History Teacher Emeritus, Latin School of Chicago
Teacher Fellow, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Educational Advisor, Descendants Media Group/Courtroom 600 Project
The group of high school boys who gave what appears to be the Nazi salute might have intended it as a joke, but maybe not. The young men marching with tiki torches in Charlottesville were not joking; they were true believers. As David Leonhardt wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times in March, 2018, “Overt racism is on the upswing. White supremacists are hanging banners and spray-painting graffiti. Anti-Semitism has surged on social media.” He continued to explain that more young people are opposed to racism than support it. Nevertheless, if many high school students think it is a joke, and if some young people think Nazism is good, we, as educators, need to find as many different ways as possible to help the next generation understand the extraordinary evil of Nazism and everything that it contains. That is why I am endorsing the Courtroom 600 learning project and why I have agreed to work with the organization.
I taught history for over forty years. In one way or another, all of my classes contained a focus on morals and ethics: How should we treat one another? Even when I taught the overviews of American, European, or Contemporary Middle East history, I wanted my students to wrestle with their values. Examples of extraordinary evil, racism, genocide, sexism, and kleptocracy are written in every chapter of every history text but nowhere is it clearer than in Nazi Germany. The behaviors of the Nazis should provide all of us with a clear example of the worst of human behaviors, and they should provide a touchstone as to how to govern and to be governed. Those who state that in any argument the one who brings up Hitler first already lost the argument, are wrong. While I have read countless false analogies using the Nazis, we need to examine the Third Reich deeply and seriously, because we can use their obvious misbehaviors in order to evaluate our own actions.
We should know we have problems if we are:
• Using the same rationalizations to justify our actions as the Nazis
• Demonizing groups of people and treating them as disposable others
• Setting ourselves up as the good “us” being attacked by the evil “other”
And this is why the Nuremberg Trials are so essential; they provide, as Justice Jackson stated in his opening, “the documentary evidence” of the racial hatred, genocide, aggressive war, and rabid ethnic nationalism that we see reborn today.
It is essential that we bring these trials away from the footnotes of the history texts and bring them into the center of the texts.
Courtroom 600 will provide educators with access to photographs from the Nuremberg trials themselves as well as photographs that present context for the trials. The Courtroom 600 pilot site allows teachers and students the chance to analyze primary source documents. More than that, it allows students to do their own research and to follow their own interests and concerns. It allows even middle school teachers the ability to assign high level research assignments.
Using the trials is not new to me. I taught a class on Nazi Germany that simulated the Nuremberg Tribunals as a final examination in which the students are instructed to “do a better job” than the original participants did. Students spend the second quarter of the semester using the actual transcripts from the trial and other primary source materials, as well as additional secondary source materials, to create what they believe will be a more powerful prosecution or defense than the ones used at Nuremberg. It is a great project, but there is room for more than one way to utilize the evidence, and the pictures found at the Courtroom 600 site would have greatly enhanced my class and my simulation, especially for visual learners.
Studying the trials can help in one area of education that is sorely lacking especially today, that is the consequences of Nazism for the perpetrators and bystanders.
Those Wisconsin high school students who were laughing as they were giving the Nazi salute were never taught that Germany suffered because of Hitler.
Their history class needed to force them to understand—when you allow yourself to be co-opted or benumbed by an ideology that promotes violence, fear, and discrimination, it can (and often does) result in genocide. It is often overlooked, but because the German people, willingly or not, accepted Nazi rule and Nazi ideology, Germany suffered as much or more than any of the other peoples of Europe, with the exception of the Jews. Had the Baraboo students been Aryan boys their age throwing up that salute in a classroom in 1939, at least half of them would be dead by 1945, and they would have died in horrific ways. It is estimated that roughly 2 million German woman and girls were raped by the Russians when they occupied when they occupied Germany. Therefore, had they been alive in Nazi Germany, the Baraboo young men could have expected that their mothers, sisters, and girlfriends would have been victimized. While Germany lost between 8-10% of its 1939 population as a consequence of the war, the United Kingdom lost .94% of its population and France 1.35%. Of course, the Soviet Union lost more of its citizens, roughly 14% and Poland almost 17% due to Nazi racial policies. Nevertheless, the loss of life and physical damage were the direct consequences of a willingness to follow an inhumane pseudo-philosophy.
