Center for Civic Education

Democracy and the New Millennium

Tolerance Education in German Schools Teaching about the Holocaust

Wolfgang Böge

A paper presented at
Democracy and the New Millennium
International Conference
Malibu, California
October 2000

Tolerance Education is -of course- one of the educational principles guiding the whole school system in Germany today. You will find instructions in our education laws, in preambles and general parts of the curricula and in the specific curricula of various subjects, in school regulations and classroom rules.

The number of teaching modules is legion on this topic dealing with the question of how to defend human dignity and human rights, about peace education, how to foster tolerance, how to deal with aggression, about human rights violations in history and our times, how to fight racism, violence and extremism of any kind, about how to over-come prejudices or enmity, and the strengthening of a civil society.

Out of this very wide range, I was asked to choose "Teaching about the Holocaust in German Schools" as topic of my presentation today. I would like to give a short intro-duction in view of the visit to the Museum of Tolerance from the German side.

Practicing teachers only very reluctantly give information about the reality of their teaching about the holocaust. And if they do, they try to be extremely politically cor-rect, because they fear a widespread McCarthyistic practice in Germany, which might denounce any clumsy wording and any uncomfortable opinion as anti-Semitism or as hidden or inadvertent support of rightwing radicalism. There is no broad educational discussion of this specific question, specially interested organisations dominate the field. So perspectives are quite limited and so is the validity of research.

There is another worry. Our educational possibilities tend to be overestimated and overtaxed. The practitioner cannot always achieve the knowledge, insight, under-standing and consciousness expected by theory and experts - and possibly also by hi or herself. It is always easy for surveys to find real or supposed deficiencies in educational practice. And something more: our historical-political-ethical teaching about this topic is sometimes hampered and threatened in its educational credibility because interested parties try to use it for their own purposes All phenomena of misuse of the holocaust and all phenomena of "Shoa business" make our work very difficult. So we really have to defend the ethical essence of the topic in many ways.

In Germany a teacher is quite independent within the framework of the curriculum, which often leaves very much to him and the teachers conference in his or her school. So she or he decides -not if, since that can be taken for granted - but how intensive the holocaust is taught. And we have 16 federal states. Even if the 16 curricula are not so far apart regarding the subject history, ethical education and civic education are. So there is no way to give more than a subjective sectional insight, even if this one is sup-ported by many talks to colleagues and a very recent survey, which I carried out among more than 200 students.

During the last ten years there has been a slight shift of emphasis in history teaching to post-war times. For our students the Nazi-time is the time of their grandparents and even more their great-grandparents and long ago.

Nevertheless, their interest is - if you take this into consideration- surprisingly high. Students tend to regard this topic as a historical one, though. Therefore in their con-science they do not directly connect today's outbursts of hate and violence of dumb skinheads and the ideological madness of small neo-Nazi-groups with the Europe wide industrialised mass murder of the III. Reich. None of the students in my survey did. The skinheads and neo-Nazis are not perceived as Hitler's heirs but as a contemporary phenomenon of extremism. The connection between the two is primarily underlined in the media coverage, I think.

Civic Education

In contrast with the above mentioned civic education often starts with an analysis of today's hate groups and an attempt at drawing a historical parallel to the Nazi crimes. Or you teach about human rights, the German Grundgesetz and the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. In these modules the holocaust is an ever present sort of ultimate menace to civilisation, - what can happen if human rights are not strongly defended by a civil society and the democratically-minded individual.

Ethical Education

A somewhat similar approach in this respect characterises current teaching modules in ethical education. Individual cases of hate and violence are analysed, individual conse-quences are generalized. The importance of human rights, of tolerance and recently especially the courage of one`s democratic convictions for a civil society are stressed. An understanding of theory, individual cases and biographies enables students are to speak out, to act according to their democratic convictions in public, to realize the fate-ful role of the bystander. Here also the spectre of the holocaust is an ever present point of reference. Such teaching modules resemble some of the American holocaust educa-tion curricula.

There are many programms and activities undertaken by federal-, state- and private institutions as additional measures in youth work to foster public responsibility, public spirit and personal commitment. Just recently we have seen a very high awareness and a wave of new efforts in response to an increased number of rightwing hate crimes.

Education in Religious Questions

In religious education the topic is relevant from the lowest to the upper classes in highschool and sometimes even in primary school. The lower classes learn about world religions, Judaism and of course anti-Semitism, classes 9 and 10 about racism , the question of inclusive and exclusive thinking, and the senior classes again deal with questions of racism and fundamental values. There are nearly no textbooks on these questions which do not include the holocaust.


In teaching German the topic is frequently found in classroom reading, mainly in the age group 11 to 15. The best know books are e.g. "Damals war es Friedrich" for the lower grades, of course "Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank" and others like "Ich trug den gelben Stern". . Sometimes you will find the use of comics: Spiegelman`s "Mouse" and Bedürftig / Kalenbach`s "Hitler", which is also used in history lessons. Other Subjects

In other subjects the holocaust is a theme also, but rather in special projects like Schneider's teaching module about "Schindler`s List", which integrates ethical educa-tion, film analysis and English language teaching.

Digression: Holocaust Education Curricula in the USA

Let me take the opportunity for a little digression about holocaust education curricula in the USA. The American holocaust education curricula are very heterogeneous de-pending on the context of their origin. The educational quality varies from very helpful to highly problematic. There is no common pattern. From a module in German history written by a private Jewish group to an ethics module or a civics module written by a State Government committee you will find all varieties under this headline. They have to be seen in the context of the formation of the American national identity , which explains the limited angle of vision in most of them, California being an excep-tion . And they have to be seen in the context of the development of the Jewish com-munity in the USA and the different positions within the Jewish community regarding the meaning of the holocaust for us today, and the way to include the holocaust into curricula. Just recently we have seen a fierce debate about the political use and misuse of the holocaust. This debate also poses questions for the holocaust education curricula.

