How could they do that?

14th March 1997 at 00:00
If you want to know why the German people followed Hitler, you have to begin with their mind-set, writes John D Clare. HISTORY FILE: NAZI GERMANY 1918-1945 BBC2 Wednesdays 12.05-12.30pm (Rpt September 23-October 28) Age range: 11-17

The past," said L P Hartley, "is a foreign country." But some pasts are more foreign than others. Whenever I study the Nazis, for example, I continually want to ask, what were they thinking of? Their actions were so different to anything we can accept or imagine.

How did a tramp become absolute Fuehrer of Germany? How could the Nazis agree to exterminate another race? How did the German people feel about all this? Unless pupils address these issues, their study of Nazi Germany simply becomes a list of amazing, incomprehensible horrors. Without trying to understand the German "mind-set", they are tempted to dismiss the Germans simply as mad, bad, or both.

This gripping, thought-provoking series will help pupils to understand how people felt in Germany at that time. Each programme looks at a theme through the testimony of an actual person. In this way, we learn about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of five men and women who lived through the events. Seeing the times through their eyes, we understand better their motivations and inspirations, and are thus better equipped to understand why things happened as they did.

Why did Germans support such an evil man as Adolf Hitler? The rise of the Nazi party was not a form of collective madness. The first programme studies the issue through the words of Fritz Meuhlebach, an unemployed sailor who became a Brownshirt. Through actor Joe Caffrey, we hear Meuhlebach explain how he came to join the SS and why he despised freedom and democracy. The programme lets Meuhlebach speak for himself, and his comments on unemployment are plausible. For many Germans, Hitler was the only hope in a nightmare world.

The second programme looks at Nora Wain, an American writer who visited Germany. She, too, saw the positive side and real achievements of the Nazis, but also the atmosphere of terror, in which people could only "speak through a flower" in case they, too, disappeared one night. "It made me so angry . . . I wanted to scream 'stop it!'," says Kristin Marks, who plays Nora. But it was not so easy for Germans, caught in the Nazi terror.

This programme sends a shiver down the spine - watch out for the landlord and his wife willing to see the good in any situation, blind to the drawbacks of the Nazi regime.

For me the second and third programmes were especially good. The latter looks at the Nazi treatment of the Jews through the recollections of Elsbeth Rosenfeld, a half-Jewish Christian who escaped to Switzerland. It is moving. Coronation Street actress Denise Black is brilliant as Elsbeth, describing to a Swiss border-guard the shame and pain of her experiences.

The series progresses with the story of Henry Metelmann, who as a boy horrified his working-class father by joining the Nazi Youth. At this point the series loses some of its German standpoint and the narrator dismisses the Nazi Youth movement as indoctrination. Similarly, programme five emphasises Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen's portrayal of Nazism as a drug to which the Germans were addicted. In this way, the series moves to a more "comfortable" explanation of the Nazi phenomenon as a kind of German madness. It is important to realise that most German boys enjoyed the Nazi Youth, much as most Germans embraced Nazi ideology, although the series investigates the story of the 500,000 or so Germans who died resisting Hitler.

At the preview screening, the programmes left the audience "unusually silent". Perhaps the viewers had to face the reality of what they had seen. The question that you are left with is, "How would I have reacted?" Like the landlord and his wife, are we also too ready to turn a blind eye to racism and injustice, as long as we are comfortable? There was nothing evil or stupid about the Germans of 1918-1945, yet they slipped into a world of tyranny and genocide. How close to the surface are such things in our own society?

In considering such issues, lessons cease to be mere teaching and become real education.

A teacher's pack by Mike Hirst is available for Pounds 11.99 from BBC Educational Publishing, PO Box 234, Wetherby, West Yorkshire L23 7EU.

John D Clare is head of history at Greenfields Comprehensive, Co Durham

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