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Back together:
The reunification of the German Red Cross
by Till Mayer
History lies displayed in rows of medals and military decorations on a shabby piece of red velvet. World War II iron crosses rub shoulders with membership tags for the "Socialist Unity Party of Germany". The flea-market stallkeeper wants four marks for the Red Cross medal - the same price as the hamburger at the food stand next door.
Red Cross insignia from the former German Democractic Republic (GDR) are not exactly collectors' items. More sought after are pins with Lenin's portrait on them and the enamelled red stars of the former Soviet Union. Skinheads are out looking for relics of a sinister age.

So not much can be got for a piece of gilt aluminium belonging to the Junger Sanitšter.

The Junger Sanitšter were a division of both the German Red Cross (GRC) in the GDR and the Young Pioneers, which was a state-run children's organization. Although the East German Red Cross did not have its own children's and youth branch, the Junger Sanitšter were effectively the way into Red Cross work.

For Thilo Wirth, however, the Red Cross medals bring back a host of memories - of adventure, excitement and not a little youthful hard work. Wirth was himself a Junger Sanitšter from the age of ten, having joined the organization while he attended primary school in Hoyerswerda in 1968.

To this day, he remembers winning the gold medal in the Red Cross district games: "When it came to competition, we kids gave our all. There were obstacle races, first aid and long marches. My sister drove herself so hard that we practically had to carry her over the finish line."

At the awards ceremony, the flags fluttered and the Junger Sanitšter stood stiffly in line, gleaming in the red neckerchiefs and white shirts of the Young Pioneers, the red cross emblem stitched on to their breast pockets.
How they helped
There were three main pillars to the work of the East German Red Cross: a rescue service, blood bank and training volunteers in first aid. When Wirth looks back on the organization, he sometimes thinks of the time spent standing to attention and saluting in uniforms of grey military fatigues. But he is far more likely to think of the excellence of the training and the broad base of the GRC's activities. "Every state industry of any size had its own Red Cross team with well-trained first aiders. That much was compulsory," he says.

"On blood donation days, people would line up in Hoyerswerda to give blood. That sort of thing's not very likely today." Employees were given time off work so they could go and donate, and the lucky ones got a banana or an orange as a reward. The prospect of such exotic fruit made all the difference to people's willingness to give blood.

Red Cross volunteers also got exemptions in other areas. "The state wanted every GDR citizen to join one of the mass organizations. In preference to the Society for German-Soviet Friendship, people would sign up with us. Our party duties were basically cut to the minimum, which was good enough reason for certain people to work with the Red Cross," says Wirth.

By early 1989, in his capacity as a voluntary leader and young doctor, he was already established with the Red Cross at national level. He had even worked with a writers' collective to produce a training manual.

It was never published. The section on training was acceptable enough, but the censors objected to the introduction, which they said was lukewarm in its praise of socialism. The collective reacted angrily and reluctantly made a few changes. Then came the Wende (the fall of communism) and the manuscript was set aside.
After the fall
The Wende turned everything upside down. The first thing to disappear was all those pictures of Lenin, Marx and Engels. Having lost their nominal authority, many mass organizations were quickly disbanded. Local Red Cross branches were faced with a real quandary. "In Hoyerswerda, the Red Cross had never functioned like a local association. The national body had been regarded as a government institution. But suddenly the state was no longer there."

Privatization was the final nail in the coffin of the old East German Red Cross. Membership slumped. Wirth was active in youth work at the time: "Before the Wende, there were 110 children in Junger Sanitšter groups in Hoyerswerda. After reunification, no more than 20 or 30 remained in the Red Cross Youth." All of a sudden, there were difficulties finding enough volunteer blood donors. Firms would no longer release their workers, and ever since western supermarket chains had opened premises in the East, the banana trick was hardly likely to bring in the numbers.

Reunification in 1990 also meant a wholesale turn around for Wirth personally. In the GDR, he had worked as a ambulance doctor. Now, like many other doctors, he was obliged to branch out on his own. He curtailed his Red Cross activities.

Meanwhile, Hoyerswerda was changing at a rapid pace, and not only for the good: unemployment figures soon soared from zero to over 25 per cent.

Hoyerswerda's problems are shared by so many East German towns. Its neighbourhoods of prefabricated apartment blocks, at one time a symbol of 'modern socialist living', are now home to frustration and rage. In the 1950s, the high-rises sprung up as if out of nowhere and the population of the sleepy little town grew many times over in a very few years. Today, unemployment has taken up residence in the grey apartment blocks, which seem to stretch forever.

Towards revival
Of one thing Wirth is sure: "Hoyerswerda needs a strong Red Cross." In 1996, when he again began to work with the unified National Society, he had first of all to lay certain foundations. Local and district branches in western Germany had decades of a structure based on voluntary service behind them. In the West, local associations are not only relief organizations, they also play a crucial role in society and are part of the strong German tradition of clubs and associative life. "We don't have that tradition in Hoyerswerda," says Wirth. "Even locally, the eastern GRC was purely an aid organization."

Today, youth groups are growing, and the Red Cross Youth now has a good 50 members again. Wirth runs a group known as Power-Sanis. Just the name would have been unthinkable in the days of the Junger Sanitšter. "The only way of attracting kids and young people these days is by forming gangs," he says, "and that means having an extensive programme of leisure activities." Gone are the days of generous state subsidies. The group meets in Wirth's own home, where he speaks about Henry Dunant and Albert Schweitzer, and about the international vision of the Red Cross.

And Wirth has good reason for confidence. His Power-Sanis have already won some medals. They took first place in a competition in the western German town of Krefeld. "Things aren't as brisk and organized as they were in the GDR. The emphasis is now more on sport and having fun," he says.

When you leaf through his training files, however, you still sometimes come across the uniforms of the Junger Sanitšter. He has been known to make copies from old training manuals. "Why not? The GDR Red Cross had an excellent training programme, and that's all there is to it. Why not make use of it? At least no one needs to teach us how to do the work of the Red Cross."

Till Mayer
Till Mayer is a German freelance journalist who is at present information officer for the German Red Cross in the Balkans.

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