What Does Hitler Have to Do with Me?
On the Difficulty of Teaching German History Multiculturally
Teaching Unit 1: Aliens – Do They Live Among Us?As part of my preparations for participating in a history lesson on National Socialism, in a comprehensive school in Porz, I read the textbook that the students there use. It is published by a large, well-known publisher, and fits in with the curriculums of several German federal states. One of its two chapters on fascism includes an interesting cartoon. An old man is sitting on a chair. He is well-built, and looks like somebody who doesn’t tolerate any back-chat. His thin little grandson stands in front of him. His head is raised, though his hands are thrust into his trouser pockets, and he has a shocked expression on his face. His grandfather is saying something like:
‘... And then in 1933, a lot of brown creatures came down from outer space. They murdered and pillaged all over the place, before disappearing from the earth again in 1945 ... There was an enormous number of them. And until this day, nobody knows where they came from, or what happened to them.’
In this textbook, there is also an interview with a Turkish man, Arslan, whose flat in Mölln was set on fire by neo-Nazis in 1992. His wife and two daughters died in the fire. He only managed to escape by jumping out of the window of the burning bedroom. ‘What did we do to deserve this?’ asks Arslan, in despair. ‘The flat was already on fire when my wife went into the hall to save the children. A moment later, the flames were so high that I couldn’t get through the door. I jumped out of the bedroom window. My wife took our son into the kitchen, which saved his life. She was burned to death, along with our two daughters, when she ran into the hall to get them. Why did all this happen? We were asked to come here: we came as Gastarbeiter, guest workers. We didn’t force ourselves on this country. Is that how you treat guests?’
A few pages further on, there is a table giving the names of neo-Nazi groups in Germany. One column shows the dates they were banned. But the authors point out that this approach is controversial. Banning individual groups doesn’t lead to any change in the convictions of their followers. It often just provokes them to go underground, where it’s more difficult to control their actions.
The textbook also contains quotes from young neo-Nazis in the 1990s. Why do they set fire to houses where people are sleeping?
‘My father’s only unemployed because some cheaper Turk or something is doing his job now. Are we supposed to just stand by and watch?’
‘The government gives them a flat and benefits that I don’t have any chance of getting. I’m a second-class citizen.’
‘The government isn’t managing to deal with this problem, and until they do, we’ve got to do it!’
‘We do it to teach politicians a lesson!’
‘We do this shit partly because we’ve got nothing else to do.’
Further on, the authors set out some exercises. They encourage the pupils to look for the motives that the underage perpetrators give to justify their behaviour. They suggest holding a discussion about sentencing. They suggest that children investigate whether anything similar has happened where they live, and talk about it to the police, the public prosecutor and the local youth services.
Towards the end of the chapter on the history of Hitler’s Germany, there is also a famous picture of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Germans are forcing a colony of oppressed people, with a little boy at their head, to retreat. Underneath it is the information that the boy was the only one of his family to survive the war, and now lives in New York. There is a German with a gun standing next to him in the photo. The caption says that he was finally identified twenty-six years later. He was prosecuted by a German court for crimes against humanity, and received the death penalty in 1969. (…)
Teaching Unit 3: Remembering in German
The Germans call those cobblestones Stolpersteine – stumbling stones. The artist Gunter Demnig makes them to order – for 120 euros a stone. Anybody can fund one and have it installed outside a house where a victim of the Hitler regime lived. Assuming, of course, that the owner of the property gives their consent.
Demnig engraves the person’s name, dates, and places of birth and death, if they are known, onto the 10cm x 10cm square plate. Demnig’s Stolpersteine can be found in more than three hundred German cities and towns. The artist says his project shows a National Socialism that wasn’t just a political abstraction: it reached into the houses of every one of us.
‘What kind of idea is that?’ Sasza’s friend says, getting worked up. ‘You’re supposed to rub the soles of your shoes over these stones, otherwise the copper just goes dark and you can’t read what’s on it any more ... Weird. Apparently we’re supposed to remember, but it’s like you’re trampling on someone’s grave. These people often don’t have a grave. Sasza’s right. Who notices them? You go past the house … This stone is tiny. You don’t look down at the ground the whole time ...’
