Growing up in an allied country, WW2 is looked back on through the lens of the victors. A sense of sadness at the events of the war is paired with pride. A large part of this is eduction in schools. But how is WW2 taught in Germany?
Finding out how is WW2 taught in Germany
The question was put to German citizens on a message board. All have been through the system within the last 10 years. Some are still in the schooling system and are finishing studies.
The accounts, therefore, is relevant to the current situation.
I have read on numerous articles, and heard on news bulletins and documentaries, that Germans approach the topic of WW2 with a lingering sense of remorse that they can’t seem to shake.
There is also a sense of trepidation with what could happen in the future. There hase been a global rise in far-right groups, not least in Germany. From compiling these reports from Germans, this sense of anxiety and sorrow is a common thread.
Below the German responses we also got replies from people from other axis countries, including Japan, Italy (really interesting!), Bulgaria, Sweden, Bulgaria, neutral country Switzerland, and ‘victims’ Austria.
How is WW2 taught in Germany from students:
Read the participants accounts below.
When you grow up here and you are still rather young, you get the sense that you (as in Germans) fucked up in the past and its a lingering feeling but you are too young to understand or make sense of it. As in you might wave to someone with your right arm and hold it up to long and someone scolds you for it or a parent quickly tells you to lower your arm and they try to tell you why.
In short, every German student has at least 5+ years of history that is either directly or indirectly about WW2 and it’s effects on the world we live in today. I can only speak of my personal experience which to make this easier to understand was 4 years in the Grundschule, followed by 6 years on the Realschule and topped of by 2 years on the FOS. (currently studying but there is no real impact).
Of these 12 Years, I had History lessons starting at 6th grade officially. Something you quickly learn is that the education system, at least where i was, had a very heavy focus on WW2 and the DDR (google Berlin Wall if in doubt). We had 2 years in which we had the whole history from the Stone Age to the Great War (WW1).
The next years we intensely learned everything from the stability of Germany after WW1, the Nazis rise to power, and WW2 itself.
When i mean intensely, I mean we started in the 1920’s and worked ourself towards the war staying at specific events for long periods of times, such as the “Hitlerputsch” and later the “Kristallnacht”.
The war itself was explained from one front to the next and we jumped a lot, but the largest focus was on the “German Perspective”. We learned about Partisanen, Yugoslavia, the Pacific War, etc., later.
We had debates and where shown documents or videos about each topic. Looking back what struck me as weird, was we covered WW2 in large parts and there where hints here and there about war crimes. But they waited till 9th Grade and then unloaded a shit tonne of information on us stretched over months. (maybe they thought we where too young before).
I felt ill more than once after the X video was shown to us in which mass graves or Detention Camps where shown. I visited the Concentration Camp Dachau (and another smaller camp) with my school and there was a heavy focus on us knowing what exactly happened there, starting with numerous videos on people entering the camp and the piles of bodies.
I know it wasn’t meant as such by the teachers, but you feel like a piece of shit. Walking through a place in which countless lives have been ruined by your ancestors and you feel that weight, or it comes back. I still feel shitty whenever someone calls me a Nazi or accuses the Germans of being racist war criminals.
All in all, I feel it was important that we had such a big focus on it, since i honestly believe in the statement, that those who don’t learn about history will repeat it.
Without WW2 Germany wouldn’t be as liberal or openminded as it is today (starting to regret that statement thanks to the rise of the AfD & NPD in the Refugeecrisis).xTyrez –
We spend about a year in school talking about it. Writing it all down is going to take pretty long lol.
One important thing to point out – we spend a lot of time explaining why everything happened like what was going on in Germany and everyone else that actually ended up causing WWII.
Not as an excuse, but more as an attempt of making us understand how everything got so fucked up.TheMadDoc
German here, we learn as much as possible about it. The general atmosphere in Europe that led to the nazis rise to power, how they were able to take control of the government, the major battles and figures who are associated with the war and of course the Holocaust.
