Stop fighting this war

1st April 2005 at 01:00
Our obsession with the Nazis is fostering hatred and a warped view of history, says Jo Lally

I am annoyed by media hype in this season of wartime anniversaries. So what if half our college students do not know what Auschwitz was? No disrespect to my grandfather's generation, who fought and laid down their lives for a country they believed to be good, but it is time to let bygones be bygones and focus on the future. It does not make sense for young people to expend their energies hating the Germans when there are such tremendous wrongs to be righted in today's world.

I was taught history in the Eighties by men of Dr David Starkey's school of thought. They had been youths during the war and it was vital to them that we learn about Nazi atrocities so that they should never happen again.

Silence reigned on the matter of British misdeeds. Twenty years on, we are overwhelmed with television programmes about "the" war. We are fostering hatred and a simple-minded view of that period of history which allows us to escape blameless and bask in our superiority. The prevailing lack of balance and sophistication will ensure that, far from avoiding repetitions of the past, we will create the right conditions for a recurrence of strife and genocide.

We rightly condemn the Nazis for the Holocaust but believe that we are different, democratic and noble. We ignore the rise of anti-semitism in Britain, the threat to basic human rights and the abuses of other nations which are being committed in our name. It is more pleasant to relax in the belief that we are superior than to reflect on our inhumanities. Why question the imprisonment of potential terrorists (anyone with the wrong skin colour or accent) without trial when we know we are a free, valiant and victorious nation? Why listen to whingers who think it is wrong to invade a country because it doesn't share our world view? The wartime myths of our superiority bubblewrap us against the less palatable things that have been done in our name.

In this context, it does not matter whether young people have heard of Auschwitz; they have heard enough of German brutality and English superiority. I do not deny the devastation it caused, but we should be encouraging young people to consider what is happening in today's world and our role in it, rather than teaching them that we should hate the Germans because they hated the Jews.

What matters is not which historical inhumanities young people learn about, but how they begin to think about them. It is important that they should question rather than simply condemn, that they should investigate both sides of a war or dispute, and that they should not allow the positive aspects of our society to blind them to its negative faces.

If we really wish to avoid further atrocities, we must help young people to reflect critically on their own world views and on the reasons why groups of people hate each other indiscriminately. This kind of discourse does take place. Yet, in the face of valedictory media hype, our questioning voices echo in emptiness.

Jo Lally teaches German at Havant college, Hampshire

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