Jugendfeier: a humanist ritual and its impact on contemporary German identity in Berlin
Aechtner, Rebecca Barbara
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Jugendfeier or Jugendweihe, the youth ‘rite of passage’ ritual has been ideologically re-and-de-contextualised by various movements throughout the last 150 years of German history. It is most commonly associated with the communist German Democratic Republic where it was used as a state initiation ritual for the foundation of ‘socialist personalities.’ This thesis focuses on Jugendfeier the ‘youth celebration’ ceremony as performed by the German Humanist Association (Humanistischer Verband Deutschlands) in Berlin. Jugendweihe originated in the mid-nineteenth century as an alternative to Catholic First Communion and Protestant Confirmation. In the former East Germany between 1956 and 1989 more than seven million students aged thirteen to fourteen undertook the ritual. Significantly, it is claimed that in present-day Germany more than 100,000 students annually take part in the ritual throughout post-socialist Germany in one form or another. This thesis highlights the often contradictory nature of Jugendweihe by examining its historical development and continuation in post-socialist Germany. It contrasts the official views of Jugendweihe in the eyes of its organisers and supporters, as well as the unofficial opinions of its participants in the GDR and in contemporary Berlin. It is often assumed that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German regime along with its culture, politics, economy, rituals and everyday way of life would likewise fade away. This thesis reconstructs the history of Jugendweihe from its Christian origins, details its implementation as a state-ritual in the GDR, and engages with the German Humanist Association’s adaption of Jugendfeier in reunified Berlin. A study of such a contested ritual sheds light on larger discussions concerning identity, community, theories on ritual, and perceptions of secularisation and humanism. By studying the practices of a largely ‘atheist’ group that rejects religion, it challenges what constitutes collective and individual notions of religiosity and secularity.