East Meets West in College Classes

U. of Magdeburg in east Germany works at changing courses

FOUR days a week, Thomas Fuchs commutes from his west German home in Wolfsburg to his east German office in Magdeburg. It is an hour commute by train - but a world away in every other manner.

``It's surreal,'' Professor Fuchs says, on one of the rare days that he drives to work, crossing into former East Germany via the autobahn. ``You will understand why I don't live here.''

Eastern Germany after communism is nearly impossible to explain. Everything has changed. And nothing has.

On the autobahn, now crowded with east-west traffic, Volkswagens and small French cars have largely replaced the old communist Trabants and Wartburgs. Construction is booming. The Germans are overhauling everything from roads to housing.

But on the outskirts of Magdeburg, where Fuchs works, communist-inspired housing complexes still dominate the skyline. They dwarf the massive public-housing projects of Chicago. They are also less well built. West Germans who move here routinely complain that the housing is substandard.

The contradictions persist at the University of Magdeburg, where Fuchs teaches English and American history. His campus boasts some of the newest buildings around - finished after the communist government collapsed in 1989. The halls and classrooms are bright and cheery.

But the grounds are a collection of bare earth and weeds. Students and faculty park their cars on what's left of a rubble heap dating from the World War II cleanup. A cement plant stands next door to the classrooms.

When Fuchs came here a year ago, the library still had the propaganda-laden English textbooks of the old regime. But it had no Mark Twain. So he has used his trips to the United States to buy discount paperbacks of American literature.

On this particular day, he brings two bags of books: Alice Walker's ``The Color Purple,'' ``Babbitt,'' by Sinclair Lewis, and, of course, ``The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain.''

The English department still has no full English professor so it is run by a professor of Russian. That is ironic, not only because of the political message, but also because English classes are burgeoning while hardly anyone studies Russian anymore.

The problem is not that eastern Germans are trying to thwart the transition to western-style education; a full professor of English is expected to take over this month. But when east meets west, both sides have trouble understanding one another.

Fuchs, for one, says he has never had a conversation in English with any of his east German colleagues. He suspects their English skills are limited. In brief encounters with this reporter, they quickly lapsed into German - whether from shyness or something else it was impossible to tell. Perhaps 50 years of communist rule breeds habits incomprehensible to the West.

The faculty is nevertheless going through a transition. There used to be two dozen Russian professors here. But they are either retiring or teaching their second subject. Except for Fuchs, one other west German, Hans Werner Breunig, and an east German formerly banned from teaching, the rest of the language department is a holdover from communist days.

Professor Breunig, who arrived here three years ago, remembers cleaning out a closet and finding a bronze bust of Lenin. Sensing a souvenir, he asked the former office tenants if he could have it. One professor, formerly in charge of propaganda, said yes; the other said no. ``He said: `We took it down from the corridor to put it back up when the time is right,' '' Breunig recalls.

The young English literature professor finally got the bust when he asked the university president (who himself had only recently removed the works of Marx from his office). ``It's my only souvenir,'' Breunig says.

Students seem better able to make the transition than the faculty. But even they are hard-pressed to explain the differences between the old and new.

``I think it's much better now,'' says Antje Ecksturm, a third-year student here. ``You can choose what you can do.''

``I can't say it in some sentences,'' adds Willert Ulf, also a third-year student and former Communist. ``I believed in our country and the system. My father was an officer in the border troops.''

After three years in the army, Mr. Ulf was promised an internship at East Germany's sports newspaper - a dream come true for the aspiring journalist. But that dream died when the regime collapsed.

``Five years ago we had our plan,'' he adds. ``Now, anybody can do and can organize their lessons themselves.... I cannot connect my lessons.''

Still, Ulf would not go back. ``In my mind nobody had doubts about the [East German regime] because it was all good. Now, we can see what is better and is possible in the world. I would stay here now. I can see it.''

America is a source of continuing fascination for the English-speaking students here. Although 11 students signed up for Fuchs's afternoon conversation class, twice that many show up. ``What about America do you want to talk about?'' he asks.

After some initial hesitation, students volunteer: Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, baseball, football, pop culture. Half these students have already traveled to Britain. If they can afford it, many would like to visit the United States.

If conversation classes about America are a big draw, an even bigger draw is Fuchs's seminar on native-American literature. Officially, 42 have signed up, and a student tells him at least 10 more want to enroll. Germans have long been interested in the American West. The East German regime even turned out several movie westerns. But Fuchs thinks there's more to it than that.

``If you have been conditioned for anti-Americanism for 40 years ... perhaps when you break out of that you tend to associate with the victims of America,'' he says. ``And what better victim of America than the native Indian?''

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