Using Disappointments in Teaching the Holocaust

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Robert A. Pois, University of Colorado with Paul H. Elovitz

As a teacher of modern European history, I have learned from my students and found discussion ideas to help them understand major events, movements, and individuals such as Hitler.  Below I discuss the use of feelings of disappointment in ourselves and disappointments experienced by our historical subjects as examples of this process.

It is one of the enduring maxims of the teaching profession that an instructor can learn from his students.  Since anyone who teaches has to respond to the needs of students, it’s expressed in how one goes about selecting books, writing, and rewriting lectures, how one presents crucial issues to students—who sometimes compel an instructor to consider new issues—and, in seminar situations, how one frames issues for purposes of discussion.  There is something almost commonsensical about this.  So, it is plain that just about every teaching situation is replete with possibilities for a teacher being taught by students, and this is particularly the case if such a person is sensitive to crucial aspects of what is going on in classroom situations.  My thirty-eight years of college teaching experience has shown me that I can sometimes learn a lot from my students.

Whether or not one chooses to admit it, studying Nazi Germany, and particularly the Holocaust, no matter how much analytical acuity is involved in the process, has to result in an instructor drawing upon those “affective” aspects of his/her personality.  Thus, to a degree, the instructor and students get to know one another in class and office situations.

Obviously, those personal concerns coming under scrutiny are those which in the study of Nazi Germany, are inextricably intertwined with analytical ones.  In co-teaching a course on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in 1992, I discovered that students related to issues of Nazism and the Holocaust in ways more substantively and more deeply than they could to those issues of the Great War (WWI) I found so absorbing.  Hitler, his movement, and the genocide against Europe’s Jews captured their imagination and emotions to a far greater degree than anything else in European history.

At a crucial junction in my teaching, the issue of “disappointment” loomed.   It was there when I taught about the losses and frustrations influencing Hitler’s life: failure at school and as an artist, the death of his beloved mother, and the loss of WWI and the lebensraum Germany had gained during the war.  (I was also aware of my own disappointment in the students being more interested in Hitler than WWI.)  To start the discussion, I told the class that everyone has experienced disappointments, though of varying severity.  About a third of the class was participating in discussion at the time—they offered a variety of disappointments and responses to them.

Certainly, these disappointed people had shown some interesting reactions.  For one, disappointment had been transmogrified into a kind of hatred of the “other” who was deemed responsible for the hurt.  For another student, disappointment, originally turned inward in the form of a kind of self-loathing, was then projected outward, at least for a while, in the form of misanthropy, with a particular hatred of those by whom she originally had wished to be accepted.  Finally, the hurt endured by a young man abandoned in a love which, to a great extent, was fantasy, became transformed into a loathing, perhaps fear, of real women—period—and a withdrawal into a kind of spiritual fortress.

When we talked about these issues in relationship to Hitler, the feelings of empathy, even sympathy, were uncomfortable.  (Later, we would need to discuss why empathy, sympathy, and understanding do not provide justification for Hitler’s crimes.)  Suddenly, at least at an early stage in Hitler’s life, he was simply a tormented human being, animated by self-doubts, which he outwardly assiduously strove to deny.  Some students, particularly the Jewish ones, who had been brought up to believe that the man was a monster, were appalled at their own responses.  Someone declared that this young Hitler could have been anybody.  He was “a kind of ‘every-man,’” another student remarked.  Finally, and most interestingly, someone broke in with the strongly expressed view that, if one bore in mind all of his disappointments and frustrations, young Hitler could not be blamed for deciding to “hate the whole world.”  In due course, several students brought up the question of why young Hitler felt entitled to what had been denied him.  With this, the class gradually began to explore more theoretical issues attached to his upbringing, and how such concepts could have more general application.

Nobody in the class could say that they had experienced anything like the Germans and Austrians did in the face of very rapid industrialization, political revolution, and then the Great Depression.  What a few students did talk about, though, was what it was like to experience a loss or change which left them bewildered and, over time, embittered.  One student, who had sustained a severe personal loss brought about by a changed family situation, described how she had found it necessary to become “more spiritual.”  As a result of this, she had created a kind of mystical world for herself.  At times, she believed in it, at times she did not; but it was necessary that such a world be there for her nonetheless.  Another student declared that a sense of loss revolving around a denial of choice about her future, plus the knowledge of what had been done in the name of religion throughout history (I suspected that the first motive had been of greater importance), had driven her to atheism, not only as a personal statement concerning the existence of a God, but as an entire attitude toward the notion of divinity.  Later, in an office conversation, she said that she had succeeded in creating an “ideology of disbelief.”

The lesson was obvious.  Even if students could not entirely grasp the Nazi ideology, or any other ideology for that matter, the need to grab onto some form of system was crucial, either as a source of comfort, or as a kind of rationalization for bitterness engendered by a sense of loss.  As time went on, the very term “ideology” became much less a source of bafflement or confusion.  Rather, students came to see it as a kind of “logical,” though not necessarily “rational” response to anger or frustration.  Moreover, and this was very important, the existence of a melded-together confluence of ideas allowed for participation in what could be conceived as broader student and social concern.  It was in this context that the class addressed the problem posed by the interaction of “individual” and “general” in history for the first time.

For the moment, the question of linkage between motivation and ideology was set aside.  At the same time, it was plain that this was a troubling issue for many, including me.  There was one issue upon which all in the class—at least all of those who had spoken up—agreed (by now, somewhat over half the class was participating in discussions).  It was the necessity of an ideology’s being able to “touch base” with people in order for it to succeed.  Here, the ability to provide idealistic rationalizations for the crudest of commonly held beliefs and prejudices was important.  All ideologies, but particularly this one (the emerging radical right-wing ideology which would animate Hitler), could probably be reduced to a few basics, someone remarked.  Another member of the class asked the rhetorical question whether all who were living in Vienna at that time were angry individuals.  Probably not, he replied, but the radical right certainly must have lent itself to expression of and identification with that rage.

Robert Pois, PhD, died January 18, 2004 after teaching modern European history at the University of Colorado for thirty-eight years.  He won awards for teaching and published six books on modern German and European history.  He also left behind hundreds of pages of draft materials on teaching from which this article was culled.  Paul Elovitz, who co-authored an article with Pois in 2002, wants to thank Pois’ widow, Professor Anne Marie Pois, for making these materials available to the scholarly community.  An obituary of Robert A. Pois was published in the March, 2004 issue of this journal.

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