Teenagers, history and the Nazi legacy

Ten-minute story

Teenagers, history and the Nazi legacy

Thirteen years ago a history professor was quoted in The Times: History in many of our schools has been boiled down to Hitler and the Henrys. British teenagers, it was claimed, 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 I asked some of them what it was that they would like to see taught to their British contemporaries about their countries’ recent histories. We tried to cover the period 1900-2000.

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, invaded and taken over by Nazi Germany. Austrians, we were told, do not wish to interfere in other country’s affairs and do not wish other countries to interfere in theirs.

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.

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. 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 still embarrassed by their once familiar childhood names.

One of my students 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 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: 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 “Kristal Nacht” when an attempt was made to burn down 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 can imagine.

Then 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.

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 war hero status of Bomber Harris, who led the bombing campaign against Germany, should 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.
When I am reminded of the easy way in which my generation of post-war British children picked up so much prejudice and the failure of my parents’ generation to even mention the many positive things that there are to say about Germany and Austria then I am embarrassed. Then I remember the students from those countries whom I have taught, and German and Austrian friends, and there is great pleasure in finding them to be such good neighbours.

What surprised you most in this story?

Why do you think that the writer wanted to learn more about German and Austrian history in the twentieth century?

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