Why east German teens seek secular rite of passage

There is something unusual about the Saturday matinee in the Friedrichstadtpalast, Europe's largest stage for revue shows.

The lights, the skits, the dancers, they're all there. Yet the real stars on this spring morning are not the performers, but 200 teenagers sitting in the audience.

Between the German rap music and syrupy chansons, a matronly singer calls out the names of the young guests, who stand up in the front rows to roaring applause from family and friends. Basking in the blinding floodlights, the youngsters' scrubbed faces appear on a huge video screen mounted above the stage.

This Jugendfeier, or youth celebration, is a huge success, ushering en masse another batch of 14-year-olds into adulthood. A record 11,000 young Berliners will take part in similar ceremonies this spring, and the Humanistic Association, which organized the event in eastern Berlin's Friedrichstadtpalast, is initiating some 100,000 young people nationwide.

Communist roots

The secular equivalent of a church confirmation - the Christian ceremony bestowing full church membership - the youth celebration is widely popular in the former East Germany with an estimated half of all teenagers here choosing the alternative rite of passage.

Less than 10 percent of young eastern Germans confirm their faith in church.

Though the tradition of the celebration, also known as a "youth consecration," goes back to freethinkers in the 19th century, it took root in 1954, when the East German government decreed it to replace Roman Catholic and Protestant church confirmations.

The institutionalized atheism of the Communist regime virtually snuffed out the Christian church, which took on the role of East Germany's main dissident organization.

Whole school classes attended the highly politicized youth consecrations. A church confirmation was seen as a sign of rebellion.

"Everything used to be so political," says Cornelia Zwiebeln, whose daughter, Claudia, took part in the day's youth ceremony. "This celebration is freer, more open."

Ms. Zwiebeln remembers that her youth consecration took place in front of the Central Committee of the East German Communist Party. She says she made sure beforehand that there would be no ideology mixed into her daughter's celebration.

Another proud mother, Eva Liehr, says tradition played a role for her. "I did it myself, so I wanted it for my son," she says. "While growing up, it is important to understand that there are also milestones."

Martin Liehr, the youngster in question, says he liked the music during the celebration but doesn't feel any more grown up as a result. "He still is going to take out the trash," Ms. Liehr adds.

Like a church confirmation, still a standard rite of passage in western Germany, the youth celebration is marked with flowers, gifts, and a family get-together.

"I believe you can find religious elements in the youth celebrations, namely in the yearning for something out of the ordinary," says the Rev. Hanfried Zimmermann. "But people don't look for it in the church, since the old traditions have been cut off."

Mr. Zimmermann, who was active in the Protestant Church in East Berlin and now helps run its youth programs, says that "young people still have the desire to participate in a rite of passage." Yet because there are few churchgoers in eastern Germany, the logical choice for most people here is a youth celebration.

The church's weakness in the east is also reflected in the relatively low number of christenings and funerals, he says.

No more than 25 percent of eastern Germans consider themselves religious, while more than three-quarters of western Germans are churchgoers, mainly Catholic or Protestant.

Churches in decline

The collapse of communism 10 years ago did not spark a religious revival here. Instead, the Protestant church, the largest faith in eastern Germany, finds itself in a deep crisis, with tens of thousands of members leaving the church each year.

Some Christians contend that the only really effective program launched by the Communist regime was the elimination of religion in eastern Germany.

Yet Zimmermann says that the same problems confront the church in western Germany as well. The high number of registered Christians in the West, he says, "doesn't mean that most people are faithful churchgoers, only that the tradition is still intact."

Ironically, the Humanistic Association, which runs nonreligious education programs, is an old West German institution that barely attracted any young people to its youth celebrations before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Today, roughly 90 percent of its participants come from the former East, and the association easily fills some of the city's best auditoriums.

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