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Teaching about Nazis and the Holocaust in German schools

Rayna Breuer
November 8, 2023

What do students learn about the Nazi era in German schools? DW visited a high school in one of Berlin's most diverse neighborhoods to find out.

A high school class room.Students sit facing the electronic board where a teacher stands and writnes things down
9th grade students at the Lina Morgenstern High School during a history lessonImage: Rayna Breuer/DW

It's a hot school day in Berlin. The 9th grade students at the Lina Morgenstern Community School — named after the 19th century German Jewish feminist, educator and activist — enter the classroom for a double history lesson.

They greet each other cordially and remove their caps. Their history teacher, Karl Birkner, praises their punctuality and airs the stuffy room. It is way too hot for a June morning.  But a couple of students arrive late anyway. Like everywhere. It's just a normal day. 

Teacher Karl Birkner in the school courtyard next to a brick wall.
History teacher Karl Birkneon is on his well earned break after a double history class. Image: Rayna Breuer/DW

Birkner remains silent as he turns on the electronic board. Today's topic: "Seizing and transferring power" from the "Democracy and Dictatorship" program, which focuses on 1933 and the beginning of the Nazi regime in Germany.

"What is the difference between seizure of power and transfer of power?" asks Birkner, pointing to the terminology on the board. Many hands are raised; everyone gets a chance to speak.

"Seizure of power is when you take power by force," says one student. "And transfer of power is when you are elected by the people," replies another. "Very simple," shouts a third boy in the back, "the left side — dictatorship, right side — democracy." Many of his classmates nod in agreement.

"The goal is to go far beyond the historical events," says Birthe Pater, head of the education department at the Arolsen Archives. "It's not just about what happened during the Nazi era, but also enabling an understanding of what the social issues of the time were and what people's scope for individual action was. The aim is to motivate students to participate in historical-political debates and develop an awareness of current affairs."

The Arolsen Archives are the world's most comprehensive archives on the victims and survivors of National Socialism with information on about 17.5 million people. The mission of the institution is to help the victims of Nazi persecution and their relatives to clarify and illuminate their fates through research. They also develop educational programs and cooperate with schools all over Germany.

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Using engaging teaching methods 

Karl Birkner applies the Engelchen-Teufelchen (literally: angel vs. devil) teaching method: "This method helps participants form well-founded judgments. This is an important core competence for becoming an adult. Students should learn both to form opinions and to make reasonable judgments based on historical or political facts."

A hand holding the corner of a brown envelope with a small drawing of a devil face and an angel face.
The brown envelope contains arguments for and against seizure of powerImage: Rayna Breuer/DW

The teacher divides the class into six groups — each person receives a clothes pin with a little paper devil or angel attached to it. The little devils are tasked to find arguments in favor of seizing power, and the little angels must find arguments against it.

After a 15-minute work period, the devils and angels present their arguments to the "humans" (the third role in the game). At the end, the "humans" decide which side was most convincing.

The timer on the digital board is ticking — the students concentrate as they read out their explanations, summing up the arguments for their assigned roles. They are given the choice to ask the teacher or look up unfamiliar terminology on their cellphones, most opt to consult their phones. Some terms such as the SS (Schutzstaffel) and the SA (Sturmabteilung) are written on the board and explained by the teacher.

Two students sitting side by side in a classroom working on their assignment.
The students have 15 minutes to work on the assignmentImage: Rayna Breuer/DW

How much do young people know about the Holocaust

Learning about the Holocaust is mandatory in all German schools. However, since each one of Germany's 16 federal states is autonomous regarding the educational curriculum, how and to what extent schools teach about the Holocaust varies nationwide.

"Without history lessons, I wouldn't really know anything about what happened back then. My parents don't know that much about the subject either," says one student in an interview after class.

"From the past comes the future, history influences our present," says a classmate. And the pupil sitting next to him adds: "My mother sends me links to documentaries that a teacher friend recommends."

The level of knowledge about historical events varies, says Birkner: "Adolf Hitler is known by most, the term National Socialism too. Some of them also know about the Holocaust, but knowledge is selective and it contains many blank spots," the teacher shares.

According to Birkner, having a migrantion background does not necessarily influence students' knowledge. The school is located in Berlin's diverse district of Kreuzberg where students from different backgrounds attend.

Teacher Karl Birkner sitting next to a computer in a class room.
Birkner believes that a migrant background and the socio-economic level is not a factor of knowledge Image: Rayna Breuer/DW

"We have many students who have recently moved to Germany or were born here but whose parents come from abroad. We have children who come from well-to-do families and children who need financial support from the state. It's very diverse," says Birkner. "The way I see it,  the issue is not so much the children's country of origin, but ias about what they are exposed to at home: are history and politics discussed? And if so, in what way? Are the children encouraged to develop outside of school or not? That's the crucial thing. Migration and socio-economic factors play less of a role.”

Birthe Pater from the Arolsen Archives has a similar view. "From my experience, I cannot confirm the assumption that children from families with a migration background are per se less interested or have less knowledger. Because often, when you ask young people where they first came into contact with the Nazi topic, they usually say at school or in films and their country of origin matters less."

More history lessons

One of the biggest challenges is that there is limited time to teach such complex topics, says Karl Birkner. "I get a bit of a stomachache every time I try to break the material down adequately. And at the same time, it should not remain superficial. In my opinion, more history, politics and social sciences should be taught."

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Birthe Pater agrees. "We have space to deal with these issues in the curriculum and we are way ahead of other societies in this respect. One could argue that learning about it for the first time in 9th grade is too late. It also depends on what type of education students attend; in some schools, students are exposed to the subject just once," she said.

"Another question is whether the Nazi subject should be taught only during history classes or also be included in other subjects, such as German, for example," she pointed out.

The 15-minute work period is over and the results are presented in the classroom. The teacher then draws a line on the board: on one side he writes "seizure of power," on the other "transfer of power," and in the middle is "attainment of power."

Each student may now decide how they see the events of 1933 after what they have learned today. Most votes swing between seizure of power and attainment of power.

The bell rings and the two-hour history class is over. Even more, "school is over for today because we have a teachers' conference," Karl Birkner announces. The cheers are so loud that the gong is barely audible.

This article was originally written in German.

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