Reconstruction, sovereignty, and education

An East German medical school dedicated to internationalism

I. Without medical sovereignty, there can be no social progress

A young man sits with a gun across his shoulder, engros­sed in a book. Behind him is a silhou­ette of the Afri­can conti­nent. In 1978, the graphic artist Lola Gruner desi­gned this poster and captio­ned it with the slogan: “Your struggle, our soli­da­rity”. It strikin­gly depicts the two fronts of the struggle for inde­pen­dence: armed resis­tance for the right to self-deter­mi­na­tion and one’s own dignity; and eman­ci­pa­tion from the illi­ter­acy impo­sed by colo­nial under­de­ve­lo­p­ment. Control over educa­tion was an instru­ment through which the colo­nial system was perpe­tua­ted. In the words of Samora Machel, the leader of Mozambique’s natio­nal libe­ra­tion struggle, the colo­nial educa­tio­nal insti­tu­ti­ons were “true schools of uproo­ting”. They suppres­sed the cultu­ral iden­tity of the people, encou­ra­ged a poli­ti­cal affi­nity with the “mother coun­try”, and recrui­ted person­nel from among the indi­ge­nous popu­la­tion to work as auxi­lia­ries in the colo­nial admi­nis­tra­tion. The with­dra­wal of colo­nial person­nel follo­wing successful inde­pen­dence strug­gles then tore massive gaps in the infra­struc­ture of these count­ries. The young states were now faced with the task of recon­s­truc­ting society through their own efforts. The former colo­ni­zers turned to new methods for preser­ving econo­mic depen­den­cies and secu­ring sphe­res of influence, but the natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments found allies in the socia­list world.

The emer­gence of the socia­list camp after the Second World War meant that support for the libe­ra­tion move­ments could reach new dimen­si­ons. The soli­da­rity of the socia­list states was guided the prin­ci­ple of dele­ga­tion: through exten­sive educa­tion initia­ti­ves, young students from the newly libe­ra­ted states acqui­red the skills and equip­ment requi­red for the cons­truc­tion of natio­nal infra­struc­ture back home. The trai­ning of those who had hitherto been syste­ma­ti­cally denied educa­tio­nal oppor­tu­ni­ties thus had a funda­men­tally diffe­rent charac­ter in the socia­list states. The focus lay not prima­rily on the fulfilm­ent of indi­vi­dual life plans or the reali­sa­tion of a career; the objec­tive was to bring an entire society out of the educa­tio­nal depri­va­tion that had been impo­sed by the colo­nial powers. 

From 1951 to 1989, between 64,000 and 78,000 students from over 125 count­ries comple­ted a degree at an acade­mic insti­tu­tion in the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic (GDR, commonly refer­red to as East Germany).1 The number of foreign students is likely much higher if one includes those who came to the GDR for a profes­sio­nal trai­nee­ship or semes­ter programme. East Germany was one port amongst many others: Throug­hout the socia­list states, young people from throug­hout Africa, Asia and Latin America studied a variety of fields at diffe­rent insti­tu­ti­ons. The socia­list camp thus guaran­teed hitherto unat­tainable educa­tio­nal opportunities. 

The GDR, which deve­lo­ped one of the most powerful econo­mies amongst the socia­list states, was a key player in this inter­na­tio­na­list endea­vour. Despite limi­ted resour­ces, East Germany set up trai­ning faci­li­ties and acade­mic insti­tu­ti­ons, paid scho­lar­ships to inter­na­tio­nal students, and supported trai­nees in their home count­ries by, for exam­ple, sending briga­des of teachers or cons­truc­ting educa­tio­nal centres. Medi­cal person­nel were also dispatched to hospi­tals and clinics around the world to admi­nis­ter care and provide medi­cal support in depri­ved or war-torn areas.

