prepared, as faithful sons and daughters

unseres Arbeiter-und-Bauern-Staates nach hoher Bildung
of-our workers- and peasant nation (to strive) for higher education

und Kultur zu streben, Meister eures Fachs zu werden, 
and culture (to strive), (to become) Master of-your (professional) discipline,

unentwegt zu lernen und all euer Wissen und Können für die Verwirklichung 
incessantly to learn and all (to utilise) your knowledge and skill for the realization 

unserer großen humanistischen Ideale einzusetzen, so antwortet: 
of-our grand humanistic ideals (to utilise), so answer:

Ja, das geloben wir!
Yes, this-is-what we pledge!

Seid ihr bereit, als würdige Mitglieder der sozialistischen Gemeinschaft 
Are you ready, as worthy members of-the socialist community

stets in kameradschaftlicher Zusammenarbeit, gegenseitiger Achtung 
always (act) in companionate cooperation, mutual respect

und Hilfe zu handeln und euren Weg zum persönlichen Glück
and help (to act) and (to always unite) your path to personal fulfillment

immer mit dem Kampf für das Glück des Volkes zu vereinen, so antwortet: 
(always) with the struggle for happiness of the nation (lit.: the people), so answer:

Ja, das geloben wir!
Yes, this-is-what we pledge!

Seid ihr bereit, als wahre Patrioten die feste Freundschaft mit der Sowjetunion 
Are you prepared as true patriots, the steadfast friendship with the Sovjet Union

weiter zu vertiefen, den Bruderbund mit den sozialistischen Ländern zu stärken, 
further to deepen, the brotherly association with the socialist countries to strengthen,

im Geiste des proletarischen Internationalismus zu kämpfen, 
in-the spirit of-the proletarian internationalism to fight,

den Frieden zu schützen und den Sozialismus gegen jeden imperialistischen Angriff
the peace to protect and the socialism against every imperialistic attack

zu verteidigen, so antwortet: 
to defend, so answer:

Ja, das geloben wir!
Yes, this-is-what we pledge!

Wir haben euer Gelöbnis vernommen. 
We have heard (lit.: perceived) your pledge.

Ihr habt euch ein hohes und edles Ziel gesetzt. 
You have (set) yourselves a high and noble goal (set).

Feierlich nehmen wir euch auf in die große Gemeinschaft 
Solemnly take we you in, into the grand collective

des werktätigen Volkes, das unter Führung der Arbeiterklasse 
of-the working nation, that under the leadership of the working class

und ihrer revolutionären Partei, einig im Willen und im Handeln, 
and her revolutionary party, united in will (intention) and acting

die entwickelte sozialistische Gesellschaft 
(errects) the developed socialist community

in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik errichtet.
in the German Democratic Republic (errects).

Wir übertragen euch eine hohe Verantwortung. 
We transfer to-you a huge responsibility.

Jederzeit werden wir euch mit Rat und Tat helfen, 
At-any-time will we (help) you with advice and deed (help),

die sozialistische Zukunft schöpferisch zu gestalten.
(to design) the socialist future creatively (to design).