Curricular Wars and Averting Auschwitz

Education through rewritten textbooks, proscription of materials and textualised hate towards the Jews was central to the Nazi plot and storyline. The war for global domination and extermination began, as it were, in curricular battles.

In Fritz Fink’s The Jewish Question in Education (1937), a textbook in Nazi Germany, there were detailed guidelines on how to identity the Jews: “Jews have different noses, ears, lips, chins and different faces than Germans’ and ‘they walk differently, have flat feet… their arms are longer and they speak differently.”

Fink’s was not an isolated diatribe but part of a larger and systematic attempt to instil racial science and anti-Semitism in the very young – as a foundation for the larger project of the Third Reich. The curriculum and the pedagogy became, so to speak, the first line of attack as school-going children and graduates set about ‘understanding’ the ‘Jewish question’. Many aspects of the later pogrom are anticipated in the virulent curriculum of the years leading up to Hitler’s reign. As Gregory Paul Wegner has shown in his Anti-Semitism and Schooling under the Third Reich (2002), German schools played a major role in preparing the youth for genocidal actions.

Education through rewritten textbooks, proscription of materials and textualised hate towards the Jews was central to the Nazi plot and storyline. The war for global domination and extermination began, as it were, in curricular battles. Genocide, one could say, has a textual origin.

Educating towards the Holocaust

In his Introduction to The Jewish Question in Education, Julius Streicher, editor of the virulent newspaper Der Stürmer, and one of the Nazis executed after Nuremberg, writes:

“The question remains: “How do I get the Jewish Question across to a child in education?” … The best subject for doing this naturally and easily is science.”

He continued through an analogy with nature:

“We see in nature that only similar creatures live together. Similar insects like ants, wasps, bees, termites, etc., build their states. When migratory birds leave for the south in the fall, starlings fly with starlings, storks with storks, swallows with swallows. Although they are all birds, each holds strictly to its kind …That is the way of nature. When these facts are explained in school, the time has to come when a boy or a girl stands up and says: “If that is the way it is in nature, it has to be the same with people. But our German people once allowed itself to be led by those of foreign race, the Jews” …

Only where humanity intervenes do artificial cross-breeds result, the mixed race, the bastard. People cross a horse and a donkey to produce a mule. The mule is an example of a bastard. Nature does not want it to reproduce. It denies the mule offspring. Only man sets himself over the will of nature. He approves and even demands the mixture of blacks or Orientals with white people, or Jews with Gentiles. Each valued member of a race is racially conscious. No White who is aware of and proud of his race will mate with a Negress or a Jewess; even a racially conscious Negro will not mate with a White. Each prefers its own kind. Only an inferior member of a race inclines toward those of other races, or allows himself to be misused by them. Only inferior members of various races mix with each other, the bad mixes with the bad. It is thus clear that the bastard always gets the worst of it, that is, he unites only the bad characteristics of the races he comes from. A teacher who presents his students with such ideas will have an easy time in explaining the meaning of the Nuremberg Laws to the youth. The children will see in the Nuremberg Laws nothing other than a return to the natural, to the divine, order.”

The emphasis on purity of identity and similarity, rejecting difference and variation would cast long shadows, and generate practices such as euthanasia, the Nuremberg laws and proscriptions.

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Gregor Ziemer, a teacher and headmaster at the American School in Berlin in the 1930s in his Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1941, and therefore published in the middle of the Second World War), wrote:

“Physical education, education for action, is alone worthy of the Nazi teacher’s attention … German, biology, science, mathematics, and history are for the boys; eugenics and home economics for the girls. Other subjects are permissible if they are taught to promote Nazi ideas. Spiritual education is definitely unimportant.”

The textbook therefore assigned strict gender-based roles, and created a cult of the perfectible body.

Tomi Ungerer in Tomi: A Childhood under the Nazis (1998) recalled:

“As the teacher entered the class, the students would stand and raise their right arms. The teacher would say, For the Führer a triple victory, answered by a chorus of Heil! three times… Every class started with a song. The almighty Führer would be staring at us from his picture on the wall. These uplifting songs were brilliantly written and composed, transporting us into a state of enthusiastic glee.”

