the past is a good teacher…resources for talking about neo-Naziism

Neo-Naziism is not new in America. Yet the Charlottesville rally compelled us as a nation to grapple once again with this reprehensible brand of evil. Certainly to debate our responses to it.

My dad was a young soldier in World War II. He was a flight mechanic, charged with keeping his crew’s plane in top form as they flew paratroopers, gliders, supply missions, Red Cross missions, among the battlefields of Europe. His experiences at D-Day, the jubilation he witnessed as the Allies liberated  Holland and Paris, the horrifying discoveries his crew made as they rescued prisoners of war in the final days of the conflict, shaped him — and me as well as he told me stories as a young child. He and his buddies were so young, risking their lives to defeat this diabolical ideology.

As I looked at the white supremacists’ faces in Charlottesville, mainly privileged young men, brandishing torches, waving Nazi flags, screaming vile insults at Jews and Blacks, the contrast to my honorable dad at the same age was nauseating.

It is incomprehensible to me how one gets to this place. And yet the insidious poison of self-pity and greed takes ghastly shape when ignited by rhetoric into blame, hatred, and oppression of others.

Which leads me to reiterate that we must keep teaching history. There are profound lessons to learn from the wrongs of the past which we allow to grow stale at our peril. Our kids are not too young to fall prey to demagogic messages. 

So I set about finding resources for you all. Reading these books was sobering. I was struck with many parallels to today’s discourses and challenging questions about appropriate responses, courage, and discernment, that would stimulate important, complex conversations with middle graders through adults.

If I were running a book club for middle-graders and up, I would pick one of these titles to read and discuss this fall. Today I’ve included a few discussion questions prompted by these books that could spark lively conversations in your spheres.

Almost none of today’s titles are geared for young children, but you can find a list of exceptional picture books heralding the brave rescuers of WWII in my post: rescuing the innocent…stories from the Holocaust for ages 6-14

Recently I discovered this sorrowful allegory that would also suit ages 7-10:

Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust, written by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Stephen Gammell
published in 1989 by The Jewish Publication Society

It takes place in a small forest clearing where one small white rabbit watches her community fall prey, bit by bit, to “Terrible Things.” The story clearly echoes Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous quotation: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Stephen Gammell’s graphite work is powerful. To not anthropomorphize the animals, yet portray their stances and feelings from indifference to snobbishness to cold panic, takes incredible skill. The menace in these pages makes me bump the age range on this slim picture book up to about age 7. It would make a fine introduction to conversations about civil disobedience and standing up for others’ welfare at a young elementary level. 

Next, this book discusses Hitler’s rise to power and specifically what prompted young people to enthusiastically follow him:

Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
published in 2005 by Scholastic
157 pages + back matter

It’s a riveting, disquieting account of the Hitler Youth movement, its origins, allure, fierce hold, and final, devastating shame, through in-depth accounts of a number of young people who were a part of it.

Here are some discussion points for this book:

1.)The youth of post-WWI Germany felt disenfranchised and embittered. How did Hitler appeal to them? What kinds of things did he promise them? Are these things inherently bad? When and how did some Hitler Youth recognize that these promises were meant to be fulfilled at a terrible cost? How does this bear on promises you’re given today by politicians, advertisers, friends, etc.? Which promises might be most difficult to resist for you?

2.)What good things came initially through the Hitler Youth program? In what ways do good and bad mix together in current organizations, movements, etc.? What ought we do in those cases?

3.)Millions of Germans were either apathetic or at least did nothing as the Aryan agenda advanced. When Kristallnacht occurred, ordinary Germans saw their Jewish neighbors murdered, beaten, transported, destroyed, and did nothing. Simultaneously, Americans were so worried about immigrants taking away their jobs that they refused entrance to Jewish refugees despite the perils they faced. Why do good people remain apathetic when others are harmed? Where, in what spheres, is this happening today? If you’re honest, how easily are you moved to stand against the oppression of others rather than look out for yourself? How does one increase one’s courage in these circumstances?

4.)Loyalty to Hitler made Hitler Youth either unable or unwilling to see, hear, or believe what he really was. Meanwhile, Hans Scholl declared that “my sole ambition must be to perceive things clearly and calmly.” Loyalty is a good thing. How can we discern when it prevents us from seeing clearly?

5.)Many Germans dismissed stories of atrocities as too horrible to be true. As fake. Instead they clung to the version of reality they wanted to believe. There is a snowballing tendency in the U.S. today to dismiss stories that present ideas, events, issues people dislike, as “fake news.” How did Scholl and his compatriots resist Nazi propaganda? How did they discover the truth? How can we prevent “willed ignorance” in ourselves? What is the long-term impact on our society of the consistent dismissive — “fake news”?

