Integration debate

Immigration Is Changing the Memory of the Holocaust – An Interview with Angela Kühner

Angela Kühner; Foto: privatAngela Kühner; Photo: privateImmigration has brought with it very different ways of viewing the crimes of the Nazis – a challenge for teachers and pupils. Together with colleagues, Angela Kühner, social psychologist and research assistant in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Frankfurt am Main, has studied the attitudes of young people with and without immigrant backgrounds and those of their teachers. In an interview, she spoke with about the findings.

Dr. Kühner, contemporary witnesses of the Nazi crimes are becoming fewer and fewer. Is it to expected that their historical memory of the Holocaust will fade?

We were surprised that the alleged lack of interest on the part of the surveyed pupils, much bruited about by the media, was little in evidence. We were fascinated to see how pupils thought about their history teachers. They noticed that the Holocaust is important to the teachers, especially to the older ones. In interviews we observed that pupils who initially thought the subject didn’t much interest them eventually visited with their friends the concentration camp memorial at Dachau. How can someone who seems to have no interest in the Holocaust nevertheless be motivated to go on his own initiative to Dachau? Comments by young people such as “Not that again!” shouldn’t therefore be understood as an expression of a hardened resistance but rather as part of a situation. There is a tendency to underestimate the willingness of young people to enter into a discussion on this subject.

Do young immigrants have a different attitude to the crimes of the Nazis than do German young people?

In Germany it’s common to speak even of children whose parents and grandparents were born here as immigrants. But there’s a difference between them and someone who grew up aboard for the first twenty years of his life and then came to Germany with a certain view of history and learned here a different view. The children and young people about whom we’re mainly speaking when we refer to immigrant children grew up here from the beginning. I think it’s an odd idea that these children and young people should have been so influenced by the culture of their parents and grandparents and have a completely different view of history than children and young people without an immigration experience.

>Memorial to the murdered jews of Europe; Photo: Südpol-Redaktionsbüro

Memorial to the murdered jews of Europe; Photo: Südpol-Redaktionsbüro

Mixture of commitment and uncertainty

What role do teachers play in Holocaust education?

In all the teachers we interviewed we could feel how important Holocaust education is to them. We also noted an uncertainty about whether they were treating the Holocaust properly in the classroom – so a mixture of considerable commitment and uncertainty. Committed teachers often have the impression that here what they can otherwise do and do very well – for example, conveying facts, understanding and awareness of history – isn’t enough. Some stress how important it is to them to convey concern and empathy as well as knowledge. The dilemma of the teachers may be clearly seen in their reaction to pupils who “fool around” on the bus returning from a visit to concentration camp memorial. In view of this, the teachers ask themselves whether they’ve failed to achieve their educational goal. From a social psychological point of view, on the other hand, we think they’re attaching too much importance to this behavior.

Why are teachers so easily disappointed?

The subject is emotionally charged because apparently trust is lacking that the younger generation will find its own, appropriate relation to the matter.

The real danger in Holocaust education, according to your study, is that of the teacher transferring his negative feelings onto the pupil with an immigrant background: “projective othering”. Pupils with immigrant backgrounds are made, so to say, into the threatening Other, even into foreigners. What do you mean by this?

We speak of “othering” when we surmise that the immigrant other is being constructed into the Other, that differences are being overrated and then dramatized. I surmise a projective mechanism when, on closer analysis, there are clear indications that blanket statements about “the guest workers” or “Turks” are actually expressions of something about the person making the statement, for example his own unease. For instance, one teacher said: “The Turks don’t understand German self-flagellation”. How can he be so sure? The speaker was a particularly committed teacher who offered to take his pupils on additional tours of concentration camp memorials. Analysis of the interview suggested that he was himself unsure about why he “put himself through” this work. In his blanket statements about Turkish pupils we saw him wrestling with his own attitudes towards the subject of the Holocaust. Behind this is the idea that every interlocutor confronts us with our own psychological factors, and inter-cultural psychology indicates that this is particularly pronounced when the interlocutor seems “foreign”.

The concentration camp memorial at Dachau; Photo: brewbooks/Flickr; Licence: CC-BY-SA

The concentration camp memorial at Dachau; Photo: brewbooks/Flickr; Licence: CC-BY-SA

More supervision for the teachers

When you maintain that teachers transfer their own negative feelings onto young people with immigrant backgrounds, aren’t you imputing that they have themselves not learned an important lesson of the Holocaust, namely not to stigmatize those who think differently?

From the social psychological point of view, it’s normal that people – teachers too – have a hard time coming to terms with difficult subjects, that they are constantly wrestling with them. Both finding the right way to treat the memory of the Holocaust and a sensitive way of treating immigration are educational challenges. In both cases, memory and immigration, I would rely on more supervision for the teachers: when they are struggling psychologically with the memory of the Holocaust, when they aren’t satisfied with how they are treating the subject as teachers, which is normal, then they need to have exchanges with other educators or school psychologists. In general, we need more space in which we can reflect on how to deal with difficult issues in education.

What might a contemporary Holocaust education look like?

It would make sense to approach the subject more at a meta-level: What experiences do young people already have with it? How did they feel about the manner of its discussion? How could we generally better discuss different perceptions of and perspectives on the Holocaust.

Arnd Zickgraf
is an freelance editor in the fields of science and education based in Bonn.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
July 2012

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