The Realization of Comprehensive Holocaust
Education in West Germany
Table of Contents
I. Introduction------------------------------------------------------------- 3-4
A. Background of German Educational System---------------------- 4-5
II. Initial Post-War Period------------------------------------------------ 4-8
A. Early Problems----------------------------------------------------- 6-7
B. Pedagogical Reforms---------------------------------------------- 6,7
C. Evaluating Early Textbook Treatment of the Nazi Period ----- 7,8
III. Identification and Correction-------------------------------------------- 8, 9
A. Exposés Reveal Pupils’ Insufficient Knowledge of Nazi Era- 9, 10
B. Anti-Semitic Incidents 1959-1960-------------------------- 10, 11
C. Textbook Improvement---------------------------------------- 12-13
IV. Late 1960s and-1970s, Forced Confrontation and Public Shift -- 12
A. “New Left” Student Movement--------------------------------- 13-14
B. Change in Chancellorship--------------------------------------- 14-15
V. 1970s-1980s Overcoming the Last Hurdles to Holocaust Education
A. “Holocaust” TV-series------------------------------------------- 16-17
B. Gedenkstaette------------------------------------------------------ 18-19
VI. Holocaust Education Case Studies: Bavaria and Nordrhein-Westfalen
A. Bavaria-------------------------------------------------------------- 19
B. Nordrhein-Westfalen--------------------------------------------- 20
VII. Conclusion--------------------------------------------------------------- 20
A. Present-Day Holocaust Concerns------------------------------- 21-23
None of us get to choose how our nation’s history and identity are perceived by
outsiders. For many, such as Greeks and Italians, their nationality conjures up positive
recollections of democracy and philosophy. While for others, there is an inescapable
connection to a troubled past. Whether Germans like it or not, their identity will always
bear the burden of association with Nazi Germany, and Adolf Hitler.
Since the end of World War II, Germans have dealt with two main issues
regarding this past: How to ensure that the domestic persecution, and mass murder, does
not recur, and how to keep the historical memory alive and relevant to successive
generations. Teaching the Holocaust to each generation has served these goals.
Ensuring effective Holocaust education in the aftermath of World War II was a
long and arduous task, but finally by the 1980s, a multi-pronged method for Holocaust
education was realized. Comprehensive Holocaust education required three major
components: textbooks and course material that adequately and fairly covered the Third
Reich, a restructuring of the education system to foster an environment that was
conducive to open discourse between teachers and students, and a larger nationwide
commitment to confronting the Nazi past outside of the school environment. From Allied
occupation to the early 1980s, each decade brought increasing achievement toward these
goals. The final catalysts were the Holocaust TV series in '1978-'79, and the
Gedenkstaette movement of the 1980s.
Though many historians have separated the domestic events in Germany, and the
‘39-‘45, international mass killings, this paper utilizes the terms "Holocaust education"
and "Nazi era education" interchangeably, to signify the period from 1933-1945.
Background of German Education System
Germany is a federal state with sixteen Lander governments. Responsibility for
education is divided between the central government (Bonn) and these provincial
governments. The national "Standing Conference of State Ministers of Education and
Cultural Affairs (also known as KMK) adopts non-binding recommendations that serve
as important guidelines for the states. But in general, each state largely prescribes its own
Noteworthy too is that Germany has a unique educational structure that relies on
tracking. After four or five years of primary school, parents and teachers come to a
decision (based on the child’s ability) among three secondary school options:
Hauptschule, Realschule, or Gymnasium. The first two place the student on a vocational
track, while Gymnasium prepares students to go to University. Each school option
contains an equal 1/3 distribution of students.2 Thus, when one examines German
Holocaust education, one must consider that some students will learn about the Holocaust
in different ways, at different times in their schooling, and perhaps in more depth. Still,
for the majority of the post-World War II time period, Germany has ensured that no
matter which school a student attends, he/she will have some opportunity to learn about
the Nazi era. All states make the Nazi Era mandatory study for ninth and tenth grade
1Martin E. Vann, West German Secondary School Education on the Holocaust, Master's thesis,
Florida Atlantic University, 1998, Ann Arbor: UMI Company, 1998.
