The day they put Hitler on trial

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Kevin Berry watches a workshop that asks pupils to decide about the last war

A GCSE examiner stands in front of 600 restless, fidgety teenagers and says: "Well have another 123 mornings and then it will be exam day!" All fidgeting stops and there is a sharp intake of breath in 600 mouths as their sense of urgency is awakened.

School History Scene's half- day programme, Hitler on Trial: A GCSE History Conference, features examiner Chris Culpin. Despite highlighting his sensible tips by sounding a hooter, he has the communication and motivational skills of an enthusiastic expert and the street cred of a distinguished examiner.

Culpin delivers an exam busting workshop, going through a typical history paper. Each question has three answers and the audience has to decide which one will get the best marks. He discusses the need for a balanced answer, looking at evidence and sources and insists that candidates need to get beyond the basics.

Some of his teaching is like a teacher's daily mantra - "Answer the question! Don't spend half an hour on this section!" - but his audience listens. This is a man who has marked papers, for goodness sake!

Then the School History Scene programme turns to the main event, Hitler's trial.

Plays and films on the lines of "what if Hitler had won?" usually fail because far too much disbelief has to be suspended. But here, the question is kept simple: Was Hitler solely responsible for bringing about the Second World War? He did not, we are asked to believe, commit suicide in the bunker but was captured crossing the border into Holland. Crimes against humanity, we are told, will be the business of another trial at a later date.

It is not great drama but rather a mock trial played in the manner of a group of interested writers or academics dressing up as Churchill, Stalin, Woodrow Wilson, among others, and giving some flesh to ideas. That is all it really needs.

The evidence for and against is delivered clearly and convincingly. Students in the audience have a checklist to compare points raised in the prosecution and defence cases to help make up their minds. The result is usually too close for a majority verdict so Hitler is marched off to the cells to await his trial for crimes against humanity.

As to whether Hitler was solely responsible, a pupil from The Mount School in York said, "Although I think he had a major part of play in it, there were so many other factors to consider. So I voted Not Guilty."

In what was a dramatic climax with a twist, a man runs down the aisle before Hitler disappears from view and shoots him, which should tie everything up quite neatly. Only, the day I saw the show, the assassin's gun jammed. I'll bet that doesn't happen again.

School History Scene tours 'Hitler on Trial' this term. For details, ring or fax 0117 924 3672

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