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Reviving the past

In the light of the controversy in India over revision of syllabi, SARAH JOHN examines the German experience of teaching history and its repercussions.

TEACHING history was never easy. Teachers struggle to get children interested in anything that happened before the last weekend! Perhaps as a result there is a tendency to dwell on the glories of the past, how great it all was, and to skip over the shady, unsavoury bits. This weakness is not at all a monopoly of any one or group of countries. In fact, of late there have been vehement discussions on the subject, even student-demonstrations in Tokyo, on account of misrepresentations in history textbooks. There has been much anxiety in India over proposed changes in the syllabi.

In the era of globalisation and instant communication, it is easy to overlook historical facts, which have contributed to the way things are at present. Teachers of history and those responsible for forming the syllabi have a responsibility beyond that of getting students through their examinations with the minimum of effort. They need to design history syllabi and teaching methods in such a way that can excite the children into wanting to know more about their country's past. It is important to connect the past with the present through understanding history, thus making the study of history relevant. We think/act the way we do, inevitably because of things that happened in the past. This is true of nations, groups and individuals.

In its November 3 issue, The Economist opened the door to discussion by asking the question: "Does it matter if school children get a selective picture of their country's past?" Only through understanding history can one hope to understand the world better. But false or selective presentation of history makes one see history not as it was, but rather as others want one to see it.

As an example, we can take the example of Britain where, according to The Economist, history teaching in schools focuses chiefly on three episodes: Nazi Germany, the Tudors and Stuarts and Stalin's Russia. All these three subjects have one thing in common: they tend to show Britain in its best light. The perpetrators are always on the other side. "Children who are taught that the past was a series of glamorous national triumphs will find it hard to explain to themselves how it is that Britain is not top dog any more, and that their Prime Minister is acting like a well-mannered butler to the American President."

In the context of the current controversies in India in relation to changes in syllabi, I was interested in getting a closer look at how the German system handled problem-situations arising out of sweeping changes in the country's political history. Speaking to history teachers, graduate-students of history and other German friends in the academic world, I was able to gather the general background information. Then I chanced upon a senior historian and educator, who belonged to a generation, which had experienced the changes, and had been in a position of decision-making responsibility in the State Government in Lower Saxony. She put into perspective the chain of events in the education scene in chronological order for me and gave me personal insights into events and causes.

Attention on ancient history rather than the painful recent history.

"History ended with World War I," said an old German friend, a retired theologian. He belonged to the generation which was at school during the Nazi era. During the 1930s and the 1940s, the National Socialists wanted the glorification of Germany to be imbedded in young minds. The world at large was not important, and Germany's glory and military victories in the Middle Ages was the theme of history-lessons at schools. The bitter defeat of the German army in World War I, the Versailles Treaty, which punished them harshly with a huge loss of territory, the resultant economic ruin, and the rise of nationalism were not subjects for discussion in schools. University students read books with Nazi views, theories and ideologies. They took part in burning books which opposed their racist theories. In fact, Nazification in schools continued until the end of World War II when the Allies, as victors, took control. This was followed by a ban on teachers, educators and civil servants with a Nazi past. In reality, however, this could not be fully effective.

Years of "information-blackout" followed. There were no history textbooks, and the teachers were not sure what they could teach. The rise and fall of the National Socialists, the atrocities and crimes on unprecedented scales committed by the Nazi regime as well as the German army during the war — all these remained largely unrecorded and unspoken during the years following the end of World War II. Germany was occupied, and the people were jittery, unsure. It was only in 1950 that Germany regained her status of Sovereign State.

In schools, in the absence of textbooks, teachers of history resorted to talking about ancient history of the world in the Stone and Bronze Ages! At universities, students could not lay their hands on documents, which could explain to them the truth about the preceding decades. Many of the teachers and lecturers were remnants of the Nazi era, and prodding and research were generally discouraged. Obviously, this state of affairs could not continue forever.

  • Time for real changes.

