Teenagers, history and the Nazi legacy – important lessons from young Germans, 75 years on


British teenagers are taught only about the Nazi era of German history and still see that country as an enemy.  On October 9th 2003, under a melodramatic headline, Now it’s war in the classroom, The Times reported, Leading German educationalists yesterday lamented our government’s failure to teach our children anything else about Germany or its history. A British professor, Niall Ferguson is quoted:  History in many of our schools has been boiled down to Hitler and the Henrys.  The German case is that unification in the 1870.s and half a century of stable democracy have been ignored and that, as a result British teenagers are often prejudiced against Germany and the Germans.

I was teaching a number of young Germans and Austrians in an international boarding school in Switzerland back in 2003 and asked some of them what it was that they would like to see taught to their British contemporaries about their countries and about their generation and their views of their countries’ recent histories.  We tried to cover the period 1900-2000.

I started with questions about general matters, about their countries’ achievements, about their fellow countrymen and women whom they respected and about aspects of their countries’ recent history which they felt were overlooked.  Next we tackled family histories and then considered what their contemporaries in other countries should understand and appreciate about Germany and Austria.


There was a view that the origins of the first world war lay as much with the British as with the Germans, that both sides had been spoiling for a war and, foolishly, thought that it would last only a few months.  From the aftermath of this joint folly came the conditions in which political extremism could prevail.

Austrians feel much less concerned to deal with the Nazi era, as, in some respects, they were only an adjunct to the Third Reich.  Austria was finally liberated from allied control in 1955 and declared itself neutral.  Austrians, we were told, do not wish to interfere in other country’s affairs and do not wish other countries to interfere in theirs.

Industrial or technological successes are seen to include, von Ziemann and the car industry, especially the purchase of prestigious British marques by German companies.  For one young German, military prowess was represented by Big Bertha, a huge field gun that could bombard Paris accurately and unchallenged from about forty kilometres away during the first world war, and the unmanned rocket bombs that could reach London from parts of Germany during the second world war and which caused the Allies to fear for the success of the invasion of Europe which had appeared to be going well.  It was appreciated that, towards the end of the Second World War, German rocket scientists were eagerly pursued by both the US and the USSR, an indication of the country’s prowess in this field of technology.  My students were especially sure that the post-war economic recovery in West Germany had created considerable opportunities for the former GDR [East Germany], and had allowed greater material progress there than in other liberated countries of Eastern Europe.

I found a strong sense amongst some young Germans that the Allies’ refusal to assist the resistance to Nazism, and the shift from strategic bombing to blanket bombing of German cities was intended, not just to bring about an end to the war by destroying industry and terrifying the population, but also to obliterate German culture.  This is resented because these young people are confident about their country’s culture and know that their country’s achievements, in literature and in music for example, are widely appreciated and respected.  They see this part of the Second World War as an expression of anti-German feeling rather than a necessary means to deal with Nazism and feel that it provided an opportunist way of settling old scores, the same competitive irrationality that led to the First World War.


There are families in which there are embarrassing links to different parts of the nation’s past, grandparents, for example, whose activities during the thirties and during the war are not discussed because other grandparents are Jewish and are very aware of what happened to their co-religionists.  When these grandparents and parents married there was initial distrust between different sides of families, another legacy of the war with which some families struggled.  In these families it was very difficult to discuss and come to terms with the past, something that is only now becoming much easier.  The question then has to be asked, if the divide between civilised and uncivilised pasts can be crossed within families, why does it take nations so long to achieve the same level of tolerance and understanding?

In Austria there are still older people alive who were given first-names that were fashionable in Nazi circles, names such as Sigrund, Sigtraut and Solveig for girls and Hermann, Arnulf and Ulf for boys.  These labels can still humiliate people who were only children during that era and who are now retired, people who, for most of their lives, have been embarrassed by their once familiar childhood names. 

One student told proudly of a great, great-grandfather, a Social-Democrat, who opposed the Nazis in the 1930s.  He was imprisoned for a short while and then condemned to forced labour.  He noticed that Poles in the same forced labour camp were given far less food than German prisoners so he gave them some of his own food.  When the guards discovered this, the Poles were beaten up and he was told that next time he was generous in this way he would be shot.  This student was aware that his family connections were to a generation that shared civilised, democratic values with their contemporaries in other European countries, but who were trapped in Nazi Germany and labelled as German and therefore uncivilised.

