Community Education

What happens when a society takes an unflinching look at the sins of its past? Or when it doesn’t?

Earlier this year, WFPL News aired a documentary called “A Critical Moment,” reported by Jess Clark and Stephanie Wolf. It’s a cross-examination of how Germany and the United States teach about their painful histories, and why.

Mallory Noe-Payne, a reporter with Radio IQ in Richmond, Virginia, took on a similar project. Her podcast Memory Wars explores what Americans can learn from how Germany confronts one of its darkest chapters.

Clark and Wolf spoke with Noe-Payne about her reporting.

Below are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

On where the idea for Memory Wars came from:

Noe-Payne: “For me the idea of taking a look at these two societies in parallel came about from following the conversation about Confederate monuments here in the city [of Richmond], and whether to take them down, whether to recontextualize, what to do with them. I attended multiple public meetings and protests over the years. And it seemed without fail, at every event, someone would say, ‘It’s not like there are statues of Hitler in Germany.’ I think that that connection is there in people’s minds. And so that was the starting point: monuments. But really, it’s so much more than that. [It’s] this whole idea about memory culture. And as you explore, education is a really important piece of that puzzle.”

On how students in Germany vs. students in Kentucky react to learning about past atrocities:

Clark: “Whether you’re in Germany or you’re in the U.S., the reactions from kids are really similar. So kids, they seem to want to know the truth about what their countries have done, and how the past shapes the present. But then when you’re talking about the reaction of the adults, I think the differences there are really striking. And there’s really this unwillingness among some people [in the U.S.], especially some conservatives, to consider the impact of the past on the present. For some, that’s the entire point of learning history — I think we heard that from a lot of German sources. But for some conservatives in the U.S., that’s really not the point of history. For them, the point of history is to inspire a sense of national pride, identity, national unity and patriotism.” 

Students in an 11th grade U.S. history class at Male High School learn about how racial violence and oppressive Jim Crow laws drove many Black Americans out of the South during the Great Migration in the 1900s.Stephanie Wolf | wfpl.org

Students in an 11th grade U.S. history class at Male High School learn about how racial violence and oppressive Jim Crow laws drove many Black Americans out of the South during the Great Migration in the 1900s.

On national pride in Germany:

Noe-Payne: “Something that struck me while doing research in Germany, that you pick up on in the podcast, is that there is this cultural attitude almost of self-deprecation and shame when it comes to Germany’s history that reflects itself in a variety of ways. One really simple example is that Germans don’t really fly the German flag. They pull it out if the soccer team is winning, and [then] they quickly stuff it back away. There’s like this cultural awareness of the dangers of nationalism. At the same time, I do think, at least for younger generations, there is a sense of pride at what they have accomplished in terms of tackling their history.”

On how German children learn about the Holocaust:

Wolf: “I spoke with an activist and she is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Anetta Kahane. She said something that really stuck with me, and that’s that you can’t teach about the Holocaust with just the facts. You have to provide the context, and you have to help children, especially as generations get removed from this history, you have to help them understand why it’s important to learn this history and what you can learn from this history. That goes back to this idea of remembrance culture, which is the concept of holding the past in the present, and this idea of ‘never forget.’ Many experts I spoke to also said that they don’t feel teachers are getting the adequate training to teach about this difficult chapter of their history. … But there is a general sense of like, it is important to learn about the Holocaust so that we understand the wrongs that our society did, and we can strive to do better in the future.” 

On the United States’ role in the process Germany has undergone to face its past:

Noe-Payne: “I framed it in one of the episodes of the podcast as the ‘two Reconstructions’: this premise that it was actually America, as an occupying power, that set the stage for how Germans started to reconcile with their past and in some ways, establishing a more forceful and strong-armed reconstruction for Germany than we ever have done for ourselves. America not only started education reforms [to rid schools of Nazi ideology], but they also ran this short-lived, collective guilt campaign. At the end of the war, they plastered posters all throughout German towns with photographs of dead bodies. And the text, in German, read, ‘These atrocities, your fault.’ It was making it clear to the German people what had happened, and calling everyone out as responsible. And visiting Dachau, I had a really powerful personal experience. It’s this important touchstone and a place where you can’t help but feel the importance and the tragedy of the past. Having grown up here in Richmond, Virginia, I don’t ever remember having a similar experience at a site of remembrance. Right outside the city, there’s a route that you drive down that has all these historical sites that are plantations. I didn’t visit any one of those as a child. And if I had, it would not have been a similar experience as the one that I had in Dachau. It’s not how the history is portrayed.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.
Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.