2 Stephen Paagard, “German Schools and the Holocaust: A Focus on the Secondary School System of
Nordrhein-Westfalen,” The History Teacher Vol. 28, 1995: 541-544.
students.3 Additionally, the Holocaust is taught in overlapping classes, such as political
science, religion,4 and German5, though this paper largely addresses history instruction.
It is also important to note that education is an entirely public function in
Germany and teachers are civil servants, (employees of the government). Consequently,
although educators have autonomy, education can serve the goals of the government.
Initial Post-War Period
As German philosopher, Theodor Adorno put it in his 1966 "Education After
Auschwitz" speech, "The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not
happen again."6 Twenty-one years earlier, the Allied powers who had just defeated
Germany in World War II, were wondering the same thing: how do we ensure that the
Nazi era does not recur? At the Potsdam conference in 1945, the Allies determined that
"German education shall be so controlled as completely to eliminate Nazi and militarist
doctrines, and to make possible the successful development of democratic ideas."7 Allies
believed that the Nazi era was a result of a breakdown of democracy, and that Holocaust
education would be an effective reminder of what could happen without democracy.
Instilling democratic values and Holocaust education would go hand in hand in post-war
3 Annegret Ehmann, and Hanns-Fred Rathenow , "Education about National Socialism and the
Holocaust," Lernen aus der Geschichte e.V., http://learning-from-
4 In Nordrhein-Westfalen a unit entitled “Church and National Socialism” is taught.
5 Paagard, “ German Schools and the Holocaust , ” 545.
6 Theodor Adorno , Education After Auschwitz , ( 1966 ) , 1.
7 Vann. West German Secondary School Education on the Holocaust , 1998 .
Unfortunately, the Allies had a problem: One of Hitler's first actions as Chancellor
in 1933 was to enact a civil service law purging educators who were not Nazi-party
affiliated, and requiring those who wanted to remain to swear allegiance to Hitler, and
teach in accordance with Nazi ideas and values.8” So while Nazi teachers were
subsequently dismissed during the denazification effort, many were soon rehired because
of a shortage of qualified teachers. In Hessian schools for instance, two-thirds of the
teachers initially judged by American zone officials to be Nazis, were soon teaching
In the American zone, the teachers that were rehired were typically older, more
conservative educators, who utilized authoritarian, rigid, pedagogical ideas and methods.
The Americans wanted to reform the German educational system that they believed was
authoritarian by design, but this was not immediately achievable. Students in the pre-war
period unquestionably obeyed their teachers and there was very little discussion or
encouragement to approach teachers after lessons. Without a systemic change, and an
incomplete denazification of teachers, it is not surprising that Holocaust education was
poor during Allied occupation and into the ‘50s. Teachers could gloss over or avoid
teaching about the Nazi era because they were uncomfortable talking about it, and
because of the authoritarian nature of the schools, students were not comfortable asking
questions. Clearly Holocaust education would require breaking down the dictatorial
nature of German education.
8 "How Did the Nazis Control Education?" The Holocaust
9 Brian M. Puaca , Learning Democracy: Education Reform in West Germany, 1945-1965 ,( New York:
Berghahn Books, 2009), 35.
While textbooks themselves were problematic in their treatment of the Holocaust,
the final years of Allied occupation brought gradual success in reducing institutional
hurdles to teaching about the unpleasant era. American officials in West Germany
oversaw the publication and gradual implementation of new textbooks, which employed
more interactive forms of learning. These books offered discussion questions, and
provided suggestions for assignments which teachers could utilize. One of the best
History textbooks was the Wege der Volker series, which were first published with the
assistance of American officials who vetted the textbooks writers for Nazi leanings. The
texts emphasized critical thinking over accumulating facts, and utilized group
assignments and classroom debate topics. One volume, for instance, asked students to
evaluate Hitler’s actions during the war.10
Officials in the American zone installed new teacher training programs that were
coordinated with the release of these textbooks. As more and more younger teachers
entered the profession, German classrooms became filled with more frequent debate and
discussion. Older teachers were also given an opportunity to learn these new pedagogical
methods through continued education programs.11
Additionally, by the mid-1950s, in order to impart democratic ideals into the
students, West German schools established student newspapers where students could
freely discuss and debate contemporary issues. One school in Zehlendorf, for instance,
devoted an entire edition to the history of Jews in Germany, and discussed the Holocaust
10 Brendan M . Walsh, Comparing Changing Ideas of Germany, 1949-1999: German Secondary
School History Textbooks and the Ever-present past, Master's thesis, New York University, 2003.
