In debating the moral foundations of the two new German states, contemporaries delved into the arenas of religion and culture. Although many church leaders had become accessories to National Socialist policies, the Catholic and Protestant Churches in West Germany still managed to position themselves as bulwarks of morality in the wake of the Third Reich. They sought to bolster sexual conservatism as a pillar of the Christian West and railed against cultural goods that appeared to run counter to this goal (i.e., certain movies, types of music, and forms of dance). Representatives of the churches sat on the West German movie rating board and retained an influence on formal education in many West German states. The East German leadership viewed the churches with suspicion. Competing with churches for the allegiance of the young, East Germany promoted the Jugendweihe (a state ritual in which young people swore their allegiance to socialism) as a secular alternative to religious Confirmation.
Differences between East and West German schools and universities became increasingly pronounced during the Cold War, as was the case with many other types of institutions. One of the primary goals of state socialism was to open up the East German educational system to the children of workers and peasants. The West German educational system, on the other hand, helped reproduce existing differences between bourgeois and working families (at least until the early 1960s) and in this way worked at cross purposes with other West German institutions that were contributing to a redefinition of class and class difference in the postwar period.
In both Germanies, intellectuals concerned themselves with the diverse legacies of National Socialism and the question of German responsibility. Since the 1950s, many West German historians, writers, and producers of popular culture had highlighted the trope of Germans as victims of war, expulsion, deportation, and imprisonment. In the West, in particular, appeals to a united Europe seemed a healthy antidote to the excesses of German nationalism. Arguably, critical engagement with National Socialism declined under Cold War pressures, but Germans nonetheless debated the nature and extent of German responsibility for Nazi crimes.
East German intellectuals and artists, many of them hoping to build a more democratic culture, withstood several cycles of severe repression, often on account of developments in the Soviet Union. For instance, the heated debates of the late 1940s and early 1950s on “Formalism” versus “Socialist Realism” in literature, music, and the visual arts prompted numerous artists and cultural luminaries to leave for the West at a time when Berlin’s zonal border was still porous. In their quest to depict – and promote – the development of a “new man,” East German authorities, like their Soviet counterparts, embraced Socialist Realism, a grand heroic style indebted to nineteenth-century Realism and Neo-Classicism. Both Germanies laid claim to the classical past of Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven. By the late 1950s, West Germany had also added various Wilhelmine-era modernists and Weimar avant-gardists to its official cultural canon, often overlooking the fact that many of these artists had been associated with the far left. Abstract Expressionism, a school of painting that developed in New York in the 1940s, was initially rejected in West Germany, but soon became the preferred style of artists there. This seemingly apolitical abstract style stood in marked contrast to Socialist Realism, with its figurative compositions and explicit political visions. Still, promoters of Abstract Expressionism believed that it carried its own message of freedom and autonomy – a message that, if subtler, was no less political.