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History of the notabitur: What the past teaches about the Corona-Abi – knowledge

In view of the ongoing lockdown, many educators are wondering whether it will be possible to complete a full school leaving certificate in 2021. Not a few assume that the elimination of classroom teaching and the switch to homeschooling means a heavy burden for the current Abitur and MSA classes.

Less material, no direct exchange – poor preparation due to the structure. For example, the Federal Schoolchildren’s Conference demanded compensation for disadvantages for prospective high school graduates.

There are controversial debates about whether this is necessary and what it should be like in case of doubt. The “final high school diploma” applies to everyone as a last resort and at the same time terrifying. The Brandenburg Education Minister and new President of the Standing Conference (KMK) Britta Ernst, for example, recently warned in the daily newspaper “Die Welt” of the “fatal consequences” that the “Notabitur” would have for the Corona class.

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Emergency exams in wartime

But what is that, a “Notabitur”? When did something like this happen in Germany? What historical events have made extensive adjustments to earlier education systems? And can anything useful for the present be derived from it?

“In Germany there has only been a secondary school leaving certificate in wartime,” says educational historian and expert on the history of the school leaving certificate, Rainer Bölling. Admittedly there is no timeless one Definition of the term. However, the Abitur has always been characterized by a streamlined examination procedure and easier requirements for the candidates.

The written examinations were canceled several times and the prospective (male) high school graduates were forced through a mock oral examination. “That was the case for the first time during the Franco-German War in 1870/71 and again at the beginning of the First World War,” says Bölling.

Whole classes of senior primans – 13th grade students – took an emergency maturity test in August 1914 by decree of the Prussian Ministry of Culture. Even in uniform, the young offspring of the bourgeoisie took an oral exam on topics that were often associated with the war. There was no chance of failing.

Lure of state power

The easy high school diploma was the lure of state power, a war-industrial tactic for the rapid production of soldiers. However, the enthusiasm for war among the bourgeois sons in 1914 was so great that this deal was not necessary, says Bölling.

In the first two years of the war, the written exams were reintroduced. Soldiers whose school career had been interrupted could copy their qualifications on leave from the front. The examiners were encouraged to examine mildly. In 1916 a special maturity examination regulation was issued for combatants, thus formalizing the secondary school diploma.

In August 1914 there was a major war escort in Germany.  Numerous middle class students volunteered for military service.  Photo: dpa


In August 1914 there was a great war escort in Germany. Numerous middle class students volunteered for military service.
© dpa

“During the Second World War, the Nazis then reintroduced a secondary school diploma, just one week after the attack on Poland,” says Rainer Bölling. For example, called up pupils in the final classes without an examination would have received a leaving certificate with a maturity note – as long as they were ideologically reliable and not complete school failures.

In 1941 there was then the opportunity for military service providers to prepare for a slimmed-down Abitur in condensed special courses. This still contained written exams that were not suspended until 1942. Now there was only one oral exam until classes in the final classes of high schools were finally suspended in autumn 1944.

But how has society received the Abitur? Were the educational titles obtained during the war considered equivalent to the traditional degrees? Here you have to differentiate between the period after 1918 and after 1945, says Bölling. In contrast to the young Weimar Republic, in which the war returnees received their Abitur as a gift for service at the front, the late secondary school leavers of the Nazi system had to repeat their exams in the Federal Republic.

Mental denazification

Because the historical circumstances varied greatly, the meaning of the so-called “Notabitur” was also different, says the educational historian Sabine Reh, HU professor and director of the library for research on the history of education at the Leibniz Institute for Educational Research and Educational Information. The fact that the war high school graduates had to go to school again after 1945 was not only due to the fact that their school-leaving qualifications were considered inferior from a technical point of view.

Rather, the educational policy action of the occupying powers can only be understood in the context of the Allied efforts to re-educate the German people, i.e. to mentally denazify, explains Reh. The low capacity of the universities also played a role.

Even if there are certain restrictions on school operations today, as in times of war, the educational historian advises being careful with historical comparisons in the current pandemic discourse and avoiding the term “ notabiturs ” if possible. “The world wars for which the Germans are largely responsible are something other than a pandemic.”

Abitur earlier – Abitur today

In addition, it is suggested here that the importance of qualifications at higher schools can easily be transferred from one epoch to the next. “The Abitur in 1910 is not the same as the Abitur in 2021, neither in terms of content, nor in terms of what made it possible for someone,” says Reh. It makes a big difference whether, like in the German Empire, about three percent of a year-old graduated from high school, or about 40 percent, as is the case today. “The grade point average as authorization for admission to the university played no role at that time.”

 When German troops march into Poland on September 1, 1939, soldiers of the German Wehrmacht tear down a barrier on the German-Polish border.  Photo: picture alliance / dpa


When German troops march into Poland on September 1, 1939, soldiers of the German Wehrmacht tear down a barrier on the German-Polish border.
© picture alliance / dpa

The question of what a high school diploma could be worth in the labor and vocational training market will have a completely different meaning in 2021 than it used to be. Sabine Reh does not think it makes sense to frame the Corona graduation classes as big losers in education. In any case, it is hardly possible to measure socio-economic disadvantages precisely here.

“We as a society ultimately decide for ourselves how we want to deal with this generation,” says Reh. In any case, a certain compensation of disadvantages is necessary – for example by reducing the examination material. Rainer Bölling also believes that something similar is correct: the examination topics must be based on the actual school material, and the Abitur must be decentralized more strongly.

A question of justice

The historian considers the idea, which was also raised in the debate, that the Abitur grade should consist entirely of the average grade of the last two school years, as half-baked. “That creates new injustices, some students have relied on the exams in order to be able to compensate for their not so good grades”.

Bölling, like Reh, also considers the proposal to suspend the Numerus Clausus for the Corona cohorts to be impractical and short-sighted. Because this would require an alternative selection mechanism, which the universities would first have to design.

Equal and fair conditions in every respect are ultimately an illusion anyway, says Reh. “The dispute about the best compensation for disadvantages suggests that we had completely fair conditions in previous years, but that cannot be the case due to the fact that lessons are always different and different requirements.”

The just Abitur is only available as a regulative idea, says the educational historian. “Of course we have to try to make it as fair as possible – but there are no perfect solutions.”

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