The Odenwaldschule was a German school located in Heppenheim in the Odenwald. Founded in 1910, it was Germany's oldest Landerziehungsheim, a private boarding school located in a rural setting. Edith and Paul Geheeb established it using their concept of progressive education, which integrated the work of the head and hand. The school went bankrupt and was closed in 2015, following the revelation of numerous cases of sexual abuse of students.
History and educational concept
The Odenwaldschule emerged as part of the reformed education movement at the beginning of the 20th century. It was founded by Paul Geheeb on 14 April 1910. Edith Geheeb's father, the town council member for Berlin, Max Cassirer, who supported the Odenwaldschule from that time onwards, financed the land purchase and the buildings.
Geheeb felt inspired by the sentence "be who you are" (Γένοιο οἷος ἔσσι.) from the Greek poet Pindar. Thus the school should promote the community, personality and self-determined actions. At this point in time there were only 14 students. They were all housed in the Goethehaus.
The founders' concept was originally coined by the fundamentals of the work schools, or example in the introduction of a course system and the dispensation with year groups. All students should be able to co-create, participate and be equally responsible. The Odenwaldschule is a free community, in which the different generations treat each other impartially and can learn from each other, was the school's rules. Children and adolescents should when possible get individual learning stimuli such as intellectual, practical, musical and artistic learning methods. Learning was connected with vocational training. They lived in a mix-age living area, the families, whose head was the teacher and every year they were rearranged differently. Being on first name basis with the teacher belonged to the further characteristics of the school's educational concept, long before the emergence of anti-authoritarian schooling.
In the 1920s the school was internationally recognised and until 1938 teachers from other countries, such as England and the USA, taught there. From 1924 until 1932 the educator Martin Wagenschein worked at the school. In 1934 Paul and Edith Geheeb emigrated to Switzerland with around 25 students and some teachers and formed the Ecole d’Humanité there. In 1939 the Reicharbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service) requested the takeover of the Odenwaldschule because it contradicted the "concept of the national socialistic schooling community." The school was run by Minna Specht from 1946 to 1951.
After the Second World War, the school's teaching system was reformed many times. In 1963 it became a UNESCO ASPNet project. The school was a member of the Schulverbund Blick über den Zaun (literally: School Union - view over the fence).
Integrated Comprehensive School
The Odenwaldschule was an integrated comprehensive school. It was possible to pass through a joiner or a metalwork vocational course with a state qualification alongside the technical diploma or the full A Level equivalent. It was also possible to do an information technician assistant course or a chemistry technician assistant course alongside the German equivalent to an A Level.
Life at the Odenwaldschule
There was 250 school places. At the end of 2011 there was roughly 200 students at the Odenwaldschule. In 2010 almost half of the students came from the state of Hesse, one fifth came directly from the Bergstraße district, "almost a third were state supported children." Most of them lived at the boarding school in family-like living groups of six to ten people. The average class size was 17 students. Roughly half of the 120 employees were teachers at the school.
For a boarding school place £1,670 (2.370 €) had to be paid (as of the 2012/13 academic year). There was additional fees for vocational courses. External students paid a lower amount.
In 1998 reports from former students were made public, according to which the then at the time headmaster Gerold Becker had sexually abused multiple students from the 1970s to the 1980s. Andreas Huckele, a former student, who went to the Odenwaldschule from 1981 to 1988 and was later protected by the Frankfurter Rundschau with the pseudonym Jürgen Dehmers, had sent two letters to headmaster Wolfgang Harder in June 1998.
The school explained in 1998, the former headmaster had never contradicted "the victim's statements when he had to meet with the board of directors and vacated his functions and duties of the Odenwaldschule's sponsoring organisation". In 1998 the victims of sexual abuse met with the former headteacher Harder and the former SPD-MP Peter Conradi as the vice-president of the sponsoring organisation and agreed on reviewing the abuse cases, but this did not take place.
In the late 1990s, and again in 2010, the school became the center of national attention, when an investigation revealed the sexual abuse of more than 130 pupils by at least 8 teachers in the 1970s and 1980s.