    In 1968, students of the southern university of Tuebingen were the first in Germany to awaken to the call for liberalisation sweeping through Western Europe, starting in Paris. They organised protests against authoritarianism and rebelled against the repression of history. Rebellion against rigid authority was something new in Germany, and demonstration and protests often turned violent. But it became a turning point in Germany's post-war history. Through this Cultural Revolution, students all over Germany demanded a more open and democratic social and educational system.


    The appetite for unsavoury history was meagre in the 1980s.

    The antiquated, authoritarian teaching-methods had to undergo changes. In the 1970s massive alterations took place in the way teachers were trained to teach. In schools and universities, students were encouraged to do their own study and research, and to ask questions. For the first time, even textbooks would be scrutinised for errors. The new teaching-system was designed to help the new generation to become open and critical, and would assist them in understanding the country's appalling recent history. While these changes were taking place in western Germany, East Germany remained under the totalitarian regime in the Soviet style. Children were supposed to learn and reproduce what they were taught. Changes in teaching methods would not come to them until the 1990s.

    During the 1960s and 1970s on the political front, West German politicians were asking the German people to lay the past aside, work hard and catch up with the rest of the industrial world. They did work hard and catch up! The Germans worked hard, focussed as one force, and they achieved more than anyone had expected in a surprisingly short span of time.

    The 1980s were years of glory in West Germany. The appetite for unsavoury history was meagre. Except for the odd historians or teachers here and there, the German people in general were more eager to savour their new found economic success and glory than to look back at failures There was a pseudo-liberalism, especially in big cities, which did not go very deep. The emphasis was on forgetting and moving ahead.

    You could hardly find many books written on the dark recent past in bookstores. Places and buildings in and around Berlin, connected to the Hitler-years were practically isolated and empty. Public attention was turned away from them.

    The year 1990 witnessed the political triumph of the reunification of the two Germanys. Thanks to the vision of Mikhail Gorbachev, it was achieved without bloodshed.

    As politicians revelled in the glory and claimed victory, the unfolding history had to be added on to history teaching! In the following years, Germany once again was faced with the unenviable task of investigating political crimes against the people, this time in eastern Germany. The school-system in eastern Germany had to undergo massive changes. Pro-Soviet history teaching was no longer permitted. The traditional way of learning and reproducing needed to change. Like in western Germany, students were to be encouraged to do their own probing and research, and discussions. There is still criticism that the teachers are incompatible, having been trained in the Soviet-style. However, the textbooks used in the East and West are the same.

    As the 20th Century came to a close, it seemed as if the country was, albeit slowly and painfully, settling down to a common educational-system. An extremely controversial exhibition opened in Germany, which exposed atrocities committed by the German Army on the eastern-front, in their destructive sweep towards conquering the expanse of fertile land for themselves. With pictures, photographs, letters, copies of commands and official reports, the organisers of this exhibition disproved the theory that atrocities were only committed by Hitler and his associates, that the rest of the population was innocent. It also called attention to the untold cruelty and violence against unarmed civilians, especially on the eastern-front, who were killed to make space for the Germans. This was done deliberately, under orders.

    The myth was broken. Lectures and discussions opened the door to hitherto hidden/ignored facts. Attending some of them, I was impressed by the honesty in the presentations, but equally shocked at the meagre attendance! Today's youth can no longer complain of lack of sources to glean information from. Established newspapers in Germany publish any number of documentations and articles about the various historical aspects of the war.

    Archives and libraries and museums have any amount of information and documents available for perusal. The newest addition is the new Jewish Museum, which has opened in the heart of Berlin. It has a well-equipped study-centre, open to any one who is interested. New books by historians, sociologists and psychologists are being published.

    As part of the European Union, Germany has a different role in the world today. The Deutsch Mark, pride of the Germans for over 50 years, is part of history now as the Euro replaced it along with several other European currencies. There is little room for undiluted national-pride, and the majority of the young generation is ready for a break with old traditions and open to changes.

    There is a surge of interest in learning more about their history. The present generation distances itself from the Nazi-period, but is not afraid of it either. They visit the infamous concentration camps, which have been made into museums, attends talks organised by schools or institutions by survivors of Nazi-terror. Even though Neo-Nazis are relatively small in number to cause great alarm, they are taken seriously in this country where the scars of the disaster caused by their forefathers are too deep.

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