Published Date

December 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

The military defeat of an army does not necessarily mean that the cause for which it fought will be abandoned by every follower. No one supposes that just because Hitlerism has been utterly crushed in battle, every last Nazi will suddenly have a change of heart. On the contrary, there are Germans, especially among the young men imbued with fanatic Nazism, to whom the teachings of Hitler and Goebbels and Rosenberg arc a sort of religion. To them the dead leaders will live as martyrs; defeat will only strengthen their resolve to achieve the aims of Nazism another day. Like the defeated German generals of the first World War, they will wait and work for the day of revenge and victory.

One cannot but believe that for the majority of Germans Nazism lost its spell when it collapsed in defeat and brought Germany to ruin. Unlike the great religions, in which humility and suffering are recognized as sources of strength and purity, the whole fascist system is based on the myth of superiority and feeds on success by any means. When all the sacrifices of the people bring nothing but defeat and worse despair than before, it maybe expected that the Nazi ideology, its glitter gone, will lose its popular following.


Unwelcome conquerors

But even if the Germans are pretty thoroughly disillusioned about the Hitler leadership, and even if they accept their defeat as final, they will not necessarily develop a cooperative attitude toward the victors. There are several, basic reasons for this:

First, defeat is always humiliating and occupation by enemy armies is still more so. Bitterness and hatred are to be expected of the Germans rather than good feeling toward the occupying authorities. No matter how much they may revile the former government, they will still feel loyalty toward their country and aversion toward those who hold it in subjection. The occupying authorities will inevitably have to adopt measures that will rub the people the wrong way and make them less receptive to efforts at re-education.

Second, decent people of the kind who might exert influence among their fellow countrymen will hesitate to cooperate with the victors for fear of being branded “quislings.”

Third, foreign interference in the education of the younger generation is probably more resented than foreign interference in merely political or economic affairs. In and through education a nation expresses and transmits traditions and experiences of its own that can never be fully sensed or shared by other nations. Inasmuch as some supervision of the schools is a necessary part of re-educating the German people, we can expect to incur antagonism because of it.

Finally, the Germans will fear that the Four Powers are not interested in the “re-education” of Germany from benevolent motives of peace and mutual well-being, but as subtle form of subjection and of continued control.

Never, perhaps, has to attempt at large-scale education been made under more difficult conditions.

The heavy task

For these reasons some people in the United States will strongly argue that the matter of re-educating the Germans should be left to the Germans themselves. The idea would be to subject Germany to severe political control for a number of years and of course to deal swift and sure punishment to Nazi leaders and war criminals but to keep hands off the whole job of changing the people’s point of view.

The Four Powers, they will argue, should use chiefly military, political, and economic controls rather than educational programs. If those methods succeed, then education will follow. If those methods do not succeed, then tinkering with education will only make everything worse. It will expose the agents of the allies to endless mistakes and failures and will destroy their prestige.

These are strong and serious arguments. They cannot be dismissed with a shrug. If the Four Powers are to take up the task of re-educating Germany, those who make the attempt will carry a great responsibility. They will have to do much careful and fundamental thinking about the purposes and methods of re-education. They will have to investigate who the Germans are and how they got that way much more thoroughly than we have here. And they will have to consider what are the principal conditions to successful re-education.

The goal of re-education

Neither education nor re-education can ever get places unless the educators are aiming at something and know what they are aiming at. At the same time, it is impossible to work out an educational aim without taking account of the current situation and the probable future of the person or group to be educated.

Here comes one of the big difficulties. During the last four decades the older generations in Germany have experienced three different kinds of political systems and been disappointed in each: the monarchy of William II, the Weimar Republic, and the fascism of Adolf Hitler. What are they going to choose now-or what is going to be chosen for them?

Many Americans will almost automatically say that democracy-must of course be the goal of German re-education. But what is democracy? Is it a particular furor of government with popular representation and a president at the top? If so, then some countries with the most democratic spirit, such as the Scandinavian countries, could not be called democracies because they are constitutional monarchies.

Not the form, but the substance and the spirit are the distinguishing marks of democracy. In modern use, “democracy” means a way of life, the recognition of certain “unalienable rights” such as are laid down in our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, for instance. It doesn’t mean our particular structure of government since nations with different structures are also democratic.

Great and desirable as these rights are, they cannot be imposed on a nation from the outside. Nor can a nation pro­duce them out of itself without being prepared for them-and Germany’ under Hitler’s dictatorship certainly has not had the right preparation. Yet, the understanding of democracy as a “way of life” would presumably be one of the chief aims of German re-education, at least for the beginning. In other words, the educators ought not to bother so much whether the Germans are going to have one particular form of government or another. They should not play the role of the lawgiver, but that of a guide who knows his goal. From the start German school supervisors, willing to cooperate, asked to be told what they should do.

The limits of education

Education, in the sense of formal schooling, can do much toward re-educating the Germans, but it has definite limitations. An education which leaves no freedom for self-decision leads to opposition and thus defeats its own end. The kind of political organization which the Germans will eventually choose or be driven into by force of circumstances will not be decided by education, least of all by an education imposed from outside. It will be decided by the economic and political conditions of the future. To think that education can do everything betrays a dangerous ignorance of reality.

Furthermore if each of the occupying countries, by controlling the schools in its zone, should insist on a political education according to its particular political principles, then confusion both during and after the occupation period will be the result. This danger can be averted only if the occupying nations restrict their educational influence to the restoration of sound human relations among the Germans and between the Germans and other nations. This, of course, means first of all the elimination of Nazi influence on education in every part of Germany.

Next section: Who Should Teach in Germany’s Schools—and What?