One year late the penal case review was dismissed by the Darmstadt prosecution service due to statutory limitation. When Jörg Schindler reported about it in the Frankfurter Rundschau in November 1999, Florian Lindermann, the former spokesman for the former students, criticised the coverage as over the top.
In 2010 Margarita Kaufmann, who since 2007 served as headmistress, called for a new enquiry into the sex abuse cases. Kaufmann spoke of 33 victims that she knew of and eight teachers, who supposedly are guilty of sexual assault between 1966 and 1991. In the meantime it was assumed that more than ten teachers were perpetrators. The music teacher Wolfgang Held, who died in 2006, was the main perpetrator alongside Becker. The Frankfurter Rundschau daily newspaper reported on 6 March 2010 in a top priority article, that there was an assumption there is between 50 and 100 sex abuse victims. In total, the Darmstadt prosecution service once more dismissed six of the 13 preliminary proceedings until 2 May 2010. At the end of May 2010 the prosecution service investigated against six former teachers and one student. There was no court ruling until the end of 2012.
In a letter sent by Gerold Becker to the Odenwaldschule in March 2010, he asked his victims for forgiveness and wrote he renewed his expressed desire to come forward to speak to the victims, which he wanted to do since the first reports came out in 1999. Becker died on 7 July 2010 without having been made penally responsible.
The board of directors at the Odenwaldschule at first rejected a compensation in a letter to the victims in July 2010. In September 2010 the board of directors promised a financial compensation for 50 former students who were affected. In addition there are more unresolved cases, which are still to be reviewed.
The lawyers Claudia Burgsmüller and Brigitte Tilmann were entrusted with the task of reviewing the sex abuse cases in the early part of 2010. According to the final report from 17 December 2010 at least 132 students were victims of attack by teachers between 1965 and 1998. The lawyers said the documentation was incomplete.
Official school letters, found in archive and reviewed in a dissertation, point a fact that there already was sex abuse cases on girls and boys under the management of Paul and Edith Geheeb. However no one contacted the police.
In March 2011 Christian Füller's monograph, entitled Sündenfall. Wie die Reformschule ihre Ideale missbrauchte (literally- The Fall of Man. How the reform school abused its ideals), was published. Füller calls the school, when it was under Becker's management, a "reformed education paradise with a torture chamber in the basement" based on the model of a "aristocratic patriarchy". He speaks of paedophiles and "robbers of childhood", which had systematically taken over the part of the school.
Tilman Jens, a former student and up until the early part of summer in 2014 was a member of the Odenwaldschule's sponsoring organisation, published two months later the book Freiwild. Die Odenwaldschule - Ein Lehrstück von Tätern und Opfern. (literally - Fair game. The Odenwaldschule - a lesson of attackers and victims.) Jens demanded a balanced coverage: contrary to the customs of the constitutional state also innocent people were denounced as assailants or co-assailants. In October 2014 he summarised according to an article of the Deutschlandfunk that even if the film Die Auserwählten (The Favoured Few) was filmed at the Odenwaldschule which showed the willingness of the school's management at this time to face the history of misconduct, in the years before further resolutions are said to have faltered multiple times.
In September 2010 several victims formed a group called Glasbrechen (literally - breaking of glass), who had the goal of helping people, who had experienced sexual, physical and psychological attacks.
Without any media presence the club Odenwaldschule e.V. with the Altschülervereinigung und Förderkreis der Odenwaldschule e.V. (literally - Association of former students and society for promotion of the Odenwaldschule) formed the foundation "Brücken bauen" (literally - building bridges). According to its charter the foundation should be responsible for carrying out and supporting measures for those, who had suffered from sexual violence and physical and psychological abuse at the Odenwaldschule.
A fierce critic of the review is Andreas Huckele, known for his book Wie laut soll ich denn noch schreien?, which he wrote under his pseudonym. In his acceptance speech for winning the Geschwister-Scholl-Preis in 2012 he criticised about the lack of action taken by the school since the first article was published in the Frankfurter Runschau in 1999.
Teachers and management dismissed because of child pornography
On 9 April 2014 a teacher, who taught and lived there from 2011, had their room searched through by the authorities. The teacher admitted to having downloaded from the internet child pornography before his appointment at the Odenwaldschule. He was immediately dismissed from teaching at the school. The district administrator Matthias Wilkes criticised the school's management because they had not adhered to promised transparency.
