“So we were just walking down the Rambles in Barcelona. Hans, Jan, and I were speaking in German when this old guy comes out of nowhere and yells, Heil Hitler!” Peter put his hand in the air to act out the moment. “So what else could we do? I put up my arm and yelled, Heil Franco!” Again Peter raised his arm and proudly reenacted the story in front of the whole student body at the end of the year assembly.
My first reaction was laughter. That was pretty funny. And then I felt a bit proud. Those boys had been listening to our lectures on the Spanish Civil War. But then it hits me. What this boy just did was illegal in Germany. This was a criminal offense; no one can give the Hitlergruss in public.
The German teachers were furious. Why wasn’t someone stopping this side-show?! Most of the non-German audience had no idea that this was a bad thing to do in Germany. And even the perpetrators of the crime did not understand the reasons for their teachers to be so filled with anger towards them.
Later on in the day I went into a room where I had stored some files. Because I am leaving this school in July to go to a new school, I had some packing to do. Luckily my colleague didn’t have a problem with me rustling around in the background of her Higher Level German lesson. I did my best to eaves drop, but they were speaking pretty fast in German. I could tell Mrs. S was reading them the riot act about their actions during the assembly. And the boys were equally angry that they were being accused of wrong doing.
At some point she turned to me and said “Well? What do you think Frau Ralf?” Hmm. That was a hard one. What did I think? I mean, what they did was against the law. There were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in the audience. There were 6th graders who sat there laughing and who had no idea why they were laughing. And those were the kids who were going to go home and tell their parents about this, and it wasn’t going to pretty. “Mom, guess what happened in the Assembly today? It was so funny when….” “The boy did WHAT?!!!”
I explained that I came from a country that has a unique view about free speech. I explained that there are groups that protect our right to say and do things that are unpopular, offensive, and possibly hurtful. The example I gave was a case where the ACLU defended a Neo-Nazi group wanting to have a parade in a predominantly Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois. I told them that I don’t condone Hate Speech, but at the same time, I come from a country that has taught me to believe in the right to free speech, even when it is uncomfortable.
I then stated that what happened in the Assembly was not illegal in my country, but we’re not in my country. I told them that they broke the law, and they should have known better. They could have told the same story without the hand motions. But the students’ reaction to my mini-lecture was typical of righteous teens, they continued to argue that they were right, and we, the adults, were wrong.
At this time of year, I usually reflect on what my forefathers accomplished. These men had the courage to “go Rogue” on England knowing they had no resources, training, or concrete plans for this new country’s future. They created a Constitution that outlasted their expectations. They created something they could all agree on, they created a framework that could grow with the country’s future, and they created a Bill of Rights that secures for us our basic freedoms. The First Amendment (freedom of speech, assembly, and religion) I think, is what defines us most as Americans.
And this is not to say that Germany is not a free country. In fact I find it to be very free, in some respects, more free than the US. But it is understandable that a country which endured so much at the hands of a totalitarian regime would be careful to restrict their people’s ability to resurrect the views and deeds of Adolf Hitler. Germany has been very careful to erase his presence yet not forget his actions. His bunker is unmarked, his summer home was destroyed, his name is not allowed to be given to a newborn child, and no one is allowed to give the Hitlergruss.
Regardless of the stupidity of the actions of this student, the lesson was a powerful one for all of us. It got kids to engage in serious conversations about their history and engage in serious conversations about the consequences of their actions and words. And some day…. maybe, they too will sit in an audience and be offended and upset, and they will again have to rethink what they believe to be right and wrong in the name of freedom.