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Teaching German History

The question of teaching history to students with diverse ethnic backgrounds should be at the forefront of the educational discourse in Germany, not only because of the increasing percentage of students with migrant backgrounds, but also because history is a powerful ideological tool that impacts the identity and unity of a group. The way in which teachers educate students about national historical narratives could, by extension, impact identity formation and feelings of belonging within society. Germany has historically struggled, , with recognizing itself as an immigrant country. Even following the influx of nearly four million “guest workers” by the 1970s. Due to Germany’s reluctance to let go of its mono-ethnic identity, which traces German-ness through blood lineage, the state’s political, social, and educational structures have sluggishly reacted to the demographic shift towards cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. 

This poses a serious limitation to the inclusiveness of German society: young people with migration background who were born and raised in Germany are very often treated as not fully belonging and are constantly regarded as foreigners. They are seen as not willing and/or incapable of understanding the complexities of the German past, especially because their ancestors were not the ones who committed the crimes that contribute in important ways to German identity today. The educators themselves, coming mostly (95 %) from the majority group might be a part and to some extent also a cause of the problem (citiesofmigration.ca). Many of them share the general assumptions that it is only possible to understand German history if one has direct family (or “blood”) ties to it and that people of migrant background are by default not interested in and unable to meaningfully relate to this past (Gryglewski, 2010). As Gryglewski (2010) writes: “They [the teachers] tend to expect the students [with a migrant background] not to have a relationship with German history, a history almost literally conceived as one defined by the actions perpetrated by ‘fathers and grandfathers’” (Gryglewski, p. 42).

Not surprisingly, migrant students, like all students, react to German history in many different ways. In her research on how students of various ethnic backgrounds connect with the German past, Viola Georgi, from the University of Hildesheim differentiated between several memory cultures that students relate to: 

(1)the official narrative in Germany, 

(2)the unofficial, private narratives in Germany, 

(3)the official narrative in the country of origin experienced directly or via parents/grandparents, 

(4)the private narratives in the country of origin, 

(5)the new, “shared” narrative in the communities of migrant background in Germany. 

Some seem to fully embrace the German narrative and feel a part of it; others relate to it via their own or their ancestors’ experiences in the country of origin, yet others did not seem to be able or willing to relate to it at all. There are certainly a multitude of factors that determine why students with migrant backgrounds feel a sense of belonging to a particular one of these memory cultures, factors that may or may not be related to their ethnic roots. It seems very plausible that due to lack of recognition of their family histories, as well as constant treatment as foreigners, students with migration background often seek refuge in identifying with their parents’ or grandparent’s country of origin. Our research, however, is not occupied with why certain students identify in certain ways, but rather seeks to answer a much more practical question. Provided that all students react to learning about German history differently, our research explores how various Berlin-based institutions approach historical education to diverse school groups. 

Our research is thus guided by the following questions: In Germany, where nearly 30 % of all families with minor children have migrant backgrounds, how do youth with diverse ethnic roots react and relate to historical events such as the Holocaust and the Nazi past? How might the legacy of National Socialism be crucial to the construction of identity and the feeling of belonging to German society, if it is still relevant at all? What educational approaches can best foster an intercultural environment of inclusivity, respect for diversity, and productive learning?

On June 19th, 20th, and 24th, 2013 we conducted four interviews with representatives of the Anne Frank Center, the German Historical Museum, the House of the Wannsee Conference and the Jewish Museum Berlin. Each interview seeks to address the aforementioned questions through an investigation into the different educational initiatives these institutions offer. We supplemented the interviews with analysis of some online resources relevant to our topic, such as the websites of the visited institutions, etc.


Theoretical Framework 


History and collective memory are two phenomena which scholars started differentiating in the early 20th Century. Traditionally, memory has been viewed as “private, subjective, unverified, and personal, while history, armed with archives, source documents, and independent corroboration, is public, objective, verified, and interpersonal. History ‘tells it as it really is’, while memory can provide at best a partial view of how it seems to one participant.” (Wilson, 2005; p. 232). Whereas history has a long standing tradition within the academic world, memory in general – and collective memory in particular – became subject of scientific investigation relatively recently. Maurice Halbwachs is credited with introducing the term itself in the 1920s. According to Halbwachs, all memory is understood as being social in its essence. In other words, all meanings are created with, and influenced by, the presence of other people, even if this presence is only imagined. Halbwachs points to the fact that events, which had not been part of one’s personal experience may constitute a part of a person’s memory by the virtue of having happened to the group they belong to. Calling such a phenomenon a “historical memory,” he argues that people may remember events learned about from others (Halbwachs, 1925; 1950).

