National Socialism and the Holocaust. Remembrance and the Present

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By Peter Niedermair

A Project of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture (bm:bwk). The period of National Socialism and the history of National Socialist crimes is probably the most difficult chapter of our history, and we have to refer to it both as individuals and as a society. For a long time, the debate was dominated by the "victim-hypothesis"; this phase was followed by heated debates between the post-war generation and their parents which mainly focused on National Socialism. The last years have seen a new phase, where our society builds up its cultural remembrance of these years, finally creating a public awareness of the kind of remembrance of the crimes of National Socialism that should be passed on to the coming generations and of the forms in which it should be done.

Besides the mass media, museums and memorials, the education system assumes a very special role in this process. The project National Socialism and the Holocaust. Remembrance and the Present was launched to support the teaching about National Socialism and the Holocaust in the Austrian education system. It is supported by the Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture (Department for Civics Education, Head of Department MinR Mag. Manfred Wirtitsch, and the Department for Bilateral Affairs, Head of Department Mag. Martina Maschke). The project consists of four modules: seminars at Yad Vashem (Jerusalem), a yearly "Central Seminar", decentralised networks in the Federal States and the web site - opens in new window">

The Four Project Modules

1. Seminars for Austrian Teachers at Yad Vashem

Until June 2005, 196 teachers from different types of schools across Austria took part in nine seminars at Yad Vashem; most of the teachers work at general or vocational lower and higher secondary schools, some work at lower and higher primary schools, teachers' training colleges or in adult education. Most of them teach history in connection with another subject, but there are also teachers of religion, arts, German etc. among the participants.

The seminars at the "International School for Holocaust Studies in Yad Vashem" are supported by the Department for Bilateral Affairs at the Ministry for Education, Science and Culture in fulfilment of article 2.4 of the Austrian-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding. One weekend of preparation and one of evaluation take place in Austria for each seminar.

The participants are nominated by the President of the School Inspectorates of the Federal States; in Vienna they are nominated by the President of the Municipal School Inspectorate. For many colleagues, the participation in one of the Yad Vashem seminars was an entry point to the project. Through their participation, the teachers commit themselves to work as multipliers, to write a didactical-methodological paper and to carry out a project at their schools, either in a single class or across subjects. Some of these papers have been posted to the project's web site as models of "best practise" to make them available to others.

The Seminar Programme

The central topics of the seminar programme are: Jewish life in Europe before the Shoah, the Shoah itself and life after the Shoah. Pedagogical programmes are another important topic, especially the presentation of teaching methods, most of them didactical and methodological approaches developed at Yad Vashem. The confrontation with the Israeli-Jewish narrative challenges the traditional narrative of the participants, their attitudes and values – both processes can and should trigger valuable thought processes.

Personal encounters have an especially high impact, e.g. encounters with the resource persons and their personal life stories. Discussions about historical problems as well as about teaching practices show how difficult it is to come to an understanding and to meet with understanding– for many, the experiences and memories of the Nazi time are still too vivid, and all too often the atmosphere is burdened with the expressed or unexpressed question why Austrians were so late and so reluctant in addressing this question.

In particular the meetings with survivors, in a workshop moderated by Moshe Harel-Sternberg, show the persistence of the past; units with trauma psychologists explain how the terror of the past makes itself felt in the daily lives of the survivors and how it is passed on to the next generation through the process of "transgenerational transmission of trauma".

When listening to Israeli students reporting about the impressions they gained on a journey to Poland and in particular to Auschwitz, the enormous differences in the conclusions of young Israeli Jews and their Austrian discussion partners against the background of their respective historical traditions becomes strikingly obvious. The "never again" is shared by all, but opinions about the value-orientations and practical policies which would ensure it are – if addressed at all – often diametrically opposed.

A social evening shared with a group of Jews that fled or emigrated from Austria to Israel (the "Jerusalem Austrians" has meanwhile gained a very special importance. From very cautious beginnings, it developed into a central event of the seminar. This social evening at the hotel, with the participation of a representative of the Austrian Embassy at Tel Aviv, is organised by Anita Goldschmidt and Felix Jaffé (both from Jerusalem). As a rule, about 25 former Austrians accept the invitation; they usually invite the teachers for a return visit.

