Nazis and Sex Crimes

What history should we teach to children? In the United States, conservatives tend to insist that history should be heroic, or at least not vicious and mean-spirited.  But for the losers of World War II, these questions have played out in different ways.

A couple of intriguing recent stories in the New York Times describe the culture-wars over history in Germany and Japan.  In each case, the ways schools and textbooks portray war history have raised hackles.

In Japan, one village refused to use the new triumphalist textbooks distributed by the central education ministry.  The new books, village leaders protested, presented a distorted story of the post-war Constitution.  New books whitewashed Japan’s violent and aggressive record, downplaying the number of people murdered in the rape of Nanking and disputing Japan’s policy of kidnapping women for use as military sex slaves.

In Germany, in contrast, young people have learned a great deal about the Holocaust and Germany’s collective culpability for its epochal crimes.  Camp survivors such as Laszlo Schwartz have become a central part of high-school education.

What about in the US of A?  History has been distorted by both right and left.  Politically motivated histories by conservatives such as David Barton or by the late lefty Howard Zinn have presented distorted visions of the nature of American history.

These debates have gone on for a long time.  As I argue in my upcoming book, conservatives have long offered alternative school histories.  In the 1920s, for example, the American Legion commissioned a patriotic textbook that promised to teach children a prouder story.

How are these American history disputes different from those in Germany or Japan?  In each case, it seems that national history itself has dictated the ways history has been taught.  In Germany, for example, de-Nazification proceeded fairly thoroughly and rapidly after the war.  No such purge took place in Japan, politically or culturally.  As a wartime winner, the United States never had any reckoning.  The closest parallel has been the long fight over Civil-War history, with southern partisans insisting on a heroic Confederacy.

Also different is the structure of schooling.  Japan and Germany both have central education ministries.  Issues of history in Japan, for example, are part and parcel of national politics.  One of the leading reasons for the new distorted history textbooks in that country, according to the New York Times, has been the ambitions of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.  As one researcher told the Times, “Classrooms are one place where [Abe] can appease ultraconservatives by taking a more firmly nationalist stance.”

In the USA, in contrast, there has not been a central educational decision-making body.  As a result, perhaps, history fights have taken place at all sorts of political levels.  In the 1990s, the US Senate flexed its culture-war muscles by decisively rejecting a set of national history standards.  Conservatives in that battle protested that left-wing academic historians neglected traditional knowledge and morals in favor of fashionable but vapid trends.  More often, local or state textbook commissions air out the bitter battles over the nature of America’s past.

What did you learn in your school textbooks?  Do America’s children learn a distorted past?

 

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