The curriculum was a cult clearly, foregrounding the supreme leader who was infallible, whose vision was solely about the greatness of the nation, imposing the icon of the leader on walls, paper, curricula and minds of the schools’ wards.

The book Germany’s Fall and Rise—Illustrations Taken from Arithmetic Instruction in the Higher Grades of Elementary School, asks:

“The Jews are aliens in Germany—in 1933 there were 66,060,000 inhabitants of the German Reich, of whom 499,682 were Jews. What is the percentage of aliens?”

One notes not only a biopolitics – the management of populations – but a clear message of anxiety around the category ‘alien’ here. It was in response to such stats that a January 1934 order made it compulsory for schools to educate their pupils ‘in the spirit of National Socialism’.

Pedagogy and curriculum were therefore the essential preliminary steps in educating the German youth towards the Holocaust. It comes as no surprise then that later-day Nazi party workers and even those peripheral to the Holocaust’s criminal project, like Melita Maschmann, a Hitler Youth worker and propagandist, or Brunhilde Pomsel, secretary to Joseph Goebbels, throughout their memoirs, Account Rendered: A Dossier on My Former Self and The Work I Did, respectively, state how naïve they had been and how easily they had been brainwashed into believing the so-called ideals of the Nazis.

It was partly in response to the hatred and the actions, that the sixth pamphlet of The White Rose rebellion against the Nazis (1942-43) – the five college-students and one teacher, all pamphleteers, of whom five were executed by guillotine – addressed students directly:

“German students!

We have grown up in a nation where every open expression of opinion is callously bludgeoned. Hitler Youth, the SA and SS have tried to conform, revolutionize, and anesthetize us in the most fruitful years of our educational lives. The despicable methodology was called “ideological education”; it attempted to suffocate budding independent thought and values in a fog of empty phrases. “The Führer’s pick” – something more simultaneously devilish and stupid could not be imagined.”

The pamphlet put its finger on the crux of the matter: ideological education, a.k.a brainwashing, that preached hatred and racism in the guise of scientific truths. To read Nazi school texts, memoirs and propaganda is to see reiteration of patterns of exclusion, hate-mongering, Othering that occurs even now: the excision of a textbook can change the mindset of a generation.

Louis Snyder in Encyclopaedia of the Third Reich notes how Hitler made changes to the curriculum so that a personality cult around himself and indoctrination into National Socialist attitudes proceeded apace. In this Hitler was prescient when he turned to youth and their education as the primary site of a future Nazi Germany and thus initiated what we still see as the curriculum wars: who and what should the young study? What sections of the historical past should be excised, amplified, redacted? Is the context in and for which an author wrote irrelevant when we ban her/him for being racist or patriarchal from our presentist perspective? Are historical conditions – slavery, caste, patriarchy, class wars – ‘dangerous’ subjects or do they illuminate our collective aspirations, misdiagnosis of the world and follies?

Educating after the Holocaust

After the Third Reich fell and Nuremberg happened, influential texts like Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) sought to examine and understand why the Nazis did what they did. An industry sprung up around the horrors but also around the mystique of the ‘Nazi mind’. Historians exploring new and old materials traced genealogies of Nazism in Henry Friedlander’s The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (1995) and more controversially, the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust, as perpetrators, witnesses or bystanders, as documented by Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, Volker Riess (The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, 1988), Christopher Browning (Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, 1992) and David Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, 1998).

Very rarely could anyone of course explain fully why the ordinary Germans engaged in a collective act of percepticide, of not looking, or looking but not seeing. What could then be done to prevent such events as Auschwitz from recurring? Theodor W. Adorno of the Frankfurt School and an influential thinker even now, also turned, in both sadness and bewilderment, to education and pedagogy as a possible site of addressing the Holocaust.

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First articulated as a radio talk in 1966, Adorno’s ‘Education After Auschwitz’ is a cautionary tale even if it does not offer concrete pedagogic alternatives to hate-curricula and racialised syllabi. He also proffers a framework within which both, historical events may be taught and understood but not necessarily justified or explained, and the sense of a future that is shaped by this understanding.