An extensive body of research and theory has developed since Halbwachs, including that of Aleida Assmann’s work on “collective memory.” Assmann defines collective memory as widely held memories of community members that bear on the collective identity of the community (Assman, 1999). What is critical to this definition is that collective memory exceeds individual life span. People therefore “remember” events that happened to their group long before they were even born. This knowledge is formed through family and school education and influences the way in which the individual members of a group see the world. 

It is now quite widely accepted by scholars that history is by no means objective and that every group tells it from a different perspective, often contrasting or even contradicting other groups. The history of a group – be it a nation, a local community or a family – constitutes an important part of the group’s identity. It is a story of where the group comes from, who their friends and foes are, and a source of information on what the group’s conduct should be in the future. Being able to identify with a group’s history leads to a set of shared meanings and allows for a sense of belonging to develop. Additionally, how historical events are talked about and interpreted may exert and influence the ways in which group members interpret current events (Connerton, 1989; Devine-Wright, 2001, Liu & Hilton, 2005). In collective memory research it is usually assumed that national groups are more or less homogenous, or at least their diversity is easily overlooked. This poses a serious limitation to the school education, which more often than not fails to incorporate alternative narratives and points of view. School textbooks and curricula often provide students with a rather one-sided and non-questionable version of history, with limited reflection on the fact that history is subjective. In our rapidly globalizing world mono-ethnic societies are slowly but surely disappearing as persons of various backgrounds are rendering states more and more diverse. 

In response to the increasingly intercultural world in which we live, it is necessary to find ways in which historical narratives may be taught to students coming from a multitude of national, ethnic, social, and other backgrounds. Examining education through an intercultural framework enables us to focus on the relationship between cultures and a need for dialogue amongst individuals from diverse origins. Rather than envisioning the multicultural world as one that necessitates assimilation to the dominant culture, interculturalism encourages forging relationships across cultural lines and sharing different opinions, ideas, and lifestyles. Looking through such a lens provides insight into the impacts of the increasingly multiethnic and multicultural world on populations once divided along ethnic boundaries (Piršl 2002, Puzić 2007). In particular, our research examines the intersection between the intercultural reality in which Germany finds itself and the new roles the educational system must assume to adapt to classrooms filled with students of diverse backgrounds. 

Not surprisingly, interculturalism is considered to be one of the leading principles in education today, as it demands discovering new means to develop and embrace diversity. In fact, the most recent statistics (2010) for Germany indicate that 19.3 % of the population or 15.7 million individuals (8.6 million hold a German passport, while 7.1 million are foreigners) are of a migrant background.  In other words, one out of every five persons in Germany is of a migrant background. Moreover, in 2010, 2.3 million families with migrant backgrounds  were residing in Germany, representing 29 % of the total 8.1 million families with minor children (“Families with a migrant background”). 29 % is a figure up two percentage points since 2005 that represents nearly one-third of the families in Germany and indicates that this population continues to grow. 

There is no question that such diversity amongst families with minor children has direct effects on the composition of classrooms throughout the German school system. There is a growing need for teaching methods and curricula to incorporate the development of self-concept as well as the creation and deepening of knowledge about oneself and others into the classroom. As Vitra explains: “Whatever the ethnic constellation of an individual classroom, the basic goal is always to create equal opportunities for all students, irrespective of their backgrounds, to learn and grow into citizenship” (Virta 2009). Moreover, interculturalism also tasks educators to create awareness among younger generations, not only of their own national identity, but also of the diversity of their peers. In doing so, teaching methods should ideally aim to develop a sense of belonging to humanity, rather than to stigmatize the differences across individuals (Spajić-Vrkaš 1993). 

Fostering interculturalism therefore necessitates a wide variety of educational approaches, including formal and non-formal methods that take into account intercultural competency and sensitivity, culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings 1995), and culturally responsive teaching (Gay 2000) (cited in Virta 2009). Both social development through intergroup contact and an instructional focus on multicultural education can be used to positively influence younger generations' beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors (Stephan and Vogt, 2004). Yet, as the preface to Education Programs for Improving Intergroup Relations: Theory Research and Practice acknowledges, traditional education processes have not always functioned to favor intercultural mentalities; rather, it at times “functions as a vehicle to inculcate prejudice and ethnic hatred – a veritable ‘pro-bias education’ for young minds.” Moreover, the work also highlights that: “Children are the constant recipients of an informal education in which prejudice is typically ‘taught’ via social customs, ethnic jokes, the example of elders, and so on” (ed. Stephan and Vogt, 2004, xi-xii). These observations of the dangers of both traditional and informal education solidify the need for research examining new and untraditional means to educate diverse student groups and to encourage multicultural inclusiveness among youth. 


