by Rita Forbes and Valerie German
|Youngsters explore materials at the Federal Agency
for Civic Education. An agency official says its hardest
task is to keep young people interested in democracy
and European unification.
The importance of civic education has been recognized in Germany since the end of World War II. After living under Hitler’s dictatorship of terror from 1933 to 1945, German citizens had no concept of what it meant to live in a democratic society, one in which their voices could be heard. Forming a democracy – a radically different political system – carried an inherent risk. If the people themselves did not understand both their responsibilities and rights, if they did not take an active part in their government, this new idea of democracy would not succeed.
German history had only seen democracy briefly. During the Weimar Republic in the years following World War I, the country’s first attempt at democracy failed. Although many factors contributed to this failure, the lack of public support for the institution of democracy is commonly viewed as playing a large role. Democracy was a foreign concept from foreign lands, despised by many Germans. Without the involvement of the people, the Weimar Republic was a short-lived “democracy without democrats.”
When the Federal Republic of Germany was formed after World War II, there was no doubt that political education was needed. In response to this need, the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, or “bpb” for short) was formed in 1953 as a branch of the Ministry of the Interior.
In the beginning, the agency’s primary focus was responding to the consequences of Hitler’s propaganda and equipping citizens to take a role in their government. During the Cold War, fighting communism was also emphasized. Over the last 55 years, the bpb has adapted to the changing needs of society. Today, with a staff of 200 and a yearly budget of 38 million euros allocated by Parliament, the bpb seeks to increase civic awareness and involvement by publishing books and articles on topics such as human rights, foreign relations, and neo-Nazi movements; organizing study trips and exchange programs with other countries; and holding events for all age groups. The organization addresses Germany’s past, spreads awareness of democracy, keeps up with the trends of current political movements and promotes European unification.
Dr. Bernd Hübinger, vice president of the bpb, said the agency’s hardest task today is to keep young people interested in democracy and the ideal of European unification.
The bpb recently started an outreach to those who “stand aloof from politics,” primarily young people more interested in sports, shopping, soap operas and computer games than upcoming elections or developments in the European Union.
“Things start to become dangerous or risky if you have parts of the population which are not against democracy, but just don’t care,” Hübinger said. In response to this apathy, the agency has a strategy called Haltestellenpädagogik – “bus stop pedagogy.”
“You have to pick up people where they are standing,” Hübinger explained. “You have to drive to them, because you cannot expect them to come to your bus.” In this case, “driving to them” means placing advertising spots in popular TV shows and developing computer games.
The bpb also targets groups vulnerable to the ideology of both right- and left-wing extremist groups, including the uneducated, those living in poverty, and people in prison. “It is easier for them to turn to these very dangerous people, who are conveying easy messages,” Hübinger said.
The bpb works to prevent these easy messages from finding a ready audience. This is an especially important task, because the terms “far right” and “far left” carry different meanings in Germany than in the United States. The American political spectrum is narrower; very few people want to dismantle the Constitution. In American politics, the right wing is usually considered conservative and the left wing liberal. But in Germany, the extreme right consists of neo-Nazis and the extreme left of Communists. Both could pose a significant threat to the country’s well-being.
But many other people also take advantage of the services offered by the bpb. Political science professors order free copies of the German constitution to distribute to their classes. Schoolchildren can buy an inexpensive daily planner with fun facts about politics, history and foreign countries. And anyone interested in domestic policy, international politics, the economy or a host of other issues can find factual information on the bpb’s website.
A number of safeguards are in place to ensure objectivity. The agency is overseen by three bodies: the Ministry of the Interior, a board of nine university professors, and a board of 22 members of Parliament. There is also a strict policy that prohibits the bpb from publishing any biographical or autobiographical works, since that could be construed as endorsement of an individual’s point of view.
On controversial issues, the agency gives voice to a variety of views.
“Our house has the task, not to make you think in one way or the other, but to convey all the material and the different opinions,” Hübinger said. “So you can become aware of opinion X and Y and so on, and you can make up your mind. For example, we have one more or less objective, neutral man writing about American foreign policy. And then we have a left-wing and a right-wing author. So you can take them all together.”
The bpb’s efforts are directed at German citizens, but its accomplishments are respected around the globe. Other countries, recognizing the need to educate their own citizens about political issues, use the bpb as a model.
“We get a lot of questions from countries in the east,” Hübinger said. “From Ukraine, for example, from the Czech Republic, even from Nigeria. ... They are interested more and more to get into contact with us, because we are neutral. And this is what they want to emulate in their own countries.”
What is the purpose of the Federal Agency for Civic Education?
o Spread democracy by teaching about parliament, social market economy and the rule of law
o Fight communism
o Analyze the role of National Socialism in German history and combat neo-Nazism today
o Promote the idea of European unification
Teaching good citizenship through comic books
One of the bpb’s most popular publications is a comic book series for children, called “Hanisauland.” The books follows a mythical country, made up of rabbits, hippos, and pigs, through the process of creating a democratic government. There are many similarities between Hanisauland and Germany; the plot even features a neo-Nazi-like movement called the Hass-Hasen, or “Hatey-Hares.” The books’ colorful illustrations, combined with a truly interesting storyline, can keep the attention of both children and adults. Along the way, topics such as the constitution, political parties, social security, child labor, terrorism and even war crimes are explained in easy-to-understand language.
English translations of the comic books, as well as games, web links, and more information, are available online: http://www.hanisauland.de/en