What can we learn from Mein Kampf

"Mein Kampf" in school : Understand the rise of Hitler

"It was Hitler": This catchy formula was valid in the Federal Republic well into the 1960s. By portraying Hitler as an all-powerful, terrorist dictator, there was no need to ask uncomfortable questions about the participation of German society and its elites. At that time, the emphasis of elementary and secondary school teacher training was on telling the life stories of exemplary historical actors. Hitler was the negative counterexample, but the method remained the same. Teachers were expressly advised not to speak of the “Third Reich” but of the “Hitler Reich”.

The publication of the critically commented edition of “Mein Kampf” is currently again giving rise to historical didactic considerations. Can the new edition be the subject of school learning? What difficulties, but also what opportunities arise when today's young people grapple with this text?

However, questions about the risks and side effects of “Mein Kampf” should not be asked of the history class alone. Hitler has meanwhile become a media figure who confronts young people of the fourth post-war generation in a wide variety of contexts and does not necessarily encourage historical thinking. Consequently, an important task of history teaching will be to integrate “Mein Kampf” into its historical context or to lead it back.

Hitler's writing was never taboo at school

If one takes a brief look at the role of “Mein Kampf” in previous history lessons, one must first counter the widespread misconception that Hitler's writing was taboo. Rather, excerpts from “Mein Kampf” have been part of the standard repertoire of school history books since the 1960s and are likely to have been read in class. However, the mere fact that this source was accessible to teachers and students does not say anything about what and how was learned from "Mein Kampf". The history educator is largely dependent on assumptions and individual findings. Therefore, in the following we will mainly talk about school books.

Under the auspices of the Cold War, schematic comparisons between National Socialism and Soviet Communism were made in many school books. In conjunction with the Hitler-centric interpretation of the Nazi state, these comparisons of totalitarian dictatorships should have a politically relieving effect. Some of the crimes of the regime were kept secret, others were hidden behind cloudy metaphors. The German people appeared to be victims of National Socialist seduction, which had been set in motion by sophisticated political propaganda. In the mid-1970s, some of the teachers were likely to have emphasized the oppression and seduction of the German majority society, while others - probably teachers of the younger generation - interpreted "Mein Kampf" as a criminally ignored omen of impending doom.

In the 70s: shocking ignorance of young people

In 1977 a book by the teacher Dieter Bossmann caused a veritable shock in the German journalism and specialist public. Bossmann had over 3000 children, adolescents and young adults write essays on the following topic: “What I heard about Adolf Hitler”. The result was sobering. There was hardly any reliable knowledge of the history of the Nazi state; half-knowledge was mixed with bits and pieces of popular myths. Whenever there was talk of Hitler's “Mein Kampf”, the book appeared to the students as a kind of “Holy Scripture” that was given to the Germans as compulsory reading instead of the Christian Bible, but also as a warning sign that was ignored before 1933 and forbidden object for young people after 1945 Interest.

In the 1980s, Hitler and “Mein Kampf” most likely did not play an important role in history lessons. In the meantime, history educators had sharply criticized the prevailing “personalization” in history lessons. Structural-historical explanatory approaches from contemporary history research have also increasingly found their way into the classroom. Short excerpts from “Mein Kampf” continued to be printed in school books, but teachers generally did not spend long with them and sometimes emphasized the eclectic character of Hitler's ideology.

By and large, it has remained so to this day, apart from the fact that the core thesis of Ian Kershaw's Hitler biography - that German society had obeyed the “Führer” in advance - found its way into some school books. A cross-country study by the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research recently found that the personalization of Nazi history related to Hitler is rarely found in German textbooks. On the other hand, current author texts show that German textbook authors do not really know how to judge Hitler's position in the system of rule of the Nazi state.

One should not do without reading

As an interim result, it should be noted what one cannot want: “Mein Kampf” should not lead to history lessons returning to the popular pedagogical principles of the 50s and 60s. So should one refrain from reading it? That is also not recommended. This book is a source for historical learning that can and must be interpreted and analyzed. Of course, Hitler must be spoken of as a person if “Mein Kampf” is to be interpreted. Before a corresponding teaching unit, a written survey should be made of what the learners know or think they know about Hitler. It is by no means certain that today's young people's ideas about Hitler are less “trivial” and more relevant than those of the older generation 40 years ago. A critical review of Hitler's biography will aim to measure the autobiographical statements in the first part of “Mein Kampf” against the actual life story of the author.

On the other hand, selected examples should be used to show that “Mein Kampf” is sometimes unsettlingly topical. Criticism of ideology aims to understand Hitler's patterns of legitimation and the prerequisites for their emergence at the turn of the 20th century. In addition, the problematic comparison between the then and the current constellation can strengthen the students' political judgment. Fears of relegation in the multi-ethnic environment of the Austrian capital made Hitler and his ilk susceptible to the ideas of “völkisch” sectarians. The susceptibility of actual, potential or perceived losers to simple explanations of the enemy persists to this day.

Strengthen student political judgment

Associations of a totalitarian overwhelming of the German people should be avoided, the deeply inhumane character of “Mein Kampf” should be worked out without leveling the time difference between the Nazi past and present, which is essential for historical learning. Not much would be gained for the historical awareness of today's students if excerpts from Hitler's book were used to generate politically desirable attitudes. Such a history lesson would amount to formation of attitudes and would at best miss its addressees, at worst provoke defiant reactions.

Against this background, there are concerns about making the edition of the Institute for Contemporary History compulsory for school reading. The book is not suitable for this purpose because it is aimed at a scientific readership. The Federal Minister of Education and Research should also have noticed that the subject of history - if it still exists at all - only plays a marginal role in the school timetable.

The expectation that teachers and students would have time to work through the extensive annotation apparatus of the new edition misses the reality of the school. As the history didactician Martin Lücke rightly pointed out in this newspaper, a didactically prepared text version is required for teaching purposes, but specifically a brief historical contextualization of “Mein Kampf”. It remains to be seen whether a publisher will be interested in such a publication.

- The author is Professor of History Didactics at Humboldt University and author of the book “Adolf H. The Way of a Dictator” (Hanser Verlag, Munich 2015). The text is based on his essay "Nazi propaganda and historical learning", in: From Politics and Contemporary History 43-45 / 2015 (published by the Federal Agency for Civic Education).

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