Case studies


I.The Anne Frank Center: A non-traditional approach to youth education

When we walked into the Anne Frank Center it became immediately evident that it is a space designed specifically for youth. The benches double as cubbies for school groups to store their backpacks; the chairs are small and easily moveable by children; the space is colorful and cheerful. The exhibition itself is divided into three parts. The first narrates the story of Anne Frank’s life and provides historical background on the Third Reich. The displays of this first part are predominately filled with photo collages and very little text to keep students engaged. There are photos of Anne Frank with her family, friends, and classmates – photos that almost all pupils would be able to relate to. The second part of the exhibition addresses the reception of Anne Frank’s diary which is why so many people know about her. The third part creates an interactive bridge from the past to the present, intertwining Anne Frank’s narrative to the stories, opinions, and dreams of Berlin youth today. Children can walk into creatively designed bright alcoves where TV monitors display the interviews of five Berlin youth from diverse backgrounds, as well as excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary. When we interviewed Luiza Kończyk, who has been working in the exhibition and education department at the Anne Frank Center for ten months, she confirmed what is clear throughout the exhibition: “We created an exhibition particularly for young people.”

As the title of the exhibition, “Here and Now” and its design indicate, there is no doubt that the inspiration behind the Anne Frank Center is focused on connecting history to today through non-traditional educational approaches. Kończyk explains, “our aim is to talk about the history in a way that young people can understand it and in a way that they would be interested in it. It is also to make a connection between the history and now.” With this guiding inspiration, the Anne Frank Center implements two youth programs that approximately 10,000 students participate in each year. 

“Anne Frank – History for today” is a two-hour program for school classes of children of 10-18 years old whose focus “is on the questions, opinions and the previous knowledge of the participants.” Specifically designed to be relatable to the individual experiences and unique narratives of the visitors, “Anne Frank’s biography opens up a personal approach to the history of the National Socialist persecution of the Jews.” Through the examination of Anne Frank’s story, students may discover links between Anne’s and their own lives, focusing on the themes of “identity, dreams for the future, discrimination, civil courage and war” (“Anne Frank – History for today”). The second program, “The courage to help. In hiding in Berlin and Amsterdam” is directed towards a high-school audience, where the Anne Frank Center partners with the Workshop for the Blind to examine the question of “what choices to make, what actions to take.” The focus is on discrimination, courage, and helping. Both programs, while aimed at different audiences, have the same goal of challenging students to draw parallels between their own lives and the courageous choices of Anne Frank. 

The exhibition and the programs are producing positive results and teachers return year after year with new school groups. Student evaluations following the program indicate that students like the concept and benefit from it. When we asked Kończyk what makes the program effective, she explained that regardless of whether or not the students are interested in history  “they like the way we treat them as partners; they feel that we really want to talk to them…if accidentally on the way they learn history, that’s great.” She acknowledged that each student group presents unique challenges, but that the guides are prepared to tailor the discussions and activities to the students’ needs and interests. For instance, if the children have difficulties relating to Anne Frank or seem less engaged in the history of National Socialism, the guide will switch the focus to the narratives of the diverse group of Berlin youth in the exhibition. The exhibition was designed to take into account the very fact that students with diverse backgrounds would visit, in order to make it relatable, at least in some way, to everyone. The overall message of the exhibition and the programs is quite simple: to help students to recognize that “we are all people” (Kończyk). 


II.German Historical Museum: Creating a space for diversity in a traditional museum

The German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum; DHM) is the largest, federally funded, museum dealing with German history, which puts a heavy emphasis on its European contexts. With its enormous collection of artifacts and arts DHM provides a comprehensive overview of German history since its very beginnings until the aftermath of the reunification of the two German states. Presenting what seems to be a generally agreed upon vision of history, DHM was a natural reference point for our research. 

Lena Bethmann, an employee of the education department of the German Historical Museum, provided us with detailed information on DHM’s education programs and activities. First and foremost DHM offers guided tours for school groups at various levels of education. Their contents are consulted with teachers and tailored to a particular group of students. The guides try to make the tours more interactive and engaging, but the outcomes seem to depend on how involved a particular group is: “(...) it’s like a dialogue. Some [students] ask very few questions, with others it’s really a discussion and it can also get longer than an hour. Some are really interested, some are not.” 