6.)After the war, Eisenhower stated that free speech was one of the most important civil liberties to reintroduce in Germany, and specifically called for a free press. He said “this meant [the press] could — and should — report on all aspects of life in Germany, even if it meant criticizing the government and occupation forces.” Why is free speech so critical in a democratic society? What limits do we currently have on free speech? How do we determine which speech ought to be censured? What does it signify when Pres. Trump routinely attacks the press? Why is a free press essential in a democracy?

There’s gobs more to dig out in this exceptional book. Recommended for ages 13 and up.

In my years teaching modern world history, I often assigned this biography of Hitler by Albert Marrin:

Hitler, by Albert Marrin
republished by Beautiful Feet Books in 2002
249 pages

As always, Marrin’s writing is captivating. His account is thorough and adequately expresses the chilling depravity of Hitler and his impact on the German people, enough to break through the complacency that easily washes over today’s American schoolchildren due to the distance in time and space from these events. Although my students were of course familiar with Hitler, this book shocked them. I recommend it for ages 15 and older.

Another biography that’s quite a bit shorter and formatted with lots of black-and-white photographs, is:

The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, by James Giblin
published originally in 2002; paperback in 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
223 pages

The brilliance of this book, besides the fact that it’s so well-written, is its coverage of neo-Naziism in the final chapter, an exceptional resource for carrying the discussion of Hitler beyond past history and into the resurgent movements in America and across Europe today. Ages 13 and up.

The following books recount the courage of those who resisted white supremacy.

If your government, schoolmates, friends, persecute or oppress someone wholly unlike you, what will you do? What will you not do?  What stand will you take? How much are you willing to risk? These questions led thousands of Germans to resist the Nazi government at the cost of their lives. It’s easy to praise them, but their decisions demand a more introspective look. What is our moral duty today? When is protest justified, let alone sabotage, treason, murder? If we praise these individuals, what does that mean for our own lives?

German youth hit these issues head on at tremendously young ages. The following exceptional books raise all kinds of important, thorny questions for you and readers ages 13 and up.

We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler, by Russell Freedman
published in 2016 by Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
87 pages

I’ve reviewed this exceptional, award-winning book previously and highly recommend it again. Hans and Sophie Scholl were teenagers when they and others began clandestinely opposing Hitler, eventually forming the secret White Rose resistance movement which cost them their lives. A riveting read for ages 14 and up.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knut Pedersen and the Churchill Club, by Phillip M. Hoose
published in 2015 by Farrar Straus and Giroux
165 pages

This story of a group of Danish schoolboys who resisted the Nazi occupational forces is flabbergasting. Their youthful audacity bore tremendous fruit, yet came at enormous cost. My full review of this incredible, award-winning account is here. Ages 14 and up.

The Plot to Kill  Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero, by Patricia McCormick
published in 2016 by Balzer & Bray, HarperCollins
143 pages + back matter

There are a number of biographies of Bonhoeffer. This one is accessible to kids as young as 12, yet grapples with questions of civil disobedience and religious faith with incisive clarity.

It was Bonhoeffer’s deep faith that inspired his activism. He argued fervently that it was the responsibility of the Church to assist victims of governmental wrongdoing, no matter their faith. As the Nazi program accelerated, his commitment to pacifism was rocked to its core, leading him to exonerate himself and others in their plot to assassinate Hitler. This is stupefying, when you really think about it.

Here are just a few questions that arise from this biography:

1. What does it look like — today — to walk in Bonhoeffer’s footsteps? Christians in particular have been inspired by Bonhoeffer’s moral courage and appeal to true community. What of his staggering commitment to civil disobedience? What are the implications of that for American Christians? For you? How does our society view Christians who neglect to stand up for justice?

2. Bonhoeffer was a white, Protestant, pastor, yet his faith was ignited by African American churches and he sought out the counsel of Ghandi as he contemplated resisting the Nazi government. How much do adherents of a particular faith typically seek growth and understanding from those unlike them or outside of that faith?  Is Bonhoeffer’s pathway here an important one to follow? How exactly would one do that?

3. Author McCormick argues that “while Bonhoeffer made a moral plea to [his fellow] clergy, Hitler appealed to their desire for power. He told church leaders that he would restore the moral order that Germany was lacking. He also suggested that he would restore them to a place of political influence that they had lost…He announced that his government would make Christianity ‘the basis of our collective morality.'” Bonhoeffer was lonely in his refusal to succumb to these promises. Do these sound bytes sound familiar? Why would a pastor not want what Hitler promised? What should be the stance of the Church in terms of seeking political power? Is the “restoration of morality” something that can be done through governmental power?

Many more profound, pertinent questions are raised particularly for those of faith through this well-written biography.

An Addendum: The extraordinarily talented John Hendrix will have an illustrated biography of Bonhoeffer out in Spring 2018, published by Abrams Kids. Here’s a sneak peak at some of the pages.


I cannot wait to read and share this book!

If this post is helpful, please share it on social media, with your book club, teaching cohorts, homeschool co-ops. Let’s help one another and our kids live more examined, thoughtful lives with the help of great books like these.