** young pioneers : East Germany

German Democratic Republic: Youth Movement

German Young Pioneers
Figure 1.--This 10-year old East German girk is proudly showing off her red Thälmann Pioneer scarfe. The poster reads, "Ich bin 10 Jahre. Wie unsere Republik!" This mean, "I am 10 years old. So is our Republic!" This dates the poster to 1959." The poster is eerily similar to NAZI-era posters about 10-year olds joining the Hitler Youth.

The Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend--FDJ), were founded after World War II in March 1946, withi the Soviet occupation zone of Germany. Young people between the ages of 14 and 25 were to be indoctrinated as members of a new socialist society. Together with its suborganization for youngsters from 6-14 years of age, the Young Pioneers--later called the Pioneer Organization "Ernst Thalmann," in memory of the chief of the Communist Party (KPD) during the Weimar Republic and was killed by the NAZIs in a concentration camp. The FDJ became an instrument for influencing the coming generations. An important part of its influence was that membership in the FDJ soon determined access to institutions of higher learning, recreation and sports facilities, and ultimately career opportunities.


The East German Pioneers were influenced by both Scouting and the Hitler Youth, but like the Pioneer movements in other countries, it was a school-based program. Membership and activities were organized around the schools. And unlike both other movements, the Pioneers were a mixed-gender prganization. We note comments like "The pioneer group was based on the Scouts." This is a mistatement. Of course the Scouts were the first important youth movement in many countries, but this was not the case in Germany. The Wandervogel were the first important group. And Baden Powel's Boy Scout movement was only one part of a very diverse youth movement until the NAZIs made the HJ the country's single youth movement. In this regard, the Pioneers have much more in common with the HJ than Scouting. It was similar to the HJ in that parents did not play a major role in the program. It was another arm of the state in molding young minds independent of parental influence.


Communist authorities organized the East German Pioneers after World War II in the Soviet occupation zone. The East German authorities introduced the Free German Youth and the Pioneer Youth (March 1946) less than a year after the War. Communist authorities subsequently renamed their youth movement the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation in honor of the the former German Communist Party leader killed by the NAZIs at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Another source suggests that the movement was founded a little later (December 13, 1948). This was during the height of the Berlin crisus and resulting Berlin Air Lift.


Membership in both the Young Pioneers and the Thälmann Pioneers was theoretically voluntary. Membership was not required in the sence of the parents would be arrested or the children taken away. In practice, however, membership was virtually compulsory. As the Pioneers were a school based-program, it was very difficult for the children to avoid memmbership.Membership came to be seen as a matter of course by the children as they were registered at school and would become members unless the children spoke up and refused, thus drawing attention to themselves. It is likely that their teachers and Pioneer leaders would have questioned them about refusing to join. We assume that the schools would report such refusal to the Stasi. And this was something that people living in a police state did not want. The children were registered at school every year to join (December 13). This was the official date the organization was founded in 1948. Children who refused to join thus would have stood out from the great mass of children who joined. Thus almost all children simply followed along with the system and joined. School age children generally do not like to be singled out. Membership in the Pioneers steadily rose after the organization was established and by the 1960s reached an estimated 98 percent of school age children. Now because it was possible to refuse, membership levels of 98 percent ir strong evidence that participation was in no way voluntary. Those who refused to join were primarily motivated by religious purposes. Other children may have refused to join or dropped out because they did not like the program or limits on their free time. We have noted different accounts as to what the implications were of refusing to join. Some report they were unablr to participate in school or other organozed activities. Other dismiss these reports. We suspect that there was some variation in how those who did not join were treated, depebing on the attitudes of individual school authorities. Membership in the Pioneers at least at some level was necessary to join FDJ. And if a young person was not a member of the FDJ, a range of educational opportunities (especially buniversity entance) or occupational areas were closed off. There also could be travel restrictions.


There were Communist and Socialist youth movements in Germany before the NAZI take over, although we do not yet know much abot them. They were supressed after the NAZI takeover. Many adults associated with the movement were arrested. Communist authorities organized the East German Pioneers after World War II in the Soviet occupation zone. The East German authorities introduced the Free German Youth and the Pioneer Youth in March 1946 less than a year after the War. We do not yet have much information about chronological trends associated with the Young Pioneers in Germany. As far as we know there was no attempt to orgnize a Communist youth movement in West Germany.


