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Are German Schools Too Fixated On Nazi History?

Germany's right-wing AfD party says school courses give too much attention to Hitler's reign, overlooking other historical periods. A syllabus offers an answer.

In Dresden, Germany
In Dresden, Germany
Tobias Heimbach

BERLIN — The Nazi reign in Germany lasted 12 years. During this period, the National Socialists destroyed law and order, unleashed a World War that killed 50 million people, including six million Jews murdered by Germans.

This history is a problem for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party for the weight it holds in German memory. As such, the party is now trying to encourage a different approach to German history. Björn Höcke, a party leader, demanded during a controversial speech in the city of Dresden that Germans ought to take a "180-degree turn in political memory." Höcke was criticized for his address even by members of his own party.

Nonetheless, there are colleagues who agree with his opinion. They say that school history curriculum focuses too much on this particular period in time. Why not focus on other eras of German history? To determine whether or not the Afd's assertions are true, we took a look at the curriculum in the German state of Lower Saxony, where Armin-Paul Hampel, an AfD member who agrees with Höcke's claims lives.

The Nazi era is not mentioned between grade 5 and 8 grade in schools here. Instead, lessons in history focus on other subjects, chronologically working its way up from the Paleolithic period, through the Roman Empire, Middle Ages, Napoleon and 19th century unification wars. In grade 9 and 10, National Socialism was discussed among other topics that included the Russian Revolution and the Cold War.

In the German state of Hesse, where Höcke, who is also a history teacher, is on a leave of absence, the number of hours spent on each topic at schools is regulated. National Socialism needs to be taught for 16 lessons. The same number of lessons is allocated to teaching students about the Roman Empire in grade 6.

Why do many AfD politicians and students believe that the Nazi period is a dominant part of school curriculum?

Unlike the Roman Empire, however, the period between 1933 and 1945 is revisited in the last three years of high school. If students choose history as a minor subject in the Oberstufe, which refers to grade 11 to 13, they will learn about the Nazi period for 36 lessons. If they elect history as a major, they will discuss the subject for 63 lessons. This includes discussion of the Weimar Republic.

"The Nazi period is discussed once more in the Oberstufe because historical knowledge is being improved," says Anke John, a professor of history at the University of Jena in the state of Thuringia.

The Hesse curriculum shows that the number of lessons devoted to National Socialism is also dedicated to the topic of "societal change in the early modern period." History lessons in grade 13 are solely concerned with the period after 1945.

But why do many AfD politicians and students believe that the Nazi period is a dominant part of school curriculum?

"This is often due to external factors, outside of school," says John. "It has been demonstrated that topics that are discussed outside of school are particularly memorable as well."

"Even at home, many still talk about their family's experience in the Nazi period," says John.

The Association of History Teachers has voiced its disagreement with Höcke's claims that German history is being "defamed and ridiculed" in school curriculum. "This remark is not a fair representation of history lessons in Germany," says Ulrich Bongertmann, chairperson of the Association.

John also offers a note of caution. "It is no longer the duty of the history curriculum to convey commandments of remembrance. It should rather provide adolescents with the tools of historical didactics to analyze history in a reflective manner."

She advocates for calm during this debate. "There has always been discussion about which historical topics should be handed down and which of them are obsolete by now. This is an ongoing debate to which AfD has now chosen to contribute. And it is our duty to react to their contributions."

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