Ann Arbor: ProQuest Info and Learning Company, 2003.
11 Puaca , Learning Democracy: Education Reform in West Germany , 97 .
in depth.12 In sum, the shift to more of a democratic student-teacher relationship, and the
new openness to student discourse in the fifties, paved the way for effective treatment of
Evaluating Early Textbook Treatment of the Nazi Period
Evaluating History textbooks for their effectiveness in adequately covering the
Holocaust is extremely difficult. Many critics in present times have continued to point out
what they believe to be major flaws. But History textbooks that dealt with the Holocaust
during the ‘40s and ‘50s were largely incomplete by any standard. Many posited that
Hitler and his few accomplices misled the German people and overemphasized German
resistance to the persecution.13 Few discussed the persecution and murder of Jews in any
detail.14 The same Wege Der Volker books that were a model in their pedagogy, explained
Hitler’s rise to power as a result of the German population’s expectation of being led, and
focused largely on Hitler and his “comrades.”15 Textbooks often portrayed the German
people as victims of the Nazi era, in the same light as the Jews, and emphasized German
suffering during World War II. They also devoted much more coverage to the treatment
of Christians and the Church than to the Jews.16 Books in this early period often tried to
absolve the Wehrmacht of any responsibility. However inadequate the materials available
might have been, many teachers still chose to ignore teaching the era altogether, stopping
at the Weimar era, or at Bismarck.
12 Puaca , Learning Democracy: Education Reform in West Germany , 127 .
13 Puaca , Learning Democracy: Education Reform in West Germany , 80.
14 Bodo Von Borries , " The Third Reich in German History Textbooks since 1945." Journal of
Contemporary History 38, no. 1: 45-62.
15 Vann , West German Secondary School Education on the Holocaust , 1998.
16 Walsh , Comparing Changing Ideas of Germany, 1949-1999: , 138-139.
In short, as Ehmann and Rathenow note, the progress that was made during allied
occupation in setting the framework for teaching about National Socialism, was lost, and
the period from 1951-1960 was a setback for Holocaust education. The topic was
marginalized in comparison to other topics in German history, and textbooks were
inaccurate and incomplete.17
Identification and Correction
Exposés Reveal Pupils’ Insufficient Knowledge of Nazi Era
At the end of the 1950s, the German people had a rude awakening which
demonstrated the ineptitude and ineffectiveness of Holocaust education. In early 1959,
television reporter Juergen Neven-Dumont visited over a dozen elementary and
secondary schools in West Germany where he asked various students about their
knowledge of the Holocaust. His documentary revealed that nine out of ten students knew
nothing or had heard nothing about the Holocaust and Hitler! Many described their
knowledge of Hitler by his appearance, or knew him as the builder of the autobahns.
DuMont noted that the few who could recite some facts about the concentration camps
and the Jewish persecution said that they had learned these things in their homes, not in
their classrooms. Dumont also interviewed teachers who explained away their students’
ignorance, laying the blame on a cramped curriculum which didn’t allow sufficient time
to teach the Nazi era.18 As the documentary was broadcast nationwide, it highlighted the
need for improved Holocaust education.
