A news article on Slate.com, headlined “How do German children learn about the Holocaust?” which you can read in full here describes how children in Germany today are taught about the Holocaust.
This quote is from the Slate article:
Learning about World War II and the Holocaust at school: Overall, I think we learned about this time period at least three times. The first time the Holocaust came up in detail was in grade three or four, at the age of 9 or 10. The whole topic had a weird fascination for me because it made sense of a lot of small things in German culture, and finally we learned all about it. At the same time, I was horrified. I couldn’t imagine how people could believe these screwed-up ideas and do such horrible things in the name of these ideas. But it was a horror like I have for the witch trials and stuff like that. I didn’t make the connection between the war my grandfather fought and World War II. Later, we went to the Dachau Concentration Camp (as most schools around Munich do), and it was interesting and informative but not really disturbing. In Germany, the whole idea of “your own people” is not encouraged, and there is not a big feeling of unity (except if it’s about football/soccer). This anonymous answer tells you more about that.
Note the mention of “witch trials.” You can read about the witch trials in Germany on my website at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/Geseke/Witches.html
My two grandfathers did not fight in World War II; they were too old. My father fought in World War I. All four of my great-grandfathers fought in the Civil War, aka The War between the North and the South — on the side of the North. When I was in school, we studied the Civil War, but not World War I or World War II. In my humble opinion, German children should not be forced to study the Holocaust in elementary school.
I have been to the Dachau Memorial Site several times. This is the grounds of the former Dachau concentration camp. I have seen the German children walking around the former concentration camp, looking dazed and bewildered.
I took the photo below on my first trip to Dachau in 1997. These German students have just seen the old crematorium at Dachau.
German teenagers visit Dachau crematorium
On another trip to Dachau in May 2007, I took the photo below which shows students walking past the location where the Dachau barracks once stood.
Students on a tour of the former Dachau concentration camp
The former Dachau concentration camp was not turned into a Memorial Site until 1965.
A visitor who had seen the former Dachau concentration camp in 1964 wrote this on his blog:
One evening I asked what I shouldn’t miss when in Munich. More than one fellow traveler told me to make sure I visited Dachau, which was not far to the north. The next morning I made my way to the Autobahn and hitchhiked north towards the infamous destination. Drivers who picked me up would ask where I was going. When I replied “Dachau”, the response was uniform; the conversation quieted to silence. In retrospect, the response shifted from awkward embarrassment to naked shame.
I had to walk the last 2 or 3 kilometers to the entrance, as it was far away from any settlement. There was no commerce or residence in the area. The day was very gray, and it was as if the whole countryside was sterile. As I approached, there was a very long border of high wire fence. Walking through the entrance I found no one in attendance. I moved in turn through all the buildings and the displays. I never found a soul the entire day, at least none that were living. The dead were extremely prominent. I recollect photos of bones covered by skin, of “scientific” experimentation by hypothermia, of long, unheated wooden buildings (still standing at the time) where the inmates slept and became infected with lice and typhus.
Few visitors bother to tour the town of Dachau. Those who do visit the town are still angry with the townspeople: One tourist wrote this about the town of Dachau on her blog:
I felt so many emotions today as I rode into town. I kept looking around at all the shops and beauty parlors and got angry. Why didn’t they burn this place to the ground and salt the earth?? Didn’t people know what went on here? I found out inside that when Dachau was liberated, the Americans marched the citizens of Dachau through to look at the piles of dead bodies and the living arrangements to see just what they had either been ignoring or were honestly unaware of.
The tour guides like to tell visitors about the day that German citizens from the town of Dachau were brought to the camp to see what they had “allowed to happen in their town.” The citizens of the town were shown the gas chambers and told all about the death factory at Dachau, which they claimed they knew nothing about, even though people in the town worked in the factories at Dachau and prisoners from the camp were sent to work in the town at 12 different locations including a large meat processing plant.
American visitors are particularly impressed when they are told that the American soldiers forced the Germans to look at the dead bodies of the prisoners that had allegedly been gassed.
