Teaching Opinion

How Do German Schools Teach About Political History and Human Dignity?

By Nancy Flanagan — November 17, 2016 6 min read
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It may have been Ernest Boyer who declared that public education functions as a stage where Americans test and play out their deepest values and convictions. No matter who said it first, as a 30-year veteran of the classroom, I can attest to the absolute truthfulness of that statement.

Everything that happens around us—elections, national tragedies, media ugliness, social unrest, xenophobia and religious prejudice, sexism and racism—shows up in public schools. Ask any teacher about keeping the outside world out of classroom dynamics. Ask any child, even a 1st grader, if this election has made an appearance in her classroom. Ask any scolding pundit or self-righteous parent just how to stick to phonics and fractions when the very ground has shifted.

Can’t be done. And when (not if) you try—teachers are rightly terrified of stepping out line, these days—the atmosphere in the room ranges from “temporary distraction” to “buried discussion” to “suppressed rage.” That’s rage from

all sides, by the way. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a teacher in the self-satisfied white suburbs, or the white-hot, fearful urban centers. Adults are messing with kids’ future, hiding the elephant in the room, and students are aware of this.

This might be a good place to quote Adolf Hitler: He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.

So, a word about playing the Hitler card. I was justifiably criticized, on one occasion, for raising the specter of actual fascism in school politics. This is not a thing to ever, ever take lightly, I know. I also recognize that hyperbole always weakens an argument.

But I want to write here about a nation that once had a lot of explaining to do on that front, and has—from available evidence—been able, over the long span of three generations, to reconcile their role in what happened in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany, triggering global catastrophe. Maybe we ought to pay attention.

Two years ago, I had the revelatory experience of touring the Nazi Rally Grounds in Nuremberg and visiting the Documentation Center there with an extraordinarily well-informed German guide, a doctoral student who was moonlighting as “World War II tour” escort and educator. It was a six-hour tour, and pricey, and you could sense the Americans we were traveling with growing weary of the information dump, wondering if the Christmas shop would still be open once the bus dropped us back off on the restored town square.

We wandered around the rally grounds and the man-made lake surrounding the building, once a Nazi headquarters and now the site of an extensive display of memorabilia and analysis. Our guide began by telling us that the impressive, forbidding structure we were looking at across the placid lake was not a museum.

Museums are for sharing cherished cultural artifacts, he said. There are plenty of those in Germany, and we encourage you to visit them. A documentation center, on the other hand, is a public record of a human failure—one for which Germany was responsible. It was Germans’ moral duty to keep the archived memory alive at the Documentation Center, in concentration camps, and courtrooms.

I wasn’t taking notes—I signed up for the tour with little foreknowledge of what I would see or how it would impact me—but I remember a great deal of his running spiel. Our guide was an earnest, youngish man in a plaid shirt, crooked tie and glasses, who carried two notebooks full of tabbed information and could give the veteran who asked precise information about range of Messerschmitt war planes.

A lot of the questions, in fact, came from men asking about military equipment and strategies, and not so many about the Holocaust or impact of the rise of fascism in Europe. Asked whether Austria had a similar urge to document their own involvement with racial and religious discrimination, our guide made a face and declined to comment. Lesson #1 is that we speak for ourselves, he said.

He spoke of regional political differences pre-War, how a country in acute financial distress could be utterly divided about causes and solutions. He talked about generational differences and how it took Germans three full generations to understand how a handful of men turned a fundamentally decent people into killers, persuading those for whom horrific prejudice was just not a deal-breaker, if Germany could be restored to greatness.

His grandparents, he said, were impressionable young people, just starting their family, during the rise of the Third Reich. They were gone now, but as a child he had been instructed by his parents not to listen to what Oma said about the terrible war years. She’s old, he’d been told. We’ll respect her for that. Don’t ask, and maybe she won’t tell.

His parents were the generation that bore their parents’ guilt. Then, as grandchildren of the Nazi legacy, his generation could finally claim to have actively worked to make sure it never happened again. In Germany, at least. Questioned, he shared extensive data about the skinhead movement, a serious worry for the moderate government. But then he compared incidents of far-right violence in Germany to gun violence in America, a sobering contrast for anyone who was inclined to feel superior.

Someone asked the obvious question: How on earth could so many rational people buy into Hitler’s psychosis?

Ah, he said. This is where people from every nation must pay attention. Hitler was a genius at using available media and technology. Crystal radios were made cheap, and the same sticky message—an alternate, economically driven message of national pride—was pumped into all homes. “News” was what the party decided.

Public rallies were enormously effective. The Nuremberg site was chosen because it was cheap and easy to get to by train, and surrounding farms could house families and large groups of people from a single town, camping and sleeping in haylofts. Everyone could participate—government was no longer centered in the industrial, better-educated north. A common enemy had been clearly identified, the future was brighter because there was a plan for everyone, not merely the political elites. The ultimate community-building success.

A man asked about the crumbling rally grounds, an “amazing historical facility.” Had there been any thought to restoring it? Our guide’s face darkened. “Let it rot,” he said. “Good riddance.”

I asked, as a teacher, what German schoolchildren were taught about Germany’s role in World War II. It was part of their national curriculum, he told us. They began with equity and community in early childhood, accepting differences and playing together. When students were 12, they read Anne Frank. Media literacy and logic and an intense focus on preparation for good, attainable, satisfying jobs were part of the program, in addition to history, economics and the predictable disciplines. We do not avoid our history, he said.

So what do you do in America, he asked?

Last week, an honored fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and recognized expert on World War II was suspended from his job after a parent complained when he pointed out parallels between Nazi Germany and the 2016 election to students. It took a national petition and a global spotlight to get him reinstated.

Today, President Obama and Chancellor Merkel issued a “joint defense of strong American leadership in global security, free trade, and combating global warming while cautioning against cozying up to Russia, in what appeared to serve as a message to President-elect Donald Trump.”

And today, in the nation’s leading McNewspaper, two honored and recognized education experts called the actions of teachers and school leaders attempting to calm their students’ real post-election fears “histrionics.”

So, the question remains: What are we doing in America?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.