Frau Michel, the social education teacher whose lesson I am to attend, joins our group. She listens to the conversation for a moment, but it’s obvious she’s itching to say something. As soon as we stop talking for a moment, she jumps in: ‘So, I didn’t experience the war first hand. Your parents are certainly younger than me. I know from my parents that it was a terrible time. Ever since I was a child, they’ve kept repeating that we have to do everything we can so that Germany never starts another war. It was bad for the civilian population too. My parents weren’t Nazis, they weren’t party members – my mother was even openly against it. I grew up in an atmosphere where it was drummed into me that nothing like that must ever be allowed to happen again. Maybe that’s why I became a teacher, and why I’m here with you now.’
‘You know,’ Frau Michel says, turning to me, ‘I don’t have the opportunity to address this subject in lessons every year … But at least when there’s any kind of anniversary, I remind the students of it. We’re always talking about this topic. Perhaps that’s the difference between your generation and me.’
I don’t know what happened to Frau Michel’s family. What she has told me is something I hear from a lot of Germans. Meanwhile, my history textbook, published in the mid-1990s, shows that the number of Germans who were prepared to oppose the system during the period of National Socialism was between twenty and forty thousand. Evidently these Germans had a great many children, whom I keep meeting …
As Frau Michel walks away, Sasza recalls a meeting that his class had with victims of the war.
‘What did that teach me? Today, I think: not a lot. We’ve been going over and over the subject of National Socialism since class 7. We have to remember, so any opportunity will do,’ he says sarcastically. ‘And we’re doing it now as well. A bit of the French Revolution, a bit about the history of the countries the other kids are from. Like Turkey for example. And then it’s just the Weimar Republic and Hitler. After a while, even the worst crimes stop affecting you.’
‘I think that meeting was unnecessary. Of course I remember that it happened. Who were the guests? Poles? Ukrainians? I don’t know, maybe they were Poles. I think it’s about time we stopped talking about this subject.’
‘The problem is,’ says Sasza, ‘I can’t imagine what it was like in those days. We learn so much, but it’s always about politics. About the war, and the Holocaust. I don’t know how people lived back then. Afterwards, when we met them, we didn’t really say anything. We’d had enough. Nobody wanted to hear it.’
A girl who has been standing in the corner, listening, comes to join our conversation. ‘Let me tell you about this trip we did through the city. One of the things we did was to go and look at a plaque, where some forced labourers were hanged in the spring of 1944. We were there with a guide. When he was telling us about the execution, our teacher went really green and started crying. But you know what? She was the only one crying. I think teachers take it all a bit too much to heart. Nobody mourns for the victims of the Napoleonic war these days, either.’ (…)
Teaching Unit 6: National Socialism from My Perspective, or: What Am I Supposed to Do with This Knowledge?
‘Once, when we were learning about it at school for the first time, I spoke to my grandparents. My grandpa gave me a book to read – and that was it. We discussed jokes about National Socialism at home as well. We talked about whether it was acceptable to make them at all. Old people don’t like it when you remind them about it.’ ‘But a lot of people were made to go to war,’ says Ferhad. ‘Sometimes they were forced to kill as well. Today, people in Germany live with each other.’
‘Hitler wasn’t even German, he was Austrian,’ says Thomas. ‘According to his own criteria, he should have fallen into his trap himself. He wasn’t a pure German at all.’ ‘A lot of Germans followed him because he promised them a better future. They were told, if you do your bit, everything will get better for you. So why shouldn’t you do it ...? It’s human, normal ...’
‘So if somebody came along today,’ I ask, ‘and offered you a better future in return for going to war, what then?’
‘Oh, no, there won’t be another dictatorship in Germany …’ says Ferhad with conviction. ‘Back then there was really bad unemployment. That was one of the reasons. Now we know how war can be, and that we won’t make those mistakes again… the people in Germany won’t be drawn into another war today.’
‘Hitler promised people a lot of things that we have now,’ says Samira. ‘There’s nothing you can use to bribe people any more. We’re not so easy to tempt these days.’
‘Exactly,’ says Ferhad. ‘In Germany today there are benefits you can live on, maybe not all that well, but you can. It wasn’t like that then. The people probably had to go into the war, everyone was going hungry, there were these tickets for food, for everything; even if somebody didn’t want to – they had to feed their families.’