Soli­da­rity in the medi­cal field was a decisive moment of prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism: where basic medi­cal care is lack­ing, there can be no social progress. Health infra­struc­ture that guaran­tees equal access to care is essen­tial for the cons­truc­tion of a demo­cra­tic society. This thus became an urgent task in the former colo­nies, and libe­ra­tion move­ments, newly inde­pen­dent states, and non-aligned count­ries turned to the socia­list camp for assis­tance. The GDR’s soli­da­rity consis­ted of crea­ting struc­tures for self-help. In the short term, this meant limi­ting direct impe­ria­list depen­dency mecha­nisms by supp­ly­ing medi­ci­nes and equip­ment. In the long term, it meant coun­ter­ac­ting the “brain drain”, the exodus of medi­cal person­nel from the young states by trai­ning students who would be able to return home and cons­truct their own health care systems.

A brief look at the situa­tion in the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany (FRG, commonly refer­red to as West Germany) shows the quali­ta­tive diffe­rence of the socia­list approach: Unlike most capi­ta­list states, West Germany did not charge foreign students tuition fees. The addi­tio­nal costs of study­ing, howe­ver, were not covered by the social bene­fits system. Foreign students were entit­led neither to state assis­tance for students nor to the social program­mes offe­red to FRG citi­zens. Before begin­ning a degree in West Germany, foreign students had to provide proof that they could finance their studies them­sel­ves. Such condi­ti­ons made study­ing in the FRG impos­si­ble for the working clas­ses of the Global South. Further­more, Western count­ries have a long tradi­tion of poaching skil­led workers from less-deve­lo­ped states in order to compen­sate for their own shorta­ges of medi­cal person­nel. In 1979, while the socia­list camp was deve­lo­ping nume­rous program­mes to train medi­cal person­nel from the Global South, 90 per cent of all the world’s migra­ting doctors sett­led in just five count­ries: Austra­lia, Canada, the FRG, Great Britain and the USA.2 This trend has only inten­si­fied since the collapse of the socia­list world system: since the year 2000, the propor­tion of foreign-trai­ned doctors in the FRG has risen by more than 270 percent.3

In the GDR, on the other hand, foreign students not only recei­ved suffi­ci­ent scho­lar­ships to finance their living expen­ses but were also directly inte­gra­ted into the GDR’s health and social system, which guaran­teed them free medi­cal care. Such measu­res made it possi­ble for the “damned of the earth” to take up an educa­tion. The compo­si­tion of the student bodies in the two German states vividly demons­tra­tes this fact: In West Germany during the early 1980s, about 50 percent of all inter­na­tio­nal students came from deve­lo­ping count­ries,4 of which just 6 per cent from Africa;5 during the same period in the East German workers’ and peasants’ state, almost a quar­ter of all inter­na­tio­nal students came from Africa.6 Non-Euro­peans made up more than two-thirds of the inter­na­tio­nal student body in the GDR.7 The initia­tive to study was orga­ni­zed through joint agree­ments between states or poli­ti­cal orga­niza­ti­ons, not by the decis­i­ons of indi­vi­dual students. In this way, educa­tion was tail­o­red to the respec­tive needs of the libe­ra­ted states, and the trai­ning program­mes were embedded in their plan­ning proces­ses as well as those of the GDR. The socia­list camp thus prac­ti­sed the exact oppo­site of the West’s brain drain.

How did this coope­ra­tion between the socia­list states and the libe­ra­tion move­ments come about? What role did soli­da­rity in the medi­cal field play within the frame­work of the GDR’s wider anti-impe­ria­list stra­tegy? To what extent did those invol­ved in the reali­sa­tion of such initia­ti­ves under­stand their acti­vity as a contri­bu­tion to prole­ta­rian internationalism?