Adorno’s opening line should be adequate to set us thinking on the enormous role of pedagogy:

“The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again.”

Adorno treats Auschwitz as ‘the expression of an extremely powerful societal tendency’ and therefore not the result of any crazed individual’s actions. In order to understand the reasons for Auschwitz, says Adorno, its ‘roots must be sought in the persecutors, not in the victims who are murdered under the paltriest of pretenses’. And then he makes his major move in linking education with Auschwitz:

“One must come to know the mechanisms that render people capable of such deeds, must reveal these mechanisms to them, and strive, by awakening a general awareness of those mechanisms, to prevent people from becoming so again. It is not the victims who are guilty … Only those who unreflectingly vented their hate and aggression upon them are guilty. One must labor against this lack of reflection, must dissuade people from striking outward without reflecting upon themselves. The only education that has any sense at all is an education toward critical self-reflection.”

To reflect critically upon oneself is, according to Adorno, the primary purpose of education.

Besides children’s education, Adorno addresses the “general enlightenment that provides an intellectual, cultural, and social climate in which a recurrence would no longer be possible, a climate, therefore, in which the motives that led to the horror would become relatively conscious”.

Without self-reflection, the society begins to accept fascism and authoritarianism, suggests Adorno. As an instance of a blinded society, he writes:

“If one considers how visits of potentates who no longer have any real political function induce outbreaks of ecstasy in entire populations, then one has good reason to suspect that the authoritarian potential even now is much stronger than one thinks.”

The cult of the leader/boss, from heads of institutions to heads of state, that is energetically crafted in even democratic societies and spaces such as educational institutions – in India it would be cut-outs, large-sized pics on flexis dotting the landscape, pics on every document/notice/flyer, the injunction to constantly address the leader in terms normally used to address divinity or the beloved, and the claim that all good stems from the leader alone – is Adorno’s focus here.

Adorno is suspicious of the society being told to bond together. “Bonds,” he believes, “easily become either a ready badge of shared convictions—one enters into them to prove oneself a good citizen—or they produce spiteful resentment.” We see this occurring on a regular basis where politicians appeal to a community to bond together for their common good, and in the process produce a community identity based on (a) fear of not adhering to and abiding by norms, whether rituals or rhetoric, of that community or, (b) a loathing towards another community. Bonding, says Adorno, is “a dependence on rules, on norms that cannot be justified by the individual’s own reason”. Those within the bonds of a community, “are placed under a kind of permanent compulsion to obey orders”.

Adorno concludes: “The single genuine power standing against the principle of Auschwitz is autonomy… the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating.” That is, the collective in blind adherence to mythic ideals enunciated by a charismatic leader to whom the collective pledges loyalty, and the individual loses the ability to reflect, to oppose and to think through. This, Adorno terms “the suffering the collective first inflicts upon all the individuals it accepts”. A collective such as Nazi-dom, argues Adorno, “glorified and cultivated …monstrosities in the name of “customs”’ – a feature of all demagogic democracies even today. When individuals buy into the ‘bond’ they also ‘assimilate themselves to things”, whether slogans, rituals, routine behaviour or icons. They later “assimilate others to things” as well.

Education to avert Holocausts

Subsequently, Adorno speaks of the relevance of Auschwitz:

“one should work to raise awareness about the possible displacement of what broke out in Auschwitz. Tomorrow a group other than the Jews may come along, say the elderly, who indeed were still spared in the Third Reich, or the intellectuals, or simply ‘deviant groups’.”

Adorno links the rise of Auschwitz with the rise of Nazi nationalism, which he terms ‘so evil’.

Although, oddly, Adorno does not emphasise the teaching of history, focusing instead on the processes that created the organised collective, the larger implications of what he is saying apply to the study of history and literature (the latter as the embodiment of social imaginaries, including genocidal ones).

