“We organized specialized medical training for those who needed it most”.

Ulrich Kolbe, a former instructor, discusses the significance of the GDR’s medical school for international students

Ulrich Kolbe (*1963), whose parents had served in various foreign assign­ments for the GDR, grew up in an inter­na­tio­na­list house­hold. From 1987 to 1991, he taught German at the “Medifa”, a Medi­cal School in Qued­lin­burg that specia­li­sed in the trai­ning of inter­na­tio­nal students, prima­rily from the natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments or newly inde­pen­dent states. Today he works as a free­lance trans­la­tor, editor, author, photo­grapher, and instruc­tor in California.

As part of our rese­arch into the Medifa, we conduc­ted an inter­view with Kolbe in July 2021. In the first part, he descri­bes the GDR’s anti-impe­ria­list stra­tegy in gene­ral and discus­ses the deve­lo­p­ment of the poli­ti­cal conscious­ness of GDR citi­zens. In this second part, we talk about the importance of the medical school itself, both for the students and for the inha­bi­tants of Quedlinburg.

First of all, can you explain the Medifa in general terms? What was its purpose and significance? 

The medi­cal school had been trai­ning local nurses as far back as the 1950s. In the early 1960s, a group of young students from Mali arri­ved, opening the school to foreign students. Over the years that follo­wed, the trai­ning of German nurses was comple­tely scaled down and the admis­sion of new students was exclu­si­vely for those coming from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They were largely finan­ced and invi­ted by the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee of the GDR, that is, through rela­ti­onships that the Commit­tee had built up with poli­ti­cal parties, move­ments, and trade unions in the respec­tive count­ries. Students also came through the FDGB, the Free German Trade Union Fede­ra­tion and possi­bly also directly through some poli­ti­cal parties. So, the students were almost exclu­si­vely from the newly libe­ra­ted states.

1960 also became known as the “Year of Africa”, in which many Afri­can states won their inde­pen­dence from colo­nia­lism. The Medifa’s trai­ning programme was embedded in this histo­ri­cal context. Until 1960, colo­nia­lism had remained rather entren­ched throug­hout the world. Once the libe­ra­tion move­ments had freed their respec­tive count­ries, we were able to train medi­cal staff here in the GDR – a task that was extre­mely urgent in the newly libe­ra­ted states. After aban­do­ning their colo­nies, the former rulers with­drew their specia­li­sed person­nel, like doctors, nurses, and so on. You know, one could ask: How is it that the first trai­ned midwi­ves in, say, Guinea-Bissau were trai­ned in the GDR? There must have been some midwi­ves in Guinea-Bissau before that. Sure, but they were all Portu­guese and they simply left the coun­try after inde­pen­dence was won. This was the situa­tion in many young natio­nal states. There were then also count­ries in which the struggle for libe­ra­tion was still ongo­ing: Nami­bia, South Africa, Spanish Western Sahara, and Palestine.

There was little inte­rest in students from Western count­ries. Surely some would have liked to train in the GDR, why not? The health system was in a very good state by that time, and it would defi­ni­tely have cost less here for students from the West than in the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany or France. But the GDR govern­ment had no inte­rest in that at the time. The Medifa was focu­sed on real assis­tance in the sense of prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism: to help the young natio­nal states and their move­ments. This is also reflec­ted by the fact that we trai­ned not only medi­cal profes­sio­nals, but also so-called multi­pli­ers. That is, medi­cal instruc­tors who were able to return to their count­ries and begin to teach others. Helping people to help them­sel­ves, which has been propa­ga­ted in the West these last few years, that is nothing new. We were alre­ady prac­ti­cing it.

Before they both worked at Medifa, your parents took you along when they were sent on a teaching assignment abroad. What was it like for you to grow up in an internationalist environment?