Anti-Semitic Incidents, 1959-60
17 Ehmann and Rathenow , “ Education about National Socialism and the Holocaust . "
18 T ete H are Tetens , The New Germany and the Old Nazis (New York: Random House, 1961), 221-31.
Perhaps the largest impetus for improving Holocaust education came later that
year, sparked by a series of anti-Semitic incidents that took place across Germany. On
Christmas Eve in 1959, a recently dedicated synagogue in Cologne was defaced with
painted Swastikas. A few days later in Brunswick, swastikas were also painted on the
monument to victims of Nazism.19 These were just a few of the 685 anti-Semitic incidents
reported between Dec 24, and Jan 28 1960.20 It was widely believed that young people
were responsible for these actions. The German education committee blamed these anti-
Semitic incidents on the parents’ failure to bring up their sons and daughters, and the
weaknesses of German politics.”21 In mid-January, German President Adenauer took to
the airways to denounce the desecration of the synagogue and memorial, calling it a
“disgrace and a crime.” In February, the West German government published an
investigative paper analyzing the hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents in detail, and
alarmingly, found no evidence of organized anti-Semitism.22 While the report blamed
these hate crimes on the influence of the rising right-wing German Reich Party, it created
awareness that more Holocaust education was needed to counter this anti-Semitism.
Shortly after these incidents, the Federal education ministry met and adopted various
resolutions detailing how to deal with the Nazi period in the classroom. One resolution in
February of 1960 called for Nazism to be addressed and scrutinized in German schools,
and another in 1962 gave a five-part specific guideline on how to deal with the Nazi era.
19 "Series of Anti-Jewish Incidents Follows Cologne Synagogue Desecration , " Jewish Telegraphic
Agency, December 31, 1959, http://www.jta.org/1959/12/31/archive/series-of-anti-jewish-incidents-
20 Adrian Webb , "1.2: Chronology of Key Events up to Unification , " In The Longman Companion to
Germany since 1945, 158 (London: Longman, 1998).
21 Hanns Fred Rathenow, "Teaching the Holocaust in Germany , " In Teaching the Holocaust: Educational
Dimensions, Principles and Practice, edited by Ian Davies (London: Continuum, 2000), 68 .
22 Adrian Webb , "1.2: Chronology of Key Events up to Unification . ”
This guideline focused on “the Treatment of Totalitarianism,” but largely covered Nazi
Germany. Some of the topics included: what led to the totalitarian state, “the second
World War as a European catastrophe,” and “German resistance against the Nazi
system.”23 The extermination of the Jews was also included in this guideline.24 During
Allied occupation, a new specific sub discipline had been introduced into the German
history curriculum, called Zeitgeschichte (contemporary history).25 This specific part of
history became widespread as part of the history curriculum in the Lander by the
mid-‘50s, with the focus on expanding political education. Clearly this requirement was
not fully adhered to, but Federal guidelines in the immediate aftermath refocused
attention on contemporary history.
Some Lander went above and beyond the Federal guidelines. In Hesse, for
example, their Culture Minister demanded that younger pupils, at the fifth or sixth grade
level, become exposed to the Nazi crimes and policies. He believed that many of the
perpetrators of these anti-Semitic incidents were misguided youths.26
Some who discussed the failures of Holocaust education during the 1940s and
‘50s believed that it was too soon for Germans, and teachers in particular, to confront the
Nazi past, and textbooks had reflected this. But in fairness, had they wanted to teach
about the Holocaust effectively, it still might have been difficult given the full scope of
knowledge that had yet to be revealed. The 1960s brought instructors and textbook
23 Vann. , West German Secondary School Education on the Holocaust , 58.
24 Walter F. Renn , “ Federal Republic of Germany: Germans, Jews, and Genocide ,” in The Treatment of
the Holocaust in Textbooks: The Federal Republic of Germany, Israel, the United States of America, edited
by Randolph L. Braham, (Boulder: Social Science Monographs, 1987).
25 Puaca , Learning Democracy: Education Reform in West Germany , 137.
26 Puaca , Learning Democracy: Education Reform in West Germany , 146 .
creators a wealth of details and sources about the Holocaust that had just been uncovered.