Another student told of her grandmother whose husband had died during the war, leaving her alone to bring up their children.  Her brother-in-law was a homosexual and was terrified of being found by the Nazis who regarded homosexuals as sub-human and would probably have killed him, or worse.  To protect him, she “confessed” to having had an affair with allowed him and claimed that he was the father of her children.  In this way suspicion about him was diverted but at the cost of great pain and confusion for herself and her family, and the risks for all of them should this deception have been discovered.

Two German resistance organisations were mentioned.  [There were references to them in the English language history textbook used in the school.]: Weisse-Rosa, run by young people opposed to the Nazis, and Eidelweiss Pirates.  One student had a great-uncle who was involved in the latter and played what could have been a deadly game with the S.A. [Later the S.S.]

He lived in Straubing, in Bavaria, and worked in an office next door to the synagogue.  One night, as he finished work, he noticed that a number of cans of petrol had been lined up in the passageway between the synagogue and his office.  As a joke, he removed the cans from the passageway and emptied them into the tanks of cars parked outside, then refilled them with water before replacing them in the passageway.

At the time, he did not realise that this was the eve of what was to become known as “Christal Nacht” when an attempt was made to burn synagogues all over Germany.  As a result of his joke, his great-nephew claims, the synagogue in Straubing, the only pre-war synagogue remaining in Germany, was saved! 


In German schools, teenagers are obliged to deal with the Nazi era, every year, not just in history classes, but also in religion, current affairs and even biology and they see this as an unnecessary self-infliction.  Although they appreciate and understand the widespread concern that extremism should never again prevail in their country, young Germans feel that this approach is excessive and tiresome.  They would like their contemporaries in other countries to realise that they are, in fact, far far more aware of what was done in their country’s name and that they are far more affected by what the Nazis did than teenagers elsewhere.

A friend of mine, a historian and now principal of a gymnasium nearHanoverbears this out.  He was born in 1950 and one of his earliest memories is of wondering why it was such a bad thing to be a German.  On my first visit to his home, he showed me the remains of the East German border and the place, only ten Kilometres away, where he used to watch the Soviet tanks massed there, poised to roll into and over his country.  Britons of my generation did not have to grow up with such a visible and constant threat to our everyday lives, nor with the distrust and wariness of neighbours.

My friend’s students in Goslar also contributed to this survey. They were very much aware of West Germany’s “economic miracle,” monetary reform that led to the introduction of the German mark and the rebuilding of Germany, largely through Ludwig Erhard’s idea of a “Soziale Martwirtschaft.” They were also very aware of reconciliation, towards which Konrad Adenauer did so much, achieving respect for Germany through the Franco-German treaty; visitors to Rheims Cathedral can find the spot marked where Adenauer first met President de Gaulle. Membership of the UN and reconciliation with Poland, the latter very much the work of Willy Brandt and his government are also very important and relations with Israel have developed and several reparation treaties have been made. For these particular young Germans, there is the achievement of reunification in 1989 and the development of an international role for the united Germany which regularly sends aid to less developed countries and accepted more refugees from Yugoslavia than all the other European countries put together.

My students in Switzerland recognised that, for many of their countrymen and women, chances to succeed in various fields have been a very important in allowing Germany to celebrate her achievements again.  The winning of The World Cup, and beating England in a game of football at any time, has always been very important for establishing self-esteem without provoking taunts that the Germans are becoming aggressive or threatening once more.

These young people are still saddened by the residual effects of war, occupation and division.  The destruction of much of the country’s heritage and its replacement with inferior, modern buildings is a matter of sadness and resentment, not against any one body or group, but grounded in an awareness of what has been lost.  The disguising of ruins and urban squalor with screens and other forms of disguise in places such as the Potsdammer Platz in Berlin is an example.  The decades of neglect in the former GDR of national artefacts such as the old Reichstag building is another.  Their feelings are directed as much against previous generations as against a particular country.  The reconsideration of the status of Bomber Harris as a war hero would convey to British teenagers a hint of the self-doubt to which young Germans are subject from time to time.  British teenagers, they feel, do not appreciate what it is to question assumptions, comfortable in their case, about their country’s past.

