Democracy Education in the German Southwest, 1945–1947

We are happy to share the abstracts for the conference What citizenship education for what democracy? Transnational Perspectives from the 19th to the 21st Century.

A Call to Reflection. Democracy Education in the German Southwest, 1945–1947

Jolin Diekmann

The term Besinnung can be seen as the guiding principle of democratic education in South-West Germany after 1945. Besinnung meant to reflect, to remember, and to become aware of something – often with a religious connotation. The idea of Besinnung was used across post-war Germany: For instance, at the opening event of the Adult Education Centre1 in Hanover, the social democrat and Minister of Education in Lower Saxony, Adolf Grimme, called it a place of Besinnung. He explained: “For Germany there is only one choice: Either it’s the end or a return to the innermost being.”((„Für Deutschland gibt es nur die Wahl: Entweder Ende oder Rückbesinnung auf sein tiefstes Wesen.“))

For Grimme, this was a clear reference to the tradition of Weimar Classicism. In South-West Germany, to be more precise in Stuttgart, Besinnung was the title of a series of public lectures. These were organised by the protestant theologist Ernst Steinbach on behalf of the government of Württemberg-Baden from November 1945 onwards.(( After World War II South-West Germany was divided into the federal states Württemberg-Baden, Württemberg-Hohenzollern and Baden. The last two were part of the French occupation zone, Württemberg-Baden with its capital Stuttgart was occupied by the United States. After a referendum, these three states formed Baden-Württemberg, which was officially founded in 1952.)) The Besinnungs-lectures aimed to provide their listeners with guidance and orientation and at the same time focussed on values and traditions from Christianity and the German middle-class culture. The speakers were often protestant theologists such as Karl Barth, Martin Niemöller or Paul Schempp; all of them also prominent representatives of the Confessing Church. In a radio broadcast, Steinbach explained that the Besinnungs-lectures aimed to “lead the people to themselves”.((„[…] die Menschen zu sich selbst zu führen“.)) At this point, there was no sign yet of the sober-minded civic education that would be professed later. The lectures should “convey Besinnung, that means to somehow shake up its audience”, noted one of Steinbach’s employees.((„Besinnung vermittel[n], d. h. irgendwie erschüttern“.)) He complained that Theodor Heuss’ historical lecture did not reach this goal at all.

Series of public lectures like these were common in those days. In Stuttgart, however, this led to the foundation of a so-called Amt für Heimatdienst (Office for Homeland Service), which officially began its work in April 1946. This office was part of the State Ministry and was carried forward by the idea of rebuilding an institution like the former Reichszentrale für Heimatdienst (Reich Agency for Homeland Service), which was closed down by the National Socialists in 1933. State institutions like the one in Stuttgart were by no means the norm and civic education was far from being part of the school curriculum. Similar institutions, later known as State Agencies for Civic Education, began to be established nationwide from the 1950s onwards.

Despite its links to civic education in the Weimar period, political education directly after the war had to start anew – conceptually and also in regards to its staffing. Especially in these first years after World War II, it was individual people, their impact and their actions, that determined how and whether civic education was made. While previous research has focussed on three groups of protagonists – the elites of the Weimar Republic, the returned emigrants, and members of the occupying forces –, at least for South-West Germany it is evident that another group played an important role at this time: Men of the educated middle-class, who had shortly beforehand been part of the national-socialist system. Take, for instance, Ernst Steinbach, born in Stuttgart 1906, who worked as a vicar near Tübingen and later became the head of the Heimatdienst. His most important supporter in the matter of civic education was Paul Binder, who was born in 1902, also in Stuttgart. In 1937, Binder was employed by the Dresdner Bank and worked for the newly established department for “Aryanization”. From 1945 to 1947, as state secretary under Carlo Schmid, he was responsible for the finances in Württemberg-Hohenzollern. In that position, he supported his old friend Steinbach and his ideas of civic education. Both men represented conservative ideas, came from middle-class protestant families and were well-networked in South-West Germany. Furthermore, they had an ambivalent relationship with democracy before 1945, or, as in the case of Binder, would today be considered clear perpetrators of the Nazi regime. These men suddenly appeared as teachers of democracy and began implementing their civic education initiatives as of August 1945.

Beside the Besinnungs-lectures, the so-called Comburg-conferences were an important part of the practical work of the Heimatdienst, not least because they enjoyed a high reputation among the American occupying force. This conference format, which would only be carried out twice, mainly addressed former war prisoners, who had already taken part in democratic education programs led by the United States. Karl Heinz Klausing, born in 1907 and also a former war prisoner, was responsible for the organisation. Klausing was a former NSDAP party member, most likely Steinbach’s brother-in-law and an employee of the Heimatdienst. At the first Comburg-conference, he recruited prominent names for the program. The political scientist Theodor Eschenburg, for example, gave a paper on “The Crisis 1919–1933 and the End of the Weimar Republic”((„Die Krise 1919-1933 und das Ende der Weimarer Republik“.)) and Theodor Heuss, later the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany, presented a “Review of the period of 1933–1945”.((„Bestandsaufnahme einer Zeit 1933-1945“.)) Short discussions followed each talk. The second conference focused on current issues such as monetary problems or the enormous shortages of housing and nutrition.

Both event series, the Besinnungs-lectures and the Comburg-conferences, represented a particular idea of civic education, consisting of many old and hardly any new approaches. The term Besinnung is a prime example of this: One should look back and remember something, which had supposedly always been there. Furthermore, the work of the Heimatdienst presented an elitist understanding of civic education. Focussing on this target group was not at all undisputed: Representatives of the state government were increasingly critical of the fact that Steinbach’s office only addressed middle-class, academically educated people. According to them, democratic education should aim to reach all citizens.

Steinbach’s plans for his Heimatdienst were much bigger than these two event formats. He intended to build up an archive for contemporary documents, to publish an own magazine, books and brochures, leaflets, posters, and to produce newspaper articles as well as radio broadcasts. There were also preliminary considerations to take over civic education in internment camps. Despite these grand plans, the project Heimatdienst in Stuttgart failed miserably after only one year. Steinbach himself was not only criticised for his focus on elites, but also for his excessive, politically naive claims. During the worst post-war winter in Germany, he demanded a total of twenty-nine employees for his office. The Amt für Heimatdienst in Stuttgart was closed in March 1947.

Steinbach may have failed with his attempts in Stuttgart. However, in these first post-war years, structures can be identified that had an impact on civic education in South-West Germany in the following decades. Moreover, parallel structures were established in Tübingen, not far from Stuttgart but under the French occupying force, and Steinbach was involved in this work for some time as well. The office in Tübingen, also called Heimatdienst, worked on a much smaller level and focussed mainly on evening lectures. Nonetheless, it continued even after the Heimatdienst in Stuttgart was shut down and later became part of the State Agency for Civic Education, founded in 1950 and formed as a registered association.

Cite this blog post
Olivier Lamon (2020, November 22). Democracy Education in the German Southwest, 1945–1947. Can We Learn Democracy? Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

  1. Volkshochschule []

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