Learning about History in a Multiethnic Society

Working Group Report

Learning in a multiethnic society can follow very different approaches. In our working group, we addressed a number of questions: What role do students and teachers play? What roles do identification and a sense of belonging play in learning situations? What role do target groups play in the development of teaching materials? What role do teachers’ social status and affiliations play? Based on experiences at the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial Site and the history workshop held by the Jewish Museum Berlin in conjunction with the Refik Veseli School, participants discussed the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches and looked for ways to teach and learn about history in multiethnic societies.

Ulrike Wagner led the working group with contributions by

  • Dr. Elke Gryglewski
  • Selman Erkovan
  • Fabian Schnedler

Dr. Elke Gryglewski

Learning about History at the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial Site

It is important to examine our own attitudes about the past – and those held in mainstream society – before we turn our attention to young people of foreign descent who are supposedly uninterested in the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust. In two exercises, participants examined the educational discourse on National Socialism and the Holocaust and discussed ideas that addressed all the target groups of history education.

Selman Erkovan

Learning in History Class

Historically focused political education and lessons in history class are embedded in the cultural processes governing the formation and preservation of nation-states. The identities of individuals, societies, and nation-states emerge within the same framework – our consciousness of “how, through the course of history, we (Germans) have become what we are today.” Such identities determine who, from a historical perspective, is one of “us” today. With these processes in mind, it is useful to question the role played by identity formation processes in the teaching of the Holocaust in a multiethnic context in Germany. Over the last few years, a growing number of educational approaches have been developed to address students and young people of foreign descent, regardless of their previous experience with the subject. These approaches are tailored to the students’ (perceived) identities in order to generate interest in Holocaust education. Such approaches are explicitly directed at “Muslims,” “migrants,” and especially “Turks.” They have accomplished a great deal, providing young people with “lines of access” to a topic that may have been inaccessible and remote to many.

In addition, these approaches have helped society regard immigration as an enriching process and thus move to more sustainable, inclusive attitudes. They have also made an important contribution to the debate on the existing antisemitism problem in society today. But should we allow pedagogy and didactics to come to a standstill at this point? Should we not critically examine our own motives and refine these approaches?

A number of legitimate questions can be raised:

  • Is it still possible to use target group categories such as “Turk” or “Muslim” in highly globalized, diverse cultural milieus to generate interest in the Shoah and National Socialism, regardless of the students’ previous experience with these subjects?
  • Are these target group categories not a collective, identity-based means for us to confirm our own Germanness, along the lines of, “Let’s teach those Turks about the Shoah so that they’ll be German too.”
  • Is it permissible to use a person’s presumed origins as a category in the necessary engagement with an antisemitism that is present in all of society?
  • Or is this practice more accurately described as an attempt by all of society, albeit unintended, to single out “the antisemitic Muslim” and downplay “non-migrant” antisemitism?

Participants identified and discussed these central issues from the perspectives of anti-racist and postcolonial theory and applied ideas from the field of history didactics.

Fabian Schnedler: Unconscious Discriminatory Classifications in Historically Focused Political Education

In settings where identities are negotiated, such as history lessons, historically focused political education, and anti-discrimination work, the pitfalls of unconscious discriminatory classifications are always close at hand. In other words, even as we attempt to fight exclusion, discrimination and exclusion can take place.

How can we fight discrimination without reproducing discriminatory categories? Which methods and approaches can prevent our own discriminatory classifications from having an influence (e.g., on the planning of lessons)? In my opinion, we can avoid these traps by using the following four strategies: by examining own classifications, encouraging student participation, sharing knowledge about discrimination, and stepping up action against discrimination.

Examining Our Own Classifications

This involves:

  • Examining our own classifications – if possible, not by ourselves but with the help of external evaluations
  • Examining our discriminatory classification patterns
  • Examining the selection of topics and materials
  • Examining ways to address students in class

Hence, we should observe ourselves at work (or have others observe us) in order to identify hidden or latent discrimination mechanisms.


This involves:

  • Asking students for their opinions and research interests in a chosen field
  • Creating a framework for self-selected research by students working on projects
  • Asking students to provide feedback in order to ensure an open culture of discussion

Sharing Knowledge of Discrimination and Taking Increased Action against Discrimination

This involves:

  • Allowing students to address discrimination themselves
  • Providing a framework in which students can discuss experiences of affiliation


Dr. Diana Dressel
Head of Education Department
T +49 (0)30 259 93 515

Conference Documentation: Schools and Museums Conference Working Groups (19)

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