Besides tours of the exhibition DHM offers movie-workshops, lasting up to six hours, during which students watch video footage from the times of World War 2, the Holocaust or the GDR and later have plenty of time to engage with the material and to discuss what they saw with the instructors: “(...) there is much more room for discussions, for personal opinions. There it is a lot easier and there sometimes are really big discussions”. The emphasis of the workshops is on linking the past with the present and showing young people what the mechanisms of media influence and of propaganda are and therefore raising their awareness and criticism. 

The museum does not directly address migration issues in their teaching, although they used to offer a special program about it. “There was another workshop that we’re not doing any more that was specifically on migration: How did it work? When did Germans go? When did people come to Germany? Why do you migrate?” (Bethmann). The program, however, was cancelled due to diminishing demand. Our interviewee pointed out that one of the main reasons for it may be the gradual reduction of the number of hours devoted to teaching history in German schools which leads the teachers to choose topics strictly connected with their curricula. Nonetheless, as was emphasized by our interviewee – whenever the topic of migration arises among school groups and workshops’ participants it is eagerly and adequately addressed by the instructors. These aspects, whenever they come up, are rather side effects of the standard programs. One challenge of working for a large museum, such as the DHM is that most of the time they do not have enough information and/or resources for addressing diversity. As Bethmann puts it: “If you know where the people come from you can say: ‘Ok, this is an example you can see in the museum but I brought more examples from your countries’. But this is the problem with guided tours –we usually don’t know well enough who’s coming”. 


III.The Jewish Museum Berlin: A teacher-focused approach 

The Jewish Museum Berlin is well known in Germany for its strong emphasis on and wide variety of educational initiatives, whether it is tours, projects, and workshops or its new Academy. The museum finds its dedication to education rooted ideologically in the desire to include a diverse body of pupils from various ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds. As Rosa Fava, the coordinator of the Jewish Museum initiative, “Diversity in Schools,” explained in our June 20, 2013 interview, the history of the Jewish people and the present day existence of antisemitism can be used as an example with which one can examine the larger question of the relationship between minorities and majorities or marginalized and dominant groups. Moreover, the “Diversity in Schools’” website reiterates: “Here the Jewish Museum Berlin can introduce its special experience as a museum for the history of a minority.” Using the Jewish minority as an example opens the conversation to overarching issues in German society today of exclusion and belonging. 

Additionally, many of the museum’s programs connect Jewish history to contemporary issues or phenomena in society today. “Anti-Semitism today – The New Normal,” for instance, is a day long project for high school students that combines an examination of the roots of antisemitism with the students’ personal experiences with discrimination, followed by how to address it. Additionally, “What do Judaism and Islam Have in Common?” is a one-hour tour offered to children of all ages, exploring the similarities and differences among the Jewish, Christians, and Islamic traditions (“Tours, workshops, project days, etc.”). There are over a dozen of these programs that use different educational approaches in conjunction with diverse subjects on Jewish history to ultimately engage students in active discussions concerning the links between the seemingly distant past and their own lives.

In addition to these educational programs, which were put in place shortly after the opening of the Jewish Museum Berlin in 2001, the museum has more recently established the Jewish Museum Berlin Academy in November 2012. The creation of this Academy concretizes the museum’s role to provide a “forum for research, discussion, and exchange of ideas” (“The Jewish Berlin Academy”). As Rosa Fava explains, the goal of the museum is “not only to work on Jewish topics and to convey Jewish history and life to people, but also to become a political player.” The opening of the Academy just across the street from the Jewish Museum signifies a tangible effort to both “widen” and “broaden” the museum’s topics and to “open up to questions of Germany as a migration society” (Fava). 

 “Diversity in Schools,” the subject of our research at the Jewish Museum Berlin, is a new and exciting project founded by the Jewish Museum together with the German Children and Youth Foundation, supported by the Mercator Foundation. It is the product of both the Jewish Museum’s consistent dedication to educational initiatives and its more recent and broader focus on the increasingly diverse German society. When we asked Fava about the impetus behind the creation of “Diversity in Schools” in mid-February 2012, she said that “schools need to rethink themselves and their aims in a migration society.” Fava observed that overall German society, schools, and other institutions have not reacted effectively, if at all, to the influx of immigration to Germany over the last decades: “Germany has always considered itself not to be an immigration country.” Due to an overall failure to adapt to increased diversity within schools over the past decades, fostering change, inter-cultural openness, and a discrimination-free learning environment is at the heart of the “Diversity in Schools” mission (Fava). Fava illustrated that the aim of the program is to inspire schools to “think of diversity as a normality and also to treasure it.” “Diversity in Schools” is an example of a new program that has tasked itself with rethinking educational approaches and goals in multicultural classrooms. It has thus begun a process of enhanced dialogue around cultural standards as well as an exploration of how individuals should live harmoniously with one another. 