That is, to not teach Auschwitz, to proscribe the events around, say, the Holocaust or slavery, is to enable a collective that will then turn towards other groups to exterminate them (Adorno’s examples of such a future targeting are the elderly, the intellectuals and the ‘deviant groups’).  Historical wrongs must be taught and understood, says Adorno, and textbooks that re-engineer these in order to target a group, glorify another or make claims for a certain lineage should be scrupulously examined and their effects reflected upon. This pedagogy enables the reader to point to the forces that congealed around ideology and empowered groups bonded-in-hate to eventually commit genocide.

There is, as Martin Davies in an essay on Adorno notes, a risk in Holocaust studies:

“Holocaust Studies use history not just as a technology for knowing the past, but as a means of com- memoration and mourning. In its most orthodox form, the discipline binds respect for the victims to familiarity with historical fact. It ensures historical erudition gauges moral commitment: that historical veracity meters personal and public sympathy. For historians this is a self-serving ideology.”

That is, such a pressure to respond ethically to the Holocaust also engenders a collective, conditioned responses and the loss of autonomy and reflective abilities. But this risk surely is an ethical one to take especially if we are cautious enough to not identify with the perps and not be swayed by sentiment alone?

As a practical suggestion, Adorno makes the following points:

“investigate the history of euthanasia murders, which in Germany, thanks to the resistance the program met, was not perpetrated to the full extent planned by the National Socialists … inquiry must be made into the specific, historically objective conditions of the persecutions. So-called national revival movements in an age in which nationalism is obsolete are obviously especially susceptible to sadistic practices.”

These movements, bonds and rhetoric of nationalism are divisive and enable, argues Adorno, sadistic practices towards the vilified other, who could be anyone who does not abide by the common code the ‘bond’ enforces: ‘Virtually anyone who does not belong directly to the persecuting group can be overtaken’. Thus, the genealogy of genocide in practices such as hate speech, lynchings, exclusion from public spaces and varied/lesser life-chances accorded to some communities must be studied as precursors.

Education must focus on processes and methods, argues Adorno:

“education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms. One must submit to critical treatment—to provide just one model—such a respectable concept as that of “reason of state”; in placing the right of the state over that of its members, the horror is potentially already posited.”

There will always be, writes Adorno, “bureaucratic desktop murderers and ideologues”, which we cannot prevent through education. But, hope lies elsewhere:

“there are people who do it [torture others] down below, indeed as servants, through which they perpetuate their own servitude and degrade themselves, … against this, however, education and enlightenment can still manage a little something.”

Education, then, must be geared towards reflection and the analytics of societal pressures and processes that victimise, spew hate. The Nazi textbooks cited earlier exemplify an education that enables, in Adorno’s words, ‘bonds’ among the so-called like-minded, racially similar, people. But they also call for unthinking adherence to codes and norms, especially those that portray the villainous other. Education is cultural conditioning but can also be geared towards politicising processes like memory. Martin Davies concludes his essay thus:

“Certainly, ignorance and fundamentalism, characteristics of the lack of education, make swift conduits towards cruelty. Conversely, the complexity of the world demands knowledge and reflection – requires enlightenment. …while scholastic learning implements behavioural conditioning through obligatory remembrance, the principle of autonomy keeps the aims of education in dispute. Education after Auschwitz, though highly politicized, would not ever be political enough.”

And this is really what Adorno is moving towards too: the politics of cults, memorialising (of both victims and perps), attention to rhetorical moves and social processes aimed at exclusion, and self-reflection ought to be a part of pedagogy to avert Holocausts. Adorno’s essay, which does not cite the Nazi textbooks cited here, is admittedly idealistic in parts, but the larger point it makes about education as alerting us to conditions of our own slavishness to cults of supreme leaders or racial superiority is well-made. Excised textbooks, denialist materials and clearly racialised books are pedagogic instruments of demagogues and dictators because, as Nazi Germany abundantly illustrated, their skewed rationale and insane justifications for actions such as genocide are assimilated into the quiescent audience brought up on these texts.

There is nothing, not even genocides, outside the text because, as Theodor Adorno clearly understood and warned us in connection with the Holocaust, the extreme originates in a textual condition.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.