Teaching About the Holocaust in Multicultural Societies: Appreciating the Learner

Elke Gryglewski. Intercultural Education. Volume 21, Issue 1. 2010.

Remembrance in Germany’s Multicultural Society: A Problematic Discourse

For approximately 10 years, there has been a growing debate in Germany regarding what Holocaust remembrance and education about the Holocaust should look like in the multicultural society that Germany is today. To date, two issues have severely limited the terms of the debate.

The first challenge results from what has been the predominant educational concept for teaching about the Holocaust during the last few decades: a ‘national’ approach which implies that German pupils need to learn about this history because their parents and grandparents were the ones responsible for the crimes committed during the Nazi period. Thus, ‘we Germans’ have had to learn about this history so that we would ‘never let it happen again’. Since this educational approach simplifies and trivializes important aspects such as the question of guilt, and has produced more and more feelings of rejection among young people, there has been a growing discussion about what a more appropriate educational concept should look like, a concept that would still take into account Germany’s historical liability for the crimes of the past. Complex and controversial as it has been, this search for a more appropriate educational concept has failed to take into account the multicultural nature of German classrooms (see, for example, Hansen‐Schaberg 2006).

The second challenge arises from the inability of mainstream German society to come to terms with the fact that the country has become an immigration society. The notion of Germany as a ‘racially pure’, ethnically homogeneous community, originated during the colonial era and was later fully implemented by the Nazis, with far‐reaching consequences. The notion of an ethnically homogeneous community thus has deep roots in German society. However, in Berlin today, every fourth student is not of ethnic German origin. The dominant discourse refers to these students as ‘Ausländer’ (foreigners), even though the large majority were born and raised in Germany. It is not uncommon for those in the education field to treat such students, especially those with a Turkish or Arabic background, as though they do not fully belong to German society. They also tend to expect such students not to have a relationship with German history, a history almost literally conceived as one defined by the actions perpetrated by ‘fathers and grandfathers’.

These two issues impinge on the debate regarding Holocaust education in Germany’s multicultural society. This debate is furthermore characterized by a general lack of communication between, on the one hand, educators at memorial sites and representatives of the formal and informal educational sector, and, on the other hand, people involved in the field of intercultural education, as well as people who deal with communities of non‐German descent, such as social workers or community representatives. In the debate, although there are many immigrants from East and Central European countries residing in Germany, multiculturalism is identified almost exclusively as an issue relating to people of Turkish, Arabic and/or Muslim descent. These communities are generally portrayed as problematic and lacking in some way. Hence, the debate on Holocaust education is framed in that manner: young people with these particular immigrant backgrounds are seen as deficient and problematic when the discussion turns to teaching about this episode in history.

Is Teaching About the Holocaust the Same as Teaching About Human Rights?

Some educators and academics have suggested that the pedagogical answer to the growing number of students of non‐German descent should be no longer to focus on German history as such at memorial sites and in classrooms, but to teach about the Holocaust by connecting the topic immediately to more current examples of human rights violations. Their general idea is that, when talking about the systematic mass killings of Jews in the Soviet Union in 1941, educators should also discuss, for instance, the shootings that took place in Kosovo during the 1990s. In the author’s view, there are at least two problems with such a recommendation. To begin with, one needs to realize that, during the last few decades, connections have frequently been made to human rights education, so they are not recommending something new. Through their choices of what documents, testimonies and other materials to use for education purposes, educators at memorial sites have, for example, always attempted to make their audiences sensitive to human rights issues and violations. And it should be emphasized here that human rights education is an extremely important endeavour and has much to offer in discussions about issues relating to tolerance and intolerance, violence, war and peace, etc. However, a whole range of problems can emerge in the German context if demands are made to implement human rights education at Holocaust memorial sites. If educators are required also to mention Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia or Guantanamo while teaching about the history of National Socialism, there is a risk that the teaching about the specific site and the crimes committed during this period of history will become diluted, unless the teaching takes place in a specific comparative unit on genocides. It is necessary, in the author’s view, to make distinctions when teaching about various types of human rights violations: genocide, mass murder, torture, etc.—something that is quite feasible in a short seminar. More problematic is the fact that, for many Germans, talking about human rights violations means speaking about violations around the globe, but not in Germany, since the generally held notion is that human rights violations occur ‘elsewhere’. A further danger is that a focus on human rights violations elsewhere (past and present) can be used to minimize the importance of past Nazi atrocities and an excuse to spend less attention on Germany’s past. There is also the danger that people will (and do) use the history of ‘the Holocaust’ to promote a variety of political positions related to human rights issues. The comparisons and arguments used tend to be superficial and contentious and are more motivated by political and ideological concerns than on a solid understanding of events (both concerning the Holocaust and current events). This is illustrated by the debate that took place in the 1990s in Germany regarding the need for military intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Both advocates and opponents of military intervention referred to Auschwitz to justify and give moral weight to their positions.