 “Diversity in Schools” is working closely with three schools in Berlin for the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 academic years. Each of the three schools is unique both in its composition of students, teachers, and educational objectives, thus necessitating individualized and flexible methods to fit each school’s needs. One school, for instance, has 90 % Muslim students, while another is dedicated solely to teaching the German language. The overall approaches vary from close observations of the roles of individuals in everyday life, to the development and trial of pedagogy that “[promotes] a school culture sensitive to its own diversity” to the incorporation of “methodological and substantive principles” into curricula (“Information: Diversity in Schools”). 

Even though the program creates a customized approach for each school, the core target group of “Diversity in Schools” remains the same: the teachers. The program focuses on providing teachers with the tools to create more productive and cooperative learning environments for their students. This teacher-focused approach “makes teachers rethink their own position as mostly German persons originating from Germany with a dominant status,” explained Fava, referencing the small percentage of teachers with migrant backgrounds. The teacher’s role thus transforms from one of a “conveyer” of information to a more active interpreter of information responsible for engaging students with the material. The teacher seminars prepare instructors by focusing on “subjects of competence in diversity, Germany as a culturally diverse society, and textbooks as purveyors of stereotypes, media literacy, and cultural education.” As Fava asked, “are we [teachers] the problem perhaps sometimes?” A series of teacher seminars, each with unique approaches, provide inputs that enable teachers both to “reflect upon Germany as a migration society” and to develop mechanisms to incite participation and respectful interactions from pupils and parents. 

In anticipation of challenges with successfully implementing the input, “Diversity in Schools” also establishes process-focused school counseling in each school. For example, Fava described that in a school where the staff is “secular, liberal and left,” and the children come from conservative, Muslim backgrounds, incorporating diverse perspectives and narratives may prove challenging. Counseling is thus available to work through issues on a situational basis. One of the biggest challenges that Fava has remarked, however, is the realization for teachers that they too must “rethink their position in society” and their role as educators. Fava acknowledged that sometimes “some of the teachers feel offended when they hear that school is a part of the problem” and that as teachers “[they] are a part of this process.” She added that even if each teacher is only a small part of the larger education system, educators must nonetheless envision themselves as responsible for rethinking educational processes in increasingly diverse settings. Teachers must ask themselves questions such as: “How do I grade my pupils?” or “How should we talk about religion?” For instance, she mentioned that teachers could even consider engaging students in their native language or incorporating different languages into the lesson plan. These challenges, however, should not be seen as hindrance, but rather spur important reflections on how teachers can positively influence their classroom environment.  

While “Diversity in Schools” is only half way through, there are already positive results and ideas for the future of the program. Starting with around five participating teachers per school in the beginning of the program, “Diversity in Schools” has succeeded in implementing the project deeper into the schools and involving more teachers. By the end of the program, Fava hopes to involve the entire faculty. Moreover, the program aims to turn the topic of inter-cultural opening and discrimination-free learning to the top of each school’s priority list in the future. While Fava does not know in which way the program will continue in the future, whether it is through expansion to new schools or through some sort of published brochure or Internet report, she nonetheless assured us that there will be “transfer” of some kind. Despite the fact that two years, as Fava notes, is “only a very short time,” there is no question that “Diversity in Schools” is providing teachers with the necessary tools both to promote greater inclusiveness and to incorporate diverse student narratives into classroom discussions and lesson plans. 



IV.The House of Wannsee Conference: Appreciation of the learner 

Established as a memorial and a museum in 1992 the House of the Wannsee Conference (Haus der Wannsee Konferenz; HWK) is a relatively young institution. It is situated in a villa where on January, 20 1942 fifteen high rank members of the SS and NSDAP alongside representatives of several ministries of the Nazi state discussed, during an approximately 90-minute meeting, the particularities of the implementation of the “Final Solution”. The exhibition, consisting of fifteen rooms, is predominantly concerned with the history of building up of National Socialism in Germany, the development and implementation of racist and antisemitic ideology and with the genocide of the European Jews. 

