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This unhealthy obsession with Hitler

When I received an email offering an all-expenses paid trip for history teachers to Germany, I was delighted. I discussed it with the head and we concluded there must be a catch; there's no such thing as a free trip for teachers. But since none of my colleagues could go, I accepted.

The morning after arriving in Berlin, our group of 20 teachers was taken on a tour of the city by a university professor. In the afternoon I went to the National Stadium, where the 1936 Olympic Games were held. On Monday we visited a bilingual gymnasium, where some of the lessons were in English.

How impressive it was to see 16-year-olds who could speak a foreign language fluently and understand its subtle meanings and nuances.

That afternoon, the first sign of trouble appeared. Some journalists arrived and a young man from a national newspaper began asking me why we had come on the trip. I told him that any open-minded teacher would jump at the chance as there were few such opportunities in teaching. He asked if British teachers had a fixation on Hitler and the Nazis. I explained that we were compelled to teach those topics because of the national curriculum, and it was a period of great interest to children of all abilities.

Several times during our interview, the reporter asked a colleague from another paper: "Is there a story here?" Their concerns seemed to be to counter the claims made the week before by Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, that the emphasis on Hitler and the Nazis in British schools left children with negative views of his country.

When we left for the Bundestag, the reporters came with us. We were confused by the situation but convinced that such a trivial story would not make the news. Imagine our surprise when the following morning our tour guides showed us articles in the two papers (October 26, 2004). The tenor of both was that the Germans had some ulterior motive in paying out vast sums to "lure" British teachers to Germany to "re-educate" them about German history and dissuade them from teaching the Nazi period. Not surprisingly, our mood began to change. It transpired that the British embassy had alerted the press and that someone from the German foreign ministry had told them the cost of the trip. The papers had "spun" the story to make it look like the Germans were trying to influence what goes on in our schools.

While such attitudes are paraded by the British media, why should it come as a shock when a kid in Year 8 shouts "Heil Hitler!" at a visiting group of German students, as a pupil at my school did last year? It is not teachers who encourage that sort of thing; quite the opposite.

How much better it would be if we could rid ourselves of this island mentality which sees everything here as better than in Europe. Perhaps we should ask why the average 16-year-old German, French, or even American student appears more intellectually and culturally aware than their British equivalents.

So what if the German government paid to bring over teachers from other countries to see the effects of re-unification and to visit places where hugely important events in world history took place? I found the experience enlightening, educative and extremely valuable for my teaching of history.

So long as the media perpetuate such narrow-minded attitudes, another generation of British kids will grow up blindly nationalistic, unwilling and unable to speak another language and ignorant of the rich culture and history of their European neighbours.

Peter Liddell teaches history at Oakmeeds community college, Burgess Hill, West Sussex

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