Most schools include visits to at least one concentration camp during field excursions (I have been to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt) and there is a very interesting art project called Stolperstein, which indicates where jews were persecuted in Germany. In a nutshell, you know how Americans always say ‘Never forget’ when it comes to 9/11? Most Germans are like that with World War 2 and the Holocaust.okelwombat
The effect of how is WW2 taught in Germany
As we can see from the accounts, the German schooling system does not pull any punches when it comes to how is WW2 taught in Germany. For me, the focus on the environment and climate in that the Nazis exploited during their rise was interesting – and I think that is an important aspect. It also serves as a stark reminder that it happened once and it could happen again.
Also fascinating was the brutal nature of the schooling that all of the participants mentioned. No detail is off the curriculum and the harshest of topics like the Holocaust are particularly focussed on with trips to concentrations – multiple concentration camps for some.
As hard as I’m sure it is for many of the students at the time, I think it is the right that Germany discusses WW2 head on with no punches pulled. By the sounds of the accounts provided, I think Germans think so too.
How is WW2 taught in Axis Countries like Japan and Italy
The conversation also prompted discussions from other Axis countries which you might find interesting.
How is WW2 taught in Italy?
Grew up in Italy and I’m Italian in everything minus the passport. Italians have almost taken a victim role in WW2, dissociating themselves from the crimes of the Nazis. Mussolini was actually quite well liked in the early days because while being absolutely insane, he did a lot of good for the country which had lagged behind the rest of Europe.
He was super nationalistic but anti-semitism wasn’t part of the early agenda, with many Italian jews being part of the government and the fascist party. In fact it wasn’t until the Manifesto of Race that all the anti semitic stuff began, showing at that point the influence Hitler began to have.
There were no extermination camps in Italy*, and Italy was dragged along for the ride in the war, and was actually quite ineffective against the allies, which meant the Germans had to come in and save them in both Africa and the peninsula. Add to this the fact that it was the Italians themselves, not the Allies, who overthrew and lynched him and Italians don’t feel any guilt whatsoever for WW2. The blame is put solely on Mussolini and the people feel as being on the winning side, and thus don’t experience any of the remorse the Germans feel. The funny thing is I never considered Italy being part of the bad guys until this question, which made me think how curious it is that as a people they/we don’t feel any remorse or guilt.
Not because we think we were right in joining the Germans, but because we don’t associate with their crimes and by the end, the Italian people were on the right side of history, even though we forget we sent a lot of jews and political prisoners to Germany and Poland…I_REE_therefore_I_am –
How is WW2 taught in Japan
Japanese high schooler here. Spent most of my elementary life and some of my middle school life in the US, went to middle school in Japan. I had to say that it wasn’t very great.
We learned what caused it to happen including the sino-Japanese war and the Russo-Japanese war. However most of the actual war was turned strategic. (Ex. Japan did (something) in (year) to (reason).) We did talk about how awful it was for the Japanese, the highlights being Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.
It was said that we used Koreans and Chinese for slave labor, but it was skimmed a lot. Most people kind of know what we did to the Koreans and Chinese but never to the full extent and we don’t really talk about it. (Eg The rape of Nanking) This is out of class, but every fucking summer the tv networks play the same it was miserable, we need peace, we hate war cliche. But they too don’t talk about what we did to the Koreans and Chinese to the full extent.tyatya
How is WW2 taught in Sweden
Swede here. We were neutral during the war and helped the Nazis with transportation and war material (mainly ore, I think).
Our relationship with the Germans had always been friendly, and there were certainly plans to occupy Sweden if we hadn’t helped them, but it’s still a sore spot. Especially considering what we gained.
After the war, due to not being bombed like the rest of European nations and not needing to cope with the great costs of war, we became one of the richest countries in the world. What we did during the war is of course not the whole reason that the Swedish economy boomed, but it’s considered a big factor.
The main things we learn in school are that of the Holocaust, and Sweden’s neutrality. It’s not what you asked, but think it’s interesting that every country has their lesson to learn after such a major event in human history.GeneralEvident
How is WW2 taught in Bulgaria
I am from Bulgaria which was also one of the losing countries. We blew through WW2 very quickly but I had a very big interest in the war so I learned most of what I know by myself. I might get myself mixed up sometimes in what exactly we were taught but I can tell you what we werent taught.