Those young men needed a history teacher who would have required them to go through the “Life Amidst the Rubble” portal of the Courtroom 600 interactive site. They might have been much less likely to laugh, had they been forced to go through the pictures of children spooning meals out of garbage cans. It might have been more difficult to raise their hands in a jocular salute, had they been required to look at pictures of emaciated young men who were often hideously injured. They might have realized that had they been there, they too would have been among the maimed or the dead. They might have been forced to recognize that Nazi Germany was not a joke, and that the German people were among Hitler’s greatest victims.
The Holocaust is an example of the use of the state’s full coercive powers to achieve the extermination of groups of people it considers to be threatening.
Nazism was idealistic in that it proposes a brave new world based on the delusion that human history is not, as Marx believed, the history of class conflict, but rather the history of race conflict. (Marx’s hypothesis that history is class struggle may also be a delusion, but that is not relevant to the topic of this paper.) Thus, as the hypothesis goes, the cleansing of the racially inferior and the augmentation of the racially superior will achieve a utopian ideal society. Consequently, the study of the Holocaust must be historical and unique, but it is also universal and should provide us with a template for understanding our own behavior.
While the specifics of the study of Nazi Germany belong in the 1930s and 40s, states choosing to become involved in ethnic cleansing have not disappeared, and the devices by which those states seduce their subjects or citizens to slaughter other human beings has not fundamentally changed.
The racial and eugenic language is somewhat different today than in the past, but the underlining and underlying issue remains the same: the primeval belief that our tribe is good and right, while other tribes are evil; or, if not evil, then at least worthy of suspicion and fear. That is what the young men marching in Charlottesville meant when they shouted, “The Jews will not replace us.” Perhaps some of those marchers would have thought twice about doing so if they would have studied Nuremberg in depth. Had they read through the actual character studies in the “Nazi Leaders on Trial” portal of Courtroom 600, they might not have been so eager to identify with them. It might not help those members of the alt. right, like Andrew Anglin but after reading about Julius Streicher’s perversions, which are found in a document made by the Nazis themselves and titled the “Goering Commission Report,” most of us will consider his behavior loathsome.
Hermann Goering, the third most powerful man in Nazi Germany and the highest ranking official to be tried, started his cross-examination strutting, but he was sweating and squirming by the end. It is difficult to imagine any teenager looking at Goering, a bloated morphine addict, and saying, “That’s my role model.” Reading about Alfred Rosenberg, the “philosopher of Nazism,” should cause anyone to question the whole ideology.
As Justice Jackson, the U.S. Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg, said of the defendants in his Opening Statement before the International Military Tribunal, “What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power. They are symbols of fierce nationalism and of militarism, of intrigue and war-making which have embroiled Europe generation after generation, crushing its manhood, destroying its homes, and impoverishing its life. They have so identified themselves with the philosophies they conceived and with the forces they directed that any tenderness to them is a victory and an encouragement to all the evils which are attached to their names.”
Studying the cases of those individuals and learning about their behavior before and during the trials should influence most people to turn away from lure of neo-Nazi websites.
We should be looking to add a focus on the perpetrators without taking away from our study of the intended victims of Nazism. The suffering of the Jews and other victims of Nazism need to be stressed, and Courtroom 600 facilitates that study; however, in a time when the Alternative für Deutschland won nearly 13% of the vote, we need to start explaining that Hitler and the Nazis did not do good things for Germany.
Far too many teenagers and young adults only know the Nazis as guys who wore cool uniforms and got to march in parades. They need to know better, and we need to utilize all the tools available to educators to teach them.