How West Germany puts war and peace into the classroom

In this ''year of the missile,'' peace and the Army have become a bone of contention in West German schools. Culture ministers in conservative states want teachers to portray the Bundeswehr (Army) as the necessary peacekeeper against the Soviet Union. They want to inculcate in pupils a sense of obligation to help defend one's country. Some conservatives would also like the new NATO missiles that are planned for initial deployment in December to be cast in the same positive context in the schools.

Culture ministers of Social Democratic states, on the contrary, want teachers to stress alternatives to war, the risks of nuclear holocaust - and the right to conscientious objection.

''Peace is not an automatic given,'' the six conservative cultural ministers declared in late June. On the contrary, they said, it requires specific policy decisions to ensure peace - and the Bundeswehr is an essential part of this.

But the Constitution's commitment to peace, retorted the four culture ministers from Social Democratic states, must go beyond promoting ''the tasks of the Bundeswehr'' in the schools, to promote ''also the right to conscientious objection, efforts for disarmament and detente, as well as alternative estimates of the peace movement without discrimination in instruction.''

Not surprisingly, the two sides couldn't agree. They went home from their meeting in Kiel with no common study recommendations. And the controversy continues to swirl.

In a way, this debate is nothing new in West Germany. Education is taken seriously here. It is taken politically. It is therefore the arena for repeated conflict.

Dispute over comprehensive vs. elite schools still simmers on, for example, long after graduates of the first experimental American-style comprehensive schools have started enrolling their own children in the school system. And the teaching of history - including the history vs. sociology feud as well as the specifics of treatment of the Hitler era and Polish-German relations - is under perennial attack.

Nonetheless, the latest controversy does involve some special elements: lingering guilt about Germany's militarist past; the ''long march'' through schools and other institutions by the '68 student rebels; and the antinuclear movement's opposition to the planned NATO missile deployments.

The catalyst for the current reconsideration of teaching about peace and the Army came in 1980 with demonstrations against swearing-in ceremonies for Bundeswehr recruits. The protesters saw in the ceremony a residue of the old German glorification of the military. Numerous officers saw in the protests an unjust and dangerous suspicion of a democratic conscript Army by West Germany's educated young.

The issue then gained momentum as the antinuclear movement developed. Prominent among the demonstrators were young teachers, many of them molded by the '68 marches against the American part in the Vietnam war, the Shah of Iran, and rigid West German institutions.

Conservatives feared that a generation of young people who had never known war or the hard work of reconstruction was taking peace for granted and undermining the very institutions that preserved it. Moreover, they were afraid that these young teachers were passing on these values to a new generation of children.

Social Democrats, on the other hand - and a lot of young Green voters for whom even the Social Democrats were too staid - feared just the opposite. They thought schools were enforcing that traditional German conformity and obedience that proved so catastrophic in the past.

In some cases the latter attitude is liberal, in the European sense of preserving as much of private life as possible from state interference. In other cases it is leftist-ideological - as in the Young Socialists' declaration that peace education should include ''the precondition for inner peacefulness (of) the abolishment of class contradictions from social production and private acquisition.''

This educational dispute will never be resolved. And that's exactly what the Western postwar occupying powers intended when they decentralized German schools. The culture ministers in Berlin, Baden-Wurttemberg, Bavaria, Rhineland-Palatinate, the Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein will continue to emphasize the importance of peace studies.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.