For background, Bulgaria joined the Axis in 1941. Before that we lost 2 major wars- The second Balkan war which we started and ended up fighting against all our neighbors over Macedonia(Which then had a massive Bulgarian population) and WW1 where we joined the Germans because they promised us Macedonia. It was in The second Balkan war that we lost Southern Dobrudja to Romania. In 1940, though, the Axis organised the Craiova treaty which returned the territory to us, obviously the Axis became very liked in Bulgaria after that. The treaty of Craiova plus the promise of guess what Macedonia made us join the Axis in 1941.
The war went on. In school we were taught how we should be proud of how we saved our jews not mentioning the horrid things our forces did in Serbia and Greece to their jews and populace. Bulgaria even had our own concentration camp. At the end of the war when the Soviets advanced towards us we capitulated and declared war on Nazi Germany and asked the Soviets for peace. They refused and at that point Bulgaria was the only country at war with both the USSR and Nazi Germany. The Soviets conquered us, created a coup, and Bulgaria became and communist and later on socialist republic until 1989. Due to that most of our modern values and understandings of our country were created during the Socialist Regime. The Soviets werent violent occupiers who overthrew the government, they were the liberators, in our capital Sofia, we still have monuments (ugly ones as well) that litter our center creating black holes where nobody goes because of their depressing Soviet-era style of architecture.
Our views on the war were created during the socialist years and some aspects of our history are still not updated from that time, creating big discrepancies in how we view the 20th century(and most of our history altogether actually) compared to everybody else. Our History and Literature classes are still influenced by propaganda and I do not know when we will look back at our history with a clear and open mind20_Bucks_Is_20_Bucks
How is WW2 taught in Switzerland
Swiss here (not the answer you are looking for, but we are right to the south of Germany and by no means innocent in this whole mess) In Swiss education, what you learn about WWII depends a lot on your teacher and the school you are going to.
Sure, we learn the stuff about Hitler’s rise to power, the major battles, the aftermath of the war, but there’s little to nothing about the role of Switzerland in the war, at least in the official curriculum.
These are nstances where Switzerland was definitely directly supporting Nazi Germany. Sure, the official response to the rise of Nazi Germany was to be “defiantly Swiss”, counter the racial ideology (“The Swiss have German blood”) with Swiss nationalism, but secretly many many people in Switzerland were supportive of the Nazis.
Nowadays, our conservatives try to paint a picture of an innocent Switzerland that had nothing to do with the Holocaust or WWII in general (which might also be the reason why we didn’t investigate our own role in the war until the 1990s!), and even when we found out in the 90s that our national bank has basically stolen gold from Jewish families, we are very hesitant to teach our role in the war – we weren’t that bad after all, Hitler was evil and we are innocent!Anon
How is WW2 taught in Austria
Not German but Austrian. Funnily not in this Question either because we’re so small or because we successfully blamed everything on the germans and put on the victim role.
That said we learn a lot about WW2, a lot about the holocaust and there is quite some shame in it since we also learn that we werent a victim but an eager helper. That said, we cover this stuff for a year but focus mostly on this part. Sure we learn about atomic bombs anda bit of Everything but Japan is only mentioned rather briefly iirc.
But there is no silencing it, quite some shame and “lets not let that happen again” which makes me think a lot of Austrian voters left school before that got coveredForkyou
The New York Times have an archived article about this topic.
Enlightening and surprising.
Good to know. They learn far more in Germany than I ever expected.
Thanks for reading. That’s what I found interesting too – much of it down to what appears to be an underlying feeling of guilt and fear it seems.
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Fear that it may happen again?
Netherlands here. If anyone wonders how we teach it here, let me know, ill write my story.
The Netherlands here, if people are still reading and you’re interested, let me know. Ill write a story about how they teach us about the war here.
Netherlands here, if you want my story let me know!