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Holocaust Education in Germany

The following information has
been shared by Georg Merten of the
German Information Center; 950
Third Avenue; New York, New York
10022-2781; USA -- with permission to reprint.

The article was researched
and written by Gunter Wehrmann
for the German Information Center
and transcribed for the HGP by
students Laren Dentone, Kelly
Grace, and Devan Peel.

[ Map of Germany ]

Outbreaks of xenophobic violence in Germany, arson attacks on Holocaust memorials, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and, above all, the sight of "skinhead" youths bedecked with rightwing insignia have caused some observers to question whether the Holocaust is studied in Germany after all. On the other hand, the many candlelight vigils and demonstrations against neo-Nazism in December 1992 and in January 1993, many of them attended by hundreds of thousands of German citizens, show that the German people, and not just their political leaders, are aware of the past. It is estimated that a total of more than three million people took to the streets in protests against xenophobia and neo-Nazism.

World War II and Hitler's dictatorship have, in fact, figured prominently in the curriculum of (West) German schools since the early 195Os. From the 1960s onwards, special emphasis has been placed upon conveying the horrors of the Holocaust. Outside the school curriculum, World War II, the Holocaust, and Jewish issues are often featured in the print media, on television, and in the world of the arts. This Focus looks at how the Holocaust is taught in schools in Germany. What follows is a presentation of the basic principles of Holocaust teaching in West Germany. They were also introduced in Eastern Germany following unification in 1990.

The German Education System

Education in Germany is the responsibility of the federal states (Lander). Education policy is coordinated on a national level by a standing conference of state (Land) ministers of education and cultural affairs. It is this body that has issued specific guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust which have been in force in the western German states since 1960.

What is taught in classrooms in Germany is determined by (a) state government syllabus directives issued in accordance with the national guidelines mentioned above and (b) by state government-approved textbooks that are produced by independent textbook publishers. The syllabus directives do not establish lesson plans. Instead, they determine the topics to be covered for every given grade and subject, and the teaching objectives to be achieved.

The Continuing Relevance of the Holocaust

For Germans, the Holocaust is not an event that happened in a faraway place in some distant past, but is part and parcel of their recent history. The memory of the Nazi dictatorship -- of which the Holocaust is an integral part -- and its traumatic legacies have been shaping German policies since the end of World War II. The rebuilding of political institutions in western Germany and postwar political education were largely determined by a serious effort to try to understand the horrors of the Nazi dictatorship and by searching for safeguards in order to prevent history from repeating itself. Consequently, teaching about Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust at schools is not limited to a niche in the history syllabus like the "French and the Indian Wars." Instead, it is discussed again and again in different ways, in a number of subjects, and at different points in time.

The treatment of the Nazi period in all its aspects -- Hitler's rise to power; his establishment of a dictatorship in Germany; the abolition of the rule of law; the persecution of all kinds of political opponents; the racially motivated persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust; the reticence and opposition of German citizens; and, Germany's instigation of World War II -- is compulsory teaching matter at all types of schools in Germany and at all levels of education. The Holocaust is treated as the most important aspect of the period of Nazi rule.

The Principles of Holocaust Teaching

The Holocaust is treated in various school subjects in different ways.

The objective of teaching about the Holocaust is not limited to educating students about historical facts. Instead, the primary political and educational objective for confronting young Germans with their country's darkest past and their ancestors' guilt is, above all, to make them understand the consequences of Hitler's dictatorship, the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and to make them appreciate the values and institutions that protect freedom and democracy.

[ Art by Justin Hemmings ]
Artist: Justin Hemmings

The following quotations from government education documents serve as illustrations of the philosophy of Holocaust education in Germany today. The syllabus directive issued by the education ministry of the Land North Rhine-Westfalia for the treatment of the Holocaust in ninth grade Realschule history classes emphasizes the importance of democratic institutions and ideas. The directive entitled, "From Anti-human Ideas to the Extermination of Human Lives," reads in part as follows:

Students should learn to recognize:

According to a document prepared by the North Rhine-Westfalia ministry of education, directives for Holocaust teaching in Hauptschulen stipulate among other things that:

Evaluating Holocaust Education

The German government has in the past established bilateral textbook commissions in cooperation with education specialists from a number of foreign countries (including the U.S. and Israel). These joint commissions examine the school textbooks of both countries with reference to the treatment of the other country, and issue recommendations. The German-Israeli textbook commission, whose findings were published in 1985, has had a considerable influence on the treatment of Jewish life and Jewish history, including the Holocaust, in school textbooks in Germany. Recently, the Israeli education expert, Chaim Schatzker, who has examined German textbooks since the early 1960s, stated that although he was not entirely satisfied with everything he had read, the treatment of antisemitism as part of German history was adequate in general, and exemplary in some textbooks. He also noted that the Holocaust is treated extensively and in an uncompromising way in all textbooks. He added that the large majority of textbooks addressed the issue of responsibility and co-responsibility of German citizens during the Third Reich seriously and in detail.

Teaching social values and imparting the knowledge of the achievements and crimes that human beings are capable of are essential for nourishing a commitment to tolerance and democracy in young people. Holocaust education alone, however, like any ethics teaching, is not enough to eliminate the crime and intolerance that are bred by social dislocation. If the teaching of ethics were a panacea, there would be no thefts, no homicides, and no bias-related crimes -- because all perpetrators were once taught not to steal, not to kill, and not to hate a fellow citizen of a different color or creed.

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