Teaching Genocide: Where There’s a Political Will, There’s a Way
By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
HANOVER, Germany — The resolution passed in Berlin in 2016 recognizing the Armenian genocide was a watershed. Not only did the Bundestag (Parliament) take the final step in acknowledging that what occurred in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 was a genocide, but it outlined provisions for educating the population on this crucial chapter in modern history.
In the text of the document, it is stated that “Today it is the responsibility of school, university and civic education to take up and work through the expulsion and extermination of the Armenians as part of the process of dealing with the history of ethnic conflicts in the 20th century, in curricula and teaching materials, and to pass this on to the next generations. In this respect, the federal states have a special role to play.”
In the German system, curricula for public schools are the responsibility of governments at the federal state level. Prior to the passage of the resolution, it was up to the individual teacher to decide what examples to use in courses on genocide and mass murder in modern history. Brandenburg, which introduced instruction on the Armenian Genocide in 2005, was followed a decade later by Saxony-Anhalt, which made teaching materials on the subject available. But it was only with the Bundestag’s action that legislators redefined the matter, spelling out provisions for implementation.
What has occurred since then? At public events commemorating the victims of the genocide on April 24 each year, speakers have lamented the fact that very little has changed. This year, Dr. Elke Hartmann, speaking in Berlin, stressed that it was not only a matter of reorganizing curricula, but of providing educators with the in-depth knowledge required to teach competently. She called for the establishment of university chairs as well as the preparation of scientific materials for the classroom.
Politics at the Federal State Level
If educating the educators is a precondition for intellectual development, political will is mandatory to providing the forum to engage young minds in study. On June 6, a conference took place in Hanover, capital of the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt, which faced the political issue head on.
It was organized by the Hanover Historical Museum, the Municipal Culture of Memory, the German-Armenian Society (DAG) and the Ada and Theodore High School, to examine the issue and make an assessment. Dr. Christoph Bergner, a Bundestag member until 2017, delivered the main speech, which was followed by a round table discussion. Those participating included Dr. Jochen Walter from the Lower Saxony Culture Ministry, DAG President Dr. Raffi Kantian, retired Headmaster Dr. Martin Stupperich, who was Chairman of the Lower Saxony Association of History Teachers for many years, and Nils Vollert, who teaches German and History and has authored textbooks and teaching materials. Dr. Christin Pschichholz, from the Lepsiushaus in Potsdam, was the moderator.
The event was dedicated to the theme, “The Armenian Genocide: From the Bundestag Resolution to its Implementation in Lower Saxony.” Since federal states are responsible for school policy, the conference organizers decided to call on their state legislators directly and ask them to define their positions on the matter in writing. The parties represented in the state parliament are the Green Party (Bündnis90/Die Grünen), the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Liberal Party (FDP) and the Social Democrats (SPD). Each party was to reply to the following questions:
- How does your group evaluate the Bundestag resolution’s formulation cited above?
- Has your group taken steps thus far to implement it in Saxony Anhalt? If so, what steps and with what result?
- If not, what were/are the grounds for your reserve?
- Can your group envision active commitment to the issue in the foreseeable future? What would your group like to undertake concretely?
The responses were disappointing, to be polite. On the DAG website they will be available in full (http://www.deutsch-armenische-gesellschaft.de/). In an article prepared by Dr. Raffi Kantian, the replies are summarized with commentary.
All the factions expressed agreement with the formulation — no surprise, considering the resolution had passed with an all-party vote. When it came to concrete steps taken locally, the answers became evasive. The Green Party pointed to a scientific dossier on the Armenian Genocide which the (German government) Federal Agency for Civic Education has published online, adding that the party has reestablished the comparable office on the state level, in hopes it will address the genocide issue. If the Greens have not done anything themselves, it was due to “other priorities.” The CDU was content to recall an experts’ seminar held back in 2012 on “Genocide as a Classroom Topic.” The FDP focused on the foreign policy aspects of the resolution (Armenian-Turkish relations) to argue against action on the federal state level, and, as for classroom instruction, opined that nothing would prevent it from being taught in the upper schools; for younger pupils, the experts should decide. The FDP doesn’t think much of political influence on textbooks or the like. The SPD was in essential agreement; respect for academic freedom at the university level limits political influence, and lower schools have their own responsibilities; that said, one might however show teachers how they could introduce the theme of the Armenian genocide into the classroom.
In his comments to the parties’ responses, Kantian was direct. If the Greens saw no possibility to act in their official capacity, “That is astounding for a party represented in the state legislature, whose responsibilities include participation in addressing all political realms.” They want to “delegate the task to the State Agency for Civic Education. No mention of involving schools.” And the FDP’s passing the buck to those responsible for foreign policy “is a crass error, as one can immediately recognize by reading the passage quoted from the Resolution.” The CDU believes the entire affair was sufficiently dealt with in the 2012 seminar. “Evidently,” Kantian concluded, “this problem has low priority in the Lower Saxony legislature, as openly stated in one answer and indicated between the lines in the rest.”
Identifying the Nodal Points
Participants in the round table discussion did analyze the matter in some detail. Stupperich, who had organized the 2012 event in question, expressed the view that it had remained without consequence. In seeking solutions, one has to take into consideration that the organization of school instruction has changed. Instead of the earlier teaching plan, with a syllabus, or list of subjects for study, now one works with a curriculum which is oriented more to the goals and the learning process. Thematic anchors or reference points exist, and could be used to treat the theme of the Armenian Genocide, but this is not explicitly named in the so-called core curriculum. Furthermore, since the Armenian Genocide is not available as a course of study for university students, future teachers have no access to the subject. Nor do they have access to scientific literature on it in standard textbooks.
In the round table discussion, Nils Vollert, a teacher and author of textbooks, said he probably never would have dealt with this subject if he had not learned about it at the Institute for Diaspora and Genocide Studies at the Bochum University, one of the rare locations in Germany to offer such disciplines. This dilemma is precisely what Hartmann identified in her speech last April in Berlin; the institutions of higher learning have to exist and provide the facilities, in courses, research facilities, published materials, handouts and so forth. Other aspects debated in the discussion were the concept of teaching the Armenian genocide as a predecessor to the Holocaust, and how to relate it to the issue of German complicity.
If the written contributions that political party representatives had submitted in answer to the questionnaire earned Kantian’s critical commentary, the conference deliberations offered a sober assessment of what has and has not been achieved thus far. Most importantly, it generated discussion of the path to be followed, if the 2016 resolution is to be implemented with respect to genocide studies. Kantian appreciated the contribution to the round table of Dr. Jochen Walter, deputy director of the Department for Civic Education in the state Culture Ministry. “From his remarks one could gather that people in the Ministry are thinking about changes. We are full of expectation!”
(Material for this report has been drawn from an article by Dr. Raffi Kantian, to appear in the Armenische-Deutsche-Korrespondenz (ADK 183), the publication of the German-Armenian Society (DAG). Translations from the German are those of the author.)
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