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Project Germany: The past, the present, and peace

Teacher learns to deal with German history

by Rita Forbes and Valerie German

Dietlinde Keidel poses with an American soldier after  World War II. Keidel was 3 years old when the war ended.
Dietlinde Keidel poses with an American soldier after
World War II. Keidel was 3 years old when the war ended.

At the end of World War II, Germany was in ruins, literally. Many cities, including Nuremberg, Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden, had been almost completely reduced to rubble. Over 1.5 million civilians were dead and over 7 million were homeless. Food was rationed, and people struggled just to survive. German prisoners of war continued to trickle back home from Russia until 1955.

Under these circumstances, attention was first turned to rebuilding the country. Although the Allied occupiers quickly installed new teachers in the schools and replaced Nazi textbooks, it was only later that German citizens began to publicly address what had taken place in their country.

“When I think about my parents, they were so shocked by this entire situation,” said Dietlinde Keidel, who was three years old when the war ended. “Home lost, everything lost. We had nothing. And they were so shocked by everything, that they didn’t mention anything [about the war or Holocaust] for a long time.”

In 1952, 10-year-old Keidel started school in Nuremberg. Every day for the next six years, she studied in the ruined shell of a bombed-out building. But despite these constant reminders of the devastation, her teachers did not address the war.

“In the first years the war and the entire situation was blocked out, as far as I can remember,” she said. “As a child, I didn’t hear anything about it. It was taboo. I think that changed when the reconstruction succeeded, when the economy flourished again.”

It was not until Keidel began to teach history in the 1970s that she began to understand Germany’s Nazi history. “For me, dealing with history began when I was a teacher myself,” she said. “For the first time, the consequences, the preparations, the psychological background were all clear to me. I did not understand any of that when I was a student myself.”

Dietlinde Keidel survived World  War II and now teaches history  so that German history won't be  "foreign and far away" to her  students
Dietlinde Keidel survived World
War II and now teaches history
so that German history won't be
"foreign and far away" to her
students

She did not want Germany’s history to feel “foreign and far away” to her students, as it had to her.

“My colleagues and I were in agreement, and we dealt with this recent history and its consequences incredibly thoroughly. How it is treated in the schools is important. ... The teacher has a critical responsibility to address this issue.”

Keidel did not take her responsibility lightly. She sought out as many opportunities as possible for her students to confront the events of Hitler’s dictatorship and World War II. Starting around the age of 15, they visited concentration camp memorials and museums, spoke with people who had witnessed events of the war firsthand, and even analyzed speeches by Hitler, Goebbels and Göring.

“The children were very interested at that time,” Keidel said. “They were horrified, and very sensitive.”

Keidel observed a change in her students through the years. She believes that children today, with their exposure to violence in the media, are not as easily affected.

“I am really sorry that the sensitivity to it is being lost by more and more students,” she said. “It lies further behind. For history, it is a short time period. But of course we think, ‘that was in the stone age.’”

Some believe that the Nazi crimes should receive less of an emphasis today. Keidel disagrees.

“I have often heard people say that this history has been dealt with and it should be ended now,” she said. “But I think we must always work on our history... it is very important that our history is not gone and forgotten. The present can only be understood from the past.”

Educating youth about the past is also the way to ensure Germany’s peaceful future.

“I think that the primary concern of the Germans is that such things never be repeated,” Keidel said. “Never ever, under any circumstances. ... The goal of peace is our most important goal.”

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