Knowledge and/or Active Citizenship – What does Dutch Youth know about World War Two?

Jonathan Even-Zohar Articles , , ,

Knowledge and/or Active Citizenship – What does Dutch Youth know about World War Two?

The Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport) is committed to remembrance, research, and education related to the Second World War. On 21 June, it organised a mini-conference, inviting an array of Dutch stakeholders, including museums, archives, research centres, remembrance organisations, and history educators. I also attended this very interesting conference and hereby share my report.

The conference was in fact the launch of a new study, commissioned to the HAN University of Applied Science (based in Arnhem-Nijmgene), led by Dr. Marc van Berkel, which is aimed at helping the Ministry face the challenges of keeping the memories of the experiences of World War Two alive in a society where the eye-witnesses are dying out.

This study (available here in Dutch) puts forward a wide range of research findings. Essentially, around 1200 young people (ages 13-19) were surveyed on their factual knowledge, the sources from which they delve this knowledge, their assessment of these sources, and their attitudes with regard to the history of the Second World War. The survey put forward various names, places, events, processes, and concepts related to World War Two and mainly provides an impression on the state of factual knowledge on this topic.

One by one, representatives of key organizations in this sector commented on the findings:

Kees Ribbens (NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) commented on the overly positive results of the survey, stressing that the majority of surveyed youth would like to learn more about the topic. He emphasized how the persecution of Jews is much more well-known than other aspects of the war, such as the military aspect, and that the Western European perspective is clearly dominant in the known narrative.

At the same time, he alluded to the conclusion that many concepts (like collaboration, genocide, antisemitism) are much less known. Since two-thirds of the respondents did not answer that it would be better to forget everything about the war, remembrance is actually seen by the youth as very important. He suggested this could also be related to the societal presence of the war as essentially a collective experience and a moral benchmark in schools, museums, and even in public history, including entertainment such as films.

His overarching conclusion drawn from the report, however, was the need for a more critical foundation to enrich this collective understanding. Yes, it seems youth have core knowledge, which is good for keeping the memory of the victims alive, but societal expectations about what is expected to be known about this war is in flux – for example, the need to understand the worldwide historical processes of the war.

Ton van der Schans, President of the Dutch History Teachers Association, VGN) compared this research to earlier research which had also laid bare how much more importance is given to this topic in history education than to any other topic, and within this topic by far most attention is given to the Holocaust. This situation, in his view, is justified by the way in which citizenship, and related values as freedom and justice, is morally benchmarked in The Netherlands with, and through, deliberation on this history.

Van der Schans also wished that the survey would look more into students' attitudes and historical thinking instead of the focus on factual knowledge. Yet, he also unfolded a plea for storytelling in history education, stating that "We, as a society, need a story, a narrative. This is the way in which individuals can actually be deeply motivated for history." Building on this, he expressed his wish that teachers would be able to work more with life stories, and local/regional histories, to make sure that the stories told relate well to the students. If students then have a migration background, he stressed, different stories might be needed.

Norbert Hinterleitner (Head at Education Department at the Anne Frank House) shared his optimistic view that these were impressive results and could be taken to be the result of a lot of care and attention for dealing with heritage and remembrance of World War Two. However, he did share his concern that more attention is needed for the wider historical context. While it is laudable that 99% of respondents can recognise Anne Frank from a photo, much fewer respondents can say that she actually came from Germany. He added that the international aspect seems to indeed be quite unknown, as Eastern Europe and Asia rarely feature in the view of history teaching. He also questioned this need by asking: "Even if all this could be provided, should young people be forced to obtain all this factual knowledge? What space is then left for them to interpret it and apply it in their own lives?" He urged therefore, for future studies, and to explore the deeper understanding related to behavioural patterns in society, as well as the value of the rule of law in the context of the protection of minorities: "Will we score equally important high figures? It will show the value of history and civic education."

Jan van Kooten (Director of the National Committee for 4 and 5 May) also reflected positively on the results of the survey. He discussed in more detail the section of the survey that looked into attitudes – for example, how respondents assessed whether the Second World War is the main influence on the way they think about Freedom (60%), Human Rights (42%), and Racism (34%). He applauded the role of the Ministry in looking at this topic from so many angles and supporting the sector in a broad way, ranging from remembrance to research and education. His key warning, however, was that the survey results may not be able to properly represent all of Dutch society. There seem to be large segments of society which at the moment can hardly be reached. But, with new multipliers, for example, young Dutch rapper Ronnie Flex, with millions of views online, was made Ambassador for Freedom by the committee and this seems to help in reaching difficult target groups.

