Project Germany: The past, the present, and peace

Germany's past serves as educational tool

by Rita Forbes and Valerie German

Germany’s present is at odds with its past. Hitler and the Holocaust are common knowledge. But walking through the bustling, beautiful cities of Munich, Cologne and Berlin, one would never guess that 70 years ago, they lay in ruins. The current political system, which stresses democracy, federalism, and citizens’ well-being, bears no resemblance to Hitler’s dictatorship. The first article of the German constitution, “Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar” (human dignity is inviolable), soundly rejects the Third Reich’s policies.

A sign in the window of Leipzig's Forum of Contemporary  History contains cautions passers by with this message:  "Warning! History can lead to insight and cause awareness."
A sign in the window of Leipzig's Forum of Contemporary
History contains cautions passers by with this message:
"Warning! History can lead to insight and cause awareness."

The atrocities of the 1930s and 40s occurred long ago. And yet trying to erase this past would be unthinkable to the German people. While many other nations quietly sweep their unpleasant history under the rug, emphasizing only the positive aspects, Germany continues to blatantly address the truth.

They are incorporating the past, hideous though it is, into their present culture.

By reflecting on the events of World War II and keeping memories alive, Germany as a nation and Germans as individuals work to keep them from happening again. “I think it could happen almost anywhere and anytime,” said peace activist Monika Ott, speaking of the Holocaust. This realization has cemented the German commitment to peace.

Germany’s past is different from that of any other nation. After losing two world wars and enduring the separation of their nation for over half a century, Germany is now united and enjoys a good relationship with neighboring countries which used to be enemies. Over the last 70 years, the country has worked to repent, to restore, to reconcile. The German psyche has been deeply affected by the evil of National Socialism. Today, Germany is an active force for peace and harmony in the world, far from its aggressive nationalism in the early twentieth century.

“We started two world wars, and we don’t want to start a third one,” said Silke Bruchmüller, a social science student. “So it’s pretty important to learn from history.”

Germans are reminded of the past daily; they live in its midst. With a death count numbering in the millions, almost every citizen has a personal connection to the slaughter that took place. If you open a map, concentration camps are landmarks. There are forty publically-funded museums devoted to German history in the country, many with extensive exhibits about life under Hitler’s dictatorship. Because of the German government’s dedication to historical education, all concentration camp memorials and the majority of museums have free admission. These historical monuments and museums draw not only foreign tourists, but German citizens of all ages as well.

The subjects of Hitler’s rise to power, World War II and the Holocaust receive a great deal of attention in the schools. German high schools are even required by law to conduct field trips to concentration camp memorial sites and World War II museums.

“Nobody blinks,” said Eva Esser, an education major in Cologne. “They take it very seriously, even the wild boys.”

It is not uncommon for young people to go beyond curricular requirements, on their own time and initiative. As a teenager, Josef Heimann read a compelling book by a concentration camp survivor, which motivated him to learn as much as he could about this topic. He enrolled in a nine-month class to become a tour guide at the concentration camp Dachau. For the last seven years, he has given tours there, educating others and ensuring the past is not forgotten.

Germans know their nation’s history. They neither deny nor excuse it, but utilize it to teach their children and the world the importance of incorporating the past in the present. As the world changes and time moves us further away from World War II, the methods of addressing history must be adapted accordingly. Historical education will be faced with new challenges.

“We used to have Holocaust survivors come talk to our middle school,” college student Andreas Bierlein recalled, “but with so few alive now, it rarely happens.”

Despite the coming difficulties of survivors giving the firsthand account, Germany will maintain its emphasis on the past.

“It is always important,” said Dr. Rainer Eckert, director of the Forum for Contemporary History in Leipzig. “Discussing, coming to grips with history is always important. I think we will never be rid of our historical heritage.”

This can be a heavy burden to bear. But Germany stands out as an example of taking a bitter past and facing it squarely, in the hopes of never repeating it.