Area where the dreamers triumphed

 

When the wrinkled revolutionaries of 1968 reflect on the 30 years of German life that separate them from their youthful dreams, they can be forgiven for feeling downhearted. A conservative government has been in power for 16 years and both main parties are fighting next month's election on platforms promising support for business and tough action against crime.

For many of those who manned the barricades in West Berlin, this year's anniversary has been a melancholy opportunity to consider what went wrong with their campaign to re-invent society.

There is one area, however, where the dreamers triumphed over the narrow-minded pragmatists - in the field of education and child-rearing. German schools have changed radically during the past three decades and pre-school teaching has, quite simply, been revolutionised.

According to the Frankfurt School of sociologists and philosophers whose teaching was a key influence on the 1968 generation, authoritarian child-rearing and conditioning formed the basis of the hatred, war and destruction of the Third Reich. Post-war Germany adopted democracy but left schools and kindergartens unchanged.

Dr Heide Berndt, a professor of sociology in Berlin, shudders when she recalls the child-rearing ethos prevalent in Germany when she graduated in the 1960s.

"A rigid system, according to which the children were fed every four hours, sent to bed at fixed times, tied to the chair if they were troublesome and in which their energetic needs were ignored," she said.

Reluctant to send their children to state kindergartens but keen to relieve themselves of the burden of too much parenting, the young rebels of 1968 devised the Kinderladen. Literally translated as "children shop", the Kinderladen was so called because it was usually housed in a disused corner shop.

Weekly parents' meetings determined the educational and ideological direction of each Kinderladen but all were united in their anti-authoritarian approach.

While the children revelled in their freedom and their parents could spend more time protesting against the Vietnam War, Germany's popular press had already made up its mind about the Kinderladen idea.

"Germany's naughtiest children . . . Mao has driven out Little Red Riding Hood . . . Wifeswapping as a parenting tool," roared the headlines.

But by 1970, official attitudes started to soften towards the anti-authoritarian creches, not least because their low running costs and use of volunteer help represented a chance for the state to save money. By 1975, Berlin's city government was funding 180 Kinderladen, a figure that has risen to 600 since then.

The communist authorities in East Germany were less enthusiastic about the idea of parents taking control over their children's pre-school education. East Berlin's only Kinderladen was opened in 1980 by the Christian dissident Ulrike Poppe and four other women. It was closed three years later after Poppe was arrested for staging a peace protest.

Thirty years after the first Kinderladen opened in West Berlin, the old, authoritarian system of child-rearing is gone but not forgotten by conservatives such as the Christian Democrat politician, Mr Heinrich Lummer.

"I am convinced that the idea of anti-authoritarian child-rearing has caused great harm in our country. Anti-authoritarian child-rearing is essentially the abandonment of child-rearing altogether. Something was attempted here that could only end in chaos," he said.

Most children who attended a Kinderladen tell a different story, recalling happy days full of creativity and joy in an atmosphere of solidarity and security.

For Thomas Handschuh, who has been running a Kinderladen in Berlin's Schoneberg district since 1968, today's battles are fought against an increasingly parsimonious official bureaucracy. But he holds firm to the philosophy behind the anti-authoritarian movement and is confident of better times ahead for the city's "Children Shops".

"The governing class is abusing our achievements with children. A miserable, cost-cutting policy is being operated at our expense. It's a bad time for our shops but I'll stick it out," he said.