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Where Have I been While My Peers Have Been Harrassed with the Holocaust?

Deborah Lipstadt has a blogpost on about different approaches to holocaust education. Among others she has a link to an article in the New York Times about “The Search”, a comic book about the holocaust that is going to be introduced in german classrooms. While I’m pretty much indifferent to the comic book idea (the thing was conceived by the Anne Frank Haus, so I’m at least convinced it will be high quality stuff) I was taken aback by what the NYT had to say about the topic of holocaust remembrance in german schools. They write

Passing is the shock therapy, with its films of piled corpses, that earlier generations of schoolchildren had to endure.


Ask many Germans now in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and they will describe elementary and high school history classes that virtually cudgeled them into learning about Nazis and the Holocaust. The other morning Jutta Harms recalled her class in a small town in the north of West Germany during the late 1970s. Ms. Harms now works for Reprodukt, a leading Berlin publisher of graphic novels.

“Students had to fight to talk freely about the war,” she recounted, “and, being confronted in class by the emotions of the teachers, there wasn’t any space to feel for ourselves.”

I think the NYT fell victim to mystification. The idea that there is too much or too aggressive holocaust education in Germany is a rather recent (post-unification) trope, although many people obviously have updated their memory to match newspaper reports about their alleged acquired guilt complex.

I’m in my late thirties, which puts me in the same age group as Jutta Harms. Elementary school for me started in 1977 in a small town in Baden-Württemberg; after that I visited a grammar school in the same town for four years before I switched schools and went to a boarding school close to the border of Württemberg and Bavaria. That we were made to feel guilty for the holocaust was not a common complaint among me and my fellow students, mainly because nobody tried to make us feel that way in the first place.

Holocaust education was mainly a matter for three subjects in school: history, german and religious education (the last of which was supposed to teach you about ethics). I opted out of religious education when I was old enough (actually I had a brief stint in religion class after I switched schools before I could opt out again), so I can’t say much about that.

As for my history lesson, movies of piled corpses didn’t figure prominently in there. There might have been the occasional blurry back and white picture of victims of extermination camps, but the history book mainly featured the much more harmless image of the imprisoned Carl von Ossietzky – menacing enough, but not traumatizing. As for the general prominence of the holocaust education, in my final exam I got a rather good grade for an essay about the german attack on the soviet union that didn’t even mention dead jews – I simply was unaware of the connection and described the events from a purely military point of view, which obviously got the approval of my teachers. It’s not that we didn’t learn a lot about the Nazi era, but that was by no means all holocaust education.

The shoa was also a topic in our german lessons (actually, in the late 80s “shoah” was merely the title of a Claude Lanzmann movie as far as germans were concerned). We actually read a book about it, Damals war es Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter, a story about the friendship of a jewish and an “aryan” boy during the rise of national socialism. The next was Ich bin David by Anne Holm, which came under the heading of holocaust education but is actually a generic story about persecution. Then Christiane Nöstlingers Maikäfer flieg, which is settled at the end of WW2 -a young girl grows up in the russian occupied Austria. Then Borcherts Draussen vor der Tür, a story about the plight of a homecoming german soldier. Then Grass’ Katz und Maus, about a troubled german youth in Gdansk during the national socialist time. Uups, do I see a pattern here? Too much about the holocaust, my ass.

We did read The Diary of Anne Frank, with it’s rather upbeat message that this brave little girl believed , in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. I’m sure that, had there just been a little more time in that term, the teacher would have loved to talk about Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen in that context.

The difference between Jutta Harms’ experience an mine might just be the difference between the North and the South – after all in Germany the difference between North and South is (at least used to be) pretty much the difference between political left and right, and maybe the social democratic governments had a more aggressive policy towards holocaust education. But then I heard the same claims from people who have virtually the same education as me, so I just know they have never been crushed down by holocaust tales.

I think the issue is rather what schoolteacher Jens Augner says in the same article:

“It teaches the subject so that it’s no longer just about victims and perpetrators.”.