After this incident in June 2014, the headmaster Däschler-Seiler handed in his resignation. In July 2014, the sponsoring organisation dismissed the entire management.
Attempts to save the Odenwaldschule
In February 2015, Gerhard Herbert, as chairman of the sponsoring organisation, introduced a new management team consisting of the boarding school's headteacher Sonya Mayoufi, born in 1973, and manager Marcus Halfen-Kieper, born in 1967. The new management team tried to rebuild trust in the Odenwaldschule and put an end to the organisation's failures from the last couple of years. Additionally the school's sponsorship was to be transferred to a foundation and to a not-for-profit private limited company. The new management team should take over the running of the company after they received permission, however the sponsoring organisation dismissed the team on 27 July 2015 after having disputed with them.
Closure of the school
The sponsoring organisation publicly announced on 25 April 2015 that it had not succeeded in securing the finances for the next couple of years, after a large part of the trust founded by banks and former students had been squandered. This meant the definite end of the school. The remaining time until the next academic year was used to gradually disintegrate all school operations and to move the students to other schools, according to Vice District Administrator Schimpf. "The school is where it is now through its own mistakes, its own structures, by turning a blind eye and ducking away, through its own non-action", the head of the management team, Marcus Halfen-Kieper, explained. "We could and should neither try to blame the responsibility for the situation on the media nor the regulators or the politics nor even the victims of sexual assault at the school."
Parents and students fought for keeping the school open. On 30 May 2015, the chairman of the sponsoring organisation resigned after temporarily giving up the reigns to the new management team on 17 May 2015. The school, parents and former students hoped to win over investors for financing the next two academic years by setting up a trust, which would have to be proven for permission to reopen the school. The lack of permission blocked the active acquisition of new students.
On 15 May 2015, the board of directors declared that its financial means for the maintenance of the school had been used up. On 16 June 2015, the sponsoring organisation declared itself bankrupt and in September 2015, the school was permanently closed.
In 2016, the inventory of the school (furniture, tools and also the library) were sold by public auction, the archive was given to a public archive in Darmstadt for preservation. Months later, the buildings were sold to an entrepreneur from Mannheim. Also in 2016, a group consisting of parents and donors who wanted to reopen the school under a new name ("Schuldorf Lindenstein") declared the end of their efforts.
According to the purchaser of the school's buildings, the buildings are planned to be renovated and established as a housing complex, a holiday park and a historical museum following the acquisition of adjacent land. The new amenities are planned to provide space for 300 people and will be named "Wohnpark Ober-Hambach".
- Hans Bethe
- Daniel Cohn-Bendit
- Nigel Dennis
- Amelie Fried
- Klaus Gysi
- Wolfgang Hildesheimer
- Felicitas Kukuck
- Klaus Mann
- Sandra Nettelbeck (daughter of Uwe Nettelbeck)
- Konstantin Neven DuMont
- Rosalinda von Ossietzky-Palm (daughter of Carl von Ossietzky)
- Wolfgang Porsche
- Dankwart Rustow
- Rudolf Ritsema
- Andreas von Weizsäcker (son of Richard von Weizsäcker)
- Oda Schottmüller
Notable staff and teachers
- Detmers, Jürgen (2011). Wie laut soll ich denn noch schreien? Die Odenwaldschule und der sexuelle Missbrauch (in German). Rowohlt, Reinbek. ISBN 978-3-498-01332-5.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Odenwaldschule.|
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- Die Stifter. Website der Stiftung "Brücken bauen", abgerufen am 30. April 2013.
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- Jürgen Detmers: Wie laut soll ich denn noch schreien? Die Odenwaldschule und der sexuelle Missbrauch. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2011, ISBN 978-3-498-01332-5
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- "Odenwaldschule: Familie Weizsäcker bricht Schweigen". Spiegel Online. 27 March 2010. Retrieved 6 October 2015.
- Tobias Büchner. "zero one film: Inhalt". Retrieved 2 October 2014.
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