Accounts from the Eichmann trial, and especially the Frankfort-Auschwitz trials were
featured in textbooks produced and revised in the 1960s, which had the effect of greatly
shocking the pupils. In addition, for the first time, victims were allowed space to tell their
individual stories in the texts, and the Jewish persecution was described in more detail in
all stages.27 By the 1970s, as Vann notes, most history books now contained detailed
information on the genocide of the Jews, utilizing concentration camp maps and
disturbing photos of life in the ghetto, or of Auschwitz selections.28 There were also large
changes made to previous editions of the same textbooks that were published in the late
‘50s. Later books dealt with the extermination of the Jews and featured accounts from
Auschwitz. Source material was used from the perspective of the victims, rather than
from Germans. In sum, as Puaca notes, it took two decades before an honest engagement
with the most troubling aspects of Germany’s recent past became more often the rule than
By the 1960s, too, the teaching profession was filled with younger educators who
were not part of the Nazi-era, and consequently felt comfortable dealing with these
topics. They encouraged their students to investigate the Third Reich, both in school and
in their free time. While new educational guidelines, improved textbooks, and younger
teachers all contributed to form the necessary infrastructure to teach the Holocaust, there
were still some hurdles to overcome in order to achieve comprehensive Holocaust
education. Of course the presence of better material and stronger guidelines did not
27 Falk Pingel , "National Socialism and the Holocaust in West German School Books , " Kultura Polisa 22.
28 Vann. , West German Secondary School Education on the Holocaust , 1998.
29 Puaca , Learning Democracy: Education Reform in West Germany from 1945-1965 .
necessarily mean that all schools implemented these changes and expanded their
coverage of Nazism and the Holocaust. There was still a general unwillingness on the
part of many Germans to confront the past, admit national responsibility, and openly
discuss these topics in every day discourse.
Late 1960s and-1970s, Forced Confrontation and Public Shift
“New Left” Student Movement
The latter half of the 1960s in West Germany is often characterized by the “New
Left” student movement. While some scholars attribute this protest wave as contributing
directly to the enhancement of Holocaust education, when one examines this notion
further, it appears that the contribution was more effective in changing the German
mindset, rather than in exposing Nazi crimes.
The student movement accused many leaders and educators of being fascists, and
certainly made many distasteful Holocaust and Nazi comparisons. But there was little
effort on the part of these protestors to delve into the deeper substance of the Holocaust.
Nazi invocations appeared to be no more than a superficial attempt to come to terms with
the past. On the other hand, the students and their scholars drove home one point in
particular that would have a lasting impact: Germany had not yet succeeded in making
another Holocaust impossible.
Theodor Adorno is considered a key ideological inspiration for the student
movement. Looking back at his 1966, “Education After Auschwitz” speech, Adorno told
the German people that the Holocaust occurred because of a psychological deficit that led
German people as a whole to devalue other human beings. He disputed the notion that
Germans were inherently less civilized, and expressed his belief that Auschwitz occurred
in the midst of otherwise normal and innocent people. He believed that Germany lacked
the individualism and self-determinative psyche that precluded another Holocaust from
happening.30 So it can be asserted that Adorno and the student movement succeeded in
pointing out the authoritarian structures that still existed in German society. Just as the
Allied occupiers had seen political education and democratic values as quintessential to
preventing a repeat of the Nazi era, the student movement similarly saw democracy as an
important pre-requisite as well. The movement also set the ball rolling for the idea of
collective responsibility for the Holocaust.
Change in Chancellorship
Another factor that contributed to the acceptance of greater collective
responsibility for the Holocaust was the change in leadership at the top. The head of state
in each country sets the tone for how a country is viewed, and has the largest platform
from which to speak directly to his/her people. Konrad Adenauer, who was Chancellor of
Germany from 1949-63, set the tone for Germany’s dealing with the Holocaust by
establishing a positive relationship with the state of Israel in 1951, through reparations.
However, in his speech to Parliament on the Holocaust, Adenauer apologized for the
“suffering that was brought upon the Jews in Germany,” with the caveat that “the vast
majority of the German people rejected the crimes which were committed… and did not
participate in them.31” This “collective shame” position was reflective of the prevailing
German attitude about the Holocaust. Students knew that a tragedy had taken place in
30 Adorno. Education After Auschwitz .
31 Mary Fulbrook , German National Identity after the Holocaust ( Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2002 ) ,
their country, and were learning about it in school, but what connection did they
themselves share to this past?