Although the current situation in Israel and the persisting conflict with the Palestinians is not a topic of the seminar at Yad Vashem, it is still necessary to address it and give the Austrian participants a forum to air their questions – especially with respect to practical teaching at schools. The last seminars have been accompanied by round table discussions on the present situation and future perspectives of Israel and the autonomous Palestinian territories, organised by the cultural attaché of the Austrian Embassy at Tel Aviv. Participants in these round table discussions were, for example, Ari Rath (former editor of the Jerusalem Post), Helga Baumgarten (professor at the Palestinian Birzeit University), Alex Elsohn (Peace Project Givat Haviva), Yariv Lapid (Yad Vashem), Eva Zitterbart (for APA, Austria press agency), and two members of the "Parents' Circle"). Two seminar groups (November 7-20 and November 21 to December 14, 2003) paid a one-day visit to the Givat Haviva Peace Project in order to familiarise the Austrian teachers with practical forms of peace and reconciliation work.

The accompanying programme includes a guided tour of Jerusalem and excursions to the Dead Sea (Masada and Qumran) and to Tel Aviv/Jaffa. Starting from Seminar no. 6, participants have been visiting the North for two or three days. The programme also includes school visits to Padre Shufani in Nazareth, who has developed an internationally very renowned school project, practical project work with the "Maag" group which mainly deals with immigrants and interculturality, and a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters' Museum. The next seminar (no. 10) is scheduled from 18 November to 1 December 2005, no. 11 will take place from 30 March to 12 April 2006, no.12 will be a special seminar with an educational focus, taking place from 14 to 27 July 2006. In addition, the Yad Vashem seminars are scheduled to take place twice a year.

2. The "Central Seminar"

The "Central Seminar" is a several-day annual event, bringing together researchers, educationalists, textbook authors, pupils and students. It is the forum for a fundamental debate on how to deal appropriately with the topic of "National Socialism and the Holocaust" in the Austrian educational system.

The 1st Central Seminar: "At the border"
1 – 4 December 2002 (Feldkirch/Vorarlberg)

Teachers from across Austria, scientists, students from the universities of Salzburg and Innsbruck and a small group of pupils from a Bregenz secondary school participated in the 1st Central Seminar. A total of 75 participants discussed three different topics:

  • The Swiss-Liechtenstein border: The outside perspective of the stranger, the glance full of hope to the other side, the border as a transit to exile, Swiss and Liechtenstein approaches to National Socialism and the Holocaust.
  • Jewish Hohenems: The small town hosts a museum documenting the history of the Jewish community which used to live there from the 17th century to the National Socialist era, before the last inhabitants fled or were murdered. What is the importance of a Jewish museum in a town without Jews, and how does it define its responsibilities?
  • The Landeskrankenhaus [state hospital] Rankweil / Feldkirch ("Valduna"): The modern hospital of today does not immediately reveal its character as the place of terror it used to be for a long time, especially during the National Socialist era. 330 out of about 500 patients from Vorarlberg and Liechtenstein were murdered. How does a psychiatric hospital and how does society deal with this part of their history and what importance do they contribute to it today?

Besides excursions and academic presentations, workshops took an important space. Here the participants discussed their teaching/learning practice and added new options to their scopes of action.

The 2nd Central Seminar: "Image and Reflection"
17 – 20 October 2003 (Stadtschlaining/Burgenland)

The seminar focused on two topics: The history of National Socialist persecution in the Burgenland and Problems of teaching in schools.

On the level of history, the use of Hungarian Jews as forced labourers to build the South East Wall is a central topic. It belongs to the context of the persecution of the Hungarian Jews, the death marches and Auschwitz.

On the level of memory, Rechnitz and the debate on the remembrance of the extinguished Jewish community and the murder of forced labourers are of paradigmatic importance. In this context, the experiences gained by R.E.F.U.G.I.U.S. (Rechnitz initiative and foundation for refugees and remembrance) can help us find adequate ways to address the problem of remembrance and the refusal to remember.

The persecution of the Roma people was another important topic. Departing from history, we approached remembrance as it is passed on within the Roma community, and we discussed the importance of this remembrance within the Burgenland society. Results of the work of the Austrian Historians' Commission were also discussed here. Representatives of the Roma ethnic group talked about their history of persecution and the present situation of the Roma in the Burgenland.

The central theme of the seminar programme was how National Socialism and the Holocaust could be taught in school lessons. In the course of the project it turned out that there is a great need for age-adequate teaching/learning strategies; therefore we offered impulses for the senior secondary level ("reflected historical awareness") as well as a focus on learning about National Socialism and the Holocaust for younger pupils. Teachers have to be particularly sensitised for the needs of multi-ethnic learning groups.

A picture album from Auschwitz, probably compiled by an SS-man, documents the arrival and murder of Hungarian Jews. The pictures of this album have been included in the pool of pictures we use to construct our image of the Holocaust. Due to the deeply impressing effect of pictures, their appropriate use and the awareness of their potential is of special importance. Workshops supported the exchange of experiences and the consolidation of knowledge.

