Somewhat inspired by the thread about British kids and the American Revolution, I got to thinking about the “de-nazification” of WW2 Germany. When modern German kids learn about the 1930’s and 40’s, what are they taught about their forebears (somehow, I don’t anticipate the Greatest Generation meme that predominates American nostalgia)? Is the time referenced as shameful? Is there any measure of pride or nationalism regarding their brief conquest of most of Europe?
My dad’s experience with Germans in their 20s now is that the general attitude is “Jeez, can’t we kind of let it go? I wasn’t there, and I’m tired of being told how we suck, and how you rule, and I can’t change the past in any sense, so pushing it in my face is just really old now.” He had trouble getting the German man to go to anything in Germany that might be related to the war.
I mean, I’m a little sick of hearing how Whitey sucks, and that’s even still going on to various extents. If I were German, and had been told about this many times, I think I might feel the same way.
In short, I hear they’re told a version that passes muster with the rest of Europe’s conception. Can you imagine if they tried to white-wash it or proclaim it a victory to be proud of? The howl of rage would be immense. I mean, even Britain has really toned down its attitude toward its colonial times.
Not quite that far back but in 1968 when I was a high school senior, we had a German exchange student who was in my US History class. Asked the obvious question, he said, “They tell us there was a war. It was our fault. We lost.”
Not that he mentioned. Actually, I found it kind of refreshing that they conceded it was their fault. This was in Orange county California at the time and I had a hard time envisioning anything similar for, say Viet Nam in our education system.
I’m German and left school in 1987. The major part of my history lessons in grade 12 and 13 was about the time from 1871 (founding of the German Kaiserreich) to 1945, which taught us the development which led to the final catastrophe. There was never any kind of justification or even glorification of the German wrongdoings in these times, and teaching about the Holocaust was part of the curriculum (in order to not know about the Holocaust as a German, you must live in a hole in the ground). Of course, these were my personal experiences from more than twenty years ago, but I’m sure that any positive approach by a history teacher when teaching about the third Reich would have meant serious trouble for him/her up to today.
There apparently is a program that allows young Germans who feel the need to give something back for their country’s history to do work or study in one of the countries that was occupied. I’ve met a handful of young Germans in Norway this way, doing things like working in a nursing home or a school, learning the language and culture as they go. Two of them have even stayed. But I have no idea if this is a wholly private program or if the government or educational system is involved in any way. I definitely have the impression that this is something organized, though, and not just something they happened to decide to do on their own.
I wrote a research paper on wartime propaganda when I was in high school, and found a better source than I thought possible at my local library. It seems that the head librarian had been a little girl living in Germany when WWII ended. She told me in great detail about the way she and the other citizens of her little farming town were herded into movie theaters by the Americans and made to watch newsreels documenting the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
Threads like these always remind me that there seem to be some fundamental disconnects between Germans of my generation (and the younger generation, say late teens, past the main school curriculum) on the one hand, and Americans in particular:
[li]Most prominently, the notion that the common narrative of one’s nation’s history is of course an affirmative one. Why should that be the case? In this context Cardinal’s aside that ‘even Britain has really toned down its attitude toward its colonial times.’ strikes me as curious - why should present British historiography treat the colonial period as a Good Thing rather than something that happened? (Of course the popular narrative of present policy is always affirmative - if it were otherwise we’d vote present policy out - but that does not concern past policy).[/li][li]Also a different perception (relating what Cardinal’s dad told): people acting like WW2, the Holocaust etc. were some kind of news (Well of course for educated foreigners to Germany it’s not exactly news - but something they did not think a lot about before, and now do - almost like news). We don’t talk about these things as if they were some thing of interesting current event - in the years when we come to terms with them and integrate them into our worldview we tend to be a bit overwhelmed and inarticulate (good luck talking about it with a 15-year-old), and later it’s part of the world as it is. For me for example the past fact of the Holocaust is a bit like the future fact that I will die - true, soul-numbingly terrible, no reason to talk about it unless and until I should come on some idiot telling me I’m physically immortal.[/li][li]A somewhat tangential aspect: assuming certain concepts were in current use. The most egregious one being some American traveler or other innocently refering to Aryan-looking people etc. - to use the very concept is to self-identify as a Nazi.[/li][/ul]
A note on the general culture of teaching and commemoration BTW - in the last decades debate, events, publication etc have shifted a lot from the big picture (a stable background) to local history: Which war criminals graduated from our faculty of law, what a prominent postwar mayor did in the war (occupation official in Slovakia), history of the local concentration camp (there are still some survivors, mostly teens at the time, regularly traveling over from countries like Poland and Israel to give talks), forced labour in a particular company, involvement of the state administration in the T4 program, that kind of thing.
I can answer that one, which is that one of the purposes of the educational system is to teach patriotism; to fill kids with a love for their country. So, at least at first, you want to focus on the good things your country has done, so the kids don’t come off thinking that their country is horrible. Later, as the kids get older, maybe you can start looking at some of the negative aspects of the country’s past.
Is this a common perception in the US? It certainly isn’t in Ireland, in relation to history at any rate. The purpose of studying history is to learn about who you are, and how you became so. Loving who you are is psychology, not history.
This aspect of the American educational system is totally foreign to the German one. A German teacher who promotes patriotism in class is almost unthinkable (of course, there may be exceptions).
The reason for that is just our difficult history. We may be proud of our well-functioning democracy since 1945, but when it comes to patriotism, almost everybody becomes very careful (and IMHO, this is a good thing).