‘You know, we learn about this every year,’ says Abussamed. ‘We go over the subject again and again. After a while it gets boring. It’s always just Germany, and Germany again. For example, take the Ottomans, Iraq today, there are bloody wars there, too. Not just in Germany. Anyway, it’s better to look forward, to what’s happening now, and not always back to past history.’
‘Well, for me it’s still important, if I’m living in Germany …’ Kathrin ventures. ‘What happened here in the past affects me too. We started doing this topic in the third year of primary school. And we’ve had it every year. That might be a lot, but it’s still important...’
‘Yes, on the other hand it’s good that we’re doing it so often,’ says Ferhad, backing her up. ‘If you hear something one time, you don’t remember that much of it. A few weeks later you’ve forgotten it. But later, if somebody from abroad asks you how it happened, what the Night of the Long Knives was, then at least you know. I know it all off by heart, because we did it in school. When somebody like you comes in, I can tell you the answers …’
Teaching Unit 7: A Break after Every LessonAt break-time, I talk to Paul, who is in a lower year. His class has just had a lesson on the Holocaust and the concentration camps: it was the first time he had heard about them. Paul is deeply moved by the extermination of the Jews. This charming blond boy with the child-like face, who looks as if he comes from a well-to-do middle-class family, starts by asking me for details. How exactly did the Nazis murder all these people? What gas did they use? What did they do with the bodies? Finally, he says:
‘But it’s kind of illegal, isn’t it, to murder Jews? You don’t do that, right?’
‘Of course not,’ I reply, somewhat taken aback.
‘Wasn’t there some kind of police who could have shut these camps down?’
‘The police were helping, just like the military, and the railways that transported the prisoners …’ I reply, regaining my composure.
‘So these people were bribed, were they?’
‘No,’ I say, ‘they did it of their own free will.’
The boy shakes his head in disbelief. The bell rings. We say goodbye. Should I be glad that Hitler is such an unimaginable concept for him? Or should I be worried that history lessons aren’t managing to convey one of our most terrible experiences to the young citizens of Europe?
Teaching Unit 8: The Legacy and the Price of Acceptance‘The children are fed up with National Socialism at school,’ I say to Frau Schommers, the school’s vice-principal, at the end of the day. ‘They don’t identify with the Germans of seventy years ago, and they’d rather learn about something else.’
‘Listen, since when did students have to agree with what they learn at school? Excuse me.’ Frau Schommers refuses to be backed into a corner. ‘Living in Germany entails a certain acceptance of the German legacy, in both a good and a bad sense. That’s one of the requirements of our education. Our school has two Turkish teachers, one Palestinian and one African teacher. They’ve really helped us to understand our students. The students themselves have a different relationship with them. They often don’t trust us as much as they trust them.
‘I’ll tell you the facts of the matter. Let’s take the question of how religion should be taught in schools. We have lessons for Catholics and Protestants. Some schools have Islamic religious studies lessons as well, but we don’t. And the students who don’t go to religious studies lessons have to do something. So recently we’ve started offering “German as a second language”. The students have a choice. So some Buddhists and Zoroastrians go to Religious Studies, and some Catholics do extra German lessons. You know, I’m a German teacher. For years now I’ve been noticing that the repertoire of words that the middle-school students, and even the sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds, are using is gradually shrinking. That means that the students simply don’t understand some of the text extracts, for example from the history textbook. We have to explain what individual words mean. These are our day-to-day problems. Are you going to write about that, too?’
This report was written for one of Poland’s largest daily newspapers. It wasn’t published, because – as the editor-in-chief put it – it doesn’t describe a German school class. The supplement considers itself a ‘reporter magazine’, which suggests that the texts contained in it relate to the real world, not some fictional universe.
However, the following conversation took place between the author and the editor:
‘What is a German school class, anyway?’
‘One that has German children in it,’ the editor replied.
‘And who are these German children?’
‘The ones whose parents and grandparents are Germans.’
‘In Germany today, classes like that basically don’t exist.’
‘That doesn’t matter. In Poland, that’s still how we imagine Germany. You have to think up a class like that, whether it exists or not.’
Translated by Ruth Martin
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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