Published Date

December 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 26: Can the Germans Be Re-educated? (1945)

The problem of German re-education should not be narrowly tied up with schools and classroom teaching, of course. It is much broader than that. We are educated not only by teachers, but by what we do, by the purposes we can develop and help to carry through, particularly if we feel that in doing so we can be useful to our society.

The social and cultural conditions of the past decades have constantly lengthened the school age and brought a larger and larger percentage of young people into schools, especially into secondary schools. This has happened for two reasons: First, mass-production industry no longer needs the hands of young people. So they attend schools because it is still the best thing they can do. Secondly, we live in a society that is both complicated and competitive. This demands from everyone, if he is to fulfill the duties of citizenship and to compete with his fellow men, a knowledge much wider than was necessary in earlier years. Comparing the present state of civilization with that of earlier times, however, we may well doubt whether all this book learning has made people more mature than did the former system of practical apprenticeship in life.

The extended schooling of more prosperous decades may no longer be possible in postwar Germany or even desirable. Most urgent is the need to build shelter for the millions of homeless people, to reconstruct towns and streets, to provide at least a minimum of food. A large group of children are in such a nervous state that it may be much better to give them practical outlets for their tension than to keep them fidgeting on school benches. Other young. people, the more resistant type, have perhaps acquired such a feeling of strength and independence from hours of danger that school will prove a rather dull affair for them. And there is a third group of roving children who, like little gypsies, may prefer anything to the restraints of school life.


Is relief instead of re-education the real task?

In view of all these facts is the whole task of German re-education a matter of answering these more practical problems rather than a matter of textbooks and classrooms? Might the influence of the Four Powers in German re-education be greater if, instead of talking about democracy and the “re-incorporation of Germany into the family of- nations,” they were to use the schools, the teachers, and the children as agents of relief?

There is a great difference between simply feeding starving people and helping them to reorganize their scattered society. Just dumping the food that is gathered and giving orders that have to be obeyed tends to demoralize the receivers while they have to accept the charity and the commands. On the other hand, having them participate actively in a great human enterprise encourages the receivers to take interest in their own recovery.

Many school buildings have been put to use as hospitals or clinics of one kind or another. Should the school also become a kind of community center in which teaching and learning go hand in hand with the community’s efforts at relief and reconstruction? Practical and purposeful “education” along such lines might also stimulate completely new forms of international cooperation among young people. After the first waves of hatred are gone; the type of youth who at the beginning of this century was the leader in various youth movements may begin to think of establishing contact with the youth of the former enemy. If they come together with no other purpose than to discuss the origin of wars and “international problems,” they are likely to be disappointed. But if they have an opportunity to join the youth of another country in constructive social and educational effort, they may some day be able to discuss the origins of war and “international problems,” and not be disappointed.

All these considerations suggest that formal education should be geared as much as possible into the general purpose and activity of reconstruction. We have to change our customary idea of schooling as a classroom procedure and understand that for large parts of the youth of Germany a useful and well-directed practical life may be the best way out of distress and isolation:

The arts

The restoration of a sound emotional life will be one of the main tasks of German re-education. Tyranny from within and defeat from outside, dreams of power whipped up by propaganda and initial success and there suddenly broken, sleepless nights and restless days, all these produce sick souls. And sick souls cannot be cured by more and more stimulation; they need first of all rest and stable surroundings.

In the pre-1914 days the Germans cultivated the arts with great enthusiasm. Almost every town-with more than 30,000 inhabitants possessed a permanent, state or city; theater with a rich repertoire. The actors were not dependent on the financial success of a play and gave both popular and classical drama. Shakespeare, Schiller, and Goethe were always represented. Cities with a population of over 100,000, and even smaller places which up to 1918 had harbored a princely court, had opera companies.

The first World War and the depression made it difficult to maintain these centers; yet many cities held onto them. The second World War has certainly ended them all. But wherever the desire for amateur theatricals emerges, it ought to be encouraged, provided the scene is not used for the glorification of military ambitions.

The Germans also went in strongly for music. The large majority of the elementary-school teachers, especially those trained in the older teachers colleges, had to play an instrument and give music lessons to their pupils. Every school had its choir, often connected with the local church. Some secondary schools, especially the Thomas Schule at Leipzig-, where Bach had been the cantor, and the Kreuz Schule at Dresden, had choirs famous throughout the musical world.

Singing clubs could be found in every town, and in the larger villages. They did not always keep high musical standards, and sometimes the weekly singing sessions were the excuse for—or at least the overture to—an evening of drinking. But they served as an emotional outlet, and like many American clubs they brought people together who otherwise would not have met. It might be one of the first tasks of re-education to see to it that these opportunities for a sound social life are restored.

Next section: Can Adult Germans Be Re-Educated?