From the “German Fatherland” to the “Christian Occident”: (Re-)Education and the Shadow of White Supremacist Ideology in Post-WWII Germany

Berenike Firestone, Columbia University

In Europe, the idea of “race” has largely been replaced with notions of culture and religion. While less essentialist as first sight, these categories often serve as similar means of discrimination and exclusion (Stolcke 1995). In fact, ideas of fundamental cultural differences are a core part of far-right ideology in contemporary Europe (Keim 2021). The shift away from “race” toward “culture” was in part an active policy agenda in the education field (Triguero Roura 2022). In post-WWII West Germany, the Allies considered education reforms a key to a more secure Europe. They sought to remove all references to Nazi ideology and replaced much with the idea of a common European culture – one that is civilized, Christian, Western. While we can trace these (re-)education reforms in policy documents and revised curricula and textbooks, we do not know how school students in the postwar era thought about this shift. I analyzed 125 ungraded school student essays from 1950s West Germany on two prompts: the meaning of the German “fatherland” and their opinion of the idea of Europe. The essays are from a range of school types and regions. I find that students indeed rarely mentioned race when writing about the German nation but rather made references to geography and culture, including via stereotypes such as being hard-working. This aligns with continuities between Nazi ideology and rhetorics of exclusion in post-WWII Germany (Lelle 2022). Regarding Europe, some students endorse the idea of a joint European civilization that is distinct from other parts of the world, while others advance more pragmatic arguments around geopolitics. These findings complicate the idea of 1945 either having been a “zero hour” where everything changed or a mere continuation of the same in new forms. Rather, they show how legacies are refractured during historical turning points.

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 Presented in Session 139. Building the Racial Nation