Valerie Hall hears how pupils interviewed German witnesses in Berlin about the Second World War
With Germany hosting the World Cup some tabloids are likely to stoke up the usual Second World War-related anti-German sentiments, but a group of Bedfordshire students know better: "Until we interviewed the witnesses in Berlin, we didn't know that many German people weren't aware of what was going on" and "I've gained a greater understanding that most German people were against Hitler" were typical of the comments they made following a research trip to Berlin. The witnesses they met ranged from a former Hitler Youth to a Jewish woman who lost her entire family.
The Berlin group shared its experiences at a conference of seven lower, middle and upper Bedfordshire schools last January and contributed reports, PowerPoint presentations and quizzes to an international online conference in March entitled "Second World War: a 21st-century perspective".
These conferences crowned an ambitious project carried out for Global Learning Communities (GLC) to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Second World War ending - GLC provides an international online conference centre where students of all ages can share their learning. The Berlin transcripts and resources contributed by other Bedfordshire students are now archived on the GLC site under fighting, the propaganda war, the home front and retrospective views.
Having obtained pound;20,000 Lottery funding, the project was co-ordinated by Caroline Sale, advanced skills teacher for Bedfordshire, who is based at Holmemead Middle School, Biggleswade. Eighty gifted and talented pupils aged eight to 19 were selected last September to work on it outside lessons.
Five groups from different schools visited London's Imperial War Museum, some schools ran living history days and several children interviewed their grandparents or veterans about their wartime lives as soldiers, schoolchildren or evacuees. This work inspired such online reports as "Objective Burma", "Hiroshima - was it necessary?", "What effect did Jewish resistance have?", "The Enigma Machine", "What happened in China" and an "Attack in the air!" quiz.
The 13 Berliners aged 11 to 19 were selected for their adaptability and sensitivity. Rebecca Smith, Bedfordshire's international education officer, approached the Friedrich Ebert Oberschule, which hosted the event and invited witnesses. The British and German students exchanged emails and their teachers collaborated beforehand. For the interviews, the group split into twos and threes to work alongside German translators and pupils.
Herr Engelbrecht's story is extraordinary. In 1943 he and other boys were ordered to stay on the roof-tops day and night shining lights to help soldiers manning anti-aircraft defence weapons. Their teacher taught them on the roof. Eventually, Engelbrecht's friend was killed just metres from him while he escaped with a leg injury. He received an Iron Cross and was conscripted but soon began to question the point of war: "Many soldiers felt they should stop but couldn't because they knew they would be shot."
Herr Pottschies described how all boys aged 10 to 14 were forced to become Hitler Youths and found it "fun at first, but it was used to brainwash the younger generation and give them pre-military training".
Another witness, Herr Von Hammerstein, became a Protestant pastor after the war, founding Action Reconciliation, an anti-war movement. His two soldier brothers were involved in the Von Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler, following which factory worker Von Hammerstein was arrested, but "luckily I really didn't know where they were or that they were involved and I must have made the Nazis believe me because they didn't shoot me".
He was sent to a concentration camp, which, the interviews reveal, most German people didn't know existed. Christa Ronke's 1945 diary entries in another transcript record her shock at the news that millions of Jews had been murdered in the camps: "I am ashamed of being a German and want to emigrate when it will be possible."
Herr Bardorf talked of how propaganda about Allied bombings was used to distract the German people from Nazi crimes: "In the war it was much easier to arrange the Holocaust; people believed that the Jews were being kept in ghettoes in the east for their own safety." He also explained how "Hitler had ordered that anybody who deserted would be hanged without a trial and so they hanged many boys of my age" and how "we had trusted Hitler for too long and after the war we felt like losers. It took a while to realise we had been freed from a nightmare."
Frau Siebner's father, though Jewish, thought he was safe because he had a letter from Hitler thanking him for his First World War military service, but he was forced to emigrate to Shanghai, where he died in 1944. When the British bombarded Berlin, the Nazis wouldn't allow his daughter to take cover in the cellars. But one "kind German" (Schindler) allowed her mother to work in his factory while she sheltered in the cellar below.
In March 1945, the family of Frau Claussen marched to the coast to escape the advancing Russians, but missed their ship. The Russians captured her father and she never saw him again. Back in Berlin, the authorities wouldn't help her starving, homeless family, but the British did. Today, family members are so traumatised by their war experiences that they rarely contact one another. Her story prompted this email to the online conference: "However frightening it was for our children in this country (UK), your work helps us to understand the huge trauma suffered by so many children and their families in Germany during the war and to empathise with all sides."
The Berlin itinerary also included Checkpoint Charlie, the German Resistance Museum and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where Nicholas Hursthouse, 15, was deeply moved: "You feel the person you're reading about is there and you're feeling the same pain. Some were so desperate to write a farewell letter to loved ones that they wrote them on toilet paper and chucked them out of the train."
Caroline Sale says: "This experience has made them grow up a lot and question things from different perspectives."
Of the work contributed by students back home, Katie Hooper's is particularly remarkable. She shares pages from her grandfather's diary, which miraculously survived his time as a prisoner of war. He describes how 141 Britons and 350 Russians were crammed into a room: "Half of us have to stand up all night" and a typical day: "12.00: Dinner, coffee and 2 pieces of bread; 1300: Resumed work... Saw two Jews killed in cold blood today (by SS officers). One beaten senseless with a pick handle and then shot three times in the head because he could not carry on working. The other shot for taking too long on the lavatory. Nice people."
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