A growing number of West German schools are sending their students on field trips of a very special kind: They travel across the border to spend three days, a week, sometimes even two weeks, in East Germany. The West German government encourages these trips to East Germany for two reasons: so young people of both Germanys can get to know each other, and so young West Germans can study conditions in a communist-ruled state firsthand.
More than 36,000 West German students -- usually at least 14 years old -- visited East Germany last year on trips sponsored mostly by schools, although some trips were planned by church groups and other organizations. This is a giant jump from the fewer than 5,000 West German students who visited in 1982.
The big increase is mainly the result of the encouragement given such journeys by the West German government, a coalition of conservative Christian Democrats and liberal Free Democrats. Many of West Germany's federal states assist the trips financially, although funding is also given for field trips with other destinations.
Obviously, the West German student groups are not allowed to simply travel as they wish. Arrangements with East German authorities must be made well in advance, destinations cannot be freely chosen, and lodgings -- usually youth hostels -- are assigned.
A Hamburg teacher, an East German native who fled her country when she was a young girl, decided to take her class of 15-year-olds across the border for a week. (She declined to be identified, as she fears reprisals against herself or her elderly parents, whom she visits regularly in East Germany.)
The teacher did not tell her students much beforehand, preferring to let them soak up information and impressions for discussion upon their return.
``The trip was an eye-opener to the students as well as for me. I had not realized how very little the West German kids know about East Germany. In contrast, the East German young people are very well informed about West Germany, gleaning their information from West German television and radio,'' she said.
Theoretically, West German young people could watch East German television as well, but they rarely do, because they find its programs much too boring or propagandistic or both. Besides, East German television cannot be received in many parts of West Germany.
The Hamburg teacher relates how her students, born into the affluence of West Germany's postwar boom, didn't know that consumer goods in East Germany are not there for the asking.
``They were completely surprised to discover that you cannot select from a large variety of brands. And my students came to realize that they take a lot for granted, that they expect money to flow quite freely to meet their needs,'' the teacher said.
``I think what struck me most,'' said Frank, one of her students, ``was the realization that the people in East Germany are like you and me. I know it sounds strange, but somehow we had the feeling that they are sort of second-rate Germans who had failed to make it.''
``For me, the trip was very depressing,'' said Nicole, another student on the trip. ``I think for the first time I realized how good life really is for me. I can say and do pretty much as I like and I can travel where I want to. Now I can understand why people want to escape and why they take such big risks to get out.''
Some West German students reported feeling uncomfortable on their trip when they realized that they were the object of considerable envy from their East German counterparts, mainly because of their fashionable T-shirts and jeans. In fact, some left a change of clothes behind for newfound friends.
A field trip to East Germany usually consists of an official portion -- meetings with selected East German young people, usually those well versed in arguing the advantages of communism -- sightseeing, and less formal get-togethers.
Despite the fairly rigid program, there always seems to be a time and place for private discussions and meetings between East and West German students.
For East German youngsters, the contacts with their West German counterparts can also be eye-openers, because they learn that Western television and radio gave them a too-rosy view of life in the West.
Even with the marked increase in these trips to East Germany (there are some reciprocal visits, incidentally, but always exclusively for East German youngsters regarded as solid supporters of their system), the West German government feels that more teachers should take their classes across the border for a firsthand look. However, some teachers are reluctant, particularly if they have no previous experience with East-bloc countries. Apparently they fear that situations might arise which they cannot handle.
Sometimes, West German students themselves decline to go, opting instead for what they believe are more exciting destinations, like Rome or Paris.
Earlier this year, a group of high school students caught the headlines and caused much controversy when they smuggled an East German man across the border.
The young man had managed to ask the students to help him leave East Germany. Spontaneously, several of the students arranged for him to hide in the back of their bus under piles of coats and baggage.
When they had crossed the border, he came out of hiding, to the complete surprise of the adults accompanying the group. And although the East German was allowed to stay in the West, the venture was sharply criticized later, because it endangered not only the whole group of young people, but it was also feared it might put an end to all such trips across the border.