I think it was very special. At the big demons­tra­tion on 4 Novem­ber 1989, a spea­ker coined the phrase: “In order to actually have a world view, you have to be able to see the world.” Not ever­yone could do that prior to that. And I could. I expe­ri­en­ced war in the Middle East, which leaves a deep impres­sion, espe­ci­ally on a child. But I also expe­ri­en­ced beau­tiful things and grew up open-minded, with an inte­rest in other languages and other cultures. That contin­ued here in Qued­lin­burg in the GDR. Through their work, my parents were in constant cont­act with students, with progres­sive indi­vi­du­als from all over the world. It was a special, a beau­tiful time.

Your father was the Medifa’s head of school from 1970 onwards. How did that come about?

Both my parents had lived through the Second World War. My father was slated to be a soldier when he was very young. He lear­ned English while in capti­vity. After that expe­ri­ence, he was first and fore­most a very vehe­ment oppo­nent of war and, as such, he was natu­rally incli­ned towards the true and simple ideals of socia­lism. With this basic atti­tude, he first became an instruc­tor for kinder­gar­ten teachers here in the district of Qued­lin­burg and then later he began teaching German abroad.

At that time, the GDR was reco­g­nised diplo­ma­ti­cally by only very few foreign govern­ments. This was due to the Hall­stein Doctrine and other econo­mic measu­res by the West. And so the GDR tried to find allies in newly inde­pen­dent states in the Global South. Cultu­ral centres were estab­lished in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, for exam­ple, which had the task of teaching the German language and provi­ding infor­ma­tion on the culture and life in the GDR. This was a way of prepa­ring trai­nees from these count­ries for their studies in the GDR. That was my father’s life work. When the four years in Syria were over, he was asked to lead the medi­cal school in Qued­lin­burg and contin­ued to work there in the spirit of inter­na­tio­na­lism. Both parents had been in Berlin for the Third World Festi­val of Youth and Students in 1951. The orga­niza­tion behind these festi­vals, the World Fede­ra­tion of Demo­cra­tic Youth, held up the idea of buil­ding a new society after the war, to create peace and under­stan­ding between the peop­les. Such ideals were decisive for many of this gene­ra­tion at that time.

Fritz Kolbe at his desk in the Medifa. A penn­ant and a calen­dar of the GDR’s Soli­da­rity Commit­tee hang on the wall behind him. Photo: Ulrich Kolbe.

So, he became an internationalist through his experiences. 

Yes. It was also a product of his family’s working-class back­ground. He alre­ady had been an oppo­nent of war before he was conscripted to join the Wehr­macht. And because he had survi­ved the war, he felt compel­led to prevent another war and combat xenophobia.

Later you also worked as a teacher at Medifa. What was that like for you and how did you prepare for it? 

Well, I star­ted at the school in 1987 as a German instruc­tor for foreign students. I had studied lingu­i­stics before that: English, French, Russian, Arabic. But the lessons were suppo­sed to be taught enti­rely in German. We did our best to arrange it that way. By that time, students from more than 60 count­ries and natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ment had alre­ady recei­ved trai­ning at the Qued­lin­burg school.

There were also dele­ga­tes sent by natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments such as FRELIMO, SWAPO, the ANC, POLISARIO, and the PLO. The students I first taught were a very diverse group. I was mainly assi­gned Pales­ti­nian, Leba­nese, Syrian, and Kurdish students. But I also had students from Viet­nam, Laos, and Africa. Most of them had been gran­ted scho­lar­ships through the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee. There were also some spon­so­red by the trade union fede­ra­tion, the FDGB, and later, I would like to think from 1988 onwards, a small group of indi­vi­du­als who paid to attend the school as a way of gene­ra­ting hard currency for the GDR.

How exactly were the students selected? Can you say that they were people from working class backgrounds who would not have been able to get this kind of education in their countries under other circumstances?