The 3rd Central Seminar: "Memorials – Places of Commemoration: Places of Learning?"

The 3rd Central Seminar took place from 10 to 13 December 2004 at the Museum Arbeitswelt in Steyr (Upper Austria). During recent years, an average of almost 200,000 visitors were registered at the Mauthausen Memorial, among them about 90,000 pupils. In 2000, almost 53,000 Austrian pupils visited the former concentration camp of Mauthausen, this amounts to a share of about 10% of the relevant age group. The former Mauthausen concentration camp had been turned into a memorial already in 1949; its presentation of the history of persecution shaped the perception of whole generations of young people. However, while commemoration focused on Mauthausen for a long time, other places of persecution and crime disappeared from public awareness in Austria or had never been really present as places of remembrance. Camps like Gusen and Ebensee or places of murder like Hartheim were known as places of remembrance to survivors and relatives of those who had died there, but the official Austria acknowledged these places only in recent years. A memorial and a museum of contemporary history were set up at Ebensee; at Hartheim the "Lern- und Gedenkort Schloss Hartheim" ["Place of learning and commemoration Hartheim Castle"] commemorates the murder of the sick, and a visitors' centre will be opened at Gusen in the coming autumn.

The 3rd Central Seminar dealt with the town of Steyr, its extinguished Jewish community and the camps of Ebensee, Hartheim and Mauthausen, which were connected to the ammunition industry. Starting from a visit to these memorials or places of remembrance, the seminar concentrated on problems of learning, on age-appropriate educational strategies, and on methodological-didactical approaches.

The 4th Central Seminar: "Educationalists as Actors in Politics of Remembrance"

is scheduled from 21 to 24 October at Klagenfurt. Its main topic is the role of teachers as actors in politics of remembrance. Modern pluralistic Austrian society does not require teachers any more to pass on a compulsory, generally agreed Austrian historical narrative to the next generation. However, teachers are actors in the politics of remembrance in the sense that they are involved as persons, they bring along their own stories and select certain stories from history; on the other hand, they can organise with the learners an exchange about the diverse narratives which together form the remembrance of the National Socialist era.

The social psychology of remembrance of the Holocaust and National Socialism, or of the coming to terms with it, is at the centre of the first topic. An introduction to the topic is provided by Klaus Ottomeyer, head of the Department of Social Psychology, Ethno-Psychoanalysis and Psychological Traumatology at the University of Klagenfurt and Natan Kellerman, who worked many years for AMCHA, the Israeli aid organisation providing psychological and social care for Holocaust survivors. Six working groups will provide an opportunity for participants' personal approaches.

The second topic focuses on the Kärnten Landscape of Remembrance (Kärntner Erinnerungslandschaft). It is probably more fragmented and divergent than others, but it shows how competing narratives are passed on in parallel communities of remembrance and which importance these narratives have for present-day historical awareness.

Heidemarie Uhl from the Austrian Academy of Sciences will talk about the importance and relevance of remembrance, preparing the ground for the Germanist Klaus Amann from Klagenfurt, the historian Karl Stuhlpfarrer, who is also a lecturer at the University of Klagenfurt and historian Lisa Rettl. All of them will provide an overview of the concrete expressions the Kärnten Landscape of Remembrance takes. Guided by experts, the participants can undertake excursions to five selected places in Kärnten to start their own search for historical traces.

The third topic discusses how these issues can be implemented in practical teaching and learning and their relevance for different groups of learners. The seminar programme leaves time for the exchange of experiences among the participants; such as experiences with clashing, contradictory or competing narratives, opportunities and difficulties of achieving multi-perspectivity, how to reconcile clearly defined points of view with mutual understanding, and other general experiences with learning about National Socialism and the Holocaust. The seminar is an opportunity for teachers to meet a great number of committed colleagues.

3. The Decentralised Networks

Each Federal State has been provided with a decentralised network at the end of 2004; the one in Vienna will be set up at the end of 2005. These networks bring teachers into contact with institutions, they organise in-service training for teachers and play a vital role in the working groups for the collection and development of teaching/learning materials. The aim is to add teaching materials of regional cultural or political relevance for the schools to those which concern Austria as a whole. This will meet the interest of learners and teachers in their respective regional history and help National Socialism and the Holocaust become an integral part of regional or local history.

Each year, there are two central meetings of co-ordinators from across Austria. An assessment report and reports on the present situation and development are prepared beforehand. The meeting then concentrates on the mutual exchange of experiences and the planning of further activities. More information on the work of the network co-ordinators is available from the homepages of the respective Federal States.

