Teaching History and the German Right

 History Today, February 2001, Volume 51 (2) p16

 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 firebomb attacks against asylum hostels and synagogues. It has been a German nightmare, leaving politicians visibly floundering. One of the most alarming elements was that many of the criminals 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 professional historians and history teachers are in the front line of public grappling with a social menace. History is practical and applied. Some historians are attempting to reach out to those who have fallen under the spell of myths. Others wonder how they can best promote active democratic values in the wider public.

Unlike in Britain, all students have to take history to 16, 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 have to admit that. Some say things about the strong Fuehrer. We try to act on the signs, if they have drawn swastikas on their books we ask them why.”  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. A class from the school had made a visit to the Topography of Terror Museum at the former SS and Gestapo headquarters site. One of the pupils started asking the guide very specific, ‘technical’ questions: “how many holes in the roof were there in the chambers, he wanted to know, where they used to put the gas through, why would anyone want to know that?”

Gabriela Georg is a history teacher at the Mahatma-Ghandi grammar school, in the former East Berlin. She says it is a problem she comes across 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 his fantasy world”.

“They left pretty quick, added one of her pupils, they don’t get much sympathy for their views here, and I don’t think they like the name of the school either” he adds with a broad smile. Frau Georg’s students are bright and committed, right-wing ideas don’t find such firm ground among the educationally more successful. “But that’s not always the case, a girl warned, there’s another grammar down the road. There’s a lot of them there”.

 At a school in Halbe, in Brandenburg, a couple of pupils recently turned up on uniform-free day wearing World War Two 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 Fuehrer, the saviour of Germany, the darker side is being played down: ‘he wasn’t only bad, he built the autobahns’. You can hear this rubbish about the place”. For Dr Schiele the worst problem is identifying right wingers. They only speak up when safely in their own social surroundings. “I am absolutely sure that in the school groups that come here there is fertile ground for extreme right-wing ideas, or that some are already far gone. But they don’t identify themselves.  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 it 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. That is now happening less. “This new problem will not go away, it will become worse. This has bothered me and I don’t think our profession has an answer”.

 Reaching for reasons Herr Lutz adds that in Germany, for the first time, a society has developed a ‘negative memory’ – not of heroes, battles or great deeds but a remembrance of brutal acts. “This has only been happening for two decades now. We aren’t sure what effect it is going to have now or in the future”. Anita Maechtler, head and history teacher at the Lessing Gynasium 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. I think the problems we have with extreme right-wing youngsters at the moment, are partly because kids want to be proud of something, to identify with something”. Perhaps this is an element the education minister in the state of Brandenburg should consider. He has responded to outcry over the acts of right-wing youths by announcing an urgent restructuring of the history course, focussing earlier and more in 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 leads the Memorial Museum at Sachsenhausen. He is very wary of politicians who think students can simply been 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 no longer bear any 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 reopen in 2003. He thinks the museum will have other focuses to offer. He feels strongly that the turn of the twentieth century saw national stories invented on thin evidence and that we are still imprisoned in those stories today, an imprisonment made worse by history teaching’s parochiality today. For Germans this imprisonment is now a curse. He points to the artefacts in the museum which evidence millennia of trade, culture and migration mindless of borders. He feels that in our search for identity and our roots, we can all look wider 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 a relationship to the history and one another. 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 youngsters, school drop-outs who are sent to her to learn craft skills, and work through their hatred of ‘foreigners’ at the same time. “We let them come out with their ideas and question them.” They turn up shaven headed, in big boots with 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 Eicke, 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 want a Jew is?’ ‘No’. “The group learns it has these strong feelings about things about which they know nothing”. That’s not to say that Frau Maehler feels entirely comfortable with this history teaching on the edge. “To have young people say things like in this house, it gives me shivers. But after they have been here for several weeks they start to have a relationship with this place and the history”. Take a right-winger on the programme recently who started off uninterested in his surroundings. After weeks coming here 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 cruelties and inhumanity that 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 of 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 the students here are strong academically, you might get a different answer at the comprehensive”. But 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 formerly German areas east of the Oder after World War Two. The students learnt it wasn’t just the Germans being 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”.

 During the Polish history lessons pupils remarked on how there seemed to be Poles all over the world. “Why?” asked the children.

“Because they fled Poland”


“After the lost war against the Nazis for a start.”

“But how did they get from Poland to England?”

“Via Rumania, and then they fought in the British army”.  “Oh…really?”

“That’s when they get a real look at the sheer dimensions of this war, that they would never see otherwise” enthuses Mattke. “I think this bigger picture is more important than more emphasis on Holocaust education, which is an ideological attempt to mould the kids. They tried that in East Germany.” It didn’t work, just watch Herr Mattke’s eyes roll as he remembers years of compulsory study of the working class struggle.

 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 did and were friendlier than Germans.” It had an effect on the whole school, and beyond. The mix between history and the travelling opens eyes like nothing else. “One came back and asked: ‘I met a Pole from Siberia. Why are there Poles from Siberia?’ Well…”

 “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.” It didn’t work, just watch Herr Mattke’s eyes roll as he remembers years of compulsory study of the working class struggle.

 Christine Maehler knows 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. So in they came and got mixed up in something they would rather negate. 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. I said ‘I wouldn’t think you’d need them, you could take them off, if you like’ “. He did take them off, before walking through what used to be Theodore Eicke’s front door.