There's more to Germany than the Nazis

17th February 2006 at 00:00
We need to update the story of Germany and look beyond the World Wars, says Lucy Russell

A couple of years ago I was organising a school trip to Berlin, when a Year 9 student from a top-ability class came to ask if it would be safe for him to go because his grandmother was Jewish. As the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority recognised in its annual report, Nazi Germany is prominent in the secondary school history curriculum. But it would seem that, while the curriculum fixates on Nazi Germany, our teenagers are largely ignorant of what the country is like today.

A teacher I spoke to raised the issue of anti-German feelings among pupils.

He related this to an over-emphasis on the teaching of Germany's Nazi past.

"There is enough of this 'well it's the old enemy, we've always got to beat Germany' on the football fields. Why have we always got to beat Germany?"

he said.

Thomas Matussek, the German Ambassador, says that most young people in England, when asked to name a famous German, say "Hitler". They know little of modern Germany or German history other than the Nazi period. History is a subject which has the potential to break down stereotypes and promote tolerance; but it can also encourage racism and prejudice.

I once observed a PGCE history student explaining to a low-ability Year 9 group that "there was once a very bad man called Hitler, who lived in a country called Germany and who did not like Jews. During the Second World War he tried to kill all the Jews who lived in Germany as well as those in the other countries he invaded". The activity which followed was a "fill in the gaps" exercise: "The Holocaust was the killing of... million Jews by the Nazis. Some wereI. Others were herded into... and gassed."

During a lesson later in the term with the same group, students reacted negatively to the suffering and death of German refugees; they believed that Germans "deserved what they got" because of what they did to the Jews.

In May 2005, Thomas Matussek said: "Whenever you talk with young Britons about Germany, or whenever you open the newspaper after a soccer game, you find immediately that you are immersed in the darkest chapter of German history - the Nazi period, the War, the Holocaust. And I think it is very, very good that people study it thoroughly. But it should not stop in 1945. It should also show a new, modern, democratic Germany, a Germany that has learnt its lessons."

At the end of December the QCA published a new unit for their key stage 3 history scheme of work designed to address this. "How Germany moved from division to unity (1945-2000)" suggests how teachers can cover events in Germany since the end of the Second World War, thereby presenting a broader and more balanced understanding of Germany in the 20th century - rather than abandoning pupils in Germany in 1945.

But there is a long road ahead in the reconstruction of Germany's image.

And there remains the issue of time. The same teacher who discussed pupils' anti-German feelings also told me: "We don't do the Space Race or the Cuban Missile Crisis. We hardly touch the Cold War." Although, like the two World Wars and the Holocaust, the Cold War is a compulsory topic on the history curriculum at KS3, many history teachers are aware that time often runs out at the end of Year 9 to teach this history.

According to Ken Boston, chief executive of the QCA: "The last 60 years have seen great events in Germany. The Cold War, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, reunification - these are great achievements that too few English children are taught. Schools in England need to spend time teaching what happened in Germany after 1945."

He continues: "Next summer many English people will enjoy the football World Cup in Germany and I hope the interest in that event will encourage more schools to learn about the Germany of today." The German Ambassador agrees, adding that the image of Germany presented in school history has had an adverse impact on tourism over the years.

If we are to continue to make the two World Wars and the Holocaust the focus of the last year of pupils' compulsory study of history, then the publication of the QCA guidance is a positive and necessary step. But there is not enough time to deliver the history curriculum as it is.

If teachers consider and teach the new unit, something else will have to be sacrificed. And inevitably teachers will be spending more time teaching about Germany, leaving even less to teach about British history, which the QCA also indicated (in its annual report) to be neglected.

A broad and balanced understanding of British and European history is obviously important. So, rather than bolting on an additional unit to the KS3 scheme of work, perhaps it is time for an entire review of the school history curriculum. And this also raises the question: why is a subject so fundamental to the understanding (and participation in) modern life not taught to all pupils to age 16?

Dr Lucy Russell is now a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, having previously taught history in a secondary school in Kent. Her book Teachers or Preachers? Teaching the Holocaust in School History is due to be published by Continuum in 2006.


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