A member of the education department, Elke Gryglewski told us that the relatively late establishment of the museum, compared to other institutions of this kind, had had – beside all the negative implications – one positive outcome. It allowed for inclusion and addressing of many education topics that became important during the debate preceding the opening of the HWK as well as for designing a modern and sophisticated memory sight. 

At the very beginning HWK served as a place for adult-education where representatives of different professions could learn about the roles that people working in similar fields to themselves played during the NS-regime. From policemen and soldiers to hairdressers – the whole society was involved in the workings of the Nazi state. 

Later on a series of youth programs was developed partially based on the offer already available for the adults. The House of the Wannsee Conference offers traditional guided tours of the exhibition, which are often booked by organized groups. An interesting variation of the guided tours was introduced at the HWK in the form of ‘self-guided tours’ which are prepared and executed by the students and for students while accompanied by a guide. In addition to the introduction of the historical context to their fellows, the young people are free to select from the exhibition whatever documents are particularly interesting and/or important to them and have a chance to present these documents. But, as Gryglewski told us: “The heart of the education work here is one-day seminars because we think it is very important that our visitors, no matter if they are young or they are older, that they work by themselves – they are the ones dealing with the documents”. During such seminars participants can actively engage with the documents in the museum, learn about them and elaborate on a certain task or a topic. In many cases the museum applies a product-oriented approach meaning that ultimately the students have to “produce” something which reflects their level of understanding of the discussed topics: “We (…) ask students to develop speeches (for instance when a memorial is opened); to write letters; a group working with sterilization would write a speech for the German Bundestag asking for compensation for these people; [this] requires them to read and engage with these documents”.

Gryglewski expressed the opinion that knowledge of the Nazi past and of the murder of the European Jews is crucial for anybody wanting to be a part of German society. Therefore, information about these events must be provided in a way that is accessible to everybody: “The focus is still on the House and its history, but through different organizational changes, we show all of our visitors that no matter who they are, no matter what background they have, that they are being appreciated”. 

One small measure taken up by the HWK in aim to address the diversity of German society is producing the museum’s information leaflet in Turkish and Arabic languages. This is not to say that people of these ethnic backgrounds do not understand German sufficiently, but rather to include them, and show that their presence among visitors is noticed and appreciated, as the leaflet is being offered in most European languages as well. Another step taken by the museum was the introduction in the framework of the one-day seminars of an exercise during which students are presented with a collage of pictures showing several significant historical events. Their task is to choose one event, which is the most important to them personally, and talk about it within the group. This allows for different historical perspectives and meanings to surface and stimulates building of a common ground on which the history of the Third Reich may be discussed. As Gryglewski said: “We noticed that this really took a lot of pressure off. Many young people in Germany with a non-German background have a feeling that their background doesn’t play a role in this society so there is a risk that they develop a competition of remembrance. The moment when they are given this space is a good moment to start the work together.”

Apart from that the House of the Wannsee Conference prepared a set of document archives which include historical events from countries other than the ones usually talked about in the context of the World War 2. Among others the documents present a history of a Muslim family of helpers from Sarajevo. They saved a Jewish family during the Holocaust and in 1992, during the war in Bosnia, were themselves helped by the children of the Jewish survivors. Other stories include Turkish and Arabic people who helped the Jews during the war, Turkish Jews and their experiences during the Shoah, children finding refuge in Teheran, sterilization of Black children, the life of Black people under the NS-regime, etc. Addressing parts of history which are not commonly discussed allows for a broadening of the geographical context. What is striking while working with these materials, says Gryglewski, is that it is often the teachers who are the ones saying that students of, for example, Turkish origin should work with the documents pertaining to Turkish history. The false assumption that stories of Turkey, Iran, Greece, and Bosnia are only relevant to students with migration background, may lead to “re-culturalization” or “re-ethnicisation” of students who are then perceived solely as representatives of their parents’ or grandparents’ country of origin. While, as our interviewee says: “In our intention it is material that can be directed towards anybody.”

The main finding from the different programs carried out by the House of the Wannsee Conference seems to be that the level of interest in German history does not depend on the ethnic origin of pupils. Moreover, providing students with sufficient space and time to tell their own stories and appreciating their perspectives brings a tremendous improvement in their openness towards and interest in German history. 


Exploring the role of German history in education and identity today 

After learning about the educational approaches of the institutions, we asked all interviewees to share with us from their areas of expertise how we could best make German history relevant to youth with diverse ethnic backgrounds. We also questioned what role German history – and specifically the National Socialist past – might play as an element crucial to identifying as a German today. Despite the fact that all four institutions each have distinct and incomparable educational initiatives in place, the interviewees’ responses to these questions serve to concretize the common thread amongst all of them. 


