Old and New Goals of Teaching History
I’m currently reading Christopher Clark’s book with the whopping title: Time and Power: Visions of History in German Politics from the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich.
In it, Clark discusses how the Nazis “changed history” first by changing how they thought about and, more importantly, how they taught their outlook to Germans.
For the Nazis, of course, the entire world revolved around Germans and Germany. “The Fatherland” was loosely defined to include Austria and anywhere else that Germans might dominate and re-populate with “true” Germans. “True German,” was not defined by one’s language, however, but by one’s belief, on the one hand; and “race,” on the other.
Part of the Nazi terror was this: You could never be sure about your “true German” lineage; nor could you be absolutely certain whether your mind was genuinely in- or out-of-tune with the Führer, who had the final opinion on everything. (Jewish intellectuals need not apply — nor, indeed, intellectuals of any kind.)
For the Nazis, there was no history — any story — worth telling (in any language) beyond that of the successful, future Dritte Reich. In the wake of World War I, Germans were desperate for any kind of standing in the world. For many of the country’s most-downtrodden and war-beaten people, the image of being the smartest and most powerful in the world held some appeal. As such, one need learn about other people of the world only to the degree that they be overcome and subdued to the all-powerful state machine, the German dictatorship. Concepts such as “the world economy” were cast out, for example, in favor of full attention to building Hitler’s “prophetic” vision of the future global German Empire.
Happily, Hitler’s “re-framing” of European history — with Germany at the center — did not catch on. Today, we have plenty of books, like Clark’s, examining human story from various angles. I was proud to get such books into the hands of American teachers, including John Alexander Williams’ West Virginia: A History for Beginners, in 1998.
John Williams’ Teachers’ Guide to the book spells out how great, accomplished historians and social scientists think and write. In our time — when so much new anti-intellectual material is routinely distributed and uncritically absorbed — I hope writing good history, as Williams has, isn’t a dying art….
Here, you can download a pdf of a great description of better contemporary history writing, the first page of the Teachers Guide for West Virginia: A History for Beginners.