We posed these ques­ti­ons to Achim Reichardt, the last direc­tor of the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee, in a conver­sa­tion in 2021. He spoke of a variety of examp­les – from the cons­truc­tion of hospi­tals in Nica­ra­gua and Viet­nam, to coope­ra­tion in rese­arch and deve­lo­p­ment, to sending medi­cal briga­des and ship­ping supplies across the world. Yet he also infor­med us of a medi­cal school in the East German town of Qued­lin­burg and told us that this is where we would have to start. He put us in touch with a former instruc­tor at the school and, with his help, we follo­wed a path that took us to Mali, Leba­non, and Guinea-Bissau. It became clear that this medi­cal school not only repre­sen­ted a negle­c­ted side of the GDR’s history8, but also a compact exam­ple in which the objec­tive and charac­ter of the GDR’s medi­cal inter­na­tio­na­lism could be exami­ned. In the follo­wing article, we summa­rize our rese­arch into the school and trace out its role in the GDR’s inter­na­tio­na­list and anti-impe­ria­list efforts.

A photo of the medi­cal school in Quedlinburg.

II. The “Medifa” – the GDR’s medical school for international students

During our rese­arch, we explo­red the town of Qued­lin­burg, unear­thed old class books in dark cellars, inter­viewed former teachers whose stories had previously gone unhe­ard, spoke with town inha­bi­tants, and estab­lished regu­lar cont­act with gradua­tes of the school in various count­ries. The fact that we succee­ded in doing so is prima­rily due to the close rela­ti­onships that formed between former teachers and students at the school. The ever­y­day expe­ri­en­ces these indi­vi­du­als shared with us can convey a subjec­tive impres­sion of their time in the GDR, and they will be docu­men­ted in the “Friend­ship!” Archive. In inter­views with former students, we repea­tedly encoun­te­red the convic­tion that the medi­cal school in Qued­lin­burg was an important part of the socia­list states’ soli­da­rity, without which “thou­sands of young people (…) from count­ries all over the world would not have had access to higher educa­tion”.9 For instruc­tors like Ulrich Kolbe, the school was a deeply huma­ni­stic and poli­ti­cal insti­tu­tion that embo­died the spirit of prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism and helped to estab­lish humane condi­ti­ons in the most exploi­ted and oppres­sed count­ries.10 By exami­ning the school in Qued­lin­burg as one inter­na­tio­na­list insti­tu­tion amongst many across the socia­list camp, we sought to also draw out the gene­ral nature of socia­list soli­da­rity in the educa­tio­nal field. As part of this rese­arch, we relied on secon­dary lite­ra­ture and archi­val mate­rial such as state agree­ments, party commu­ni­ca­ti­ons and the semi­nar books that we disco­vered from the 1980s.

The medi­cal school in Qued­lin­burg — a small, medieval town in the north of the Harz Moun­ta­ins — offi­ci­ally bore the name of the first German woman to receive the title of “Doctor of Medi­cine” in the 18th century: Doro­thea Chris­tiane Erxle­ben. Refer­red to simply as the “Medifa” by its students and teachers, the school was one of more than 60 medi­cal colleges in the GDR. It had exis­ted as a nurses’ school since 1907 and was conver­ted into a voca­tio­nal college in 1961. A first class of inter­na­tio­nal trai­nees was admit­ted in 1960, and they contin­ued to study along­side East German students until the mid-1960s, when the school began to specia­lize exclu­si­vely in the trai­ning of medi­cal person­nel from newly inde­pen­dent states or natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The primary profes­si­ons taught at the Medifa were nursing, medi­cal educa­tors, assistants, physio­the­ra­pists, midwi­ves, and ortho­pae­dic mechanics.

The GDR had alre­ady been trai­ning medi­cal students from the Global South since the early 1950s. These students studied at various tech­ni­cal colleges and univer­si­ties throug­hout East Germany. The Medifa became centrally embedded in this infra­struc­ture and was conti­nuously impro­ved in order to meet the special requi­re­ments of the inter­na­tio­nal trai­nees. As a “trai­ning centre for foreign citi­zens”, the school in Qued­lin­burg, for exam­ple, offe­red subject-speci­fic German lessons, which were atten­ded by those who went on to one of the GDR’s specia­list centres.