I.How can we make German history relevant to youth with diverse ethnic backgrounds? 

As all of the interviewees pointed out, this question is framed using assumptions that are common in Germany’s educational discourse today, assumptions which highlight just as much about how to approach education in a diverse classroom as the responses themselves. Most importantly, the question of how Germany history can be made relevant implies that it is inherently not relevant to youth with diverse ethnic backgrounds living in Germany today. Such a supposition creates a dichotomy in the way one might teach German history to “German Germans” and Germans with migrant backgrounds or “non-German Germans.” This “othering” of Germans with migrant backgrounds could ultimately foster a space of exclusivity and exclusion, thereby going against the notions of interculturalism and belonging. In fact, the idea that German history might not be applicable to persons of migrant backgrounds echoes back to the historic mentality that Germany has always regarded immigrants as guest workers or outsiders. Those who did not have German blood could never fully be considered part of the “German people.”

Fava, Kończky, Bethmann, and Gryglewski all seem to work in large part under the reverse mentality. Through the “Diversity in Schools” program and other initiatives at the Jewish Museum Berlin, for instance, Fava operates under the pretext that German history, society, and politics are pertinent to all persons living in Germany. From her perspective, “everything in Germany is relevant to everybody” thus eliminating the need to distinguish between “biological” (germ. bio-Deutsch) and migrant Germans. Similarly, Kończyk (who herself is not a German citizen) explained that it is necessary for all persons living in Germany – regardless of their ethnic roots – to understand its history. What is even more crucial than understanding or relating to the history itself is showing that from history “we learn to act,” a philosophy that guides the Anne Frank Center’s youth programs. There was an overall consensus that it is important that people know, at least in general terms, the history of the place in which they live, whether it is Germany or any other state. 

At the most basic level, all of the interviewees also acknowledged that when we talk about “German history” in reference to the National Socialist past and the Holocaust, these events are not solely “German.” Bethmann said, for example, that history might be made relevant for people with ethnic origins other than German by framing it in a way that shows that it is really connected to histories of other countries. She emphasized that German history is very much linked with histories of many other European and non-European states and nations. Showing these links may facilitate interest among students, when they realize that it is also their history and they may feel a part of it. Additionally, as Gryglewski explained, the House of the Wannsee conference uses a collection of documents that connect what might be considered predominately German history to countries that are less commonly mentioned, such as Turkey, Iran, and Tunisia. She has noticed that students of non-German origin react quite positively to the incorporation of these lesser-known narratives of the World War 2.  

Moreover, the very idea that interest in a particular state’s historical narrative may be related to one’s ethnic roots is, according to Gryglewski, intrinsically false. From her research with Palestinian and Turkish youth, Gryglewski has concluded that “non-German Germans” “who are not interested in German history are also not really interested in the history of their ancestors either.” Rather, what is at the root of the problem is that in Germany the “majority society does not let ‘them’ be Germans.” Because of this, she adds that it is easy to understand why students living in Germany with migrant backgrounds often refer to Palestine or Turkey as their place of origin, since “they are not allowed to be German.” Gryglewski thus proposes that relating to history must be separated from associations with one’s ethnic roots. 

Such an idea is further highlighted by the notion that those students with migrant backgrounds can oftentimes identify – perhaps even more strongly than ethnic Germans – with narratives of discrimination embedded within German history. Fava asserted that German history should in fact be especially interesting to students of migrant backgrounds because they are common recipients of discrimination today. Additionally, Gryglewski reaffirmed this point through a specific example of a guided tour at the House of the Wannsee Conference. She explained that when asked to pick one document that most resonated with the students, three Muslim girls wearing headscarves chose a leaflet of the Jewish community in the 1920s. The leaflet asked the majority society to cease their discriminatory actions and language against them. When the girls presented the document to their peers, it was evident that they related personally to the experiences of the Jews. Because the discourse is less common in Germany today, it is easy to overlook the continuous thread of German racism that continues unbroken from the past to present. Whether it is antisemitism, anti-gypsyism, Islamaphobia or xenophobic sentiments, discrimination is neither solely a phenomena then or now, but a reality that has always existed, even if expressed through different forms. 

