Yesterday I stepped off an airplane that flew directly from Frankfurt, Germany to Austin, Texas. The plane was packed with both Americans and Germans—two nationalities that share the difficult challenge of how to teach our children about the sins of their grandfathers.
My aim today is not to address how we teach our own children about our national sin of three hundred years of legal American slavery. Suffice to say that those of us, like me, whose ancestors owned slaves most likely have some conflicting emotions buried inside. And I suspect those of us whose ancestors fought in the Confederate army simply to defend their homeland from invaders also sometimes question the roots of the ‘lost cause,' in honor of which so many statues were erected on southern courthouse lawns.
But today is about Germany and World War II.
In Nuremberg, Germany, on the last day of our trip, we visited sites where huge Nazi rallies were held, outdoor venues of immense concrete edifices and vast open space for up to half a million people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, chanting, singing, experiencing the emotional high of a shared devotion to an inspirational leader, as they became part of a highly-efficient propaganda machine. As a side note, we learned the citizens who attended these enormous rallies had to buy tickets to the events.
The same day, we ended our tour of WWII Nuremberg by sitting in the courtroom where in 1945, just months after the war ended, 21 Nazi leaders were tried for crimes against humanity in an international court with judges from France, England, the United States, and Russia.
As I stared at the box where the defendants had sat during the long trial, I couldn’t help but think that the trial had offered the German people a free-pass to dump their collective guilt onto those 21 men. To those bakers and housewives whose cities had been bombed to rubble, whose sons had died by the hundreds of thousands for the Nazi cause, the 21 men on trial could conveniently assume the burden of Germany’s national sin of the genocide of millions in the gas chambers and the slave labor of millions more. No doubt such scapegoats were welcomed by the ‘uninvolved’ men and women who no longer needed to rationalize, to look the other way, while mass executions surrounded them during the Nazi years.
One of our German tour guides spoke to the challenge of how in 2022 to teach the children of Germany about WWII. Like here in the USA, public education is a state-level function, rather than a national one, and we were told there are 16 varying approaches to teaching about WWII and the Nazi regime.
She said until the 1970’s, usually the decade from 1935 to 1945 was generally ignored by teachers who were unwilling and unsure how to teach the years of Hitler’s horrific regime. Schools simply left it to parents and grandparents to let their children know or not know the evil realities behind their devastated country.
From the 1980’s until now, she said there was more coverage of the war and Hitler, but not much about the genocide. An aside: Who knows what was taught to East German children under the Soviet era until the Soviet collapse in 1989?
These days, our guide said there is a growing effort to shift the lens away from textbook photos of the Nazis’ mass rallies and giant swastikas, to stories of everyday citizens who simply endured the era. They are trying to take the memorable Nazi ‘optics’ out of the spotlight. Stop letting the ghosts of the Nazi past define the teaching of the Nazi era to the children of today. Quit showing the propaganda photos the Nazi’s themselves created of their lockstep rallies, the mass ‘Seig Heil’ straight-arm salutes, the adoration of a madman. Replace those visuals with other optics—of what exactly, I don’t know.
As a side note, I personally doubt if the shift to sidestep the terrible Nazi scheme to ‘purify’ Europe by murdering millions of civilians will ever include the chilling photos taken by Americans who first came upon the extermination camps, photos and films which were shown in the Nuremberg trial.
What was hammered home to me in Nuremberg is that we walk a slippery slope when teaching kids about an ugly past. It's hard, damned hard, to be critical of our grandparents. Yet, sometimes the hard truths need to be dredged up if we expect our grandchildren not to go down the same terrible road that our grandparents did.