Medifa students came from Leba­non, Jordan, Syria, Mali, Tanz­a­nia, Laos, Egypt, the People’s Repu­blic of Yemen, Mada­gas­car, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Pales­tine, Nica­ra­gua, El Salva­dor, Laos, Cambo­dia, and many other count­ries. For the appro­xi­m­ately 2,000 inter­na­tio­nal students who gradua­ted from the school, the finan­cing of their educa­tion was part of compre­hen­sive trade or cultu­ral agree­ments between the GDR and other states. 11 Agree­ments below the state level were also concluded between various mass orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in the GDR (e.g., trade unions or the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee) and poli­ti­cal or social orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in the Global South. Many students came at a time when their move­ments were still fight­ing for inde­pen­dence. For some former colo­nies, the Medifa trai­ned their first native medi­cal personnel.

Young Medifa students look over the town of Quedlinburg,1963. (Bundes­ar­chiv, Bild 183-B0503-0008–006)

The GDR typi­cally provi­ded the infra­struc­ture for the foreign students, while the part­ner coun­try was respon­si­ble for cove­ring the travel costs – although this could be arran­ged differ­ently in indi­vi­dual cases. After their arri­val, students recei­ved scho­lar­ships to cover any addi­tio­nal costs of study­ing. This star­ted at 300 Deut­sche Marks, which was above the value of the scho­lar­ships that GDR citi­zens recei­ved and could be increased further depen­ding on the students’ quali­fi­ca­ti­ons and perfor­mance. Those from exiled libe­ra­tion move­ments recei­ved addi­tio­nal allo­wan­ces to account for the often-meager funds of their orga­ni­sa­ti­ons.12

The first inter­na­tio­nal students to train in Qued­lin­burg in the early 1960s were 20 young Malian, most of whom successfully gradua­ted as medi­cal assistants. The trai­ning of Malian nurses follo­wed shortly there­af­ter. In 1967, the GDR and Mali drew up a compre­hen­sive agree­ment on coope­ra­tion in the medi­cal field, in which the finan­cing of this trai­ning and quali­fi­ca­ti­ons for doctors played a central role.13 GDR repre­sen­ta­ti­ves made their goals clear in an inter­nal report evalua­ting the plan­ned agreement:

“The reali­sa­tion of these measu­res would contri­bute signi­fi­cantly to deepe­ning the rela­ti­ons between the GDR and the Repu­blic of Mali and to further incre­asing the repu­ta­tion of the GDR in Africa. Further­more, these measu­res would be an effec­tive contri­bu­tion to support­ing the Malian government’s struggle against impe­ria­list and neo-colo­nia­list attempts at inter­fe­rence.“14

This kind of report reflects the analy­sis of the socia­list camp at the time, accor­ding to which the world revo­lu­tio­nary process consis­ted of three inter-depen­dent curr­ents: the natio­nal libe­ra­tion strug­gles in the colo­nies, the workers’ move­ments in the capi­ta­list states, and the conso­li­da­tion of the socia­list states. Objec­ti­ves such as “incre­asing the repu­ta­tion of the GDR in Africa” and “support­ing the Malian government’s struggle” were thus not contra­dic­tory goals. Moreo­ver, agree­ments like this one between the GDR and Mali were more than a mere quid pro quo: the self-declared inten­tion of the GDR and the world commu­nist move­ment was to coor­di­nate and streng­then the three curr­ents of the world revo­lu­tio­nary process. Such agree­ments were unders­tood as important instru­ments in this endea­vor.15

III. Learning from one another – internationalism under construction

In a fare­well speech, the first Malian students empha­si­zed that there was as yet no expe­ri­ence with such trai­ning program­mes; medi­cal inter­na­tio­na­lism was still in its infancy and had to be deve­lo­ped through praxis. The curri­cula would have to be adapted to the needs of the indi­vi­dual count­ries – a process that would require mutual learning.

