Resistance and Human Rights


The two schools have been maintaining a long-standing partnership, including several projects on the history of National Socialist rule and the resistance against it. As Strzegom is situated close to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp and the IJBS [International centre for youth encounters] at Kreisau, both aspects could conveniently be studied together.

The 2004 project takes up this topic once more, but it also broadens and completes it. On the one hand, the project participants thoroughly investigated the motives and goals of different resistance groups, those directed against National Socialist rule as well as those fighting a long battle against socialist / communist oppression. Here they focused on the importance of human rights for the formation of such groups.

Content Analysis

A first reference to human rights results from the consequences of their negation. The guarantee of human rights is of paramount importance to prevent events and phenomena as they occurred at Gross-Rosen from ever happening again. Another, more precise reference is to be found among the facts about the different resistance groups, including those directed against the socialist government in Poland.

The relationship between human rights and the resistance against the National Socialist state are complex and multi-layered. At first, there is the distinction between their importance for a legitimate resistance against the authority of the state, and then there is its role in plans for the time after the end of National Socialist rule. There are clear differences regarding the contexts of thought that the human rights were seen in. Human rights have always been perceived as deducted from natural law, but the natural law was either interpreted in the tradition of Rationalism and Enlightenment or in a religious context, following Thomas Aquinas. The tradition of Enlightenment was especially present in "left-wing" resistance, with stress on the trans-nationality of human rights. Helmuth James von Moltke and his friend Adam von Trotta were of the opinion that individual and societal rights have precedence over the law of the state.

In both cases it was their proximity to the Anglo-Saxon legal traditions that kept the concept of natural rights alive. However, both Moltke and Trotta did not stop at a rational foundation of human rights, but connected them to their faith in God and a "deeper insight into Christian principles". The spiritual and religious foundation of resistance also found entry into Moltke's visions of the future, in the sense that he was less interested in an active violent revolution as in restoring the concept of man that had been destroyed by National Socialism.

In post-war Poland, the reference to human rights was more direct. Human rights activists demanded the realisation of concrete basic rights, e.g. the freedom of expression and assembly. Movements like Samisdat show that an alternative, free public sphere was created. (For German resistance see: Klemperer, K. v.: Naturrecht und der deutsche Widerstand gegen den Nationalsozialismus [Natural law and German resistance against National Socialism. In: Steinbach, P./Tuchel, J. (ed.): Widerstand gegen den Nationalsozialismus [Resistance against National Socialism. Bonn, 1994. P. 43ff. For Polish resistance see: Krzeminski; A.: Polen im 20. Jahrhundert [Poland in the 20th century. Munich, 1993. P. 161ff.)


The summary lists dividing and connecting elements between Poland and Germany. The dividing elements consist mainly of the historical experience of Poland's destruction by Germany. The connecting element is the high appreciation of human rights in both societies. The young people participating in the project shall become aware of this connecting element on a level of rational discourse – through studying the political resistance movement. The practical experience that everyday life is almost the same for German and Polish young people, a goal belonging to the affective level of learning, is of equal importance as the goals on the discursive and cognitive level. Several parts of the programme serve this goal. Creating awareness of shared everyday life experiences is of special importance, because in spite of the easing of tension on the level of great politics, there are still many fears and reservations that either continue to exist or have recently developed as a consequence of the European integration process. Therefore, a basis for coping with possibly emerging dividing elements should be created on the level of affective learning.

Carrying Out the Project

The project consists of two main parts. The first part was carried out at Strzegom and Krzyzowa/Kreisau in May 2004, the second in Magdeburg in September. The trip of the German project participants to Poland was preceded by their visit to the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin. The visit to Poland had two parts. At first, the students got to know the Polish project participants, their school and their families – as far as possible, the German students were accommodated with the families of the Polish students.

The memorial of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp is situated close to Strzegom. Here, the Polish and German participants studied the everyday life of the prisoners and the system of terror – at this point still in different language groups. Besides a visit to the remains of the camp, the studies were mainly based on the large amount of – mostly bilingual – archive materials. The papers resulting from this work phase were presented at the IJBS during the second phase. There was no translation needed as the information presented was largely identical in both languages.

After four days of work, the Polish and German participant went on a joint visit to the IJBS at Kreisau. The exhibition on the resistance against inhumane and illegal political rule is situated there. The different German resistance groups are one of its focal points, starting with the Kreisauer Kreis [Kreisau Circle] around Graf von Moltke. Other forms and important figures of the resistance against communist rule in the People's Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union are also explained and illustrated. The exhibition is multilingual; a multitude of materials and books is available in different languages. This created an opportunity for the German and Polish students to work in mixed groups, writing down their results on posters and presenting them to the entire group in a plenary session later on.

Besides working on the issue of resistance, the IJBS also offers good opportunities for sport and other leisure activities, which helped to overcome the language barrier and facilitated shared activities beyond the joint working experience.

The second part of the project took place from September 7 to 13 at Magdeburg. During this phase as well, affective learning was of great importance. All Polish students were accommodated with German host families, and shared activities at Magdeburg and Berlin determined this second phase. The study of the topic "resistance" nevertheless occupied an important place. There was a visit to the memorial for the German resistance at Berlin, and a workshop on the topic "Human Rights Then and Now" took place at the Norbertusgymnasium on the following day. It started with discussions within the German-Polish groups and focused on the creative presentation of the discussion results, taking into account the experiences of former project phases. Directly after the workshop, the results were presented to the entire school community during a school project week.

Working Forms and Methods

The most important method used was visiting a memorial. The visit to a memorial always has a cognitive and an affective component. The cognitive component has been rather strong in the course of the project, as there were several papers to be developed, e.g. during the visit to the memorial of the Wannsee Conference. The methodology used here was group work. There were more working phases during the visit to the Gross-Rosen Memorial and during the stay at the IJBS, when texts were developed by mixed groups. Youth exchange as such is also a working method, especially if young people from different countries live and work together closely. A discussion with an eyewitness was also included. A Jewish Pole talked about his rescue by a non-Jewish Pole. Both rescuer and rescued came to the IJBS and discussed the events in occupied Poland with the students.

Action oriented components consisted of the accommodation of the student in host families – especially due to the language barrier – and also in the practical care and maintenance work at the premises of the Gross-Rosen Memorial, which a considerable number of students chose instead of presenting a paper. The results of studying the topic Resistance and Human Rights have been documented in two ways. A booklet containing the papers and photographs was developed, and an exhibition was organised which was first shown very successfully to the school community at the Norbertusgymnasium and then found its way to the St. Zeromski High School at Strzegom, where it was also shown.


Due to the complexity of the learning process which takes place at different levels of cognitive and affective learning, it is not easy to come to an objective evaluation. Two student statements may give an impression. "Meanwhile, our study tour to Poland took place one year ago, but the memories of that trip are still very much alive. It managed to achieve what no history book can do – it made history come to life." (Johnnes Meißner and Florian Spenger, students). Juliane Kulessa and Selina Reck, two students who participated in developing the booklet mentioned earlier, stated, "After a tearful good-bye and a quick exchange of addresses, we went on to Magdeburg. (…) Most of our group would surely have liked to stay a bit longer."


Winfried Ernst
Nachtweide 77
D-39124 Magdeburg
E-mail: schule [at] norbertus [dot] de


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