The young German guide’s eyes beamed and a broad smile covered his face as he described how the student movement in West Germany during the 1960s forced the German people to face their past. Students inspired by protests in the United States, protested against what they considered to be the “perpetrator generation”. These young people wanted parents and grandparents to come to terms with their nation’s history. The subject had previously been taboo in public spaces. As a result, German students sparked a public discourse that resulted in a cathartic process of national healing.
Another German woman described how she had interrogated her father on his role in the concentration camps; he confessed that when a close friend of his had resisted helping to send his own grandfather to the camp, that the friend was killed. Her father breaking down into tears for the first time, talked about his fear of not conforming. She expressed happiness that her father was finally free of the guilt and shame that he had lived with all of these years.
For many Germans, the student movement and subsequent actions by the government, i.e. making illegal racist slogans or gestures, and proclaiming a National Holocaust Day of Remembrance in 1995, has provided a sense of healing and freedom of the guilt and shame of that dark period. Sadly however, there are Germans who still do not express this sense of pride, and some are still opposed to speaking about the taboo subject.
Significant actions taken by the German government to address the dark past was the national apology and the payment of $89 billion in reparation to Jewish organizations. However, the most critical step that Germany has taken is to make the teaching of the Holocaust and the Nazi era mandatory in German classrooms. The students wanted their parents and grandparents to come to terms with Germany’s past and education in the schools seemed to be the logical and most effective place to start. In addition to the curriculum, most students have visited former concentration camps, a Holocaust memorial or museum. The students believed that change in the collective attitude of future Germany generations could only come, as they learn a true and accurate history of their nation, including the dark past.
Silence and denial keep each generation mired in ignorance, encourages collective forgetting, and perpetuates culturally and socially conditioned beliefs. As long as a people are unable to openly discuss the dark past, respect, empathy, and valuing of “the other” can never occur.
Speaking openly about race is a fearful and taboo subject among the American collective. Most importantly, generation after generation of American children have been miseducated about our nation’s history. How can racism ever be healed in a nation that refuses to face its uncomfortable and dark past? The Germans have provided a model, even if imperfect to begin to address the stains on our nation’s history.
Where do we begin? A total revamping of the way in which United States history is taught will be necessary. Current editions of U.S. history textbooks are fairy tales, based on hero worship, and the omission of the shameful history of genocide, enslavement, oppression, and racial terrorism.
Unless our children learn the true history of this nation, they will continue to believe, reinforce and perpetuate a false sense of both who they and the nation are. As American youth listen to television debates and hear conversations about topics such as tax reform and reparations for Native Americans and African Americans, they need to understand the context in which these discussions occur and the history behind them.
The greatest gift that we can give to American children is to free them from the yoke of America’s greatest failings. We owe them the opportunity to grow up in a nation free of racism and classism. Providing them with a true history of America will enable them to make critical decisions, to develop beliefs and form opinions based on actual experiences rather than culturally conditioned beliefs about race and class. What must American students learn about America’s dark past?
American children must learn the true history of American settlement and the reasons behind its great economic success. That means textbooks must address the genocide of the Native population and the almost 300 years of legal slavery in the nation.
American children must learn history in such a way that they understand the relationship between the nation’s history and the current social problems, i.e., racism, classism, poverty, and violence that exist in the United States today.
American children must learn the true history of our heroes, slaveholders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; racists such as Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson. By idolizing these men, we are ultimately saying that slavery, the destruction of Native American homelands, and segregation are morally right.
Finally, American ideals, such as the Declaration of Independence must be examined by students in such a way that they fully understand to whom and to what groups, these ideals applied and did not apply.
As adults and as educators, do we have the courage to honestly share America’s true history with our children?
What are our greatest fears if American children learn the true history of this nation?
How do we begin the discussion of racism and classism with our children?
How do we help American children to see the relationship between racism and classism their own lives?
What are the first steps that we must take to convince our politicians and school districts that we demand that our children finally be taught the truth of our nation’s history?
Can we use the German model to help us as a nation confront our dark past?