Prior to the trai­ning of new student dele­ga­ti­ons, GDR doctors were typi­cally sent to the corre­spon­ding count­ries to gain an under­stan­ding of the condi­ti­ons and chal­lenges on the ground. The objec­tive was to estab­lish exch­an­ges between local and East German experts while also formu­la­ting plans for the imme­diate supply of phar­maceu­ti­cals or supplies. At the same time, doctors and health workers from the part­ner count­ries were given the oppor­tu­nity to visit East Germany at the GDR’s expense and see how the socia­list health care system operated.

In order to address the urgent need for medi­cally person­nel in the Global South, the GDR rein­tro­du­ced the profes­sion of physician’s assistant, for it provi­ded students with the skills to admi­nis­ter appro­priate care in a rela­tively short period of time. In an inter­view for Radio Berlin Inter­na­tio­nal in 1989, the then direc­tor of the school, Fritz Kolbe, descri­bed the signi­fi­cance of this profession:

“The first trai­ning objec­tive for nurses in the GDR is that they are relia­ble assistants for the doctor. In Afri­can count­ries, when the nearest doctor is seve­ral hundred kilo­me­ters away or no doctor is available at all, this pres­ents nurses with a serious problem. For this reason, we rein­tro­du­ced an old profes­sion for foreign students: that of the physician’s assistant. This is a profes­sion that lies some­where between a nurse and a doctor. In the third year of trai­ning, our young friends learn the neces­sary prac­ti­cal skills by working directly along­side a doctor so that they will be able to inde­pendently diagnose pati­ents and provide therapy.“16

To account for the speci­fic needs of the part­ner count­ries, Medifa students were incor­po­ra­ted into the process for deve­lo­ping their own curri­cula. In 1964, for exam­ple, a solu­tion was sought to a problem raised by Nige­rian students: in their coun­try, midwi­fery was one of the compe­ten­cies of nurses, so trai­ning nursing without acqui­ring the skills of midwi­fery would mean lear­ning only half a profes­sion by their stan­dards. The Medifa there­af­ter inte­gra­ted the two profes­si­ons into one programme. Over time and in exch­ange with the part­ner count­ries, the Medifa’s curri­cula were thus impro­ved and expan­ded to adapt to the speci­fic condi­ti­ons in the students’ home countries.

From 1965, the Medifa opera­ted as an “educa­tio­nal insti­tu­tion for foreign citi­zens” and thus specia­li­sed exclu­si­vely in inter­na­tio­nal students: “We believe that the time has come to end the period of impro­vi­sa­tion in the educa­tion of foreig­ners and to give our school a firm struc­ture as an educa­tio­nal insti­tu­tion for foreign citi­zens.“17 This step was linked to the estab­lish­ment of a sepa­rate German teaching depart­ment at the school. Previously, many medi­cal students had to attend the Central School for Foreign Citi­zens in Rade­beul, Saxony to learn German. From 1967 onwards, all foreign medi­cal trai­nees lear­ned German at the Medifa, where high-level cour­ses were offe­red to pros­pec­tive medi­cal specia­lists so that they could learn the speci­fic termi­no­logy of their field.

German course at the Medifa, 1986. (Bundes­ar­chiv, Bild 183‑1986-0924–005)

In 1974, the Medifa was also eleva­ted to the rank of a Fach­schule (a specia­li­sed college). The program­mes now consis­ted of specia­list studies and the trai­ning period was exten­ded by one year. This corre­spon­ded with deve­lo­p­ments in the GDR’s wider health care system, where nurses and nursing staff recei­ved gene­ral medi­cal trai­ning at a higher acade­mic level.18 One year later, the subject of medi­cal pedagogy was also intro­du­ced to enable students to act as multi­pli­ers by passing on the know­ledge they acqui­red at the Medifa in their home count­ries. An inven­tory report from 1979 shows the diver­sity of the fields of study:

“To support the deve­lo­p­ment of natio­nal health services, the GDR has so far concluded health agree­ments or plans for coope­ra­tion in the cultu­ral-scien­ti­fic field with more than 30 deve­lo­ping count­ries. Citi­zens from more than 20 count­ries in Africa, Asia and Latin America receive medi­cal educa­tion and further trai­ning at univer­si­ties and tech­ni­cal colleges as well as at health care insti­tu­ti­ons in our Repu­blic. Nume­rous cadres from count­ries of these conti­nents are trai­ned in our state, mainly as nurses, physio­the­ra­pists, medi­cal educa­tors, midwi­ves and ortho­pae­dic mecha­nics. Alre­ady trai­ned nurses and labo­ra­tory tech­ni­ci­ans from young natio­nal states are quali­fied in special fields such as micro­bio­logy, haema­to­logy, anaes­the­sia, dialy­sis or in surgi­cal tech­ni­ques.” 19

The state plan­ning of all insti­tu­ti­ons in the GDR’s educa­tio­nal system also meant that coope­ra­tion between diffe­rent medi­cal insti­tu­ti­ons could be promo­ted and coor­di­na­ted. For exam­ple, coope­ra­tion was estab­lished between the Medifa and the Tropi­cal Insti­tute at the Karl Marx Univer­sity in Leip­zig to enable “students to work with appli­ca­ble know­ledge under the condi­ti­ons of their home count­ries”, as to Fritz Kolbe said in 1982.20 Parti­cu­larly in the field of tropi­cal medi­cine, the Medifa was unable to provide much prac­ti­cal exper­tise in its early years. This was chan­ged in the 1980s:

“The new depart­ment, where dispen­sary care for tropi­cal trave­lers is admi­nis­te­red, has become a special area in the trai­ning of medi­cal students. This includes, among other things, lectures on tropi­cal medi­cine and intern­ships for foreign students in their third to fifth year of study. Within the frame­work of a coope­ra­tion agree­ment with the “Doro­thea Chris­tiane Erxle­ben” Medi­cal School in Qued­lin­burg, the depart­ment has been helping to train students from tropi­cal deve­lo­ping count­ries in nursing since Febru­ary 1980.”21

Coope­ra­tion in rese­ar­ching and trea­ting tropi­cal dise­a­ses helped both sides. While the Afri­can states gained access to rese­arch results, the GDR could also draw on local exper­tise with medi­cinal plants for its own deve­lo­p­ment of phar­maceu­ti­cals. Since the West’s sanc­tions had sever­ely hinde­red the GDR’s parti­ci­pa­tion in inter­na­tio­nal rese­arch and deve­lo­p­ment initia­ti­ves, such coope­ra­tion was parti­cu­larly signi­fi­cant for scien­ti­fic advance­ments in East Germany.

The deve­lo­p­ment of the Medifa reflects a lear­ning process in which the speci­fic requi­re­ments of the newly libe­ra­ted states were iden­ti­fied and tail­o­red to. This was not an easy task and requi­red constant commu­ni­ca­tion at multi­ple levels. Yet, the almost 30-year deve­lo­p­ment of the school exhi­bits a gradual and conti­nuous refi­ne­ment of its curri­cula. By the end of the 1980s, students from almost 50 count­ries were study­ing at the Medifa and the school’s capa­city had reached its limits. Over the course of the 1980s, some indi­vi­dual self-paying students were also admit­ted to the school without a scho­lar­ship, further spea­king to the renown of the GDR’s educa­tio­nal programmes.

