German History and the Sopranos Problem

I listened to a podcast this morning about the dilemma of making textbooks in postwar Germany. Education of the population was obviously a priority for reconstruction, but the only textbooks were either a) Nazi as hell or b) written before the Nazis came to power, i.e. old as hell. It took years for the administrators to create new textbooks, and in the meantime they simply blacked out the inconvenient parts of the existing textbooks.

According to the podcast, it was only in the 1960s that education materials started including atrocities committed by the Germans. Before then, it was fine to talk about Dresden, or the Allies shelling refugee ships in the Baltic (which I wasn’t aware of before I moved here) or the terrible shit the Russians did as they bulldozed from Stalingrad toBerlin.

You could talk about Hitler as a sort of Pied Piper, entrancing the German people into nemesis without their full consent or understanding. But you couldn’t stretch the blanket of responsibility over the whole country until much later.

It seems to me that the fundamental dilemma for educators is that it’s impossible to educate a population without propagandizing it. You can’t teach people about their country without making them proud.

We think of subjects like history and sociology as somehow neutral, that the methodology is simply 1) find out what happened and 2) tell the story without bias. But evenbeyond the impossibility of ‘objective’ research, there’s no such thing as neutrally telling a story. Here, lemme try something:

  1. A man walks into a store and buys a litre of milk.
  2. A store sits on a street corner. A man enters. Five minutes later, he exits with a litre of milk in his hand.
  3. A jug of milk stands in a refrigerator. A man removes it from the fridge, lays it on the counter, pays and carries it out of the store.

Even to describe an incredibly simple event, you have to decide whose perspective you’re going to tell it from.

Country histories tend to be told by the Washingtons, the Lincolns, the Rockefellers. This is totally understandable. These are people that made stuff happen, and stuff happening is basically a synonym for history.

But the story of America would be significantly different if you told it from the perspective of women, blacks, immigrants, Native Americans, Iowans, deaf people, baristas or bus drivers.

And that’s the dilemma. Whoever’s story you tell, they get to be the main character. Following a protagonist by definition allows them to explain their actions. No matter how hard you try, hearing the full story of what led Hitler to the Final Solution, or what led Mao to the Cultural Revolution, is going to make readers identify with them. However many times we saw Tony Soprano murder, cheat and shittily parent his way through north Jersey, our contempt for him was always tempered with the knowledge of what drove him to his actions.

This is exactly the problem German educators were struggling with in the ‘50s and ‘60s: How do you tell a country’s history without making citizens proud of it?

I know this is all terribly obvious. I’m just in awe of how hard it must have been to write history in Germany for the 30 years after WWII. Before you could even debate which story to tell, you had to decide who got to tell it.

1 Comment

Filed under Germany, Serious

One response to “German History and the Sopranos Problem

  1. dave heasman

    Remember this was only true for West Germany. East Germany, Austria, and the rest didn’t get de-Nazified at all.