But what about those students of migrant backgrounds who, in Viola Georgi’s research, asserted that German history was not their history and therefore they did not identify or take interest in it?  Fava challenges that these students are likely to be the exception. More frequently, Fava remarks that the “German German” students do not want to learn of the history any more because it is their history. Kończyk has also observed a similar situation whereby rather than a question of relevance, there is frequently a general fatigue of learning German history over and over again. Furthermore, in Fava’s experience at the Jewish Museum when students are disengaged, it is not a question of ethnic background, but rather of class. “Going to museums is a middle class culture,” she explained, and students from lower-class backgrounds can often be conflated with the students of migrant backgrounds. Rather than assuming that these pupils are not interested in Jewish history, or that it is not relevant, Fava suggests that they may have “different way of interacting with the world,” and that it is necessary to adapt accordingly. The fact that students of migrant backgrounds may not relate to German history or feel interested in it should perhaps not lead to questions of how we can make history relevant, but rather a deeper rooted issue of how to foster an environment of greater inclusivity and cross-cultural interaction. 


II.What function (if any) does the National Socialist regime serve as a unifying historical event, crucial for identifying as a German today? 


While all interviewees agreed that learning about and understanding the history of National Socialism is critical to all individuals living in Germany (and even in the world more generally), there was a general accord that the element of identification is much less critical, if it is still relevant at all. All came to this same overall conclusion, however, with particularly different approaches. In Bethmann’s opinion, all Europeans should be aware of this past, most of all in aim to be able to recognize similarly radical tendencies in the modern world. The new generation does not and should not feel guilty, however, for what happened in the 1930s and 1940s. At the same time they may be the first ones who will treat the Holocaust not just as a singular, non-reducible event, but be more willing to draw comparisons with other genocides and atrocities around the world. Fava dismissed the notion that being German necessitates an “empathic feeling of identification” with the National Socialist past. Fava referenced that there are indeed lingering links to the National Socialist past, with the National Socialist Underground (a Neo-Nazi terror cell) for instance, but that these connections are political rather than identity-related. Politically and rationally speaking, as a resident of a country, she explained, the history of that country does in fact become your history, but this does not imply that it is suddenly a familial or personal history that molds one’s identity.

Kończyk did draw a connection between the National Socialist past and German identity, not because she believes it is crucial for Germans to identify with it, but rather because she believes that it is “somehow part of identity that is given to people from Germany from the outside.” Linking young generations to this past simply by virtue of being born in Germany is something that she believes is not fair to “give” to young people today: “It doesn’t have to be a part of their identity.” Kończyk concluded: “The only responsibility youth have is to take something out of it, and based on what we have learned, to act differently.” Teaching German history is not about fostering guilt, but rather about empowering change. Lastly, Gryglewski expressed that even though it is important to confront history for the betterment of the society, the link to identity is purely artificial. Even if two people have the same history as a part of their identity, she explained, they could be two totally different people. Rather, Gryglewski believes that the point of identification is not to exclude or alienate through unique national narratives, but to create a culture of inclusion. 



German discussions around the issues of importance of the Nazi history to students of diverse ethnic backgrounds seem to be characterized by some erroneous assumptions. These lead people, and among them often educators, to believe that youth with migrant backgrounds are inherently uninterested in learning about Germany’s past, whereas “German” Germans are by default more likely to be engaged and passionate about it. A very different picture emerges from the work of our interviewees. As Elke Gryglewski told us: “This history is relevant for us all. It is not me telling them: “you have to do this with history.” But rather, we are designing this together.” People who migrated to Germany, or who were born here to immigrant parents become a de facto part of the German collective memory. They are surrounded by memory sites and taught history at school and through culture. In this way they learn to understand and share in the collective meanings attributed to the past. The question of “how” to make German history relevant to them seems to be somehow out of place and should be replaced by one addressing the possibilities for German education system finding ways to include diverse narratives and memories that the students or their families bring to the table. Moreover, there is a need to redefine what it means to be German, leaving behind the traditional blood-lineage discourse and recognizing Germany as the migrant society it is. Ultimately, there is a need not only for intercultural educational initiatives within Berlin historical institutions, but also a more pressing need for greater structural change in the education system involving new methods of teaching and culturally relevant pedagogy. 




19.06.2013 at 16.30

Luiza Kończyk – intern at the Anne Frank Center Berlin 

20.06.2013 at 11.15

Lena Bethmann – education department of the German Historical Museum 

20.06.2013 at 14.00

Rosa Fava – coordinator of the “Diversity in Schools” program of the Jewish Museum Berlin 

24.06.2013 at 10.00

Dr. Elke Gryglewski – education department of the House of the Wannsee Conference



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