Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

Fascism and Critical Thinking

Excerpted from Alexandra Oeser’s WHEN WILL WE TALK ABOUT HITLER? German Students and the Nazi Past

For more than half a century, discourses on the Nazi past have powerfully shaped German social and cultural policy. Specifically, an institutional determination not to forget has expressed a “duty of remembrance” through commemorative activities and educational curricula. But as the horrors of the Third Reich retreat ever further from living memory, what do new generations of Germans actually think about this past? Combining observation, interviews, and archival research, this book provides a rich survey of the perspectives and experiences of German adolescents from diverse backgrounds, revealing the extent to which social, economic, and cultural factors have conditioned how they view representations of Germany’s complex history. Learn more.

Regimes of Reason

The teaching of the Nazi past mobilizes regimes of faith in order to encourage the students to adhere to the established political regime in affective terms. But it also draws on regimes of reason and critical thinking. Being wary of politicians, the media, other peoples’ discourses in general, and not believing everything seen and heard, seems to be the teachers’ second main concern. Apparently contradictory with the use of affective pedagogy, regimes of faith and reason exist simultaneously in the teachers’ discourses. Indeed, the force of the argument probably lies in the combination of the two, which constitutes faith in democracy. Believing in a political system, while retaining the possibility of “critical thinking” and “freedom of thought,” as long as it exists within the context of a regime of faith (i.e., belief in democracy, solidarity, and civic engagement); this indeed constitutes the center of democratic civic education.

The “ability to become a good democrat” is also defined by the existence of a critical mind, from its most ordinary formulation (the ability to form one’s own opinion) to the strongest concretization (resisting the orders of the state). It is then translated into political engagement, from the simple act of voting, to a militant commitment to a political party or an interest group, or even in social activities. The interpretations of Nazism that concentrate on a handful of political actors (Hitler and “the Nazis”) are particularly suitable for transmitting this fundamental lesson on the importance of critical thinking.

“Critical Thinking”

For many teachers, the education of students represents a way to contribute to the spread of the Enlightenment: “like many in my generation, I wanted to become a teacher to do everything better. I wanted to enlighten (aufklären) the students, to show them the path so they could be good! That’s it. That was my motivation.” Here, Ms Simone expressed the “vocation” that is implicit in many of her colleagues’ comments. She is part of a generation that is unusual in that it lived through the years around 1968–1970, as an initiation to political and pedagogical engagement. For the students to become “good” in her own words, they need to be “enlightened.” The idea of the Enlightenment is very common in the interviewees’ comments.

According to the teachers, the risk of Nazism can be contained. In order that the students become “aware” of the dangers of what their teachers call “seduction” or “manipulation” (by politicians and the media), it seems necessary to increase their political awareness through the teaching of history. Nazism as a “counter example” also allows high school students to develop a resistance to political manipulation. Particularly sensitive “at this age, because they have particularly strong moral codes,” they are moved by “the people who were seduced [implying the German people], or who were afraid [the resisters], or those who were persecuted [the Jews].” In this comment, Mr Hatze used the image of the German people as victims of “manipulation” by a small group of (Nazi) leaders to enable him to emphasize the importance of “critical thinking” in order to prevent history from repeating itself.

“Critical thinking” is made of different elements. Thomas, a fifty-year-old teacher at Wiesi, explained that it is important to be wary, to not “take everything that is said at face value.” In order to be able to be “wary,” one has to have access to information. Ms Inge, for example, expressed her hope that her students would be able to consult different sources so that they are not “like those who voted for National Socialism.”

They [the students] must be able to gather as much information as possible concerning something, to use as many different sources as possible. The people who voted for National Socialism with such enthusiasm, they did it for shortterm reasons. . . . If we could manage to get the students to make the link, and to say “no, that, that hasn’t been sufficiently thought out!”

Being “suspicious” primarily has a political meaning; in order to be able to vote, one must be able to “question what the politicians say.” Ms. Simone, a forty-year-old teacher at the Mittelschule in Leipzig, also mentioned a second meaning, this time relating to the media.

When they consciously reflect upon (das bewußte Nachdenken), what is happening in the world, what I read about every day [she gets worked up], and don’t take everything at face value, what they read in [the newspaper] Die Bild or wherever. Or what they see on the TV. It’s very often a load of rubbish! (Da kommt wirklich viel Mist) Even me, when I see the news, I think to myself—it’s not possible! We can’t leave it like that! . . . I think that media education is much more important than anything else today. Because—they watch, they absorb, and everything they see is true!

For Ms Inge, wariness also has a third, more self-critical, dimension: “the ability to be critical, including about oneself. You don’t immediately believe the first thing that seems logical or plausible.”

The use of conflicting sources in class represents one of the ways of providing the students with the means to “question” what they learn. Mr Schulze emphasized that “it is especially important to observe the principle of contradiction in didactics (kontroverse Didaktick). Because it is important—at all costs—that a contradictory vision is present, at least in history classes. That’s obvious. And it’s especially that which will, in turn, be useful for political education—when we do it consciously.”

Reflection and Introspection

This critical ability should eventually lead to a “capacity for reflection”; these teachers want to teach their students to “think.” Herbert Weise, the assistant principal at Gesamtschule Wiesi in Hamburg, emphasizes this objective for all teaching, but history in particular, while also recognizing that it is very ambitious.

