Why I believe a moratorium on Hitler is overdue

December 15, 2000

In April 1945, with the Red Army closing in, Joseph Goebbels addressed his staff after showing them the Nazi epic Kolberg. Looking forward to another film that might be made in the distant future, he urged them: "Every one of us has the chance to choose the role that he will play in the film 100 years from now... Hold out now, so that 100 years from now the audience does not hoot and whistle when you appear on the screen." Goebbels had a sense of history. Over the intervening years, the Nazis have lost none of their fascination for students. Not so much a warning from history as a warning to history.

Of course, in so far as the past can offer lessons for the present, the Nazi period remains of enormous importance. Unfortunately, however, students often seem reluctant to study anything else. Twentieth-century dictators feature strongly at key stage 3 in the national curriculum, at GCSE and also in many A-level syllabuses. In terms of option choice, university students are often conservative by nature and frequently show little desire to stray beyond what they think they know. Through excessive concentration at school, as well as a media obsession with the subject, they know the Nazis probably better than they know any period of British history.

What makes the situation worse is that, in a competitive consumer-led market, many university history departments need to offer the most popular options both in terms of attracting A-level entrants and in terms of the "internal market" within modular schemes. Stick Nazi in the module title and for every additional student of psychology, media or pigeon-strangling who comes through the door, that's a few extra pounds in funding.

Even where students have chosen to venture beyond the Nazis, the modular approach to history in schools leaves students without any sense of chronology or perspective.

Of course, history departments have been aware for some time of the increasing synonymy between Hitler and history. Efforts are being made to persuade or compel students to take a broader range of courses. A degree of compulsion can be beneficial - some modular schemes give students so much choice that it can deter them from experimentation. It may be that less choice and the unavailability of the familiar might prove healthier in the long term, whatever the short-term disadvantages in terms of potential lost departmental income.

The longer-term solution to the obsession with the Nazis, however, also rests with schools, examination boards and those responsible for the national curriculum. The buck stops with the latter. There is now a requirement for A-level history to include a large element of British history, but broadening the curriculum does not address the increasing narrowness of the actual content. A moratorium on the Nazis is well overdue.

Ian F. W. Beckett is Professor of modern history at the University of Luton

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