The History of Nazi Germany: A Way to Learn Democracy?
The history of National Socialism and the Holocaust figures prominently in the compulsory curricula at German high schools. It is covered in history, religion, ethics, occasionally even biology and German classes. But what do teenagers really learn about the subject in class?
It's gotten harder these days to teach and study the history of the Nazi era. High school history classes on the Holocaust are caught up in a triangle between the "politics of memory", the generation gap and the changed ethnic composition of the student body. Native-born Germans are a minority in many a German school. Teenagers see the history of National Socialism from very diverse angles that are no longer wholly determined by the issue of guilt. If nothing else, the sheer diversity of their family histories makes it unrealistic to expect their perspectives on World War II to coincide. Their study groups are likely to include descendants from every camp in the war: Reichsdeutsche , Volksdeutsche (also known as Spätaussiedler or "latter-day evacuees"), as well as victims of ethnic persecution and people from German-occupied areas like the former Yugoslavia, Poland, Greece or Italy – those faced, in other words, with the whole gamut of wartime options from collaboration to resistance. Today's teenagers are also more detached because several generations removed from the Nazi era.
This diversity should be reflected in teaching methods, in the selection of source material and in the pedagogical choice of focal points for discussion of the Holocaust.
Close ties between past and presentHistory and civics teachers are generally expected to show the close connections between the past and the present. But they are rarely provided with recommended methods for making those connections. As a result, past history and the present day usually remain poles apart in pupils' minds. Teachers have trouble tying them together and instilling anti-racist values in the process, which is the main educational goal.
Maybe it's not even doable – at least not with the methods and materials available. Take "democracy", for example, one of the most important values for kids to learn in school: pedagogical practice shows that democratic behaviour can be learned more effectively if put to the test in their everyday lives. Teenagers need to be afforded positive experiences of the democratic opinion-making process. This approach is far more effective than confronting them with the historical antithesis of democracy, i.e. concentrating on what happens when a society ceases to work democratically (cf. Meseth, Wolfgang; Proske, Matthias; Radtke, Frank-Olaf (eds.), Schule und Nationalsozialismus. Anspruch und Grenzen des Geschichtsunterrichts (Frankfurt am Main 2004)).
Pedagogical practice in Western Germany laboured long under this fallacy. Nowadays, it's a matter of learning to appreciate – and this is the first step in civics education – the virtues of democracy as a form of public coexistence: therein lies a positive experience. Considering the negative experiences of history is then the second step.
e.g.: How to approach racismHere's one way to approach Nazi racism in history classes: To begin with, the class looks at historical sources reflecting various forms of racism under the Nazi regime. That may naturally give rise to a discussion of current forms of racism without teachers' having to bring that up themselves. In other words, if the object is to teach kids to appreciate democracy in action, it won't be achieved by telling them: "Now think about the present."
Experience shows that study groups discussing well-chosen historical material will eventually turn to contemporary issues of their own accord, and without relativizing the experiences of the past in the process. This approach is presumably easier for everyone involved because it keeps things in perspective. After all, it would be problematic indeed if pupils were to come to the conclusion that "It's the same now as in those days!" Instead they can use the historical level to handle current issues with greater facility.
If the class considers, say, the story of a Jewish boy in 1935 maligned by his best friend who has joined the Hitler Youth, this is first of all a graphic example that illustrates this phase in the transformation of the mentality and world view of ethnic Germans in the Nazi era. But it's only natural to take this account as a springboard for a discussion of personal experiences of belonging and exclusion. That, however, will point up the limitations of the analogy to the present-day situation. But a debate geared toward arriving at this consensus cannot be forced or set in motion mechanically.
Teachers and material should afford learning opportunities: whether pupils make the most of them will depend not only on the material and the assignments, but also on the individual study group. The influence of the school, as an institution that is always governed in large part by discipline and marks, should not be underestimated either.
is a teacher and pedagogical assistant at the Fritz Bauer Institute, centre for the study and documentation of the history and consequences of the Holocaust, in Frankfurt am Main. From 2003–2005 he worked on the exhibition Anne Frank. Ein Mädchen aus Deutschland ("Anne Frank: A Girl from Germany") with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Anne Frank Center in Berlin. In 2006 he worked on the nationwide project Aus der Geschichte lernen? ("Learning From History?") on the use of memorials in teaching German history and democracy.
Translated by Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion
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