How are German school children taught about the World Wars?

I have always wondered how German school children were taught about their country’s part in World War I & II. I would think that it would be a lightly treaded upon subject. I would assume that it is rather humiliating to have lost both wars and not have the national sense of pride assosiated with winning. How is Hitler discussed? Just curious, as Americans we have always been the victor except that little skirmish in Vietnam. I went to grammer school in the 70’s while 'Nam was still going on and I don’t remember it being discussed and discussed very little if at all in middle and high school. But the World Wars were, I am figuring because we were victorious. Easy to talk about being a winner, maybe that is why it seemed to me that 'Nam was glossed over. Anyways, if anyone here knows it would clear up something that has been on my mind for so time.

Thanks In Advance.

It’s being done to death and it’s made abundantly clear that we were the bad guys. Especially in the case of the Third Reich, it’s covered multiple times over the course of a student’s career, and with particular emphasis on the Holocaust. We are told in no uncertain terms that this is what happened and that it must never happen again.

Also, in German society, losing WWII is less considered to be having our asses kicked and more as a liberation from a madman and a criminal government who held the German people hostage (this is partly due to a very important speech of our president, Richard von Weizsäcker, in the mid-80s).

WWI is not as widely covered, lacking the particular atrocities of the Holocaust and the comic-like clear lines of good guys vs. bad guys. We do learn about it, but in the collective mind of the German people, 1933-1945 is by far the more defining period.

National pride is actually a major issue, in that people are constantly discussing whether you should even be allowed to be “proud” of your country, since it’s nothing you achieved yourself. This changed a bit during the 2006 world cup, where we were able to celebrate our country without feeling guilty about it. Outside of major sporting events, though, you are not going to find German flags flying in the street.

Missed the edit window - something I wanted to add:

To tell you the truth, it is precisely our treatment of the past that makes me a little proud of our country, as I’m not aware of many nations who do own up to past atrocities like Germany does - from what I hear, WWII is being covered very differently in Japanese society, and Turkey fights the remembrance of the Armenian genocide tooth and nail.

Also, to add to the point of liberation vs. losing a war: this does not relieve “us” from the responsibility for having elected that madman in the first place. It just means that losing WWII should be celebrated as the beginning of our modern society.

How is Hitler discussed? We have the same morbid fascination with him that everybody else does, with the added “bonus” that we actually elected him. So I don’t think you’ll find a week on TV without some documentary on Hitler, and school is no different to that.

if i was german, i’ll be content with teaching children how german soldiers occupied one or two countries without firing a shot, and how they walked over the french and the british on the first major encounter.

As Pitchmeister already said, we don’t do the national pride thing any longer. Instead, it’s taken very, very seriously to treat history as a subject and as objective as possible, by recounting events and the underlying causes (not only the sparks that ignited things, but what lead up to that point), and what the outcomes of that were.

So generally history is not seen as source of pride, but as a science, and hopefully something to learn from to avoid making the same mistake. It’s also more important not who won or lost a war, but to avoid wars if possible, because they are terrible.

The myth-heavy view of history that seems to be taught via Hollywood and at least not disspelled, sometimes re-inforced, in US history class, would be anathema to us. Obviously history will always have some subjective issue (victors write history), and obviously, it’s difficult in times of war to seperate propaganda from reality, but that makes teaching facts and not propaganda much more important.

Probably similar to the way U.S. students are taught about slavery.

doing light reading on the french revolution and the reign of terror, the french (those i’ve read) focus more on the implication of that period of history to their current state, and understand the dangers of a (christian) revolution. at least they were much kinder with robespierre than the germans with hitler.

Well, Robespierre isn’t responsible for the death of 20+ million people, is he?

you’ll call me an uncaring jock if i replied that the numbers were relative. both actually seemed to believe in what they were doing. both acted out of some christian belief. both decided to forego due process in executing so-called enemies of the state/republic/etc.

While the Guillotine was invented, IIRC, for the swift and easy execution of lots of people, the French Revolution has nothing on the industrialized murder of many millions of people. Remember, the Nazis were not shy to make a spectacle out of publicly trying and killing “enemies of the state” - the concentration camps, however, were apparently not as widely known. You may counter that Robespierre did not have the tools to murder on that scale, but did he try and nearly succeed in annihilating a whole people?

actually discussing robespierre is going away from the topic since we are discussing war. robespierre was against going to war with any country and was intent on seeing the french revolution through. but oohh… the things that happened inside france during the reign of terror. the robespierres of recent years and today would be khadafi, the ayatollah, pol pot, the older kim. how less evil are they compared with this next batch:

hitler who was for aggresive war, his heirs saddam, slobo, the younger kim(?) the argentine junta.

robespierre clearly wanted to anihilate all of his enemies, though they may be of different religion and beliefs.

Dr. Guillotin was actually more concerned about the executions being “humane” and painless over efficiency. He was against the death penalty itself and found it barbaric, but tried to do what he could since it didn’t look like it was going away any time soon.
It’s a grim irony that his invention had the side-effect of making the death penalty even more widespread.