The abuse of the history and memory of the Holocaust seen from time to time in public and political, and also educational, debates makes it all the more important that people have a thorough knowledge of the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust. This knowledge can only be achieved through effective education about the Holocaust—both in schools and at memorial sites. It needs to be mentioned that memorial sites are not only educational venues but also places for remembrance and commemoration. Since people need to have knowledge in order to be able to commemorate and remember appropriately, one comes back to the duty of educators to offer this necessary knowledge.

Another suggestion within the debate about appropriate educational concepts for diverse classrooms has been to concentrate on the choices individuals faced and made during the National Socialist period. These choices or options, within a limiting setting, can serve as a starting point for teaching about the Holocaust. For example, one might take a situation from everyday life: two former neighbours, one Jewish, the other non‐Jewish, meet in the street. The question might be how the students think these two individuals will react and why. Do they cross the street to avoid making eye contact with their former neighbour? Do they continue walking and pretend not to know the other person? What motivates these choices? This particular approach is appealing, since it asks each student what he or she thinks somebody would do in a specific situation and why; it asks for (historical) understanding and (historical) empathy. The students stay focused on the history of National Socialism, but use their knowledge of history, as well as their own moral bearings, understanding of human nature and personal experiences to make inferences.

‘Appreciation as a Teaching Method’ in the Memorial House of the Wannsee Conference

At the Memorial and Educational Centre House of the Wannsee Conference, the question about appropriate educational concepts as a basis for remembrance in a multicultural society has become increasingly significant. Specific programmes have been developed for multicultural school classes that visit the House of the Wannsee Conference. The core concept in this work is ‘appreciation as a teaching method’. At the organizational level, this means that the information leaflets at the reception desk, which were already in many European languages, have now been translated into Turkish and Arabic as well. This has been done not because young people who visit the House might need them due to language challenges, since most of them speak and read German better than the language of their families of origin. The leaflets in Turkish and Arabic are provided as a gesture of appreciation and acknowledgement of their culture and their history of immigration. Another change has been the possibility of starting seminars with a session during which pupils are given the space to speak about those historical events that they personally find important—which in many cases are not connected to the history of National Socialism for a variety of reasons.

For the one‐day seminars, an approach was chosen which focuses on the history of National Socialism, the Shoah or racial and antisemitic persecution during the Nazi period while broadening the geographical reach of the issues taught. Historical documents that refer to the countries of origin of many students’ families are now included. These may be documents related to Nazi racial theories which refer to Asians, or documents about Turkish Jews or Jews from Arabic countries who were deported to death camps from Germany and the occupied European countries. Experience, when working with pupils from Turkish and Arab‐Palestinian backgrounds and using this methodology, gives different results from those often contended about this target group. It has been found that young people from these backgrounds do not reject learning about the Holocaust: on the contrary.

The discrepancy with the experiences of colleagues elsewhere led to the initiation of a long‐term project in 2007. The intention has been to examine in greater detail to what extent youth in Germany who are not ethnic Germans relate to the history of National Socialism, in particular the history of the Shoah. The first part of the project involved work with educationally underprivileged youths with an Arab‐Palestinian background, between the ages of 13 and 18. Educational staff at the Memorial and Educational Site House of the Wannsee Conference are presently working with 15/16 year‐old teenagers with Turkish ancestry who have a somewhat better educational background. The teaching concept has focused on ‘appreciation’, as explained above. The hypothesis is that, when youth who are not ethnic Germans feel that their own family’s history is acknowledged, they will be more open to learning about (mainstream) German history.

This work also questioned the lumping together of youth from various backgrounds under the single heading ‘Muslim’. It was decided to work first with a group of Berliners of Arab–Palestinian origin and later with others who were of Turkish origin. The experience during the seminars at the memorial site was that those groups consisting of students with a Turkish background, on the whole, did not mention the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In contrast, mixed groups with students of both Turkish and Palestinian/Arab origin manifested a sense of solidarity and did tend to mention the conflict. This finding can perhaps be partially explained by the manner in which mainstream society responded to these communities after September 11th. For many ethnic Germans, people ceased being Turkish or Arab or Egyptian, and everybody became ‘Muslim’. Associated with this label was the automatic suspicion that anybody belonging to that category was not trustworthy and was a potential terrorist.