The 1960s student movement had revitalized the Social Democratic Party, and
had led to the election of the first Social Democratic Chancellor since 1930, Willy
Brandt, in 1969. In 1970, on a visit to Poland that coincided with a commemoration of
the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, Brandt spontaneously dropped to one knee,
symbolically apologizing for the Holocaust. In his autobiography, he later explained his
decision: “upon carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what
people do when words fail them.”32 Brandt had fled Germany as a political dissenter at
the beginning of the Nazi Era, so his assumption of responsibility was all the more
meaningful. Thus, Brandt’s conception of Germany’s “collective guilt,” replaced
Adenauer’s enunciation of “collective shame.”
1970s-1980s Overcoming the Last Hurdles to Holocaust Education
“Holocaust” TV Series
During the 1970s, some have claimed that West Germany and the international
community were overtaken by a “Hitler wave,” in which Hitler and the Nazis were
fetishized. People were fascinated to learn more about the character of Hitler, and
publications like a forged Hitler autobiography attempted to exonerate him. German
educators were undoubtedly motivated by this alarming movement, and a Federal
guideline was issued in 1978, “Concerning Treatment of National Socialism in
Teaching.” In this guideline the Education Ministry declared that schools must “help
pupils acquire a proper capacity for political judgment and to foster a solid foundation of
32 Dan Fastenberg , "Top 10 National Apologies , " Time Magazine , June 17, 2010 ,
knowledge of the history of our more recent past.” The goal would be to “protect
juveniles against the danger of euphemistic conceptions of the National Socialist reign of
violence.”33 Ironically, over a decade later, the German government finally implemented
Adorno’s call for independent judgment and critical thought.
Historians unanimously agree that the airing of the American-produced Holocaust
TV Series in 1979 was a turning point in Germany’s commitment to confronting its past,
and had the effect of stimulating public discourse on the topic. German political science
professor, Lars Rensmnan, expressed the importance of the 1979 series, in an interview
with PBS, “Nazism was-- in spite of the student protests… in the late ‘60s, and in spite of
the Auschwitz trials in the early ‘60s-- not a topic of social concern at all. It was more a
taboo topic, both in the public and social spheres, and most of all no one talked about it in
the private sphere.”34 After the announcement of the airing, various organizations made
specially designed pre-programs to prepare viewers for the 1979 Series. Political parties,
Jewish communities, and Christian church organizations encouraged people to watch it.
In the end, almost a quarter of all TV sets tuned in to watch the series, and almost half the
population saw one of the four installments.35 Previously televised documentaries and
educational programs on this topic failed to garner anywhere near as many viewers.36
33 Secretariat of the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Lander , On
the Treatment of the Holocaust at School. Report (Bonn: KMK, 1997), Lernen aus der Geschichte e.V. ,
34 Lars Rensmann , "Holocaust Education in Germany: An Interview , " PBS- Frontline , May 19,
35 Siegfried Zielinski and Gloria Custance , “History as Entertainment and Provocation: The TV Series
"Holocaust" in West Germany,” New German Critique, Vol no. 19 (1980): 81–96.
36 Andrei S. Markovits, and Beth Simone Noveck , "West Germany , " i n The World Reacts to the
Holocaust, edited by Randolph L. Braham, ,( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)
The series provoked discussions across all sectors of the society, and the WDR
station offered Germans an opportunity to call in after the broadcasts. A large number of
people took them up on it. Children suddenly had the curiosity to question what their
family had been doing during the epoch. But the series also had a direct and visible
impact on education as well. School students who had not heard much discussion about
the Holocaust, asked their teachers to talk about the subject in class, and expressed a
desire to talk to survivors and those who had engaged in resistance.37 Thus, now that the
public was finally committed to freely and openly discussing the Holocaust and students
were learning about the Holocaust in school, Holocaust education would not simply end
at the schoolhouse gate, but would be a topic of public discourse.
Gedenksta e tte
After the Holocaust mini-series had eased the nation’s fear of dealing with their
Nazi past, Germans could look around their country and identify sites that had served
prominent functions during the Third Reich. It had taken a while for West Germany to
memorialize local sites because they evoked painful memories. There was now an
increased interest in learning about everyday life experiences during the Nazi era, and the
Gedenkstaette movement would assume this function. Germany’s embracing of physical
historical remnants was put to a pedagogical function, which greatly expanded Holocaust
education in West Germany. Whereas in the past memorials were “little more than
monuments or plaques marking historical sites,”38 beginning around 1980, these spots
were transformed into full memorial centers, placing a specific emphasis on the particular
37 Zielinski, and Custance , “History as Entertainment and Provocation: The TV Series "Holocaust" in West
Germany, ” 99.