IV. Lived solidarity

The Medifa’s core inter­na­tio­na­list purpose was to train students for future respon­si­bi­li­ties in their home count­ries; their stay in the GDR was limi­ted by nature. Yet diverse rela­ti­onships grew out of ever­y­day life at the Medifa. The fact that these connec­tions were often deve­lo­ped orga­ni­cally by those invol­ved in and around the school reflects a basic charac­te­ristic of the GDR, namely, that educa­tio­nal insti­tu­ti­ons were not isola­ted but closely linked to other areas of society. The Medifa students found them­sel­ves in a society in which soli­da­rity with their poli­ti­cal orga­ni­sa­ti­ons was both ancho­red in the wider popu­lace and upheld by the state. Salam, who came from Leba­non to Qued­lin­burg in the 1980s, recal­led his first impres­sion of East Germany:

I came to the GDR on 11 May 1983 with Inter­flug [the GDR’s airline]. There were three festi­vals at that time: May Day, Karl Marx’s birth­day, and Libe­ra­tion Day [from fascism, 8 May]. Berlin was red! I was thril­led. Where­ver you looked, ever­y­thing was red. It was a beau­tiful and impres­sive sight for me.“22

The students from the Global South were not stran­gers to society, nor were their strug­gles. Many GDR citi­zens were well infor­med about their poli­ti­cal move­ments and expres­sed their soli­da­rity in private cont­acts as well as public mani­fes­ta­ti­ons, such as May Day demons­tra­ti­ons, where Medifa students marched as the first block in Qued­lin­burg. At the school itself, students also orga­nised their own poli­ti­cal events, cultu­ral evenings and cele­bra­ti­ons for their natio­nal holidays.

Medifa students on the First of May with the banner: “Medi­cal School ‘Doro­thea Chris­tiane Erxle­ben’ — Doctors and students from 20 count­ries in Asia, Africa and Latin America greet the working people of Qued­lin­burg”. (Photo: Salam Abou Mjahed)

For the inha­bi­tants of Qued­lin­burg, the Medifa was also an oppor­tu­nity to learn about the students’ expe­ri­en­ces, strug­gles, and home count­ries. Fritz Kolbe, the former direc­tor of the Medifa, said in a radio report in 1982 that the inter­na­tio­nal students gave GDR citi­zens the chance to “see our coun­try, our people, our daily life through the eyes of a foreig­ner.” A powerful exam­ple of these recipro­cal cont­acts were the Paten­bri­ga­den (“part­ner briga­des”) between Medifa students and the workers in public enter­pri­ses around Qued­lin­burg.23 These briga­des – which Medifa instruc­tors had orga­nised on their own initia­tive – gave students the oppor­tu­nity to visit the socia­list enter­pri­ses and expe­ri­ence in a very concrete way the diffe­rent prac­ti­ces that the chan­ges in owner­ship rela­ti­ons had brought about in East Germany. The students could parti­ci­pate in the produc­tion proces­ses and learn about how the enter­pri­ses main­tai­ned their own health, child­care and sports faci­li­ties. East German workers, in turn, could attend German clas­ses at the Medifa and discuss with students the deve­lo­p­ments in their home count­ries and move­ments. The students were also able to go on holi­days and excur­si­ons in the GDR, attend cultu­ral events and get to know the ever­y­day life of the popu­la­tion. It was common for students to be invi­ted to parties or even family homes over the holi­days.24 “We were mothers, we were sisters, we were friends, acquain­tances, ever­y­thing,” recal­led Hilde, one of the Medifa’s German instruc­tors.25 Such perso­nal rela­ti­onships reflec­ted and streng­the­ned the ties between the count­ries and progres­sive organisations.

Repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the Pales­tine Libe­ra­tion Orga­ni­sa­tion (PLO) give a talk on the situa­tion in their home­land (the banner reads “Long live the PLO, the only legi­ti­mate repre­sen­ta­tive of the Pales­ti­nian people”). Ulrich Kolbe, an instruc­tor at the Medifa during this time, recal­led their class­room conver­sa­ti­ons: “Our discus­sions were, for exam­ple, about the diffe­ren­ces within the Pales­ti­nian Libe­ra­tion Move­ment, PFLP. 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.”

