How can learning history change the world

Understand history

Christian Gei├čler-Jagodzinski, Anna Pukajlo, Hanns-Fred Rathenow, Thomas Spahn

An outlook

How can young people not only learn historical facts but also make references to the present? An outlook.

A memorial stone in the former Ravensbr├╝ck women's concentration camp (& copy Jan Zappner)
Historical and political education on National Socialism is an educationally demanding project both in school and in extracurricular educational work. The learners should not only achieve cognitive performance ("learning about history"), but also reflect morally on their attitudes and actions and change the insights gained accordingly ("understand history").

In this way, historical learning is often combined with current-oriented questions. These are not aimed at ideological, political, personal continuities between the "Third Reich" and German post-war society, but primarily at the attitudes and behavior of young people.

Empirical research on historical-political education

The implementation of such goals is difficult, found a research project led by the Frankfurt educationalist Frank-Olaf Radtke on the subject of "National Socialism and the Holocaust in History Lessons". First of all, the goals exist exclusively on the level of pedagogical intentions. This does not yet allow any conclusions to be drawn as to whether they can be implemented successfully or will be implemented.

In observations of lessons, the research team found out that a moral position - "Never again" - regarding Nazi crimes cannot be achieved through lessons. Such a moral attitude already exists beforehand - or it doesn't.

Pupils can, however, gain information about National Socialism in classroom communication about National Socialism, get to know current social assessments and thus expand their own options for changes in disposition.

However, it cannot be verified whether they actually position themselves morally or merely behave in a socially desirable manner for tactical, opportunistic reasons. In the classroom, the pupils learn demonstrably above all the practice of socially accepted ways of speaking about National Socialism and the Holocaust, as the Frankfurt research project demonstrated.

From the extensive studies of the history didacticist Bodo von Borries we know that history lessons or other extracurricular formats of historical-political education are only one of four important sources for the historical knowledge of young people. They also get their knowledge from the media, other subjects such as German or ethics classes, the social reference group (peer group) or their families.

At the same time, there is hardly any connection between history lessons and knowledge of history on the one hand and historical awareness on the other. This can be explained, for example, for the subject of National Socialism as the fact that it only encounters young people in history lessons from grade 9 onwards. At this point in time, young people can demonstrate considerable but disordered knowledge.

Learning about history for the present?

Despite these empirical results, historical and political education about National Socialism is viewed as a way not only to learn about history, but also to enable democratic learning, to raise awareness of human rights or even, as in the project of the Freiburg educationalist Werner Nickolai, to change the worldview of right-wing extremists To obtain youth.

His practical reflections, the practical research project on the compatibility of democracy education and memorial educational concepts or the study by the Freiburg research group led by Albert Scherr on projects in historically oriented human rights education all point to the complexity of present-day historical learning. And so it remains a controversial and open question as to how the hopes for "understanding history" in the conception of lessons or projects could be put into a didactically meaningful way.

For reflection on pedagogical practice, a hint from the educational scientist Wolfgang Meseth may be useful. According to Meseth, the present-day projects in the context of the demand for "never again" may not be so popular because they are effective forms of imparting knowledge. Rather, they are a way of addressing the history of crime in a positive way - as a story from which one can learn something and thus make something good.

For this reason, historical and political education on National Socialism should meet certain requirements for human rights and democracy. Volkhard Knigge, director of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, describes this as follows: "The reference to the negative past must be comprehensive and concrete, must include victims, perpetrators and social and individual prerequisites for the crime; it can also include ambivalences and gray areas that Resist, not evade, clear victim-perpetrator patterns. Second, critical self-reflection includes piety, which the victims consider victims. Historical remembrance, taken seriously as an act of piety, stands against all forms of functionalization of memory. "

In order to avoid this functionalization, the question to be asked critically for all educational projects is whether the story should primarily be used for reasons related to the present.