Thinking about solutions: what would be best?! How are things linked to each other? Why is it like that? And thinking and analyzing all the way, what people did, and finding other “solutions.” So, knowing how to take a historical approach. Looking analytically: what really happened, in the past? And what solutions can we take from that, for the future? How should it be? For me that is the center of what history can do. [He hesitates] Hmm, but myself, as a student, I wasn’t capable of that. I didn’t have that awareness. It came . . . [he does not finish his sentence] In order to be able to make well-founded judgments and to develop independent opinions . . . [softly] it was quite a process. It lasted [he hesitates] probably two-thirds of my studies, I’d say.

Annika Klein, one of his colleagues, aged thirty-five, is convinced that the study of history, by definition, teaches students “independent thinking” because “history challenges the present.” She had this “revelation” during her own studies and hopes to be able to transmit it to her students: “I would like to—particularly on this theme [National Socialism], even if I want to for other themes too—I really want them to think. I probably have [she smiles, slightly surprised] an Enlightenment approach (aufklärerischen Ansatz)! They must think! They must look and think!”62 Another colleague at the same school, Klara Rohrsteg, went even further. For her, it is not enough to provide a variety of information, to critique it, to be able to position oneself in relation to it, and to construct independent thought. It is also necessary to “have the courage to speak your opinions aloud,” even if you do not agree with your classmates.

In order to form an opinion, the students must “take a good look at themselves and be open to self-criticism.” Ms Weinecke, a forty-year-old teacher at Gymnasium Monnet in Leipzig, emphasized the ability for “self-reflection” with an argument based on her own religious beliefs.

Every day I have to look at the world with my ears pricked and my eyes open, to see what is happening. I realize that I won’t reach everyone. But if I can reach one person in each class, that’s already quite a lot, I think! And I also try—of course—I hope you won’t laugh, I really do it—to use Jesus in my arguments. Because Jesus said: I can’t change the world, but if I change, I change the world! I always think that that’s a really great motto! If a politician were to say that one day, I would support them right away! Make everyone aware: I must start with myself! I can’t always say others have to do this or that. No! It’s me, who has to [act]!

Resistance to a Repressive State

Some of the teachers at Gesamtschule Wiesi were very politically active, both in unions and political parties, and they were even more demanding. They expected the students to not only stand up and defend their opinions in class, or to their friends, but also to be able to confront the state. They see immigrants as having a particularly important “responsibility to resist” state authority. Mr Herzog, aged about fifty, was a member of the Education and Science Union (Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft [GEW]) at the time of the interview and was previously a member of the SPD. His father, who was denounced by his then girlfriend for “expressing criticism of Hitler,” was interned in several concentration camps during World War II. Mr Herzog’s attachment to the “spirit of resistance” therefore possibly has familial origins. He proclaims: “Yes, defend yourself (Wehr Dich)! Resist against people who want to oppress you! Resist against people who are racist in the way they treat you! Resist against fascist tendencies, against violence, against whatever! Basically: show civic courage!”

The context of legal understanding and support for the constitution provides Mr Gerste with cognitive and affective support when he expresses a genuine “call for resistance” that students would need to demonstrate in order to “be good citizens.” He used an anecdote to help to explain his position. The mother of one of his students, an Afghani immigrant who had lived in Hamburg for fifteen years, was insulted by a police officer while returning from holidays—she was threatened with deportation for no valid reason. Following this incident, the mother, terrorized, asked Mr Gerste for advice. He was shocked by the behavior of the German police officer, which he described as “madness.” However, the mother’s “passiveness” seemed to pose more of a problem for him.

She said to herself—“it must be normal for her to yell at me, I must be worth less than the others” or something like that. Giving in, accepting, and not resisting, not opposing. I still find that [he hesitates] there is a link with the fundamental laws of our free democracy (die freiheitliche demokratische Grundordnung). These are higher values (übergeordnet) that we want to transmit, that we must transmit. And the fact of protecting one’s personal rights, that’s part of it. You have to understand that, during the time of National Socialism, they [the rights] were revoked, for a long time. Completely revoked. And [to avoid that happening again] you have to be aware of it from the very first signs [of state privilege]. Because we can oppose it. Right? It [the first signs] can be [state] violence. Violence is fascism too.

Mr Gerste thus expects his students (and their parents) to be aware of the legal order (and in particular, individual freedom and dignity), to defend it actively, and to oppose all abuse of power. State agents who abuse their positions provide an opportunity to perform heroic acts of everyday resistance. Here Mr Gerste clearly did not take into account the power imbalance between an Afghani immigrant with poor German skills and officers of the state such as the police. In order to be “a good citizen,” she “should have resisted.” He did not explain how he imagined such an opposition would have unfolded, nor the potential consequences for this woman (presumably including deportation). His argument, in fact, implies that the weak are responsible for the abuse of power by the strong. The “inability to resist” the state is thus interpreted as a “democratic shortcoming.”

Oeser, Alexandra “Chapter 1: Education in the Service of Democracy,” WHEN WILL WE TALK ABOUT HITLER? German Students and the Nazi Past. 57-61.

Purchase the eBook through our website for 35% off with discount code AHA21.

Understanding Fascism is a series of excerpts from titles published by Berghahn Books clarifying what fascism is and how it functions in the modern world.