Fifty years after the end of the Second World War, the latest books on the curriculum seek to ask the question that has no answer. How could such unspeakable crimes have been committed? And, even more importantly: how could a nation look the other way?
In a 19th-century villa in the west German town of Braunschweig, east of Hanover, one can browse through a library collection that gives a remarkable perspective on how views have changed in past decades. The Georg Eckert Institute for International School-Book Research includes a complete collection of West and East German history-books from 1945 to the present.
The library presents a tale of untruths, half-truths and painful truths. The East German untruths were most obvious: the word "Jew" was more or less banned, so that the East German reader could get the impression that every Nazi concentration camp was filled only with heroic Communist resistance fighters. East German history-books needed to do some neat footwork, too, to fudge the fact that Hitler and Stalin had a cosy pact for the first two years of the war.
West German history-books in the 1950s were scarcely more honest than East Berlin's Stalinist inventions. Lip-service was paid to the subject of Nazi war crimes but the name of Auschwitz was missing. People died "in German or Russian concentration camps". A single paragraph about "The fate of the Polish Jews" was immediately followed by another paragraph, of almost equal length, about civilian killings by the Russians. Its complacent conclusion: "This proved what inhuman acts were possible in this war."
Hitler, the school-books implied, was isolated. Indeed, "Hitler knew that he could not ask the German army and its officer corps to carry out such extermination." Meanwhile, the pictures are all of Germans' own suffering, with not a concentration camp in sight: Germans during air raids, bombed German cities, German refugees.
Repeated use is made of impersonal constructions. "Acts of cruelty occurred ... " like an act of nature, for which nobody can be held responsible. Meanwhile, there is a description of the "terrible suffering, such as the world no longer considered possible in the 20th-century". This was not a reference to the camps, but to the Germans' suffering on being driven from their homes after defeat.
In the 1960s, much space was still devoted to explaining why Germans did not know about the camps, and why any large-scale attempt at rebellion "would have been" doomed from the start. A book published in 1963, just after the trial of the people who ran Auschwitz, complains that the "terrible crimes ... besmirched the reputation of the German people all over the world" - even though "only a few tens of thousands" of Germans were directly involved.
By the 1970s, there is more detail about what happened. But the tone is still peculiar. We learn about the "path of the regrettable victims" leading to the camps, which have gained "a sad fame".
Given these evasive wordgames, the impact of the US television series Holocaust, shown in 1979, is perhaps not surprising. Holocaust was dismissed in most of Europe as soap-opera kitsch. In Germany, however, its effect was dramatic and instantaneous. It opened the floodgates and became the national talking-point - because it depicted at last some of the ordinary human beings that the German state had murdered, not just "regrettable victims". A new generation of Germans began to understand the meaning of their history.
After Holocaust, many taboos were lifted. The lessons of 1968, too, began to be absorbed into the mainstream. A key flashpoint for post-war Germany came when students angrily asked their elders: "What did you do in the war?" Gisela Teistler, of the Eckert Institute, notes: "There was a protest against those who had kept their eyes and ears closed."
Well into the 1980s, however, there was still an apparently unconscious distance from the subject. As the historian Eva Kolinsky noted, in an analysis commissioned by the Braunschweig institute, the "negative treatment of the Holocaust is emphatic, but abstract''.
Only in recent years - as the post-war questioners themselves move into roles of responsibility - have school-books begun to ask the most difficult questions. Today's teaching materials suggest that pupils should be encouraged to "provoke reactions" in their community when researching the buried past. Questions of "the [lack of] public reaction" are raised. Teachers are encouraged to "give pupils a sense of historical responsibility, without imposing on them a complex of personal guilt". For the latest textbooks, the question of Zivilcourage is crucial. The film Schindler's List is quoted, in order to prove: "The excuse that `all resistance is pointless' does not work." Another textbook, quoting the "I was only obeying orders" logic, notes that very few Germans resisted Hitler - but also emphasises the constitutionally guaranteed right and duty to resist "illegal state violence". The importance of preventing "such events, today and in the future," is repeatedly referred to.
Today's ultra-glasnost - a world away from the weasel language of the post-war years - does not prove that the battle for understanding is over. A group of German politicians recently launched a propaganda offensive which seeks to take the country back to square one. They want 8 May, the end of the Second World War, to be commemorated not as a day of liberation, but as "the beginning of the terror for [German] expellees".
There can be little doubt that contemporary Germany, which confronts the Nazi past, is politically healthier than the Germany of 40 years ago, which did not. It would be a pity if some politicians, with their dubious attempts to create a new "normality", sought to put that process into reverse.
Tomorrow: The next generationReuse content