Almost every kid in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) had to participate in Young Pioneers. East Germans who participated in Pioneers report that were a kind of a double-edged sword. Children for all practical purposes had to join the Pioneers (and when older the FDJ) to have any chance of a higher education like college which essentially meant a decent job. Very few few East German children sid not join the Pioneers.


There were regular meetings, but always at school. The organization-form was based on the school-classes. Pioneer meetings were never held at private homes or of course churches. They did not meet kids from other schools or areas at meetings as in Scouting. Parents were very seldom involved in pioneer activites.


The purpose Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ) and its Pioneer youth sections was to instill Socialist ideology in the children. Like all youth groups, the Pioneer program consisted of a range of youth activities to either instil Socialist thought or to make the program interesting for the children. Some argue that this was no different than Scouting. There was, however, major differences. Scouting sought to promote universal values such as honesty, morality, family, religion, and others. The East German youth movement was controlled by the Communist Party and promoted the Socialist ideology of the Party. This included some of the universal values of Scouting, but not all. Morality in the Communist world was redefined as whatever promoted the ckass struggle and the defeat of Communism. This meant police state rule and concentration camps. Children were incouraged to report on their parents, although we are unsure to what extent this occurred. The class-struggle definitiin of morality is also why Communist regimes (Cambodia, China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union, were willing to kill or tolerate deaths in large numbers. And it is why membership was essentially compulsory and the parents exclude from the program. Whule the Scouting program was non-political. The German youth program was highly politicized and involved telling the children how to think about political issues. The children would meet in school after regular classes in the the afternoon. The activities at these meetings varies. We have few actual accounts. There seem to have been some games, but our information is limited. For the younger children there was a kind of myth-like presentation of socilist ideology. The Pioneer leaders conducted carefully guided discussions. There was also a deggree of pagentry and building of traditions. Many children seem to have considered thr program as a continuation of school and would have preferred free plat time at home. Many children went tp Pioneer summer camps. The program promoted a degree of internationalism, at least with other Pioneers in other Socialist countries.


We have been able to find relatively little information about the activities organized by the FDJ. The Pioneer groups organized some official events like special celebration days. Those were organized by the schools pioneers unit. Like marching in uniform in the Labor Day parade--a very important event in communist countries. There was also a little fun like hiking trips, school-discos, or carnival. It’s hard to tell which role the pioneers played in this events. Mostly they were organized by the pioneers group managment (group = school-class), but probably without the Pioneers they would also happened in some way. There was also a summer camp program.


Both the Young Pioneers and Freen German Youth were used by authorities to attack religious beliefs. These organizations sought to divide children and parents, especially on religious belief. Their sought to convince children that religion was unnecessary in their lives. The Young Pioneers and Free German Youth used some of the same tactics that the Hitler Youth had used. Meetings were scheduled so they overlapped with the Catholic ceremonies and gatherings. It became harder and harder for families to attend the church ceremonies as they often overlapped with youth meetings. The Communist anti-religious campaign intensified in the 1950s. The president of Young Pioneers said, "There is no doubt that they, the Church dignitaries, thus fight against the national interest of the people and push them in the direction of new wars". [Seth, p. 156.]


The FDJ was an effective instrument for influencing the coming generations. An important part of its influence was that membership in the FDJ determined access to institutions of higher learning, recreation and sports facilities, and ultimately career opportunities. The pioneers and especially the FDJ were called the »fight-reserve« of the communist party. Make a good impression on the pioneer- and FDJ-leaders, and one had a good chance for becomming a party-official later. This would make life in Eastern Germany much easier. There was another youth-organization, the »Gesellschaft für Sport und Technik« (GST: Society for sports and technics). It was kind of pre-military, the members (mostly boys) were trained to fly gliders, operate radio systems, shoot with air-guns and others. As uniform they had camouflage jackets and pants.


The movement consisted of the the Young Pioneers and the Thälmann Pioneers. As far as we know there was no attempt to orgnize a Communist youth movement in West Germany.


The Pioneers were a mixed gender, coed movement. The HJ movement had a BDM orgamization for girls, but the programs were entirely separate. The Pioneer activities and program based as they were in schoolls which were also coed was entirely mixed.


