Aims and methods

Expectations

A discussion about the expectations that teachers and pupils bring with them to the visit can help to prevent cases where unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment on both sides during the visit.

For example, a questionnaire can be used to ascertain what pupils are expecting from the visit. This should also address the emotions they attach to visiting a concentration camp memorial site. Writing down expectations creates a helpful basis for working through their experiences after the trip.

During the run-up to the visit, it is important to discuss the question of the ‘authenticity’ of the site with pupils and the difference between the historical concentration camp and today’s memorial site with its structural remains, cemeteries, memorials and museums. This is to make sure they have a realistic idea of the site they are to visit (see Topics). This is connected to a shared consideration of what constitutes appropriate behaviour at a memorial site.

In turn, teachers must move away from the expectation that their pupils will necessarily react to the site in shocked and traumatised ways (see Emotions).

Remembrance

Engaging with the history of the former concentration camp on site is always connected to an awareness of today’s memorial site. Visible forms of remembrance have and continue to shape the site to a considerable degree.

Memorials and commemorative plaques are suited to discovery-led learning using observation and interpretation tasks. Addressing memorial culture in Mauthausen and its history can therefore become a topic in its own right, one which might raise questions such as: What is the public significance of the memorial site? What is its significance for me? What does remembrance mean for me?

The memorial site is simultaneously a place of remembrance and a place of learning. These two functions are difficult to reconcile because they encompass different goals, moods and forms of behaviour. Where a group has the need for a more ceremonial end to the visit, a small, prepared (religious or secular) commemorative ritual is a possibility. This might involve reading texts aloud, for example, or placing stones on a memorial.

In particular for groups making a second visit, a memorial walk about and through the memorial site would be an option, during which pupils would read out appropriate excerpts from survivor testimonies at pre-arranged points on the walk. Giving the victims a voice – an unquestionable task of concentration camp memorial sites.

What’s it got to do with me?

The most challenging objective of a visit to a memorial site is to get the pupils to the point where they realise: ‘This does have something to do with me’. To the point where they grasp the experience as a challenge to their own thoughts, feelings and actions. This then creates the impetus for their own exploration of history.

The spark that ignites this realisation might be the discovery of a connection to their own world, for example, a camp’s geographical proximity to where they live, or things about Mauthausen or the historical context passed down in their family.

Contradictions between perspectives and narratives, dissonances between their own concept of history and the information provided can also function as productive irritations (see Dissonances).

An important role in finding a connection to the present is played by looking at the different perspectives of the victims, the perpetrators and of those who lived nearby. Personal stakes can be experienced and discussed critically through these perspectives without losing a sense of self through identifying with others (see Switching perspective). Meeting witnesses or working with biographical testimonies during the preparation and follow-up phases underpins this process. Finally, experiencing these historical perspectives and situations more vividly when visiting the memorial site can spark questions that continue to resonate: What would I have done? How do I act today? Looking at the memorial culture in Mauthausen might also raise questions: What importance do I give to the memorial site? What does remembrance mean for me? (see Remembrance) Through writing texts after visiting the memorial site, be it a diary entry, letter, observation or poem, pupils can make these connections to their own lives conscious and enter into dialogue with others.

Political education

A visit to a memorial site should always be seen within the wider framework of political education. The history of the concentration camp forms the negative backdrop for key topics in political education: the significance and indivisibility of human rights, minority rights, the role the separation of powers in the state, education around issues of racism and anti-Semitism, media and propaganda, the importance of civil courage for a democratic society, memorial culture in Austria and the role of the Mauthausen Memorial within it.

Above and beyond this, on a socio-psychological level the concentration camp can be seen as an extreme model of social mechanisms, for example, of how the (perpetrators’) desire for recognition and career advancement lowers their moral threshold, how (those living nearby) knowing about something does not necessarily lead to a sense of shared responsibility, how force and privilege (of the prisoner functionaries) work hand in hand within systems of domination, and how linguistic precedes actual dehumanisation (see Topics).

These kinds of link to the present can be unpacked during preparation and follow-up. They gain in substance if the historical points of connection are made as concrete as possible.

Switching perspective

The history of National Socialism can be described as the history of people who thought and acted differently. It is made up of the perspectives of the victims, the perpetrators, and people from the surrounding area.

Switching between these perspectives is a central element of preparation and follow-up to a memorial site visit (see Topics). Autobiographical and biographical materials, e.g. in the form of interviews or literary texts, give a deeper historical understanding of each perspective. This allows empathy without renouncing distance or the ability to remain critical.

Only through switching perspective does the history take on its quality as a ‘human story’. It enables the pupils to discover their stake in each perspective and to reflect on what this means.

Dissonances

Pupils bring their own conception of history taken from their families and the media with them to the topic of National Socialism and the Holocaust. This is already there before they enter the classroom or the memorial site. Many of their existing ideas about the Mauthausen concentration camp may not match up with the information provided in the preparation phase or with their impressions gained at the site.

These kinds of experience of dissonance can work both ways. If the discrepancy between what they bring with them and what is new is too great, the new information may be refused and blocked. On the other hand, dissonances can form the starting point for an on-going process of reflection.

For example, being presented with the many connections between the camp and its surroundings, the different – and differentiation within – prisoner groups, the complications around the term resistance, and the terrible ‘normality’ of the perpetrators (see Topics) may trigger a sense of dissonance in the pupils. In the follow-up to the visit this can then be developed into a more critical engagement with how they perceive both themselves and their concept of history.

Knowledge

A visit to the memorial site assumes a certain level of basic knowledge, which will allow the pupils to integrate what they see and hear into a broader structure. The following historical themes should be dealt with using texts, photos and films in preparation for the visit: the rise and ideology of National Socialism, persecution and resistance, SS, concentration camp system, the ‘annexation’ of Austria to the German Reich, Second World War, ‘euthanasia’ and the Holocaust. Above and beyond this contextual knowledge, the pupils should also already know something about the Mauthausen concentration camp before the visit: key historical dates, choice of location, subcamps, victim groups, concentration camp SS, ‘Mühlviertel Hare Hunt’, liberation and the memorial site. Looking at central themes and questions (see Topics) in greater depth is an option for both the preparation and follow-up phases.

Observations

Teachers take their classes to the memorial site in order to anchor insights into the causes and contexts of Nazi crimes in a more tangible way. A key premise here is how the site is perceived. In contrast to pupils’ emotional responses, which cannot be taught (see Emotions), there are methods for encouraging detailed observations of the site. Prepared tasks involving observation in particular areas of the memorial site can become the basis for a discussion of other topics, for example: observations on the location and surroundings of the camp, on the structural remains such as walls, towers and barracks, on the memorials and commemorative plaques, or on the relationship between the visible and now invisible parts of the former concentration camp (see Topics).

A completely independent exploration of the site will remain the preserve of older pupils with good existing knowledge who are able to understand that their visit is part of an on-going process of critical engagement with the topic.

A lasting effect

A modest sounding but hard to achieve objective of a visit to a memorial site, one with great scope, one that refers to the historical Zivilisationsbruch that we are dealing with, was formulated by Wolf Kaiser as follows:

‘To take from a memorial site the insight that National Socialism and Nazi crimes cannot be ‘got through’ in a couple of lessons or be ‘ticked off’ by visiting a memorial site is an important learning outcome.’*

*Wolf Kaiser: Gedenkstätten als Lernorte. Ziele und Probleme. Lecture in October 2000 at the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, Berlin. http://www.ghwk.de/deut/tagung/kaiser.htm