School practice differs very much. E.g., the education department of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington states that it is very difficult to establish the actual position of the topic and how widely the various teaching modules are actually used in American schools . But the situation is very complex and to be seen in very differenti-ating ways. The Americanisation of the holocaust is only now being studied and it is too early to draw conclusions regarding the meaning for tolerance education.


German history curricula are chronologically arranged. So, because of the growing time distance, the post-war topics have gained more emphasis during the last 15 years. The topic National socialism was shifted from 10th grade down to 9th grade. All stu-dents have two lessons per week of history, which is compulsory, and means in practice about 40 45-minute lessons about National socialism. This is a main focus in the history curriculum. Nevertheless, this leaves just about 8 lessons for the topic anti-Semitism and the holocaust. This could draw criticism, but keep in mind that there are three more or even five compulsory subjects, in which the topic is included. All in all the topic has a high standing in general awareness.

In Berlin, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (West-Pomerania), Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate) and Schleswig-Holstein e.g. less time is allocated to the topic, in Bremen more lessons are allocated. . But you have to acknowledge that most curricula leave room for individual emphasis by the teacher. All questions showed that teachers allocate more time here than there is in the official curricula, especially for films, excursions, meetings with witnesses etc.

The Hamburg history curriculum gives specific teaching guidelines: The student shall discuss and understand "Violence, war, perpetration and genocide as consequences of the National socialist ideology". "Racist, political and religious perpetration in general, concentration and extermination camps" and especially the "perpetration and geno-cide of Jews" are focused on.

As far as I can see the first main didactical stress in practice is laid on the process of tightening discrimination and persecution against the Jews after 1933. Here the stu-dents conduct a sort of case study of continually intensifying violation of elementary human rights. The students realise that if you want to fight such a process you have to fight it right from the start. And they learn that only a strong, credible democratic so-ciety, which the Weimar Republic had not, will keep extremism at bay.

The second focus is on Auschwitz. Teaching didactically about the horrors of industri-alised mass murder is a very difficult task. And so for a long time teachers hid behind the testimonies and interrogation protocols of perpetrators taken from current source collections, so as to stress that all these unbelievable horrors had actually taken place. Today this is not necessary any more, knowledge and conscience have changed. So the emphasis has shifted to the fate and biographies of individuals to show the fate and suf-fering of individual human beings behind the figures and structures. And to stress the relevance for our time even more, tales of rescuers are included as examples, to show that even under such extreme circumstances people had the courage to stand by their convictions and acted accordingly. Here "Schindler's List" is widely used as well.

It is important that the students understand that the holocaust is part of their collective past, without producing personal feelings of guilt, so that they readily accept their re-sponsibility for a democratic future. And here is the place to make them understand that even after two generations you cannot proceed as if nothing has happened and delete the item from today's political agenda, just as other countries cannot do it with their histories.

Apart from the government institutions of federal and state authorities a large number of private foundations, institutions, and publishing houses produce all kinds of teach-ing material, from which every teacher can choose. The media centre of the Hamburg School Administration offers 373 titles on National socialism, which were lent 3319 times in 1999. 134 of those deal with the holocaust, 41 films of those are about concen-tration camps, 20 alone about Auschwitz. Apart from standard documentary films "Schindler's List" and "Das Leben ist schön" are among the films, most asked for.

Now, how did the about 200 high school students of the age-group 14 to 16 see the topic? The random survey was anonymously conducted this July in six Hamburg com-prehensive schools and Gymnasien. It is not representative, but might show tenden-cies, e.g. one thing seems obvious to me from it, in spite of TV and cinema etc., the role of the school seems very important here, more so than I thought.

Classes in the age-group 14 which had no contact so far with the topic in their history lessons, showed less interest, arguing "that is so long ago". Classes 9 and 10, who had learned about the holocaust already showed much greater interest. More than 30% were "very much interested", another 30% "more than in other topics", 19% "just as in other historical questions", and only 14% said: little interest (not specified whether it was history in general or the topic).

I conducted an anonymous random comparison survey among the age-group 18-19. I was quite satisfied to find in their voluntary comments that their reasons for their more than average interest corresponded very much with our theoretical aims and demands.

67% of those 9 and 10 graders, who had been taught about the holocaust already, denied that they were overfed by school and media with the topic, 22% had no answer to this question, and only 11% said, they felt, they "were a little fed up" with it.

So, I think, you can say with some reason, that the topic is of great interest to our stu-dent of that level today. This interest generates the expectation that the school has to make special efforts here with regard to this topic. Nearly 70% of the students demand more than the usual regarding method and content.

In their comments in the questionnaires they ask for excursions to camps, special reading lists and book selections, talks to witnesses, discussions with Jewish fellow citi-zens, visits to synagogues and information about Jewish religion, special project weeks, action days , exhibitions, films, local research, theatre projects etc.

As far as content is concerned they want to focus on this topic, they demand knowledge and explanation as far as historical theory can provide them, they want to keep up the memory, prevent oblivion and future disaster.

As the students wrote all this voluntarily, anonymously, without their teachers and any control whatsoever this might be of some reliability. What the students say corre-sponds with what educators try to achieve in theory and in practice. So with all due caution I might conclude that what I have found out is quite encouraging.

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