That is correct. I think that great care was taken to ensure that the students were, as you say, working class to begin with. If they had been estab­lished doctors from upper-class back­grounds, they might have had too much to complain about in terms of the living condi­ti­ons, the accom­mo­da­tion in the GDR, the supply situa­tion, and they would­n’t exactly have made life easier for other students. That was not the purpose of the school. The main objec­tive was to help working people. That was the credo: To orga­nize specia­li­zed medi­cal trai­ning for those who needed it most.

Were you able to talk to the students in Arabic outside of class? Did you also talk about political issues?

Yes, and because our age diffe­rence was less signi­fi­cant than with the older instruc­tors, our rela­ti­onships were often more rela­xed and cordial. It was also less compli­ca­ted to talk to them about poli­ti­cal deve­lo­p­ments. They trea­ted the older German instruc­tors with a little more respect and reservation.

Our discus­sions were, for exam­ple, about the diffe­ren­ces within the Pales­ti­nian Libe­ra­tion Orga­niza­tion PLO, the PFLP, the DFLP, and the Pales­ti­nian Commu­nist Party and its rela­ti­onship to Fatah, but in gene­ral, also the role that this move­ment had played in the lives of the young people. They would bring it up and would want to know my opinion on it. I had to respond some­what diplo­ma­ti­cally, of course. And I didn’t repre­sent the GDR in the sense of acting as a poli­ti­cal advisor.

Can you tell us more about the content of the lessons? What were the students interested in and what topics did they want to talk about with you in relation to the GDR? 

Landes­kunde (cultu­ral studies) was an accom­pany­ing subject to German for foreign students. It was prima­rily listening compre­hen­sion, reading compre­hen­sion, conver­sa­tion and then ques­ti­ons and answers along those lines. So they were able to ask ques­ti­ons about ever­y­day life in the GDR or it was first explai­ned to them how things worked. In May 1989, for exam­ple, the first elec­tions took place in the GDR in which non-citi­zens were allo­wed to vote and as they had alre­ady gotten to know they coun­try, they made good use of this oppor­tu­nity. Of course, some of them were surpri­sed. They would have liked to see some candi­da­tes crossed out or some parties not on the ballot papers and were surpri­sed to find that this was not easily possi­ble under the GDR elec­tion regu­la­ti­ons. Instead, all they had to do was fold the ballot paper and put it in the ballot box. There were inte­res­t­ing discus­sions after­wards about whether that was an elec­tion at all and what consti­tu­ted an elec­tion. And that was always quite inte­res­t­ing for all sides.

Cultu­ral studies was also based on excur­si­ons, on class trips. So almost all the groups that recei­ved their trai­ning at the medi­cal school went to the Natio­nal Memo­rial Site at the former Buchen­wald concen­tra­tion camp at some point or to memo­ri­als in the imme­diate vici­nity. The idea was to convey this part of history to the students and give them a feeling for the expe­ri­en­ces and prin­ci­ples upon which this state had been founded.

Medifa students at the Buchen­wald memo­rial in the 1970s. The inscrip­tion reads “The destruc­tion of Nazism with its roots is our slogan.” Photo: Ulrich Kolbe.

What impressions did the students get from these excursions? What did you discuss there?

It was inte­res­t­ing for me and the other GDR teachers, because many of the students had also expe­ri­en­ced terri­ble things in their home count­ries. The siege of the Pales­ti­nian refu­gee camps in southern Leba­non and so on. They compared what they saw when visi­ting our memo­rial sites here with their own expe­ri­en­ces. That was some­thing we hadn’t expec­ted and, in this way, the effect that these memo­ri­als had on us in the GDR was mini­mi­zed a little – by their being able to say, “In our family, too, ever­yone was killed, by the Falang­ists or by the Israe­lis – we don’t have such memo­ri­als, but we under­stand you.” Their words did not deva­lue or negate the memo­rial in any way, but it was inte­res­t­ing that the current poli­ti­cal events of the 1970s and 80s could suddenly be reas­ses­sed through the lens of German history.