The Communist East German youth movement was composed of several different age-level groups. The Young Pioneers were the group for the youngrst children. Membership began at age 6 after the children had just begun the first year of school. The next level was the Thälmann pioneers which the children joined at aged 10 years. This of course was the same age that children joined the HJ during the NAZI era. Some Pioneer posters have an eary similarity to HJ posters (figure 1). The Free German Youth was the organization for the older youth.

Young Pioneers

The Young Pioneers were the group for the youngrst children. Membership began at age 6 after the children had just begun the first year of school.

Thälmann Pioneers

The Thälmann Pioneers were for children from 10-14 years of age. (Another source says the 4th-7th grades. The Young Pioneers were eventually named the Pioneer Organization "Ernst Thälmann," in memory of the chief of the KPD during the Weimar Republic and who was killed at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Nearly all Wast German children belonged to the Thälmann Pioneers. Before that they were members of the Young Pioneers, and afterwards of the Free German Youth, Theoretically, the Pioneers were voluntary, though in practice the pressure to join was great. The majority of children joined voluntarily, however, since care was taken to make it an attractive group. These rules are taken from the membership booklet each Pioneer received on joining during the 1980's.

The Rules of the Thälmann Pioneers

The Pledge of the Thälmann Pioneers:

"Ernst Thälmann is my model. I promise to learn to work and to fight as Ernst Thälmann teaches. I will follow the rules of the Thälmann Pioneers. True to our greeting, I am always ready to support peace and socialism."

We Thälmann Pioneers love our socialist fatherland, the German Democratic Republic. In word and deed, we will always defend our workers' and farmers' state, which is a firm part of the socialist community of nations. We Thälmann Pioneers carry with pride a red scarf and wear it with honor. Our red scarf is a part of the flag of the working class. It is a great honor for us Thälmann Pioneers to wear the red scarf as an outward symbol of our devotion to the cause of the working class and its party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. We Thälmann Pioneers love and respect our parents. We know that we have much to thank our parents for. We follow their advice and help them. We want to become conscious builders of the socialist society. We Thälmann Pioneers are friends of the Soviet Union, and protect peace while hating the warmongers. By working hard to learn and through good deeds, we help socialism and the forces of peace throughout the world. We always and everywhere oppose the incitement and lies of the imperialists. We Thälmann Pioneers are friends of the Soviet Union and all socialist brother nations, and want friendship with all the children of the world. Friendship with the Soviet Union is a matter of the heart for us. The Lenin Pioneers are our best friends. We work closely with the pioneers of the socialist nations and with all progressive children's organizations in the world. We express active solidarity with with all peoples struggling for their freedom and national independence. We Thälmann Pioneers study diligently, are orderly and disciplined. We gain basic knowledge and abilities, and work everywhere for order, discipline and cleanliness. We work to help everyone to earn honestly, to use his knowledge, and to make word and deed be the same. We thus prepare for life and work in socialist society. We Thälmann Pioneers love work, and respect every form of work and all working people. We learn from the workers, farmers and other working people and join in wherever we can be helpful. We respect the people's property. We Thälmann Pioneers love truth and are reliable and friendly to each other. We always seek to know the truth and work for socialism. We fulfill the tasks we take on and stand by our word as pioneers. We strive to make our group a strong community and give friendly assistance to other pupils. We Thälmann Pioneers learn technology, learn the laws of nature and become familiar with the treasures of culture. We are interested in the latest in science and technology. We participate in scientific activities, join in artistic activities, develop our talents and demonstrate our abilities. We Thälmann Pioneers keep our bodies clean and healthy, participate in sports, and are cheerful. We strengthen our bodies by sports, games and tourism. We are interested in the beauties of our homeland and hike with pleasure. We do not smoke or drink alcohol. We Thälmann Pioneers prepare ourselves to be good members of the Free German Youth. We are interested in the history of the socialist youth group and in the deeds of Free German Youth members. Their splendid achievements are our model and spur. We work together with them.

Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ)

The Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ--Free German Youth) was the official youth movement of the DDR. Young people between the ages of 14-25 joined the FDJ). The organization was founded, however, before World War II and the creation of the DDR. Hitler's first major step in becoming Chancelor ws to move against the Communist Party (1933). All Communist Party institutions were supressed, including youth movements. The FDJ was subsequntly founded to opose the NAZIS (1936). The Gestapo effectively prevented such groups from operating within the Reich. The FDJ operated from Paris (1936) and then Prague (1938). After the Munich Accords and the Germsn conquest of most of Europe, the FDJ moved to flee to Englnd. After the War, the FDJ moved back to Germnany, setting up in the Soviet occupstion zone and entered German politics under Soviet protection. With the onset of the Cold War and the organization of the DDR, the FDJ took on a role similsr to the Komosol in the Soviet Union. The communist World Federation of Democratic Youth recognized it at its annual meeting in Otwock, Poland (1948). The FDJ operated for a while in West Germany as well as East Germany. The West German Government, however, banned the German Communist Party (KPD) along with affiliated grouos like the FDJ (1951). The FDJ in East Germany was was a member of the National Front and was represented in the DDR People's Chamber. The FDJ was responsible for the ideological prepsaration of young Germsans in Marxism-Leninism. As part of thsat effort, it organized a range of activities appealing to teenagers and young adults, including holidays through its Jugendtourist agency. Thre FDJ ran discos. German children after the Thälmann Pioneers, would usually join the FDJ. Membership was not mandatory, but in East Germsny failure to join would hsve a substantial negative impsct on yhe undividual's life. Those who refused to join not only were unable to enjoy the organized holidays, but also other soicial activities. More importantly, it also meant that the young people could not pursue a university education, regardless of their academic qualificatins. Most of the youth who refused to join, did so out of religuious convictions.


We do not have much information on Pioneer uniforms. We do not see Pioneerb members wearing uniforms at first except for a few selected children for ceremonial events. Nor so we see uniforms in the 1950s, although the children did wear scarves. We are not sure when uniforms were introduced, perhaps in the 1960s. This may have been done at the same time school uniforms were introduced. As best we can tell they were very basic. There were uniforms for both the Young Pioneers and Free German Youth. The basic garments included a garison cap, white shirt, and red scarfe worn with dark shirts and pants/skirts. We are not sure at this time to what extent the shirts ans skirts/pants were actual uniform pants are just any white shirt and pants/skirts. They may have also been school uniform items as the Pioneer movement was a school-based profram operated by the Communist Party.

Photographic Record

A curious aspect of the Young Pioneer Movement is that there appears to be a minimal impact on the photographic record. Most the Hitler Youth sand Pioneer movements were mass orgsanizations, meaning that vurtually every child had to participate. The NAZI era lasted only 12 years, but Communist East Germany lasted over 40 years, although it was only a part of Germany. We find countless images of HJ and BDM boys and girls from the NAZI era, both group images and family snapshots and portraits. Yet we rarely encounter Pioneer. We are not sure how to intrpret this. We suspect tht the HJ was a much more effective youth groups. Many children were seriously impacted by it and actively participated in the proram. The Pioneers on the other hand seems to have been much less important, more of an obligation that had to be fulfilled. We would be nterested in any insights that Germnsan readers may be able to offer.


When it became clar that Soviet General Secrrtary Gorbechev would not authorize the continued use of force to maintain Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, these regimes began to lose control. The fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia provided an escape route to the West around the Wall the GDR had built all along the border with West Germany. Thousands of East Germans fled west. Unrest also developed in East German cities. A major annual celebration in East Germany was the anniversary of the GDR's founding. The 1989 celebration was the GDR's 40th anniversary (November 1989). A tradition the night before was a nighttime torche parade of the FDJ. (This was anoyther NAZI tradition.) This time in Lepzig, the onlookers chanted "Gorbi, Gorbi!" The authorities could hardly object, but the meaning was clear. Sortly after the Berlin Wall fell. There is a beautifully shot German film about these esents-- 'Good Bye Lenin!' Pioneers' chairperson, Wilfried Poßner, resigned. He was replaced Birgit Gappa, who was ordeed to to reform the organisation. This proved impossible as the GDR was imploding and there was little real interest among young people in East Germany. As a result Pioneer organisation was dissolved (August 1990), shortly before Germany was unified. There was no interest among East German children or their parents in continuing the program.

Limited Information

We have been able to find only limited information on the Pioneer movement and some of it is contradictory. Hopefully our German readers will provide some information on the movement and their experiences.

Related Information

Soviet children's literature


Allen, Bruce. East Germany (Black Rose Books, New York, 1989).

Seth, Ronald. For My Name's Sake (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1958).


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Created: November 15, 1998
Last updated: 7:52 AM 2/20/2013