For a period of approximately four months, the educational staff worked with each group on different aspects of their history: their family biographies, the history of the Turkish or Palestinian people (as it related to their families’ histories) as well as the history of National Socialism and the Shoah, which of course was also part of their history, since the youths were born and brought up in Berlin. As is always the case at the House of the Wannsee Conference, each topic or chapter was examined from multiple perspectives, encouraging them to take positions other than their own into account as a way of learning to shift perspectives. (For example, when dealing with the history of Palestine in the 1930s, one subgroup dealt with Jewish immigration from the perspective of a Jewish family which had fled from the Pogroms in Eastern Europe in the hope of finding a better life in Palestine.) The project with Berlin youths of Palestinian origin was carried out in cooperation with the Arabic Youth Club Karame e.V. from 2007 to 2008. The conclusions arrived at during the project led to a study trip to Israel being organized (including a two‐day visit to Palestinian territory), which took place in August 2008. A group of ‘parental guides’ from the Berlin Brandenburg Turkish Association have become partners for the project with the Berlin youths of Turkish ancestry.

A great deal has been learned from these projects. The educational approach has demonstrated its success, and, what is more, as time passes it has become obvious that the educators themselves were the crucial ‘element’ in the overall educational process. Because of the manner in which mainstream society generally deals with, or more accurately fails to acknowledge, immigration to Germany, knowledge about these specific learners is extremely poor.

Assumptions about ‘Muslim Youth’ and Their Relation to Reality

In the debate about young Germans of Turkish or Arabic–Palestinian descent and their behaviour when it comes to speaking about the Holocaust, one of the most frequent stereotypes is that these youths are strongly influenced by television channels from their families’ countries of origin. It is assumed that this is particularly the case for youths of Arabic or Turkish descent. It was surprising to learn that, in times of relative peace in the Middle East, most youth of Palestinian descent watched exactly the same television programmes as their ethnic German peers. In fact, many of them lacked the necessary language skills to be able to understand television programmes in Arabic. Therefore, Arabic television seemed to become relevant only when political tensions escalated in the Middle East. When conflicts erupted, the images were the drawing force rather than the spoken messages contained in the programming that the youths watched.

A common complaint in Germany is that Muslim parents are not interested in their children’s education, since they do not support the learning process of their children at school. Through this project, the educators learned that few in the education system had ever asked why this detachment might be the case and how much detachment there really was. Interviews revealed that, for instance, refugees who had come to Germany from Lebanon in the early 1970s usually did not attend school because the German authorities expected them to leave Germany as soon as possible. Today, these individuals, who never received a formal education, are the parents who are blamed for not supporting their children’s learning at school.

Another complaint relates to the swearing that can often be heard among children of immigrant origin. This is seen as yet another indication that parents are not raising their children appropriately and the unwillingness of children to learn. The reality is that most of these children lack correctives. They are usually not in contact with persons who might explain the meaning of such words (though children quickly understand they have power and give status), since their parents do not understand the words the children bring home from school.

In Germany, it has only been the international PISA results and other international testing results that have led to a discussion about a situation that would be obvious to anyone who cared to observe the German school system carefully: the German school system consistently produces educationally underprivileged youths and reproduces inequity, sending youths from ethnic German families to the higher tracks of education (Gymnasium) and youths who do not have an ethnic German background to lower tracks of education (Haupt or Realschule).

In the author’s opinion, too many teachers and educators in the German educational system have generally assumed that children with an immigration background are essentially different from ethnic German youths. Ethnic belonging is considered to be a determining factor with respect to a variety of educational issues. This attitude ignores the fact that most youths with an immigration background are second generation or even third generation: they grew up in Germany, the German school system is their point of reference when it comes to education, and their behaviour is more often similar to than different from their ethnic German peers. Social and educational status are actually more important determinants of attitudes and behaviour than ethnic background.

What can be said in general about education in Germany also applies to teaching about the Holocaust: teaching practices tend to be based on stereotypes and are greatly influenced by issues relating to people’s lack of acceptance of those who are not ethnic Germans in German society. Possibly the gravest error, in the author’s view, is the assumption that every ‘problematic’ reaction by youths with a non‐ethnic German background—specifically with a Turkish or Arabic background—is evidence of their refusal to deal with this part of German history.

Many immigrant youths have the feeling that their personal family history stands in competition with the remembrance discourse of mainstream society. In their eyes, the majority population is not interested in the history of their families or the country their families came from. In the view of these young people, it is those same individuals that insist that they have to be interested in German history. It is sad and even embarrassing to see how grateful youths who are not ethnic Germans react to educational concepts that take the history of their families into account, and that allow space for the history of their families. This enables much more responsive attitudes when dealing with German history. The sense that there are competing memories is closely linked to the fact that mainstream society usually does not treat youths who are not ethnic Germans as equal members of society, even if they are German citizens. This in turn leads to the curious situation that youths who know very little about the history of their families’ country of origin still refer to these places as their ‘home’. Such statements are telling, and betray emotional discomfort: this notion of having a different ‘home’ gives such youth the possibility of having an identity separate from the one associated with a society which for the most part rejects them in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. Owing to psychological mechanisms such as internalized oppression, the self‐esteem of these youths is so low that they cannot conceive of qualities they might have that society at large might appreciate. For these individuals, the issue of remembrance is closely linked to their own status in German society. As part of a long‐term project, they were asked to develop a small exhibition on topics that were important to them in relation to history and remembrance. They devoted a significant amount of space and time to the issue of how much or how little they are acknowledged or accepted by mainstream society. The titles they chose for the exhibition were reflections on the following questions: ‘Equality?’ ‘Are we equal … or are we not equal?’, ‘We too are Germany’ and ‘Our world’. The short accompanying texts they wrote related primarily to reflections on their own position within German society. Two are given here for illustrative purposes (December 12, 2007):