So, there was also an exchange about what was happening in their home countries?

Yes, for some students, their time in the GDR offe­red them the oppor­tu­nity to express them­sel­ves freely for the first time. Even just to write artic­les for a bulle­tin board or give a speech about the problems in Kurdi­stan. Of course, this would not have been possi­ble anywhere else at that time, and today in the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany it is not exactly welco­med when people talk about Kurdi­stan. That alone gave them a feeling of being highly valued and recognised.

Did your contact with the students continue after the Medifa was closed in 1991?

Yes. There were many very heart­felt letters in which students would report on the work they took up after retur­ning home. There was a mother and her daugh­ter, I think from Cape Verde, who had both been students in Qued­lin­burg and then became the first midwi­ves there. Simi­lar letters contin­ued to arrive, some even deca­des later after the school had closed. Some former students showed up in person, wanting to see what had become of the teachers after hearing about the events of this so-called “German unification”. 

A card from a former student for May Day 1986. Photo: IF DDR.

Was the end of the GDR an issue for many of the former students?

The discus­sions, at least in the clas­ses I taught at the time, were quite heated and also carried by great dismay. As I said, they came from Pales­ti­nian refu­gee camps in Leba­non or Jordan or from Kurdi­stan and had often embra­ced the GDR as a second home, whether poli­ti­cally or in ever­y­day life. And that this home was now going to be dismant­led for… for what, actually? They couldn’t under­stand why some GDR citi­zens were willing to risk their social achie­ve­ments — and above all, the peace that had exis­ted for 40 years — in order to buy a few Western consu­mer products in the shops. Some of the Leba­nese students told them: we too have access to these commo­di­ties but look at the rest of our country! 

They knew exactly what was coming. I was told about one of my final students, a Pales­ti­nian, that he had confron­ted some high-ranking repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the new German Depart­ment of Foreign Aid by stating right in their faces, “If I had known that I would not finish my studies in the socia­list GDR but in the impe­ria­list Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany, I would never have come here.” I was quite plea­sed by that!

Do you think the GDR did justice to the task it had set itself?

I think so. Abso­lut­ely. That was clear from the letters I just mentio­ned, the feed­back we recei­ved and the visits after many years. The vast majo­rity of the students in Qued­lin­burg, and in the other insti­tu­ti­ons of the GDR, had acqui­red the tools they requi­red to help build up their own count­ries. After all, health care and protec­tion are some of the most elemen­tary human rights. And that is where the GDR came in and proved to be a relia­ble partner.

How did the solidarity of the GDR differ from what they call “development aid” today?

On the one hand, the students and trai­nees became acquain­ted with a comple­tely diffe­rent, a new social system in which people, not profits were prio­ri­ti­zed. Of course, if you come from Africa, you can major in Medi­cine in Germany today if you have the neces­sary money and connec­tions and have lear­ned the language some­where. And it’s very likely that after­wards, you won’t feel the urge to return to your coun­try after expe­ri­en­cing the “Western lifestyle”.

Those who came to the Medifa were cadres, as they were called at the time. They were people you could rely on: they wouldn’t let them­sel­ves be sedu­ced and misled, but would return home, even if they had been able to enjoy four years without bombings and without hunger. They knew and unders­tood that they owed it to their people. This atti­tude was some­thing comple­tely diffe­rent from what bour­geois deve­lo­p­ment aid brings about today. Western society is about profit and not about human lives.

It was diffe­rent in the socia­list states. Our actions were not profit-orien­ted. From today’s capi­ta­list mana­ge­rial perspec­tive, the Medifa was obviously not a profi­ta­ble enter­prise. But you can’t see it like that. People were helped here, who in turn helped other people in the count­ries plagued by poverty. And they are still helping people today! That should be at the fore­front of any project today, not the ques­tion of how much money can be made.

The inter­view was conduc­ted in Qued­lin­burg on 07.07.2021. It has been edited slightly for better readability.

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