I will never forget visiting Dachau. It was a cold March day, suitably grey and melancholy, with a chill wind that blew right through my coat. I took the train from Munich to the village of Dachau, and stepped off into a unassuming town, with a market place and a functional Hauptbahnhof with the ever-present Bäckerei. Outside the bus stop for Das Konzentrationslager was easy to spot; a cluster of tourists stood by it, hands in pockets, cameras slung around their necks. The bus came, we all got on and I spent my time gazing out the window, at the houses, the gardens, the trappings of a normal community filled with normal people. When the bus came to a halt by a wide green park, the bus driver pointed down a small road and informed us that we had to walk the rest of the way.
The walk led us past a group of small apartment blocks, and occasional snatches of children’s laughter and neighborly small talk could be heard. Seconds later, the gates were before us, ‘Arbeit macht frei’ and suddenly I was in another world, a
world of horrifying cruelty, of hopeless captivity, of mass killings.
When I left, hours later, unable to speak, I remember staring again at the
apartment blocks, the unassuming houses, the market square. I was fascinated by these buildings in which people lived and worked and talked and slept and laughed, while thousands of their fellow-human beings met their deaths a few hundred meters away. How could they do nothing? How could they not speak up? How could they not care?
Indoctrination and German Schools
Adolf Hitler became leader of the Nazi Party in 1926, and 7 years later, Heinrich Himmler opened the Concentration Camp in Dachau. Thus, there had been almost a decade of indoctrination in National Socialism before the mass genocide of non-Aryans began to take place. Of fundamental importance during this time was nurturing of the youth, and this was evident in the power of the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls, both of which were established in the 1920s. I remember once conversing with an elderly German woman who recounted nostalgically her days taking part in the Youth rallies; she spoke of a powerful feeling of belonging and oneness that she had never experienced before or, indeed, since.
German schools were also directly targeted; any Jewish or politically unreliable teachers were fired and the rest were given a choice – conform or lose your job. History tells us that 97% of teachers joined the Nazi Party, greater numbers than any other profession, and that they were marked by their devotion to Adolf Hitler. Academic knowledge and intellectual development were belittled as obedience to state authority, militarism and anti-Semitism took centre place in German classrooms. Children were actively encouraged to abandon their individuality in favour of the goals of the Aryan community and this indoctrination continued in after-school meetings, weekend camping trips and regular mass rallies. Parents were relegated to second place as the state assumed responsibility for the upbringing of the nation’s children.
It is no wonder then that the people of Dachau, so heavily programmed in the ideology of National Socialism, said nothing when Heinrich Himmler officiously opened Germany’s first concentration camp ‘for political prisoners’. It is no wonder they remained silent for 9 long years, despite the rumours, the gunshots, the skeletal bodies, the mass graves.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day – a day to remember the past, for if we do not remember, we are doomed to repeat it. Education has always been instrumental in a government’s efforts to change a nation. Any new ideological state or movement must alienate the young from their pre-revolutionary parents if it hopes to survive into future generations. And any state-imposed separation of children from their parents is wrong. It must always be a matter of concern when the State begins to infringe parental rights and assume responsibility for the upbringing of children. As teachers, employed by the state, we must always be aware that while we are ‘in loco parentis’ when our pupils in our care, we are not their parents – and there are areas of instruction which must always be firstly the responsibility of the parents. We must be careful to never belittle parents or, through our teaching, denigrate their morals and values.
In light of this, Ireland’s recent trends in education policy are worrying. Government disparagement of religion and the recent focus on schools taking responsibility for child ‘wellbeing’ along with the promotion of topics such as sexuality to children under the age of legal consent are of concern. The moving away from knowledge to ‘skills’ as an educational output is also a source of anxiety to many teachers around the country; it is imperative that we examine the reasons and philosophy behind every development. Indoctrination is never conspicuous – it is always camouflaged.
And when we disagree, we must protest. Elie Wiesel, a man who survived the brutality of a Nazi concentration camp but never forgot what it meant to be captive, once wrote:
‘There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest’.
(Images credit: Google Images)