Kees Boele (Chair of the HAN University of Applied Science) pointed to the fundamental importance of learning history for establishing a personal compass for ethics, which goes beyond the knowledge of facts. He went further to state that this function of education should be made, and seen to be, the very centre of learning. While schools are made more and more to function like factories, and the sector as a whole is seeing education as a feature of the market, with students as consumers of knowledge and teachers as facilitators of learning, he feared that the possibility to think freely in wrestling with concepts of good and evil would disappear. This survey, he held, would need to support that development in education.

Marc van Berkel (Researcher at the HAN University of Applied Science) who led this research stressed the need for more qualitative research to follow up, and - indeed - ensure that empathy, and the ability of people to look beyond their own opinion, should be the prime concern going forward. "It may ultimately not matter if people don't know who Himmler was," he continued, "but if they don't know which activities his policies created, and what kind of trauma these policies left, there is an unbridgeable gap in our understanding of democracy and citizenship."

The final comments of the day were delivered by Erik Gerritsen (Secretary-General at the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sport) who affirmed the current government's support to the development of historical knowledge and transfer of values. He expressed that the recommendations of the study would be taken into account in the further development of measures to prevent intolerance, and to keep retelling the history of the World War Two, as it uniquely provides citizen's alertness to learn from the past.

So, what have I made of all of this? Some conclusions:

The report did not make any particular political news. It was ultimately good news, and did not have media-sensitive 'clickbait.' It surely will be used as an initial measurement and hopefully can continue to function as this in the years to come.

European partnerships and the work of EUROCLIO, the Council of Europe, and many European-funded projects and frameworks are completely missing from this national discussion. This is especially problematic and worrying because so much thinking about these issues has already been done and did not seem to really feature. In addition, looking at the way in which Europe struggles with democracy at the moment, it would be good to have more governmental (public) cooperation on these issues happen not only on the cross-border levels, but also be visible on the national stage.

It is good to look into how historical topics which feature so strongly in the collective memory are actually perceived by a new generation of young people. This survey indicated some interesting trends, and it could be very interesting to see how this plays out across Europe, where some very concerning developments can be seen, including revisionism and political flirtations with fascist legacies.

On a more social note, with the exception of the chair of the day, Tasnim Van den Hoogen (Director at the Ministry), all speakers were male, white and 'of a certain age.' I admit I only realized this myself when I actually started typing up this report. As inclusion and diversity were mentioned quite a few times, it would have perhaps been good to explore and reflect this in the event itself.

The German War, a Book That Sometimes Makes You Hold Your Breath

EUROCLIO Reviews , ,

Interest in the Second World War has been part of my life, as I was born in the shadow of this war and I was made aware of it through many stories of my parents’ family and friends and by its physical legacy in my surroundings. This was similar to most of Dutch people of my generation. However, at one point it was very different: I had an uncle living in Germany. He had been a forced laborer, had fallen seriously ill and was nursed back into life by a woman he subsequently fell in love with. My family met them on a more or less regular basis, and as soon as my mother and aunt were together, they started to quarrel about their level of War victimhood. As a Dutch child I of course had no compassion towards my German aunt, and for a long I time viewed stories about the German suffering merely as propagandistic; to release the burden of a dark past. However; eventually my professional curiosity got the better of me and in the last five years I have been intensely engaged to get a better understanding of what the war and its legacy meant for the Germans themselves. I consider The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 written by the Oxford historian Nicholas Stargardt as a great read for developing such insights.

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 offers wide insights into the German experience from the viewpoint of soldiers and civilians in the late thirties and during the war time, using a wide range of source materials, among them many letters and diaries. Stargardt follows several of their authors over a longer period of time. Through this approach, the reader is able to follow the whereabouts and patters of thinking of several individuals and couples. Moreover, through these documents it becomes clear that much more was known, written and said about issues, which people outside of Germany considered always highly secret in the Third Reich. Censorship of the letters from the soldiers was a surprisingly minor occurrence; the fate of the Jews was therefore common knowledge. When the bombing of German cities in 1943 intensified, Stargardt demonstrates that the general attitude of the public is was to deem these bombing as retaliation for what the Germans were doing to the Jews. This argument re-emerged, when after a break, the heavy bombing resumed in the summer of 1944. Stargardt refutes the mantra of Wir haben es nicht gewuest (we did not know about it) with ample evidence.

