Lessons to curb rise of neo-Nazi extremism

3rd July 1998 at 01:00

Recognition of the importance of citizenship education is bringing the subject to classrooms from Europe to Australia.

Violence caused by neo-Nazi hooligans at the World Cup in France has shocked but not surprised teachers, who have witnessed a rapid rise in neo-Nazism in German schools.

Last month 9 per cent of German 14 to 25-year-olds polled by the research organisation Forsa said they favoured extreme-right parties. In the East it was 17 per cent. In 1995, Forsa found only 5 per cent of young people expressing such sentiments, with 11 per cent in the East.

The poll revealed that 8 per cent of neo-Nazi supporters also felt violence against others was "legitimate", while 14 per cent found vandalism acceptable.

Gerhard Frey, head of the neo-Nazi German People's Union (DVU) party that gained 13 per cent of the vote in state elections in Saxony-Anhalt in April, said: "Voting Right is a part of youth culture, like techno music and skateboarding".

In schools, threatening behaviour that bears neo-Nazi hallmarks is on the rise. In one Berlin school a student cut a swastika into the linoleum and shouted anti-Semitic abuse at a teacher. Elsewhere, a swastika was painted onto the face of a younger pupil.

Displaying Nazi insignia is a criminal offence in Germany and teachers are uncertain how far they should tolerate such acts in the classroom. "We are horrified by these developments," says Gerlinde Schwarz, head of a Berlin comprehensive.

Teachers are calling on school authorities to develop guidelines on dealing with extremism. So far, no advice has been offered.

One Weissensee headteacher ran a special in-house training session for teachers to deal with neo-Nazism and included "de-escalation" training. Students were given a project on right-wing extremism.

Such sessions are the exception. Many headteachers fear tackling the issue will give their schools a reputation for violence.

Anti-fascism workshops for teachers are run by some voluntary organisations, including churches and universities, but teachers attend at their own initiative. More usually, teachers do not recognise the danger signals.

Teachers in the East were brought up in a non-democratic system and many of them show "uncertainty about freedoms of opinion", says Bettina Schubertof the Brandenburg schools authority. These teachers believe racist remarks favoured by neo-Nazis reflect the new freedom of expression.

"Instead of reacting immediately they give the students the impression such comments are acceptable," Ms Schubert says.

Brandenburg has acted decisively. Last month, funding of Pounds 600,000 was approved to bring political education back to the state's schools. Political education was introduced to West Germany after the Second World War as part of the Allied promotion of "collective guilt" among the population for the rise of the Nazis. It was confined to adults.

In the East, ideological education centred on communism being superior to nazism and relegated fascism virtually to a "West German problem". Political education came east after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. However, in the past three years resources for "political education" were reduced by 40 per cent in Brandenburg.

Not long ago pupils regarded neo-Nazism as the refuge of the class drop-out. Neo-nazism was virtually non-existent in grammar schools that prepare the top 30 per cent of students for university entrance. Now it is attracting a wider cross-section.

The Berlin education authority is now drawing up new guidelines for its social studies course for the Abitur to include more about the Nazi era and multicultural society.

There are no plans to change the history curriculum, which stops before the rise of the Nazis, a topic traditionally avoided to avoid embarrassment to teachers who lived through those years.

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