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Teaching History and the German Right

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Gabriel Fawcett looks at the efforts being made by history teachers in Germany to combat racism and neo-Nazism.

Germany has been through six months with the extreme right wing barely out of the headlines. The second half of last year saw a bombing which injured ten eastern European Jews, the brutal murder of a Mozambican, and attacks on asylum hostels and synagogues. It has been a German nightmare, leaving politicians visibly floundering. One of the most alarming elements is that many of the perpetrators were teenagers.

‘I would say that there are many places, especially in the former East Germany, where right-wing ideas have achieved cultural hegemony amongst young people’, regrets Dr Andreas Eberhard of ‘Against Forgetting, For Democracy’, a civic action organisation. This means that professional historians and history teachers are in the front line grappling with a social menace.

Unlike in Britain, all German students have to take history to sixteen, studying the Nazi period in their last year. If they do ‘A’ levels, they all have to study Hitler a second time. Kristen Hansche teaches history at the equivalent of a comprehensive school in Koenigswusterhausen, outside Berlin. ‘We do have some kids here with an extreme right-wing take on things. We try to act on the signs: if they have drawn swastikas on their books we ask them why.’ But she is pessimistic about the chances of having a real influence on those who are far gone in the scene, and she finds that upsetting.

Gabriela Georg is a history teacher at the Mahatma Gandhi Grammar School in the former East Berlin. She says that she has come across this problem only very rarely. ‘A couple of years ago I had a few in the class. The tactic was to fire “what-if” questions at me. “What if” the Nazis had won the war, avoiding the facts and trying to concentrate on a fantasy world.’ ‘They left pretty quickly’, adds one of her pupils; ‘and I don’t think they liked the name of the school either’. Frau Georg’s students are bright and committed; right-wing ideas don’t find such firm ground among the educationally more successful. ‘But that is not always the case,’ a girl warns, ‘there is another grammar school down the road. There are a lot of them there.’ 

At a school in Halbe, in Brandenburg, a couple of pupils recently turned up on a uniform-free day wearing Second World War  army outfits. The teachers didn’t take it seriously. That evening the teenagers were arrested after assaulting foreign-looking people in the town. ‘Some teachers, especially in the former East, don’t know how to react sometimes’, explains Dr Eberhardt. ‘We know of cases where teachers have been thrown by youths quoting revisionist arguments. That is catastrophic. We’re starting teacher training courses with historians to work through revisionism, more graphic ways of teaching the period, or problems left over from the selective and politicised East German teaching of this period’.

Museum historians too are asking themselves how they might have more effect on their visitors. Dr Eckart Schiele works at the Memorial Museum of the German Resistance in Berlin. ‘Things are being said about the Great Führer, the saviour of Germany, and the darker side is being played down: “he wasn’t only bad, he built the autobahns”. You can hear this rubbish.’ For Dr Schiele the worst problem is identifying extremists. They only speak up when safely in their own social surroundings. ‘I can’t paint a more realistic picture of Nazism for them unless I can identify them and what they think.’

Thomas Lutz, head of memorial museums for the Topography of Terror in Berlin, expressed his concern over a new trend of the last two years. ‘Twenty years ago right-wing extremists would attack the evidence historians had about Nazi crimes. Now they have started conceding they did happen and then saying that what the Nazis did was right. Not only do they say this, they write it in the visitors’ books. It’s only a small minority but it is a new situation.’ Perhaps even more alarming is that until recently swastikas or comments in guest books would be scribbled out or condemned by other visitors, now that is happening less.

Reaching for reasons, Herr Lutz adds that in Germany, for the first time, a society has developed a ‘negative memory’ – not of heroes or great deeds but of brutal acts. ‘This has only been happening for two decades. We aren’t sure what effect it is going to have now or in the future’. Anita Maechler, head and history teacher at the Lessing Gymnasium in western Berlin, thinks there may be a point here. ‘The fact that we can’t look back on the last century with any pride is certainly difficult for some young people. Kids want to be proud of something and need to identify with something’. Perhaps the education minister in the state of Brandenburg should consider this. Instead, he has responded to outrages by announcing a restructuring of history courses, focusing earlier and in more depth on Holocaust education.