The students were also able to learn from the GDR’s expe­ri­en­ces in cons­truc­ting socia­lism and could take these insights back home. Many who studied at the Medifa during the end of the 1980s were very aware of the break that the end of socia­lism repre­sen­ted. They could not under­stand why the East German popu­la­tion was putting its advance­ments, its preser­va­tion of peace, and its guaran­teed social and cultu­ral rights at risk. As Soumaya, who came to study at the Medifa through the Leba­nese People’s Aid, said:

“Many young people told us that West Germany was better than the GDR. And we said: No, West Germany and Leba­non are the same. The GDR is comple­tely diffe­rent – you have a comple­tely diffe­rent life here. You live in safety and can go to school. You don’t have to worry about an educa­tion, and you don’t have to worry when you go to hospi­tal. Some said they were happy in the GDR. But some would say, “We have nothing.” To which I say, “What do you mean, you have nothing? You have ever­y­thing! No Pepsi or Coca-Cola? You have lemo­nade, it’s the same! Only the name is diffe­rent.“26

V. One building block in the worldwide anti-imperialist struggle

With the end of the GDR, the Medifa’s doors were also closed in 1991. The school and its inter­na­tio­nal signi­fi­cance were erased from public memory there­af­ter. The students, teachers, and staff that we met all asso­ciate posi­tive and exci­ting life expe­ri­en­ces with Medifa, yet its poli­ti­cal signi­fi­cance and impact are given no reco­gni­tion in the public sphere today.

“It was about stan­ding toge­ther for peace, for progress, and for social justice. That’s the basic defi­ni­tion of what we unders­tood prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism to be. Living it was a daily task for ever­yone and it was prac­ti­ced differ­ently.“27

The states of the socia­list camp could not deve­lop in isola­tion. The social and poli­ti­cal progress of socia­lism depen­ded on the advance­ment of the struggle against impe­ria­lism world­wide. Conver­sely, the libe­ra­tion move­ments and former colo­nies were depen­dent on the assis­tance of the socia­list states in the cons­truc­tion of inde­pen­dent struc­tures and the eman­ci­pa­tion from impe­ria­list depen­den­cies. The Medifa is an exam­ple, an instru­ment through which this coope­ra­tion was reali­sed. It was not an act of selfless­ness or charity, as “deve­lo­p­ment aid” is often portrayed to be today, with a barely concea­led pater­na­lism that stands in stark contrast to the eye-to-eye rela­ti­onship that deve­lo­ped between the GDR and the newly libe­ra­ted states. As the past 30 years have shown, the prac­ti­cal effect of the West’s “deve­lo­p­ment aid” is not to close the inequa­lity gap between count­ries and socie­ties, but to rein­force and even exacer­bate it.

The GDR’s approach, vividly illus­tra­ted by Medifa, was funda­men­tally diffe­rent. It was based on genuine assis­tance that simul­ta­neously func­tioned as an instru­ment in the common struggle against impe­ria­lism. When discus­sing the Medifa and the GDR’s soli­da­rity work, we often asked oursel­ves about the concrete impact that such initia­ti­ves had on the newly inde­pen­dent states and libe­ra­tion move­ments. Yet this ques­tion ulti­m­ately over­looks the essence and the histo­ri­cal signi­fi­cance of inter­na­tio­na­lism. In the face of centu­ries of colo­nial malde­ve­lo­p­ment, the impact of the Medifa was certainly limi­ted. What is decisive, howe­ver, is that the direc­tion of deve­lo­p­ment was rever­sed: Not under­de­ve­lo­p­ment but recon­s­truc­tion, not subju­ga­tion but sove­reig­nty, not brain drain but educa­tion – these became the bench­marks of inter­na­tio­nal rela­ti­ons. This rever­sal of the histo­ri­cal tendency marks the great achie­ve­ment of prac­ti­cal soli­da­rity, and it can still serve as a guide for an inter­na­tio­na­list and anti-impe­ria­list perspec­tive today.

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