38 Paagard, “ German Schools and the Holocaust , ” 545.
site’s place in the whole grand scheme of the Nazi-era. Some emphasized the Nazi
function, while others emphasized things such as the history of Jewish life in the area.
Most sites have since maintained a full-time educational coordinator whose role is to help
various schools on their trips to the center. Nordrhein-Westfalen for instance, has ten
different Gedenkstatte which are currently visited by 100,000 people each year.39 In
general, no matter which type of secondary school one attends, history curriculums
recommend field trips to concentration camps or Gedenkstatte, both providing a valuable
resource for teachers. Since the 1980s, the importance of textbooks in teaching the
Holocaust has declined in favor of other methods.40
Also in reaction to the increased interest on the part of Germans to study everyday
life during the Nazi period, the Federal Culture Ministry released yet another guideline.
The 1980 “Recommendation on the Treatment of the Resistance During the National
Socialist Period” sought to teach and evaluate acts of resistance, large and small, in a
broader context. The goal was to eliminate the oversimplified perceptions that most
Germans were either willingly complicit, or that most resisted. This guideline also
encouraged educators to utilize local resistance movements in their teaching.
Holocaust Education Case Studies: Bavaria and Nordrhein-Westfalen
In Bavaria the overall goal of teaching about the Nazi Era is to relate it to the
present day emphasis on diversity. In other words, tolerating people who are different
from you, and not discriminating against them. Therefore Bavarian schools often position
the Holocaust as the end result of centuries-long poor treatment of Jews in Europe by
39 Paagard, “ German Schools and the Holocaust , ” 547.
40 Ehmann and Hanns-Fred Rathenow , "Education about National Socialism and the Holocaust , "
non-Jews, studying Jewish persecution in ancient times, the Middle Ages, and up through
the modern era. Like many other lander, Bavaria places an emphasis on on-site learning
through visits to local memorials and concentration camps.
A few months after the 1978 Federal Education Ministry guideline was issued,
Nordhein-Westfalen issued its own teaching guidelines. The local education minister was
particularly concerned about radical-right wing groups reaching the youth, and thought
that Holocaust education should connect Nazism, discrimination, genocide, and racism.41
As mentioned above, the Holocaust is taught mainly in history classes, but subjects like
Politics, Roman Catholic and Protestant Religious instruction, and German, do include
the topic. Hauptschule, for instance, requires a unit entitled “Only 12 years.” Here too,
teaching about the Holocaust requires dealing with the early traditions of anti-Semitism,
as a cause. A few different goals are outlined. The subject is to be taught so that students
realize the present significance of this era, as well as the importance of remembering
Nazism. Additionally, teaching must convey the everyday life under Nazi rule and
provide the perspective of victims.
Both of these case studies underscore a large function of modern day Holocaust
education. As new problems arise that touch upon related issues such as discrimination
and xenophobia, localities change their goals of Holocaust education to meet the
contemporary need. In 1989 for instance, the Bremen Senator for Education asked
teachers to teach the Holocaust with specific emphasis on rising xenophobia and right-