Right, because that is the new policy of remembrance in the unified germany: We are all victims. The jews sure had a tough time in Auschwitz but the germans suffered too, with them evil western allies burning down Dresden and Ivan raping great-grandnanny.

One of the more annoying traits of my fellow countrypeople is their tendency to think in terms of a timeless german collective. When a case of reparations is negotiated there is a cry of “why should I pay when I have been born after the war” as if jews, forced labourers et al. would rattle at some germans personal front doors with a collecting box (they don’t, actually; they negotiate with the FRG as the legal successor to the “Third Reich”, because that is the point of states to honour treaties beyond the lifetime of the individual). Whenever an american movie (or a comic book) makes fun of nazis people here ask “why do americans think all germans are nazis?” (as far as I can tell they do not, and rather expect us to join them laughing. I haven’t yet met an american who would understand why contemporary germans would be offended by a joke about nazis).

And that is the flip side of a german history taught without perpertrators: that todays germans are innocent as far as the holocaust is concerned will be misunderstood to mean that all germans, at any time had been innocent or at least had their reasons for whatever they did and that Nazis shouldn’t be judged by the mere 12 years of their Third Reich. Victims and perpetrators have become so much morally evquivalent that historian Götz Aly is already writing about the common life experiences of Max Horkheimer and Georg Kiesinger (the former a jewish emigrant, the latter a Nazi propagandist who went on to become german chancellor). It seems that germans cannot live self-assured in the present without inventing a past that is somehow more acceptable.

I’ve been born in 1971, 26 years after WW2. I have never felt that I am responsible for things that happened before I was born. But to write a history that blurs the difference between victims and perpertrators means to lower our defenses, and I don’t feel we’re ready for this either.


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    1. Sadly, it’s not a North/South thing. I grew up in Lower Saxony, and I learned even less about the Holocaust. I do remember the famous picture of the child in the Warsaw ghetto, presented with little context. I also remember a picture of a extermination camp, which, I believe, was Bergen-Belsen. I certainly did learn that the Nazis killed a lot of jews (even though I do remember being quite insecure about the actual number …).
      Please keep in mind that I visited a Gymnasium (something like High School) and that I continually got A and B grades in History (I even wrote my final exams on the Weimar Republic). Nevertheless, I didn’t actually have an idea about the anti-Semitic ideology of the Nazis. As far as I was concerned, National Socialism was a dictature by a man (Hitler) who, for some reason, happpened to dislike Jews (whoever they were). Since i did not know any Jews, I considered them some kind of “foreigners” who, these days, were not present anymore in Germany. I don’t think that I ever learned the least bit about the history of German Jewry at school (something that might have proven helpful not for “understanding” the holocaust, but for realizing what the murder of most of them truly meant). So the whole thing seemed somhow external to Germany in my eyes: There was this dictator, and there were these Jews. It was a bad time. People chose a bad leader because they had no jobs. Then there was war, which was also bad – that pretty much sums up my concept of what happened in Germany between 33 and 45.
      My ignorance went even so far that I didn’t have the slightest idea what the term anti-Semitism meant (which was not a problem in my history classes, because it tended not to crop up there). Considering myself anti-racist, I was quite confused by the use of “anti”. I finally concluded that “semite” was a word that was somehow connected to words like the English “similar”, and that an anti-Semitist was basically a racist, meaning someone who didn’t believe in the “similarity” of people of different ethnicity – an “anti-similarist” (clearly, I didn’t know about the different usages of English words like “similar” and “equal” back then). I remember that I finally got rid of this misconception when reading Moishe Postone in a reading group I started with some friends in my last year of school.
      So, while I did learn about NS and the Holocaust at school, I didn’t learn about the anti-Semitic ideology behind it. And I think this is the main reason, why, in school, I remained so deeply ignorant about the Holocaust. One might consider it problematic to teach schoolchildren about anti-Semitic ideology, even if it is to denounce this ideology. However, I don’t think there’s an alternative.

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