Monday, 30 January 2012

'A' is for Adolf: The Wiener Library

The Wiener Library, 29 Russell Square
Tucked away behind Senate House and SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies) and facing onto Russell Square, is the world’s oldest Holocaust memorial institution. The Wiener Library originated in 1933, when Alfred Wiener, a German Jew, fled to Amsterdam, where he set up the Jewish Central Information Office to collect and disseminate information about what was going on in Nazi Germany. The collection was moved to London (initially to another venue, in Manchester Square) in 1939 and became known as ‘Dr Wiener’s Library’. At first, it functioned as a resource to British government intelligence departments but, as the collection expanded over time, it became an important academic, legal and historical hub, providing material to the UN War Crimes Commission and amassing eyewitness accounts gathered during the 1950s and 1960s. Today, it holds regular exhibitions and seminars, providing a platform for issues related to the Holocaust, genocide, human rights and racism today.  

The 'A' is for Adolf exhibition at the Wiener Library
Learning to count
Currently, the Wiener Library has an exhibition called ‘A is for Adolf: Teaching Children Nazi Values’. Small, but potent, the exhibition demonstrates the terrifying ubiquity and constant reinforcement of Nazi values: every aspect of childhood was influenced, from storybooks to boardgames, school lessons to social activities, exercise and sports to ideas of fashion and beauty. For me, the most disturbing objects were those that showed how anti-Semitic, nationalistic propaganda was deeply embedded in habit-forming activities. For example, learning to write was a matter of literally re-inscribing politically-anchored words and phrases ('heil'; 'volk') over and over again, while counting involved the symbolic recognition and repetition of flags and swastikas. Numeracy skills were developed by tackling problems such as how much it costs the state to look after ‘degenerate’ individuals, or what proportion of a region or profession has been ‘taken over’ by Jews. Political propaganda and ‘race science’ saturated all learning areas: geography celebrated colonialism as proof of Aryan supremacy and advertised the achievements of the National Socialist party in reshaping the urban landscape through its aesthetically-pleasing autobahns; biology focussed on the necessity of eugenics to avoid genetic ‘impurity’; history and literature were used to construct a selective narrative of heroic German manifest destiny, culminating in the apotheosis of Hitler. 

Comprehensive information panels
The boardgame 'Juden raus' (Jews out!)
But instilling Nazi values in children was not just about ideas, it was also about modelling and incentivising particular behaviour. Taking their cues from the adults in authority around them, school children shunned, humiliated or mobbed their Jewish classmates (who were also increasingly excluded from classes and excursions), or, if seen with Jewish friends, were themselves shunned. Outside school, the various local cells of the Hitler Youth subsumed much of children’s spare time through structured activities, building a strong sense of belonging and identity. Both the Boys Organisation (based on a military model, but with activities ranging from hikes to marching bands and amateur dramatics) and the League of German Girls (with cultural heritage, homemaking, racial science and athletics sessions, aimed at producing wives and mothers who would perpetuate Nazi values in the family microcosm) encouraged strong conformity, obedience, and a respect for hierarchical structures where members could rise in rank through ‘good performance’. 

When put together in a strongly curated exhibition like ‘A is for Adolph’, it’s easy to come away with the response: ‘That’s terrible: I can’t believe people ever thought/did/allowed that’. But this response always leads me to wonder: is this really ‘in the past’ or are these same processes of prejudice in representation and education at play all around us? Are we, perhaps, only less aware of them because they are less formalized and more insidious, or because we share the worldview or values from which they spring? My own research into twentieth century social history and visual culture in South Africa certainly suggests so, and museums are often implicated in this process. 
A young visitor studies a Bushmen exhibit (with life casts c1918) at the South African (Natural History) Museum. Pre-1990s. Photograph by Gideon Mendel.
For example, in Cape Town in the 1960s, as apartheid became increasingly formalised, 'white' history was housed in the Cultural History Museum while 'black' history and culture was curated as closer to nature and shown in the Natural History museum alongside the animal dioramas, with generations of (predominantly white) schoolchildren brought in to learn about the 'bushmen' in their 'natural habitat'. Now, however, many South African museums are playing a major role in transformation (see this great book by Steven Dubin), as well as problematising the construction of their own neutrality in the production of knowledge. 

Many recent cases, however, suggest that children continue to be a target (whether intended, or merely caught in the crossfire) of adult ideological conflict. See, for example, this piece on representations of Palestinian people and history in Israeli school textbooks; the rising ‘political/military-entertainment complex’ of simulation-based video games used for political campaigns, military self-presentation and recruitment (see this piece); or the publication of the colouring book We Shall Never Forget 9/11: The Kids’ Book of Freedom, which appears to veil Islamaphobic rhetoric in patriotic language (see here). The most persistently damaging ideological content in childhood today – and the hardest to combat – is that which is assumed, taken as given, by parents, schools, faiths, books, games, television. As ‘Kid You Not’ Blogger Clementine suggests in an account of ideology in children’s books, they may not be actively promoting male domination or anti-immigrant attitudes, but rather inscribing, reinforcing and normalizing them: 
‘Next time you open a children’s book, ask yourself what worldviews, what conceptions of power, what ideals of education it conceals. It is not obvious – because the creators of the books themselves are unaware of it, and because it’s likely that they think more or less like you. But it is there. It cannot not be there. And if you really can’t notice these assumptions, it means you’re so bathed in them that you take them for fact...’

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