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West German schools urge students to learn about their country's Nazi past

While adults in West Germany are agonizing over the most suitable way to mark this week's 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, West Germany's young people are immersing themselves in the period that led to their country's darkest hour. Schools and youth and church groups have embarked on a variety of projects to help today's generation understand the developments that laid the groundwork for the Holocaust.

This is in marked change from the past, when German history instructors and social science teachers tended to rush through the country's most recent history, leaving the young people woefully misinformed. A survey made by 102 German teachers in a variety of grades about 10 years ago produced preposterous responses to questions about Hitler. Many young people believed he was an Italian, others had never even heard of him.

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Today, however, it would be difficult to find a German student unable to give a reasonably informed answer about Hitler and Nazi Germany. In addition to a profusion of television and radio programs and magazine and newspaper articles, all dealing with the events that produced World War II, schools throughout Germany are making sure that their students learn to comprehend the magnitude of the wrongs of those years.

The West German government has called on all schools and their teachers to provide appropriate learning materials and time to go through them with the students. Most of the individual states' school authorities have added their own instructions to enhance the general directive from Bonn. For example, in the city-state of Bremen, Horst-Werner Franke, the minister in charge of education, has sent a letter to all teachers in the Bremen schools. He asks them to make certain that the students understand that war is ``abhorrent'' and that every care must be taken to prevent a recurrence.

In Hamburg, school authorities sponsored a campaign asking students to engage in their own research to discover what life was like in Nazi Germany. Students were encouraged to seek out people -- members of their own families, neighbors, or acquaintances -- old enough to recall the days under Hitler. Their findings were recorded in essays, which have been collected in a book.

A local newspaper published a large number of the essays, which include not only the recollections of the people questioned, but the reaction to these reports by the young people as well.

Some of the young people report difficulty in prompting their interview partners to talk. In fact, some declined to say anything at all, insisting that it was best not to dwell on what was in the past.

But a number of thoughtful adults have also warned that this great search for the truth behind history must not lead to an across-the-board condemnation of the young people's grandparents.

The current immersion in Germany's Nazi past, painful for many, eye-opening for others, has accomplished one thing for sure: The present young generation has come out of its ignorance.

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