41 Ehmann and Rathenow , “ Education about National Socialism and the Holocaust , "
42 Rathenow , "Teaching the Holocaust in Germany , " 70.
In sum, by the 1980s, all of the necessary components for comprehensive
Holocaust Education were put into place. Teachers who were not of age during the Nazi
era, ensured that students would be taught by educators who felt comfortable talking
about the unpleasant past. German schools were now more free and open places for
discussion and expression, as demonstrated by a changing student-teacher relationship,
and the availability of student press and other activities. Textbooks, by this time, covered
in great detail the persecution and mass murder of the Jews in all stages, utilizing primary
source material. The textbooks now also utilized pedagogical methods that encouraged
critical thinking among students. Federal curriculum guidelines that were set in the early
‘60s and state response now ensured that all students, regardless of educational track,
would have some experience learning about the Holocaust in their history courses,
usually between 8-10th
grade. Finally, after the airing of the Holocaust mini-series,
Germany became committed to openly discussing the Holocaust in the public sphere, and
chose to memorialize various sites of historical significance to provide a localized
education. This served a crucial educational function as it diversified the materials at the
teacher’s disposal for teaching the Holocaust, and allowed specialists to tell them what
had happened in their community. Though all of the components for Holocaust education
were finally in place by the 1980s, this does not necessarily mean that Holocaust
education in Germany is faultless. In fact, many criticisms have been leveled since which
are, and must be viewed as reasonable concerns for the teaching of the Holocaust.
Present-Day Holocaust concerns
Although textbooks are much improved from the early post-war period, many
who evaluate German history textbooks believe that some of them depersonalize the
Holocaust by using passive language, and by utilizing some of the euphemistic
terminology that the Nazis used. The Georg Eckert institute for International Textbook
Research issued a report in 1985, attesting to this, noting that German history textbooks
provided great Holocaust education, while cautioning that terms that lessen the impact of
the Holocaust are still being used.43 A study in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,
of 49 history textbooks described a trend of terms being used like “final solution,”
“Jewish Question,” “exterminated.”44 Some, like German scholar Susanne Urban, argue
that Holocaust classroom education utilizes too many stats and dry descriptions, rather
than focusing on the personal accounts of survivors and witnesses.45
Professor Rensmann in his PBS interview also pointed out a defect of the German
educational system which is harmful to Holocaust education efforts. He notes that
Holocaust education is mentioned very briefly until 10th
grade. Two thirds of students
usually end their education after 10th
grade, while only the one-third that are in
Gymnasium learn more about the Holocaust. Consequently, as Rensmann argues, there’s
not much time for actually teaching of the Holocaust. Rensmann concludes that unless
the formal educational structure is changed, “media and private conversations may be
more influential resources of Holocaust education than German schools.”46
43 Pingel , "National Socialism and the Holocaust in West German School Books .”
44 Renn. The Treatment of the Holocaust in Textbooks . 200.
45 Susanne Y. Urban , "At Issue: Representations of the Holocaust in Today's Germany: Between
Justification and Empathy," Jewish Political Studies Review 20, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 79-90.
46 Rensmann , "Holocaust Education in Germany: An Interview . "
But there is a larger challenge for the instilling of Holocaust education. After
generations have passed since the events occurred, students have trouble seeing this past
as relevant, and the more time that passes, the more this feeling will be shared. Some
students wonder if they ever will be allowed to move on from the guilt they are supposed
to feel, and because of this express frustration. Matthais Heyl in 1996, sums up this
frustration in the form of a popular refrain at Hamburg University, “Auschwitz—I cannot
hear it anymore!”47 More recently, Rensmann in his ’05 interview seconded this opinion
that there is a public perception among students that the Holocaust is taught ad-nauseam.
In reality, as he points out, this is not the case, and in fact students still lack sufficient
knowledge of it. He also notes that a fair number of students seek a normal German
national identity, and want to be free of the burden of the past. The Historikerstreit
(Historians quarrel) in the late 1980s, involved Historians who had been seeking for years
to place the Holocaust in the context of other 20th
century totalitarian tragedies. These
frustrated students as Rensmann notes, tend to subscribe to this contextualization
While it is hard to blame German students for wanting to free themselves of such
a tainted past, it is important that these events do not lose significance to each succeeding
generation of Germans. It is a salient aspect of German history, which continues to
influence the present. Learning about the Holocaust still serves an important educational
function because of the magnitude of people affected and the important philosophical
lessons it brings up. While the physical remnants of the Nazi period will never disappear
47 Matthais Heyl, "Education after Auschwitz, Teaching the Holocaust in Germany , " i n New Perspectives
on the Holocaust: A Guide for Teachers and Scholars, edited by Joseph E. O’Connor, and Robert P. Welker
(New York: New York University Press, 1996), 279.
in Germany, the task of how to focus Holocaust education to keep it relevant presents an
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