I had the gift of having German au pairs when our children where younger. Although they did not join our family until they were entering adulthood, they have become our daughters of the heart.
In the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, I asked them: how does the German education system teach about the Nazis? I’m sharing with you here some of our conversation in hopes it will help you in your classroom this fall.
Fun German vocabulary word of the day: “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,“, which means coming to terms with the past.
Examining history in school
Rike: In German lessons, I think we read at least one book per semester that covered the Third Reich or was related.
Elena: World War II play a big role in our historical education. But, we cover the whole historical timeline, building up to World War II and its consequences.
Anne: I would argue that education about Nazis/WWII is the most important topic in history class. Although my teacher training was not in history, I do know that history teachers go through an intensive academic study. Their didactic training is concerned with how to teach about WWII and Nazis.
Rike: For a few months we just spoke about it, how this was even bound to happen? The Weimarer Republik was a democracy. How could it fail like that? Which factors contribute? We talked about the Versailles treaty, Dolchstoss legend, people clinging to an order with a Kaiser, Depression from 1922, Hitler rise in the late twenties, and how Hindenburg was too gulliable.
Elena: We analyzed speeches in our classes and were asked to think critically about them.
Rike: We also listened to them, if recorded. This was a standard procedure in school, to read as many text, speeches, and contracts in the original form to realize how different people interpret them in certain ways. We also read newspaper articles, and talked about the meaning, and the spin on what was actually said.
Elena: Some of the questions we were asked to explore were
- How someone like Hitler could get that far?
- Under what circumstances did people live?
- How were people expected to “fit the norms”, willingly and unwillingly?
- What impact did the Nazi era/WW2 era have on the German system in the years after?
- How other country’s perceptions of Germany changed because of the war?
Anne: We also learned about activists such as Adolf-Reichwein, Geschwister Scholl and people such as Anne Frank. Many schools are named after them. The school I attended was Adolf-Reichwein Schule. We learned all about him in the first week of school. It was emphasized why standing up against Nazis any other extremist group is extremely important and why history must not be repeated.
Rike: I think history lessons gave me the equipment and knowledge about understanding and interpreting newspaper articles, speeches and so on. It provided numbers and figures and facts about occurrences that could be interpreted to leading up to a certain events and as well as documentary pictures (although all of them were also horrible).
Rike: We also examined movies. For example, Leni Riefenstahl films: her popularity, what techniques she used to make Germans appear stronger, bigger. We discussed how the speech in the Sportspalast was cut to make it appear more pompous (people usually don’t get up twice to clap in a matter of seconds). We also watched snippets from concentration camp and their liberations. [You can find historical film in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum online archives.]
Fiction as the path to empathy
Rike: What really lead to empathy were books and movies, but more so books. I read a ton of age appropriate books. Stories of kids who lived in the Warshauer Ghetto. Those stories are not real, but they were written in a way that they could have been and happened like this or similar to many children.
When you are a seven-year old and read pages about kids your age having to live in moldy cabinets so nobody will find them and describe this for pages and pages, somehow this was more impressive for me. We also read about kids being pulled out of school because they didn’t salute pictures of Hitler. Books about being outcasts because they have to wear a yellow star on all their clothes. Children, whose parents literally mail them away trying to somehow save them and you just know that in the end they will properly see each other again in a labor camp, if they even make it there.
I also read books about girls joining the BDM (youth nazi group for girls), how they felt about it. I remember a book about a girl with a Prussian father. They tend to have a slightly different view: against Hitler and Nazis, but with a belief that in a war you don’t betray your country.
Holocaust denial is not free speech
Rike: Denying the Holocaust is not allowed here. Politicians who say anything that suggests they are denying the Holocaust or that suggests that Hitler was not cruel usually have an end to their career. Normal citizens who publicly announce that they don’t believe in the Holocaust are put on trial for it. When that happens or when some SS/SA person is found and convicted (their age doesn’t tend to matter), all newspapers talk about it. TV stations run documentaries about the era also.
Education begins at home
Rike: I remember my mum and me talking a lot about these topics from an early age, such as after going to museum or looking at old family pictures. Part of my great grandparents were Nazis, some ‘refugees’ (forced by Hitler to come back from Croatia), and some ‘normal’ citizens, who somehow managed to stay out of concentration camps although they said a few things that could have gotten them executed immediately.
We still have a lot of items at home, just to be able to look at them. We have family history book. At one of the earlier entries a spot was left blank. Everybody knew that the father was Jewish, but instead they said the child was born out-of-wedlock to prevent persecutions.
We still have an original newspaper from that time. The pictures are quite telling, when you look at them: strong white man, women at home with kids, the way hands and items are placed etc. My mum and me talked about this every once in a while, when it came up and I started to understand more about how propaganda is made.
One of my great grandmas almost got executed. Young soldiers lived on the farm towards the end of the war and kept talking about the final win. She asked one at the dinner table, if he really believed that nonsense. Her husband in the beginning of the war, when Polish people were forced to work in Germany, brought one of them to the hospital and forced the doctors to treat him. That was also punishable by death. Both of them lived, because they were quiet influencial in the village, howver it was more out of luck than anything else.
Lest we ever forget approach to memorials
Rike: Every year on Death Sunday we went to memorial for all fallen soldiers. However, this is not a celebration of them, but a reminder that such wars should never happen again. Close by is a Jewish Memorial, which was smeared by somebody when I was about ten. We all went there to clean it up.
[Saturday’s Washington Post includes an article about how Europeans struggle with how to address monuments of the past. “Rewriting history or attending to the past? Monuments still confound Europe, too,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker.]