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 looks at the many aspects of German society, paying special attention to the position of women, ideologically placed in the family and the kitchen but in fact a large (voluntary) workforce, and minorities, with of course a special focus on the Jews. But also the treatment and killing on the disabled Germans, psychiatric patients and socially deprived is breathtakingly described in the chapter Extreme Measures. In this horrible episode, the German churches play a somewhat more human role, but in general Stargardts’ judgement about their role during and directly after the war is rather harsh: the Churches did not show the Christian compassion they should have represented. Or even worse sometimes: several of their high placed members of the clergy gave full support to the Nazis.

A chilly red thread in the book is the role of Nazi brainwashing and the brilliant but disgusting manipulations of the Goebbles’ propaganda machine. It shows how important this instrument was in influencing the mind and hearts of the people in Germany. The radio and written press were pivotal for its success, but also culture and art were addressed. Goebbles spent no less than 25% of his budget on culture and theater performances to make sure that critical citizens had an outlet for their possible controversial thoughts. However, even with all propaganda tools, not every programme was successful. The intended building of a national community, which was voluntarily willing to sacrifice all for the fatherland, failed due to traditional localism and regionalism and massive inner migration. People kept complaining about their fate and kept accusing each other of misusing benefits.

Why should you not read this book?

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 is a large book consisting of about 700 pages, giving a dramatic and worrisome picture of a highly civilized nation, which in a relative short time disintegrated into chaos, violence and terror. It leaves you with little hope for humanity, when it encounters exceptional circumstances. So many lack moral qualities and are willing to realize the consequences of what they heard and perceived.

Why should you read this book?

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 shows history in its full complexity, with blurry lines between perpetrators, bystanders and victims. A quote in the first weeks after the liberation written in the diary of Victor Klemperer, the German academic of Jewish origin, illustrates this very well when he wrote: Curious conflict within me: I rejoice in God’s vengeance on the Henchmen of the Third Reich... and yet I find it dreadful now to see the victors and avengers racing through the city which they have so hellishly wrecked (Dresden). With this and many other quotes from eyewitnesses we are able to have an in-depth insight of dreams, expectations, feelings and behavior of many German civilians and soldiers. It leads to an adverse picture of a divided society, where many, but not all, were willing to fight until the very last moment and subsequently were unwilling to face the post-war situation.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 offers ample opportunities to discuss the way we talk about the blame for crimes against humanity and war crimes. It might be worth to explore this issue with examples given by Stargardt. He proves how to a large extent the German military in Central and Eastern Europe was involved in such crimes, and how many of them looked away, despite even anti-Nazi convictions. However he also shows the lethal impact of the aerial Allied bombing on cities, and its citizens and the violence used by the liberators of the Red Army. As the book gives a wide picture of many propaganda campaigns it also offers the opportunity of deeper thinking about the use and impact of (war) propaganda.

THE GERMAN WAR: A NATION UNDER ARMS, 1939-1945 (2015)

 

Author Nicholas Stargardt
Original title The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945
Original language English
Available in Already published or in preparation in Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Polish and Spanish.
No. of pages 700
Genre History

 

The Background of a Terror Hype: “Child Promise me that You Will Shoot Yourself”

EUROCLIO Reviews , ,

In the days of the Brexit, I often wondered about the emotional position of many people in the leave camp. We heard arguments that, although many reasonable people had very reasonable arguments against the Brexit, people in the exit group just believed it was better to leave the European Union: their decision making was fully based on emotions. During these agitating days I was reading Florian Hubers’ Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945, which gives a fascinating insight in the psychological situation of many people in Germany between 1929 and 1946.

In Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 (Kind, versprich mir, dass du dich erschießt: Der Untergang der kleinen Leute 1945) the German historian Florian Huber tells the story of the wave of collective suicides among ordinary people in Germany in 1945. He also tries to give a plausible explanation for this massive, and mostly forgotten, tragedy. The book begins with the shocking events in early May 1945 in Demmin, a city in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which, at that moment, is materially untouched, but full of refugees from the East. The Soviet Army is approaching the town, and the townspeople are in full panic about the upcoming occupation. The Nazi propaganda has for years demonized the Soviet Union and people expect the worst. As a response, many decide that committing suicide is the only solution, and many individuals, mothers with children and families kill themselves by fire arms, poisoning, hanging or drowning. After the arrival of the Soviet Army there was isolated fighting from non-regular troops, the city is set on fire and many soldiers rape women. After a few days the Army moved on leaving the city in dumb chaos.

