A Jew Among the Germans
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holocaust education in germany: an interview
Teaching the subject of the Holocaust and the Nazi era is mandatory in German schools and in addition to the classroom curriculum, almost all students have either visited a concentration camp or a Holocaust memorial or museum. However, Lars Rensmann, a German educator who teaches political science at the University of Munich and at the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies, University of Potsdam, points out some of the limitations on how deep this education goes and how many young Germans it reaches. This interview was conducted May 19, 2005.

Something which is very common among young Germans is to say, 'I don't want to hear about the Holocaust. The Americans did the same thing with the Indians, and the Israelis do the same with the Palestinians.'

What is your understanding of how the Holocaust and the period of National Socialism is being taught today in German schools? Can you offer a general assessment?

First of all, you do have in Germany a history curriculum which is more limited compared to, let's say, the United States. You have only two regular hours of history classes a week. And generally, the Holocaust is only briefly a subject, at least until 10th grade -- that would be 16 years old. And only a third of the students continue to the 11th, 12th and 13th grades which is equivalent to getting an American high school diploma. In the German system, two-thirds of students actually stop after 10th grade. So, when you just only look at the curriculum, there's not so much time for actually teaching the Holocaust.

It is the case, however, that you do have quite a lot of very committed teachers who introduce students to extra-curricular activities which includes going to museums, even possibly visiting concentration camp sites, and other forms of Holocaust education. This is happening on a regular basis at German schools, but it depends on personal commitment. The history curriculum can be, and should be, improved because knowledge of the Holocaust is clearly lacking among adolescents.

In the course of the last 20 years, Holocaust education has certainly gained importance, not least because of new generations of teachers. This is an effect of the public discourses and memorizations of the Holocaust since 1979 and the first major debates when the TV series "Holocaust" was broadcast in Germany and initiated a new kind of awareness about a subject which was still rather a taboo up until then.

That television broadcast actually triggered something significant?

It certainly did. It was broadcast here in 1979 and was really significant for the entire discourse on memory, on memorialization, and remembrance of the Holocaust in Germany. Before that, Nazism was -- in spite of student protests against the "perpetrator generation" in the late '60s, and in spite of the Auschwitz trials in the early '60s -- not a topic of social concern at all. It was more a taboo topic, both in the public and social spheres. And, most of all, no one talked about it in the private sphere. In retrospect, the common talk about "sixty years of working through the past" is utterly inadequate to describe the development of post-Holocaust Germany. On the institutional level, Germany was in the process of democratization since 1949, but on other political, cultural and social levels, in fact, the public discussions really only gained importance in the last 25 years. Still, though, it remains a "constant seesaw between learning and forgetting", as Saul Friedlander once put it.

However, the TV series "Holocaust" really triggered something. And this is also reflected in the generational changes. Many younger teachers are more committed to teaching the history of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews, even though it is not an important aspect of the curriculum or political education. And because of this commitment, you do have a relevant amount of education for young kids and adolescents.

The problem, though, is that there's definitely a lack of time emphasis on history in general, and in the Holocaust in particular, in German classroom rooms. Many students, even when they're pursuing higher education, often don't even hear about the Holocaust in class until 10th grade. And after 10th grade they don't have to take history classes any anymore. This means that the media and private conversations may be more important and influential resources of "Holocaust education" than German schools.

And what is your sense of the priority given to this in recent years by the government of Germany -- focusing on history and the amount of hours given to it in schools?

I still don't see it too much as a priority yet in spite of quite different general public perceptions that the Holocaust is allegedly taught too much and that the Holocaust is "omnipresent" in Germany's politics, public realm and educational system. I don't see too much of a government effort in actually pushing this, making it more a part of the curriculum at school. On the other hand, we have a shift towards a media culture which increasingly shapes social perceptions. Today adolescents and children often learn about subjects through the media, through television in particular, and use resources such as the Internet. The knowledge they acquire in this process may be dubious and superficial, though, and especially the Internet is an unreliable source.

Compared to most other countries, however, broadcasts on the Holocaust are definitely a significant part of the popular/media culture here. There are history broadcasts on the Holocaust, shows and so forth. Very often, hence, children in Germany get their knowledge actually through television. But, of course, this is an ambivalent situation, because what you learn through television or through the Internet or other new media might not be so reliable and might not be so differentiated compared to the knowledge you might acquire in a school class, through active discussion, participation and under guidance of teachers.

When you discuss this subject in your classrooms at the university level, how would you characterize the reactions and the responses of the students. How engaged are they?

You can really see a cleavage among students both of the third and fourth post-Holocaust generational cohorts. Of course, students who take classes on a voluntary basis on the Holocaust are usually more interested in the subject than other students; it's a self selected group already because courses on the Holocaust are not required courses in any field on the university level, so my experiences are certainly not representative. But still, the cleavage which I perceive in my classroom corresponds to cleavages observed in the qualitative research colleagues and I have conducted.

There are those students in the classroom who are more committed to learning about the Holocaust, to doing more research about the perpetrators' motives and the suffering of the victims, than maybe in any other previous generation of Germans. They intend to learn about anti-Semitism, including the anti-Semitism of their grandparents, a taboo topic in the debates of former decades which focused on Hitler's guilt or anonymous bureaucratic modern structures which were held responsible for Auschwitz. So there is a substantial amount of students who really want to know how it happened and how it could happen, and who were the culprits and the victims.