The following quote is from a blogger’s account of a visit to Dachau:
The only lighthearted moment of the whole day came when we found out what the U.S. forces did when they liberated Dachau. They forced the people who lived in Dachau to come to the camp, and view what was happening in the Dachau people’s back yard. There were still dead bodies piled up that had not been burned. The camp had run out of coal. That is such an American thing to do. Look, you f***ed up. This is what it looks like. You see it. See it? Don’t ever do this again. The worst thing about Dachau is that it shows how much worse the genocide was there. This is not to say that I don’t think that the situations in Serbia or Darfur are good, but they aren’t systematic. With the Nazis, it was not blind hatred and rage fueling rash slaughters of towns of people. It was a systematic destruction of a race. Propaganda and camps were involved. It was organized, and that makes it so much colder to think of.
Young German students, who are required to take a tour of a concentration camp, also arrive in groups, escorted by their teachers. They look very subdued as they listen to their teacher’s shameful account of the crimes committed by their great-grandparents.
Most students are apprehensive about visiting Dachau. They have studied the Holocaust in elementary school, and they arrive with preconceived notions. They are not disappointed; they learn that the Dachau concentration camp was even worse than they thought it was. Visiting the former camp gives them a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that they have seen the place where the world’s worst crimes were committed.
One visitor wrote the following on a blog:
Although it was a sad place it felt like something that had to be done and I am very glad I went. Like I said, it makes you really think about things like that and think how lucky you really are, it raises the hair on my arms just thinking that I set foot in a place where approximately 206,200 people were murdered without a second thought. It was definitely a good place to see.
Actually, there were 206,206 prisoners registered at Dachau during its 12 year history, and there were a few more than 6 people who were not murdered.
Most visitors to Dachau arrive in groups and are escorted by a tour guide, who instructs them in the horrors suffered by the Dachau prisoners.
The following quote is from a blog written by a visitor, whose tour guide, Steven, had researched Dachau for 15 years:
This was the prototype camp. It was here that the men who invented the idea of concentration camp and death camp turned their ideas to reality. They had a lust for cruelty. Even long after Hitler demanded an end to killing – the prisoners being needed for labor – the killing continued. And not in gas chambers. Dachau had them, but did not use them. The killing was done for sport. Guards could use any excuse they could invent to shoot someone. The most sickening thing was when a guard would take a prisoner to the camp boundary and throw their hat over the border. Should the prisoner fetch, they would be shot dead. Should they not fetch, they would be beaten either until dead, or until they would crawl battered and bloodied over the border hoping to be shot dead.
After a trip to Europe, which included a visit to Dachau, Naomi Spencer wrote this in an article for the Spring Arbor University newspaper:
On a rainy day, we go to Dachau concentration camp. While there, we run our hands across wooden bunk beds where emaciated bodies were stacked like cards. We walk through execution chambers where poison gasses streaming from showerheads ended the lives of human beings crowded like animals in cages; we see the nail marks on the walls. We see grass matted down from rivers of blood flowing out from human ovens.
The walls of the gas chamber are made of glazed brick and there were no fingernail scratches, as of May 2007 when I last visited, but they might have been added since then. The grass and flowers that formerly surrounded the building with the “human ovens” has been replaced with a field of coarse gravel but visitors see what they want to see, not what is there.
The Nazis kept meticulous records at the concentration camps, but not meticulous enough. According to a report made by the International Tracing Service of the Red Cross at Arolsen, Germany in 1977, there were 31,951 recorded deaths at the main Dachau camp during the 12 years that the camp was in existence. Today the staff at the Memorial Site tells visitors that 41,566 is a conservative estimate of the number of deaths at Dachau.
A visitor wrote, on her blog in July 2009, about what a tour guide named Alan told a student group regarding the number of deaths:
Upon arrival, our guide, Alan, gave us the background history of the camp. He told us that the numbers of people who died there were inaccurate, because Jews, Gypsies and old or weak prisoners were not counted in the death toll because they were not considered people. Also, the majority of bodies in the mass graves were not identifiable.
The “mass graves” are on a hill called Leitenberg, a few miles from the Dachau camp. Unidentified bodies found in the camp by the American liberators are buried there.
I could go and on about what visitors to Dachau are told, but you get the idea. Today, there is a sign at the Dachau Memorial Site which tells visitors that the gas chamber was used, although only to “murder individual prisoners and small groups here using poison gas.”
Sign at Dachau Memorial Site