The book shows that it was not only out of fear for the Soviets, that people committed suicide. Many in Germany felt a sense of hopelessness and sometimes even a sense of guilt, and therefore saw suicide as their only way out. It also shows that these cases of collective suicide not only took place in the areas, which were occupied by the Soviet Army, but that all over Germany complete families committed suicide.

People had the feeling that there was no future after twelve years of Nazi rule, it was the end of times. Huber's book builds an interesting narrative about the changing collective emotions over time. It starts with the desperation about the lost First World War and the difficulties of the Germans to rebuild their society and economy afterwards. The misery caused by the Depression allowed Hitler to come in as a savior, who brings prosperity and self-consciousness. And although there is a general anti-war feeling, the narrative illustrates how the many military successes in the beginning of the Second World War initially abate deep concerns about new war sufferings. The attack on the Soviet Union brings about change, and from there people lose hope and become more and more aware of reality. However, as the many fragments from diaries in the book reveal, many shelter themselves from the truth and simply carry on, until it is no longer possible to deny or ignore reality. And at that point so many saw no other solution than to commit suicide.

Why should you not read this book?

Unfortunately Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 is only available in its original German language and in Dutch, Finnish and Norwegian translations. Quite amazing as the press coverage on its release was much wider, I noticed also English, Israeli and Spanish articles on the release of this publication.

Why should you read this book?

I hope that Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 will be translated into English, as it gives new perspectives on a period of German history, which is generally taught in European school classes. Where many teaching resources end with the capitulation of Germany, this publication demonstrates that it is high time to acknowledge that the post war fate of the country is important for understanding European Post War developments. This flood of suicides makes us contemplate about the way our European narratives are built. The taboo on committing suicide made it easy to silence talking about it in Western Europe. In the German Democratic Republic, former East Germany, it was obviously also not allowed to talk about what had happened as it would shed an unfavorable light on the doings of the Red Army. Consequently these events did enter neither into the collective memory nor in the Post War narratives.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 offers a fitting opportunity also to address with students the rather rigid model of perpetrators, victims and bystanders, which is used in many narratives related to World War II. It shows again the complexity of the past. The diary fragments also give good insight in the psychological way people handle grueling information, not fitting into their own conviction: they just dissociate themselves. And even long after evidence became abundantly available, many were still not able to accept reality.

Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 gives good insight into how difficult it is to establish reliable numbers about events in the past. I am often amazed how easily historians use numbers, without referring to reliable sources. In the chapter In the Mist of the Numbers, Huber carefully analyses the available sources and other circumstantial evidence about this tidal waves of suicides. His conclusion is that a trustworthy estimation is not possible, but that it is a number of five figures. His described method to approach the truth is a useful tool to make students understand what tremendous obstacles there are for historians to uncover truthfully the past.

CHILD PROMISE THAT YOU WILL SHOOT YOURSELF, THE DEMISE OF ORDINARY PEOPLE IN GERMANY IN 1945

 

Author Florian Huber
Original title Kind, versprich mir, dass du dich erschießt: Der Untergang der kleinen Leute 1945
Original language German
Available in Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian
Language read Dutch
No. of pages Approx. 300
Genre History

 

Board Member Riitta Mikkola Attends Seminar on Remembrance of World War II

Jaco Stoop Association ,

On 2 November 2015 EUROCLIO Board Member Riitta Mikkola from the Finnish history teachers’ association attended the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung’s seminar in Berlin on ‘The End of the Second World War and the Schism of Europe’. During this seminar, which focused on ‘Aspects of the European Culture of Remembrance’, Riitta attended a panel discussion on schools and education. During this panel, which consisted of Ulrich Bongertman and Robert Maier from Germany, Frantisek Neupauer from Slovakia, and Riitta from Finland, the topics of the remembrance of the Second World War and the Holocaust were covered. Through comparing the different countries’ practices, the panelists discussed how to better understand each other, as well as how to create a more common understanding of shared history.