As for Robespierre, he was really more of an overly driven idealist than a maniacal murderer or corrupt autocrat. I believe he really thought he was working for the greater good of everyone and that his extreme measures were an unsavoury necessity to get things done. I wouldn’t put him in the same box as Saddam, Papa Doc Duvalier or even Stalin.
That being said, the French history classes do paint him as a bit of a jerk ;). More focus is put on the early days of the Revolution (root causes, calling of the Parliament, popular insurection, fall of the Bastille, death of the king etc…) than the Terror that followed it however. It’s covered, but not as extensively or in great details. Either in an effort to whitewash it, or because there’s Napoleon to look at next and there are only so many history classes in the year.

At least, that’s what I remember from my middle/high school days. In comparison, WW1 & 2 are done to death, then resurrected, then done to death again.

Hitler and his band of merry murderers share characteristics with other notorious figures in world’s history but they are still a unique and entirely disturbing phenomenon. Pitchmeister already mentioned the methodical, industrialized extermination that was going on – this was not just a new level of bloodcurdling callousness, the bureaucratic apparatus behind it also illustrates that it is possible to plan, organize and execute something that should be unthinkable for everyone but the maddest of madmen with ordinary human beings who went home to play with their children and small talk with their wives.

That realisation has always been the most chilling for me.

And proximity matters; when my oldest daughter learned about the Nazis, she started to ask questions, of course, and was dumbstruck to learn that the once numerous German branches of her family-tree had been almost completely cut in a little more than a decade. And the people she has never met started to matter, because she could see evidence of their existence.

And this is one thing we still do in the classes: confront the children with the evidence, with the pictures we have of that time, the news reels, the testimonies given by perpetrators and victims, the physical evidence that becomes palpable in exhibitions and is experienced by walking through the memorials, like the concentration camps, that are regularly toured by classes.

But the Third Reich is a not just a subject matter in the history classes, it’s also discussed in subjects like German, e.g. when the works by Jewish Germans or German speakers are taught; a poem like Die Todesfuge by Paul Celan rarely fails to have an impact.

Of course, the small but irritating bunch of present-day Neo-Nazis is another helpful reminder and so are social interactions among people who have reason to remember.

All this keeps the Nazi crimes closer to our presence than mere text books could do, and this is good: The lessons need to be learned and re-learned again and again to not allow anything like that ever again.

my question to you, with all due respect, is how much study and discussion in school were devoted to understanding hitler and his “war?”

My German class visited one during a school exchange trip to East Berlin. Sachsenhausen I think ?
Eerie-ass place, even just the outside yard. I don’t believe in ghosts or psychic imprints or any nonsense of that sort, but to my teenage self that place was oppressive and just *weird *on a level I can’t really describe. Probably just my overactive imagination - but I still remember the feeling vividly.

Not sure I understand the question or the scare quotes, but as has been said, the whole period of 1933-45 is covered in every possible age group, from elementary school to graduation, and not just in history class. What’s your point?

For starters, our children learn that it’s our war, not his. And they do so extensively; when I was in school (a humanistic secondary school) during the 80s, the Third Reich was part of the curriculum three times in history (with different focal points and rising levels of comprehensive analysis), twice in politics and multiple times in German and even in French.

We analyzed the subject during the senior years of secondary school in history for a final time for more than half a year.

My children seem to learn almost as much about the subject as we did and they are even less shy to ask hard questions - and have far less trouble to get detailed answers; when our history teacher answered questions about the role of our school and town during the Nazi era, he admitted in a more private circle that he was confronted with more than raised eyebrows by officials when he started to dig. The history teacher of my oldest daughter, otoh, did not just encourage his students to learn more about the effects close at home, he got help by a local historian who toured locations with the class that had been - in one way or the other - landmarks of the Third Reich.

my mother country was also affected in large part by world war 2 so i can understand some of what you’re saying. whether or not your country was the aggressor, a helpless third party, or the main opposing force, you and your community were sure to have suffered. civilian casualties through purely military action are horrendous enough, let alone purposeful murder of civilians.

to discuss, if you will allow, hitler’s “war,” i posit two basic assumptions:

first, hitler was proud of his germany and, it seems, very proud of his race as he defined it. we all know the term ‘aryan’ was incorrectly used. in any case, it seems he had a deep and sincere feeling for his “germans.” he wanted to preserve and enhance it.

second, i follow the stand of many historians that hitler did not want a long and costly war (only a fool would want that.) he wanted a victory for germany. of course, today’s society would call that pure idiocy. only a barbarian will go to war because he likes the feeling of winning. what they meant was something closer to a “germany victorious” in the broader sense.

if you accept these two posits, are students in germany made to understand this?

Considering the unavoidable chest thumping of the OP, I am fucking glad all of Western Europe took the scientific road over the myth one in teaching history to our kids.

Again, I’m not sure I understand your point, but what difference does it make if he didn’t actually want a war? He still started it, and he sure made no effort to end it after it became clear it would end in the destruction of the entire country and people. By the end of the war, he adopted a scorched earth policy, saying the German people didn’t deserve to live if they couldn’t win the war.

Just because he wasn’t a cartoon villain doesn’t make his actions any less despicable.