German high school history textbooks: how well do they deal with the rise and fall of the Third Reich?

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Recent isolated anti-Jewish remarks by some West German politicians have rekindled debate about the possible revival of anti-Semitism in the new generation of West Germans. One can only wonder if German education has, as some critics like to put it, swept the Nazi period discreetly under the carpet? This study has attempted to answer this question by analyzing 22 West German history textbooks currently used in all three of the traditional German high schools.

This study is both quantitative and qualitative. First, a checklist was used to determine what percentage of each book is devoted to the Nazi period and in particular to a set of basic themes considered important to any coverage of this period. Then, each book was analyzed to determine if there are any serious omissions, inaccuracies, biased or ambiguous statements about the Nazi period. When useful, a comparison of the treatment of the various themes under review was made.

Considering the problems involved in writing history textbooks for such diverse audiences and school districts, this study finds that, in general, the West German secondary school history textbooks are presenting an accurate, if somewhat limited, account of the Nazi period.

In conclusion, the findings of this study indicate that while an accurate portrayal of the Nazi period is presented in the textbooks surveyed, bias by omission does exist, especially when dealing with racial policies, the anti-Nazi resistance movement, and any question of responsibility. Certainly, improvements can be made in these specific areas.