4. The Web Site

This is the project's knowledge and communication platform. The library contains a wealth of materials, sorted by topics, and teaching/learning units which have been didactically and methodologically prepared.

Further Activities

  • DVD-ROM "The Legacy": a DVD-ROM with testimonies of Holocaust survivors. For learners from 13 years onwards, includes methodological and didactical hints and appropriate accompanying material.
  • Development of Educational Work at the Mauthausen Memorial: The Mauthausen Memorial is the central NS-memorial in Austria which is visited by almost 100,000 young people every year; most of them come in connection with a school trip. Educational work is to be improved with regard to these young people as well as with regard to about 100,000 other visitors. A concept developed by Werner Dreier has been proposed to the Ministry of the Interior (BMI) by the International Forum Mauthausen. Aim: Well-developed and adequate educational strategies at the Mauthausen Memorial, built on a solid staffing and organisation structure.
  • Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research: Meanwhile, the ITF has 20 member states; in 2005 the presidency is with Poland. ITF is organised in working groups and a plenum. Werner Dreier is Austria's representative on the Education Working Group. Its most important responsibility is the assessment of project proposals submitted to ITF for financing. Decisions are prepared by sub-committees of three members each which report to the president (at present Karen Polak, NL) and the Fellow (secretary) of the respective country holding the presidency. ITF meets twice a year; if possible, the Education Working Group meets for an additional working session of several days, outside of the plenum.
  • Council of Europe / Strasbourg: Peter Niedermair is the Austrian delegate to the working group "Teaching Memory", set up at the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, in 2001. The preparation and implementation of the project "A Day of Holocaust Remembrance and Prevention of Crimes against Humanity" was a major aim of this group. The Conference of Ministers of the member states of the Council of Europe decided in October 2003 to introduce a Holocaust Remembrance Day in their countries on a date that is historically relevant for the respective country. The working group supports the Council of Europe in the preparation and carrying out of seminars for teacher trainers from different types of schools and for teachers.
  • The Problem of anti-Semitism: There has been an ongoing discussion in Europe over the last years how education systems should address the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, which occurs in different forms, some of which are quite menacing. There have been international endeavours (OECD meetings, e.g. at Vienna and Berlin in April 2004), an ITF working group (working meeting at Amsterdam, 14 – 16 November 2004; Werner Dreier participated and presented the Austrian situation), and there are also activities on the national level (special Task Force anti-Semitism in Germany). The question how the topic should be tackled on the background of societies with a high share of migrants is of specific importance.
  • Places of Remembrance in Vorarlberg - A Map of Remembrance of National Socialism and the Holocaust (pilot project in the phase of development): In the context of a project, students investigate places and traces of history and interview contemporary witnesses. Their findings are entered into a digital map of places of remembrance in Vorarlberg. Teachers, students and other interested persons get access to historical knowledge that is related to their everyday lives, in an up-to-date form and guided by experts, historians and artists. A project with schools in Vorarlberg is in the planning. Young people will discover and investigate places in Vorarlberg that used to play an important role from 1938 to 1945. They interview contemporary witnesses and study sources. Then they process their experiences on the spot, thus moving selected topics as well as the places themselves to the centre of public awareness. Through this process in the present time, the places regain their importance and their detailed remembrance is kept alive in the future.

The project work is monitored by a scientific board

Prof. Dr. Ernst Hanisch, Historian, University of Salzburg
Dr. Reinhard Krammer, Didactics of History, University of Salzburg
Dr. Eva Grabherr, Expert on Judaism, Dornbirn
Dr. Heidemarie Uhl, Historian, Austrian Academy of Sciences
Dr. Falk Pingel, Historian, Georg Eckert Institute for International Text Book Research
Dr. Bertrand Perz, Historian, University of Vienna

Responsible Institution: Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture
Mag. Martina Maschke, Department for Bilateral Affairs
Mag. Manfred Wirtitsch, Department for Civics Education


Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust: Gedächtnis und Gegenwart [National Socialism and the Holocaust. Remembrance and the Present
Kirchstraße 9/2
A-6900 Bregenz
Fon: +43 (0) 5574 52416
Managing Director:
Dr. Werner Dreier
werner [dot] dreier [at] vol [dot] at
Fon: +43 (0) 5574 52416 19
Fax: +43 (0) 5574 52416 4
Mag. Peter Niedermair
peter [dot] niedermair [at] magnet [dot] at
Fon: +43 (0) 5574 52416 11
Fax: +43 (0) 5574 52416 4


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