But then you also have a fair amount of students who are more strongly opposing Holocaust remembrance than previous generations. They seek a "normal" German national identity and feel the Holocaust is too much of a burden, not an important part of German history, and that it has been over-represented in the media and public discourse. [Those who] are looking for a conventional national German identity or "German pride," tend to split off the Holocaust as a "general phenomenon" similar to crimes of all other nations. They tend to reject a post-conventional moral understanding of history and identity which reflects that the Holocaust -- this unprecedented crime and genocide -- is indeed part of one's German collective self-identity and self-image, and it needs to be because you can neither rewrite history nor escape the fact that you are shaped by your social and cultural background.

The challenge is to self-reflect this criminal aspect of German history, including anti-Semitism. Those students who fully accept this particular responsibility and legacy tend to develop cosmopolitan, universalistic ethical values and post-national identities.But those students who say "I want to be proud of my country again and proud about our history" rather tend to -- and we have very substantial empirical studies about this -- not be interested in the Holocaust, not wanting to learn about it. They feel it is a burden which is superimposed to them by "others," and they tend to identify with rather conventional norms, ethnic identity narratives and moral systems.

And so you really have this kind of cleavage, this internal split within this generational cohort. It's a very stark contrast between those who really don't want to hear about it, and those who are particularly interested in learning about the subject.

The 60th anniversary of the end of World War II was commemorated a few weeks ago. And in conjunction with that event, a poll was conducted on German history, and it indicated that one young German in two does not know what the Holocaust was. The poll was conducted by the independent research institute Forschungsgruppe Wahlen for public broadcaster ZDF and the newspaper Die Welt. Do you think this statistic is connected to your earlier point about the limited amount of time given to teaching history?

Yes. It's definitely the case that there's insufficient history teaching and insufficient knowledge about the Holocaust among young generational cohorts, and this does not just affect uneducated adolescents. Political efforts need to increase to change this. It needs to be taught in schools way more thoroughly. It's a shame that such a high amount of young Germans don't know what Auschwitz or the Holocaust was, in spite of all the lament about an "over-representation" of Auschwitz in the German media and schools. Those data are alarming. It finally needs to become an important, if not central part of education, just like other subjects. Increased efforts in teaching about prejudice, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust are overdue.

How do you teach the subject in your classrooms? For example, do you place the Nazi era and the Holocaust in a broader context of understanding historically how other peoples have been targeted and eliminated over the centuries?

What is very important to me, when I teach classes, is to display both parallels to other genocides but also to make them understand the singular dimensions of this crime which was unprecedented in human history. It is important to show what a disastrous effect prejudiced thinking in general may have, but also that there are also significant differences between ethnic prejudices, anti-Semitism, which is a world conspiracy theory, genocide and the Holocaust.

Something which is very common among young Germans is to say, "I don't want to hear about the Holocaust. The Americans did the same thing with the Indians, and the Israelis do the same with the Palestinians." This kind of generalization pretends to be sensitive to prejudice in general and pretends to be universalistic because it seems to criticize prejudice all over the world. But in fact, it is a delegation of guilt onto others in order to avoid confronting one's own collective history. Universalism, in this case, and the look into the world becomes a token, used to equate very different historical events or conflicts in order to equate them with the Holocaust and relativize this genocide. Of course, every argument and also universalistic arguments can be used or utilized to downplay the specific history. While the history of the Holocaust is very analogous on different levels to other genocides and there are, of course, general links to prejudiced thinking, at the same time, you also have to understand its specific context and dimension. This is the challenge for the teacher to overcome those general misperceptions among your students.

There are certain conditions, aspects of structure and agency, and the systematic extermination of the European Jews in particular, which show a very specific quality of the Holocaust which happened in Germany and was committed primarily by Germans.

At what age should teachers or parents start talking about the Holocaust and Nazi era with a child?

I find it important to talk to children about Nazism and the Holocaust at a relatively young age because in one way or another, they will eventually hear about it, and then it's better that parents or professional teachers educate them, rather than only other children. When you live in Germany, you're confronted with monuments, you're confronted with this history, you cannot really escape from it, of course, and children will hear about it.

Among young children, "Jew" is increasingly used to give someone a bad name. Other kids might say, "You look like a Jew," or "You smell like a Jew," or "You steal like a Jew." And children often know these things from their parents. Anti-Semitism has not vanished and fully dissipated in German society, and very often it is linked to secondary anti-Semitism directed against Jews as representatives of the memory of the Holocaust, which many Germans feel is an unpleasant matter which they unconsciously delegate on Jews. When I was a kid, in the 1970s, they made fun of me and called me "concentration inmate" because I was so skinny. Other children sang songs praising Hitler. The wrong thing to do as parents and teachers is to be mute about the Holocaust, and to not confront your children with this history just because it is so horrible and you want to protect them. Then they might learn wrong things about Auschwitz and Nazism.

This does not mean that you have to show them drastic pictures displaying concentration camps when they are still very young, but teachers and parents are challenged to face this history in education early on.

It also depends on how you talk about it and how you confront what happened. It is certainly too late to talk about the subject in 10th grade, at least in the German context. One way or another, through the media or through things they hear, children are confronted with the subject anyway. So even if you want to, you can't avoid the subject. And then it is really important that you intervene early on. But very often, also the parents are lacking knowledge and really need Holocaust education.


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posted may 31, 2005

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