Germans put on their glad rags

October 8, 1999

Universities in former communist East Germany are rediscovering traditional academic ceremonies and its professors are donning university gowns as a way of asserting a new identity in reunified Germany.

While most western German universities cast off this pomp and ceremony during the 1968 student revolts, most eastern universities will be celebrating formal registration ceremonies for new students this month.

"University gowns are for us a symbol of regaining the freedom of teaching and research," said Axel Burschardt, spokesman at the University of Jena, in Thuringia. "These symbols were frowned on in the GDR."

Jena's registration ceremony

on October 22 will be a way of "welcoming new students to the university community and showing them we value them", Mr Burschardt said.

The renaissance in ceremonial customs, which also include graduation ceremonies and investitures, is helping the east German universities forge new identities when they are having to reorientate themselves to a completely new system, according to Mr Burschardt.

As well as academic gowns, the ceremonies have readopted traditional pre-GDR titles, such as referring to the university rector as "His Magnificence".

This is symbolically distancing themselves from their recent past when the rector was Genosse Rektor (comrade rector), said Peer Pasternak, of the Institute for University Research at Halle-Wittenberg University in Saxony Anhalt. It is also a "symbolic reinforcement of hierarchies", he said.

Student registration ceremonies continued in East Germany but had a strongly political character. Most students were members of the socialist youth organistion, FDJ, and wore the organisation's uniform blue shirts at the ceremonies, where they were welcomed on to the "socialist path" by leading politicians.

Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Humboldt University in Berlin used to hold these ceremonies in central venues such as Fried-richspalast or the Palast der Republik. Politicians gave speeches in praise of socialism and a few hand-selected students were symbolically committed to the academic order.

Since 1989, the tradition has continued but the speakers have changed. One year they invited Nobel peace prizewinner Elie Wiesel; this year it will be German education minister Edelgard Bulmahn.

Students seem to appreciate the pomp and ceremony. A recent survey of German universities by Der Spiegel magazine showed that the eastern universities are increasingly popular among students because they offer them a sense of belonging and good pastoral care.

And there are signs that the western German mass universities are now taking a leaf out of their eastern neighbours' books and reestablishing old rituals. "Many in the west feel that there is something missing on a symbolic level," said Dr Pasternak. It is also a chance to establish distinct corporate identities at a time when all German universities are facing big administrative reforms and curriculum changes, he said.

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