Of all religious groups Baptists were among the most fiercely persecuted in the Soviet Union. They were not just Christians but they also distrusted the state, preaching an institutional secession from state-run institutions. Many Baptists belonged to the German-speaking minority in Southern Russia and Kazakhstan. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, they emigrated to Germany, the land where their forefathers had originally come from. Today, these Baptist immigrants from Russia, as well as the Low-German Mennonites, are being prosecuted in Germany because they are unhappy with what their children are learning in the German public schools, which they consider too secular. Children are not allowed to opt out of classes or school activities and homeschooling is illegal in Germany since Adolf Hitler outlawed it in 1938.
Last week, a court in Paderborn in the German state of Westphalia ruled that two Baptist couples lose their parental authority over their own children in educational matters. The court said it was interfering “in order to protect the children from further harm.” It stated that the parents had shown “a stubborn contempt both for the state’s educational duty as well as the right of their children to develop their personalities by attending school.” The court appointed the local Paderborn social service as guardian over the children to ensure that they attend public school.
The two couples belong to a group of seven families with a total of fifteen children of elementary school age who do not attend school. The parents were brought to court by the local education board of the county whose director, Heinz Kohler, argued that homeschooling cannot be allowed because it is “a right of the child not to be kept away from the outside world. The parents’ right to personally educate their children would prevent the children from growing up to be responsible individuals within society.” Kohler was backed by the Westphalian minister of Education, the Socialist politician Ute Schäfer, who stated that the obligation to attend a government approved school follows from the “right of a child to free education and maturation.”
Last January, a court in the Westphalian county of Gütersloh sentenced a couple to imprisonent, six days for the mother followed by six days for the father, because the parents had refused to let their children attend a Christmas school play after Grimm’s fairytale “König Drosselbart” (King Thrushbeard), which they considered blasphemous. The prison sentences were demanded by Sven-Georg Adenauer, the Christian-Democrat Landrat (governor) of Gütersloh county, because the parents refused to pay the fine of 150 euros which they had received for not sending their children to the school play.
Upon the conviction Hermann Hartfeld, a Baptist preacher from Cologne who is also an immigrant from Russia, wrote to Adenauer: “These parents did not give in to the intimidations of the Communists. Do you really believe that they will give in to you?” However, Germany’s Christian-Democrats, who are likely to win the coming general elections in September, are as opposed to homeschooling as are the ruling Socialists. The German mentality, even among its so-called conservatives, is very statist. Parents are considered to be incapable of schooling their own children. In this respect the German mentality does not seem to have changed much since the days of Adolf Hitler, when the Germans were expected to look upon the state as a caring parent. Ironically, Sven-Georg Adenauer is the grandson of Konrad Adenauer, the first post-Nazi Chancellor of Germany.
The initiative of the Paderborn Baptists to establish their own private school was rejected by the authorities, who argued that such a school is but a cover for homeschooling and that “the living room is not a class room.” The Baptist families received the support of Hermann Stücher, a 68-year old Christian pedagogue who from 1980 to 1997 homeschooled all his seven children, despite a government prohibition. Stücher runs the Philadelphia School in Siegen, another Westphalian town. The Philadelphia School, which is not recognised by the German authorities, was established to assist homeschooling families. Stücher called upon all Christian parents in Germany to withdraw their children from the public schools which, he says, have fallen into the hands of “neomarxist activists propagating atheist humanism, hedonism, pluralism and materialism.” Manfred Müller, the Christian-Democrat Landrat of Paderborn county, has threatened to take Stücher to court on charges of “Hochverrat und Volksverhetzung” (high treason and incitement of the people against the authorities) – a charge which the Nazis also used against their opponents. Müller considers homeschooling to be high treason because “die Schulpflicht sei eine staatsbürgerliche Pflicht, über die nicht verhandelt werden könne” (the obligation to attend school is a civil obligation, that cannot be tampered with).
The total number of homeschooled children in Germany is estimated to be only some 500 in a country of 80 million inhabitants. Unlike in its Western and Southern neighbours, however, homeschooling is illegal in Germany. Last year the police in Bavaria held several homeschooling fathers in coercive detention. They belonged to Christian groups who claim the right of parents to educate their own children, but they are not backed by the official (state funded) churches. Reinhard Hempelmann, a spokesman of the Evangelical Church in Berlin, maintains that the homeschoolers “isolate themselves from the world and the traditional churches.” Alfred Buss, the president of the Evangelical Church in Westphalia, has said that “freedom of religion does not justify opposition against the obligation to attend school.” Six decades after Hitler, German politicians and official church leaders still do not seem to understand what true freedom implies: that raising children is a prerogative of their fathers and mothers and not of the state, which is never a benevolent parent and often an enemy.
The targeted parents are all Christians, whose faith encourages them to act upon their principles, but the fierceness of the authorities’ reaction is telling. The dispute is not about religion (though that alone would be bad enough) but about the hearts and minds of the children. In Germany schools have become vehicles of indoctrination where children are brought up to unquestioningly accept the authority of the state in all areas of life. It is no coincidence that those who have escaped from indoctrination under the Soviets discern what the government is doing in the schools and are sufficiently concerned to want to protect their children from it. What is worrying is that “free-born” Western parents accept this assault on their freedom as normal and regard the Christian parents who want to opt out of the state system with suspicion.
What is one to make of modern-day Germany, a country which happily appoints a former marxist fanatic and condoner of terrorism to the post of minister of foreign affairs but accuses ordinary citizens of treason when they voice concern about what the schools are teaching their children? Clearly they have learned nothing from their experiences with state totalitarianism in the last century. (2 August 2005)