What We Can Learn from Germany on Teaching the Hard Past

While the first history textbooks in postwar Germany were light on the subject of the Nazis, by the early 1960s, less than two decades after the fall of the Third Reich, things changed. In textbooks that were used at different levels comparable to middle and high school in the United States, authors began confronting the real history of recent past. They "engaged the most contentious issues of the recent past: Adolf Hitler's rise to power, German support for the Nazi Party, concentration camps, and the extermination of the Jews. For most of them, the traumas suffered by Germans were part of a larger story of suffering and sacrifice brought about by National Socialism and the war," as an article by Brian Puaca, a scholar of German education history, put it. While at first, textbooks portrayed the German people as victims, as the 1960s progressed, the position changed to one of culpability, too, in the atrocities committed. 

How to teach the Holocaust is an ongoing discussion in Germany. But whether to teach the Holocaust is not up for discussion: "High-school students are required to take classes on 20th-century German history, including the Nazi era and the Holocaust," although each state may decide on how to implement that teaching. Obviously, some states do a better job than others, but the lesson itself is mandated. Many students take school trips to concentration camps, and around 2800 schools are part of a program called "Schools Without Racism," where that issue is studied in depth.

Students in Hamburg, for instance, first learn about the Holocaust in 6th grade German class; they read the autobiographical book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, about a young Jewish girl in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. As a report from the U.S. Department of Education described it, "While poignant, the language is simple and graphic imagery is not covered. This book covers the most basic understanding of the Holocaust: that Hitler ‘took away’ the Jews from Berlin." As they progress in their programs, students read more books that do delve more graphically into the actions and the psychology of the Nazis and their victims, especially (but not exclusively) the Jews. The Holocaust is also dealt with in Religious Education class, looking at specific ways in which Jews were targeted for their faith, and it's also part of History classes, obviously.

In 2005, Germany's federal/state education standards recommended teaching about Naziism and the Holocaust at least as early as 8th grade and says that in 12th grade, "in the curricula for the basic and advanced classes, a differentiated and in-depth dealing with the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust is to be provided but also with its consequences for German society (among others: Racist policy as consequence of ideology, questions of the reaction of the population, assessment of the contributions of Jews to German society until the Holocaust, discussions about collective guilt and continuation theses)." 

Over on Reddit, you can read responses from Germans discussing how they were taught about their country's genocide (acknowledging that anyone can lie on Reddit). One Redditor talked about being taken on a class trip to Auschwitz when he was ten: "A lot of my peers weren't ready for the immense shame and guilt we felt; however, we were told that it was not our fault directly, and that as a country, we were working on making a better name for ourselves." This urgency to learn from the past in order to do things better is a thread through many of the responses. As one Redditor wrote, "We learned a lot about WWII, its causes as well as its cruelties and horrors. We were often asked to think for ourself when it came to family stories and the fact, that when you heard elderly people talk about the time, almost nobody confessed being a part of it, while in fact it WAS a mass movement. We learned a lot unpleasant things but always with the perspective to learn from the past and not repeat [these] mistakes."

Sure, a lot of former students express that they get tired hearing about the Holocaust and Hitler and Nazis, and, certainly, the fact that very few Holocaust survivors remain has an effect in making history a great deal more, well, historical.  And no country is going to get everything right in teaching something so unspeakably awful. And, yeah, there is a movement of ultra-right wingers who want to de-emphasize the Holocaust, deny it, or make the Third Reich just a "speck of bird poop" in Germany's history. But it's a very small number of people, and, besides, German law punishes "Whoever publicly or in a meeting approves of, denies or downplays an act committed under the rule of National Socialism" under its "Incitement of Masses" section of the criminal code.

You know what you don't see? You don't see a bunch of politicians and parents decrying that teaching the Holocaust and Nazi history is wrong because it makes non-Jewish kids feel sad. That's the point. Make them feel sad. Make them feel regret. Make them understand all the things that happened that led to the Holocaust. If that means German students have to confront that their relatives were evil, well, the truth is more important than maintaining a blatant lie. In a nation that has taken in millions of refugees in recent years, making young people understand the nativism and nationalism and prejudice that led to mass violence is crucial to having a peaceful society. Using the Holocaust as an example of what happens when the worst of humanity gets to run the joint is what that nation (and every nation, frankly) should be doing. 

A nation that keeps its horrors hidden, that believes its students are too delicate to handle the truth about history, is damned to keep repeating the same mistakes.