‘Our life in Germany’. For us Palestinian and Lebanese youths it is difficult to assimilate here in Germany because we have a bad reputation. The reason is that when many foreigners live in one place there are often conflicts and arguments. In our countries it is normal to be loud without this being taken as an offense or an insult. Arabs are more of a community than the Germans. We still feel quite ok because we have the same rights as the native Germans even though there are some neo‐Nazis here.

I’ve been in Germany for 11 years now. I speak the language, have the same formal education but still very often I have the feeling that there is no real acceptance. We have good living conditions but I was once in the situation where it was made clear to me that I don’t belong here. What I notice is that I, and people from my native country, or people who don’t come from Germany, are treated as foreigners even though they have German citizenship.

It is noticeable in these texts that the youths express a sense of ambivalence and that they identify mechanisms of exclusion. Frequently, they refer to themselves as foreigners, and in the next sentence they complain about being treated as if they were foreigners. Or they say that their living conditions are fine, while at the same time they attempt to explain why they have a bad reputation.

As a last remark in this context, it is necessary to point out that in many cases a young person’s refusal to engage appropriately with the history of National Socialism is simply a provocation. Young people in Germany are acutely aware of the fact that mainstream discourse attaches very special significance to this particular period in German history. Thus for many youths, whether they have an ethnic German background or not, reacting in a manner other than that expected by their teachers and other educators is a perfect opportunity to provoke those adults—youths often engage in such ‘politically incorrect’ provocation for age‐specific reasons that may have nothing to do with the target of the provocation itself.

On the whole, educators find themselves in an ambiguous situation in Germany. All concepts developed until now as an answer to the challenges of multicultural society are based on the notion that it is necessary to find special approaches and concepts for ‘the other’ or those who are ‘different’ from ethnic German students. On the one hand, the conclusions from the projects described above and the fact that the pupils referred to here were born and raised in Germany call for approaches that make no distinction between ethnic German students and students from other backgrounds. On the other hand, it has been observed in the last few years that perceived discrimination has led to a (self) re‐ethnicization among some youths. They refer and identify more with the countries their families (frequently their grandparents) came from than the second generation did. This tendency for ‘what the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember’ was already identified in the US in the late 1930s by Professor Marcus L. Hanson (1938). This kind of re‐ethnicization is perhaps to be expected, should not be ignored and needs to be taken into account when devising effective educational methodologies.

The foregoing discussion has many practical consequences. A change of attitude is needed with respect to the question who ‘has the duty to confront’ the history of National Socialism. The negative implications of compulsion should be turned into an attitude that ‘every youth/everyone has the right to know about this history’ in order to be able to understand the present. If this is taken as a positive starting point for teaching about the Holocaust, there is a chance for attitude change in the long term. If done appropriately, the issue of Holocaust remembrance in multicultural societies can cease to be a problem and actually become a vehicle offering many educational opportunities.

Society at large, as well as those working in the field of education, need to be aware of the fact that educational programmes will only be successful if there is a real change in the situation of those in Germany who are not ethnic Germans. This real change refers to their economic and social situation, as well as to their opportunities in the educational system.

There is also a need for increased awareness of the fact that the call to assume responsibility for German history cannot remain one‐sided. The individual and collective histories that have immigrated to Germany, so to speak, deserve to be acknowledged. This does not mean that all these different histories need to be taught at school to the same extent. Rather, with very simple methods such as encouraging youths to inquire at home about their family’s history, it is possible to show students that every family background in class is worth learning more about, for everyone. Some histories are invariably more present and visible than others, which does not mean that they are intrinsically of greater worth. It would make sense to develop seminars that enable teachers and other educators to better understand how to include into their teaching the range of histories represented in the classroom. One issue that should be dealt with in such seminars, though with sensitivity, is the Middle East conflict, a topic that should be more extensively included in school curricula.

Many educators will be surprised as to how receptive to other perspectives students become once the history of ‘their people’ is no longer excluded from the history being taught. Greater awareness is also needed of what ‘appreciation’ means, not just in the colloquial sense of courteous behaviour, but with reference to the expectations we have of others, holding them to the standards that we expect from ourselves.