When Will We Talk about Hitler?. German Students and the Nazi Past

Oeser, Alexandra
Worlds of Memory 1
New York 2019: Berghahn Books
Anzahl Seiten
418 S.
€ 119,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Ulrike Löffler, Historisches Institut, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena

About twenty years ago, the German-French sociologist Alexandra Oeser interviewed adolescents in Germany in order to explore their complex uses, appropriations and rejections of the Nazi past. Stimulated by the Walser-Bubis controversy in 1998, Oeser had noticed that few young people participated in the ensuing debate, and those from low-income families seemed altogether absent. These observations inspired her to investigate empirically how German students (born between 1984 and 1989) dealt with the history of National Socialism. Her research focuses on a diverse student body and is “methodologically based on a multitude of comparisons: East-West, economic status, academic levels, social environments and territories” (p. 217). The results were first published in French in 2010[1] and are now available in an English translation by Katharine Throssell. Even though the monograph is rooted in French sociology and intended for a French publishing market (p. xi), English-speaking readers may gain valuable insights and food for thought regarding the transmission of the history of National Socialism in German schools and society.

The study is predominantly based on 137 first-hand interviews with students and teachers (conducted between 2002 and 2004) and more than 200 hours of observations in history classes and schoolyards. The author chose two types of secondary schools in the cities of Hamburg and Leipzig: a Gymnasium in an affluent neighborhood and a Gesamtschule or Mittelschule in an underprivileged area. Oeser rejects views of instruction as a top-down process and convincingly applies her German supervisors’ concept of “Eigen-Sinn” (Alf Lüdtke) to the myriad ways students actively deal with representations of Nazi past in and outside of the classroom (p. 11). Drawing on her extensive interviews, the author examines these appropriations – for instance regarding the triad of race, class, and gender. On occasion, the reviewer found some of her conclusions or interpretations quite sweeping, but Oeser refrains from simplistic explanations. She demonstrates how social constellations in families and peer groups, or the specific context of a situation also shape these utterances. Thus, Oeser repeatedly challenges and complexifies simplistic interpretations. Specifically, she criticizes the studies by Harald Welzer and others for their generational, i.e. hierarchical perspective that “prevents us from considering the household as a space for the circulation of representations” (p. 310) and for their blindness to social differences.[2]

The book is structured into six chapters. The first two strive to identify what Oeser calls “academic” or “legitimate” uses of the Nazi past. After a very brief introduction to schooling in East and West Germany since 1945, the author focusses on teachers, most of whom understand lessons on the history of National Socialism as an integral part of civic education and a means of promoting democracy and tolerance. The second chapter shifts attention to the students, who generally conform to these expectations and assign meaning to the period in their everyday lives. Oeser here draws our attention to connections between “legitimate discourse about the Nazi past” (p. 118) and “succeeding at school” (title of Chapter 2). She points out the various functions these legitimate uses can fulfill: academic integration, contributing to an upward social trajectory, processing personal or familial changes, or political activism. The third chapter investigates gendered appropriations in school and family settings (and their intersections), raising awareness, for instance, of gendered teaching (and grading) practices, language and interpretative figures. The last three chapters elaborate on the limits of this discourse by concentrating on “uses outside of school and particularly those considered illegitimate by the institutions” (p. 316). They cover uses of the past as everyday resource in constructing adolescent self-images (Chapter 4), playful representations of Nazi history in games, insults and jokes (Chapter 6) and – in a particularly insightful chapter – the difficulties in “hearing” or appropriating the past, referred to as “Harthörigkeit” by Oeser (Chapter 5).

What Oeser refers to with the antiquated term “Harthörigkeit” is commonly discussed as a feeling of “oversaturation” (Übersättigung) in German public debate.[3] Oeser argues that it is, in fact, “specific to students from families with high levels of cultural […] and economic capital” (p. 246) and therefore less prevalent than often assumed (p. 320). Consequently, generational explanations, which attribute such disinterest to the increased temporal distance or the growing absence of live interactions with eyewitnesses, seem less convincing. According to the author, this kind of boredom, articulated at age sixteen, often replaces a phase of intense interest and fascination for the Nazi period by the same students in previous years. It is the result of “a combination of ‘too much’” quantity and “’too little’ quality” (p. 269). The fact that interest can apparently be regained in senior years, when teachers and students “move beyond simplistic emotional explanations […] and extricate themselves from the feeling of vague guilt” (p. 269), also points to causes and possible solutions on the parts of the teachers and/or parents. If the phenomenon is specific to a certain age group, there might additionally be explanations in developmental psychology or connections with teaching content and practices in 10th grade, which, however, are not discussed.

Connected to this is another phenomenon which Oeser concisely describes as “the presence of absence” (p. 71). In the interviews she noted a profound inability of students and teachers to precisely refer to killings, death and genocide and its perpetrators. Instead, the discourse was characterized by passive forms and vague, abstract, or euphemistic expressions, allowing everyone to pair the signifier (often “it”) with their own associations. Consequently, the moral imperative to remember remains vague and unspecific. It might be internalized and accepted, yet at the same time becomes hardly more than a “civic reflex” (p. 314).[4]

When Will We Talk About Hitler? offers an interesting sociological study of the appropriations of Nazi history by young Germans at the beginning of the 21st century. As such, it also has its limits: For one thing, references are (with few exceptions) only covered until the mid-2000s and a re-evaluation of central findings in light of current developments and research did apparently not seem feasible for the English translation. Furthermore, the subject could have benefitted from a greater degree of familiarity with educational science and (history) didactics.[5] Nevertheless, the book is a thought-provoking read. It certainly offers plenty of stimulations for self-reflection, especially for anyone active or interested in teaching the history of National Socialism – be that in schools, universities, memorial museums or youth work.

[1] Alexandra Oeser, Enseigner Hitler. Les adolescents face au passe nazi en Allemagne. Interprétations, appropriations et usages de l’histoire, Paris 2010.
[2] Harald Welzer / Robert Montau / Christine Plaß, “Was wir für böse Menschen sind!“ Der Nationalsozialismus im Gespräch zwischen den Generationen, Tübingen 1997; Harald Welzer / Sabine Moller / Karoline Tschuggnall, „Opa war kein Nazi“. Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis, Frankfurt am Main 2002.
[3] The use of “Harthörigkeit” apparently follows a suggestion by late Alf Lüdtke (cf. p. 275, footnote 34).
[4] In recent years Volkhard Knigge has repeatedly warned against this development, which he denounced as “historisch entkernte Pietät”. Cf. the corresponding entry in the index of Volkhard Knigge, Geschichte als Verunsicherung. Konzeptionen für ein historisches Begreifen des 20. Jahrhunderts, ed. by Axel Doßmann, Göttingen 2020, p. 625.
[5] Oeser’s treatment of “Betroffenheitspädagogik” (p. 40) might serve as an example for an occasional lack of precise terminology or cross-links: While this certainly was (and still might be) a pedagogical practice (albeit ostracized in didactic theory already in the “Beutelsbacher Konsens” of 1976), it was hardly a “pedagogic theory” (p. 75), as Oeser claims.

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