The continuing social division of Berlin represents for these young Germans a continuation of the division of the country, an incomplete reunification reflected in their wariness of Easterners, who they tend to see as parasitic and unwilling to accept the responsibilities and values which underpin West German success and upon which the East is still very dependent.  They see this as a matter for their parents’ generation and increasingly for themselves, another relict of Nazism for which neither is responsible.

The Nazi salute is something that young Germans and Austrians feel is nothing at all to do with them.  They find that the use of it to taunt them is really very puzzling because it has never been of any significance to them.  They regard people who use it like this as either ignorant, stupid or spiteful.  I was initially surprised by this concern until I looked again at the article from The Times.  This reported that four pupils had been suspended from a church school in Wales for greeting a visiting German teacher with a Nazi salute.  I was embarrassed that puerile stereotyping of the sort that I grew up with in the fifties had been used in attempts to embarrass Germans two generations later.  Why, despite their distance from the Nazi era, my students asked, why do they have to be regarded by some people as Hitler’s children?     

Immediately following the end of the Second World War allied troops were ordered not to fraternise with the German population.  As the death camps were liberated, German civilians was often forced to confront, to witness the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.  Further contact with these civilians was not to allow the defeated nation any feeling of worth or self-respect.  I can remember Ernie, a scouting friend in the early sixties, telling me how his father, an eighteen year-old national serviceman serving in Germany had ignored these orders.  He had noticed in the area where he patrolled a German girl with two little brothers in tow, obviously starving and miserable.  He took to going out on patrol with pockets full of chocolate for them and, two years later, married the girl who became his mother.

These young Austrians and Germans are well aware of things that happened in their countries and the terrible things done by their countries.  They understand the reactions of other peoples and other countries to that era and they know what it meant and has continued to mean to their own families.  They are also modern, forward-looking young people who want to lead decent, worthwhile lives, like most young people I know from all over the world.  Sadly, they could be forgiven for thinking sometimes that the era of non-fraternisation had returned. 

Sometimes I fear that British teenagers’ misunderstanding of their contemporaries in our shrinking world will continue to match their appalling unwillingness to speak to them in their own languages and their inability to listen to what they have to say, unless it is said in second-hand English.  Ironically of course, it may well be the children of recent immigrants to Britain, with their familiarity with more than one language, who will lead the way out of this particular mess.

Fortunately, however, young people continue to surprise and delight me.  In Switzerland, two English colleagues left to work in Swiss state schools, not to teach English, but to teach geography and maths in English because students there made it very clear that that is what they wanted.  It would be almost impossible in Britain to find such an eagerness to work in a second language. Swiss children usually learn at least one additional language from the range of four national languages and the German and Austrian students I interviewed all spoke excellent English. Unless we can find and develop the potential for language learning in Britain, young Britons will find it difficult to become good and understanding neighbours and, increasingly I fear, become as dangerously monoglot as our American cousins.  Global Gateway is a newly established website aimed at encouraging contacts and exchanges between British schools and schools across other parts of Europe.  I hope that it is successful and that far more British teenagers will find out for themselves about our neighbours and will ditch stereotypes that their parents should have consigned to history’s dustbin a generation back.

A footnote.

I recently received a copy of my old school’s newsletter containing accounts of exchanges with the Hansa Oberrealschule in Cologne during the nineteen thirties.  One woman, now aged eighty-three, writes movingly.  After the war, my friend wrote to ask if I would still be friends with her.  Another pupil from that era spent the war years in the merchant navy, pursued by U-boats, but continued a friendship with a young German which had been established before the conflict.  Altogether three teenage friendships begun then have blossomed into family friendships which continue today.  Why then, sixty years on, should their grandchildren’s generation still ask their insensitive, senseless questions?

And they do.  Recently a friend wrote to say that she is settling back into teaching in the UK but the same tiresome, woefully inept, insensitive and ignorant questions still follow the revelation that she is German: is she Jewish?  Is she related to Hitler? 

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