Finger-wagging 'doesn't work'

5th May 1995 at 01:00
It's no fun being a young German at the moment. The last few weeks have been dominated by endless anniversaries, memorial services, documentaries of Nazi atrocities, and politicians' breast-beating.

And young people are finding themselves at the centre of the debate. At last week's ceremony commemorating the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, German president Roman Herzog urged the young generation to take up the torch of remembrance of Nazi horror and accept their "own responsibility to make sure it can never be repeated".

Meanwhile, violence against foreigners by young right-wing radicals has sparked numerous debates asking if schools have failed to teach children about their country's inglorious past.

But why should children share in a "collective guilt" about a Germany they never knew and, living in Europe's wealthiest and most successful modern democracy, find hard to even imagine?

"It's nothing to do with us, we didn't cause it, we hope it will never happen again but we are fed up of taking the responsibility," is a typical classroom response.

Rolf Ballof, chairman of the national Association of History Teachers in Germany, said lessons on the Holocaust are absolutely "not a hit".

But there is no avoiding the subject. Education regulations insist that National Socialism be taught at least once in a child's school career. Each state's education ministry sets its own curriculum, but pupils will probably first learn about the Holocaust at the age of 11, return to the subject aged 15 and, if they stay on at school, for a third time aged 18.

Just after the War Germany's recent history was a taboo subject in schools. By the 1970s, a new generation of teachers wanted to confront the past and children watched videos of concentration camps and visited memorials.

"But the finger-wagging attitude - 'we teach you this so that it never happens again' - simply does not work," says Mr Ballof. The film Schindler's List or a visit to an exhibition on Anne Frank makes a much greater impression than reading about six million Jewish deaths in a textbook.

Some teachers also recommend school trips to memorials on the sites of former concentration camps such as Buchenwald, Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. But education experts believe this should be purely voluntary.

Blaming history teaching in schools for the rise in right-wing violence in Germany since reunification is unhelpful, they say. Wilhelm Heitmeyer, a professor of education at Bielefeld University, said that above all it was children's everyday experiences that determined their political views.

Surveys by Berlin Technical University's centre for research into anti-Semitism, have shown that children know considerably more about National Socialism today than youngsters knew in the 1950s.

Anti-Semitic views among young Germans are extremely rare, according to Professor Werner Bergmann, of the centre. But he added that up to two-thirds of the population feel Germans have now paid their historic debt.

So are teachers confident that the wounds of the past have finally healed? One 35-year-old history teacher in a small town in Hesse doubts it. On a recent visit to local archives looking for pictures of the town during the Nazi period, she was shocked by the response. "I finally got what I wanted, but only after a long lecture from the elderly librarian about how people who didn't live through it just don't understand."

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