‘If we find out that children are being brought here on a compulsory trip, we try and block it,’ says Dr Guenther Morsch, who heads the Memorial Museum at Sachsenhausen. He is very wary of politicians who think students can simply be sent to former concentration camps and immunised against Nazism. ‘The preparation is crucial. It must be clear to them in advance that this is a place for which they bear no personal responsibility, in the sense of guilt. Such ideas must be broken down in advance, and that’s not always the case.’

‘You should fight ideologies with reality instead,’ says Dr Hans Ottomeyer of the German National History Museum, due to re-open in 2003. He feels strongly that Germans are imprisoned by a very narrow view of their past. He points to the artefacts in the museum which give evidence of millennia of trade, culture and migration. He feels that, in our search for identity and our roots, we can all look more widely than we think.

In this spirit, Christine Maehler, a psychiatrist turned historian, is working to found an International Youth Encounter in the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin. The plan is for young people from all over the world to build understanding of history and of each other. It’s early days, but renovation work is proceeding apace on the project’s main building in the camp. She has had some unlikely helpers with the renovation: right-wing school drop-outs who are sent to learn craft skills and work through their hatred of ‘foreigners’ at the same time. They turn up shaven-headed, in big boots, their trousers held up with black, white and red striped braces. The house certainly gives her a chance to drop things into the conversation. It used to belong to Theodore Eiche, the Third Reich’s Inspector of the Concentration Camps. ‘We talk about who owned the house before and what he did,’ she explains.

‘One of them will say: “I hate Jews because they are all rich”. So we have to start at the very beginning: “Have you ever met a Jew?” “No.” “Do you know what a  Jew is?” “No”. The group learns it has strong feelings about things of which they know nothing’. That is not to say that Frau Maehler feels comfortable with this history teaching on the edge. ‘To have young people say things like that in this house, it gives me the shivers. But after they have been here for some weeks, they start to make a relationship with this place and the history. Take a right-winger on the programme recently who started off uninterested in his surroundings. After a few weeks he suddenly asked, “Why did they persecute the Jews, actually?” You generate questions. Some of these youngsters are interested in the SS: they idealise their power, their unity and their methods. This is the right place to destroy those myths, with the reality of the cruelty and inhumanity of what this system meant, even for the SS people.’

‘Of course the best medicine isn’t just history, it’s travel,’asserts Dr Ottomeyer, ‘getting outside the small group, the small history’. It’s an idea Winfried Mattke supports. He teaches history in Eberswalde, not far from the Polish border. ‘I’ve not had problems with right-wing kids, but you might get a different answer at the comprehensive’. Yet he admitted there was real prejudice against the Poles. ‘We did a project on Polish history. We took the case of the Poles who settled in the former German areas east of the Oder after the Second World War. The students learnt it wasn’t just the Germans who were expelled from the East. Where did the Poles come from? They were driven out of eastern Poland by the Soviets. They went through the same process as the expelled Germans’. But it was the exchange Mattke organised with Polish children that really had the effect. ‘They came back and were full of their welcome, saying Poles weren’t dirty and lazy after all, they worked as hard as Germans and were friendlier than Germans.’ It had an effect on the whole school, and beyond. The mixture of history and travel opens eyes like nothing else. ‘I think this is more important than more emphasis on Holocaust education, which is an ideological attempt to mould the kids. They tried that in East Germany.’ Herr Mattke’s eyes roll as he remembers years of compulsory study of the working-class struggle.

Christine Maehler knows that history with an element of the outside world can work even in the toughest cases. ‘Last summer we had an international youth work camp living in the house and threw a party. I invited thirty right-wing kids who had helped with the renovations. They laughed, but four did come. They turned up outside the house in their right-wing clothes, and someone called the police. I told the officers it was OK, that they were invited. I introduced them to Sonia from France, Leila from Russia, to Africans, everyone. They spent the whole afternoon here. Before he went into the house, one of them pointed to his black, white and red braces: “Do you think I need them, or should I take them off?” he asked me. He did take them off, before walking through what used to be Theodore Eiche’s front door.’

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