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Teacher's Comment :

Hong Sang Bin - How Ideology Influenced History Textbooks in Nazi Germany and the GDR



Hong, Sang Bin and her twin sister Hong Ja Bin lived in a German-speaking environment for four years; they both are fluent in German language. After both of them had taken the AP test in European History, they wanted to take on research projects.
I suggested to Sang Bin to compare German history textbooks from periods when history class had an ideological agenda - the Nazi period and Communist East Germany. On a trip home I acquired such textbooks in antiquarian bookstores.
When writing the paper, Sang Bin faced obstacles on several levels. First, when she lived in a German-speaking environment, she was younger; the level of German she acquired was appropriate to her age and academic level German proved one difficulty. Second, my instruction on German history in the context of an AP course in European History covers, for instance, the high and late middle ages in two, perhaps three hours; in German schools, teachers have an entire year to cover this period. Necessarily, the books she had to examine were much more detailed than what she had learned in class. Thirdly, one of the books was printed in Gothic font (Fraktur); however, as I taught her paleography (how to read old handwriting), she quickly figured out how to read Gothic font text. At first I provided Sang Bin with one Nazi era textbook covering the German High Middle Ages and an East German textbook covering the Russian Revolution and Weimar Republic. Only toward the end of her research did I obtain a complete set of East German textbooks, enabling her to compare books covering the same era. This explains why her paper contains a chapter on the Russian Revoluton and Weimar Republic.
The choice of the High Middle Ages is a good one, as this period historically is rather distant from the political reality and political ideal of Nazi Germany as well as Communist East Germany. Therefore, ideologically tainted description of this era is more subtle, less easy to detect, than, for instance, both a Nazi and Communist account of the Weimar Republic (as both Nazi Germany and Communist East Germany defined themselves as an antithesis to East Germany).

The task of Sang Bin was to detect omissions, distortions, exaggerations and blatantly false statements, and to come up with a judgment of her own. In order to avoid influencing her in forming an independent judgment, I had to refrain from giving her detailed lectures on the topic; so she had to find independent and reliable accounts of the respective period in German/European history and compare her findings with the content of the books which provided the basis for her research. The sources she used were printed in English language and therefore, by nature, more summaric than German language sources would have been.
Sang Bin had one and a half years for her research. In the first year, progress was slow, for a number of reasons. This was the first research project of that kind she undertook. She had to deal with history way more detailed than she was accustomed to; in class she learned the basic definition of a feudal society; here entire books dealt with nothing else and she was to detect nuances. She felt that the sources she had available to compare only partially covered the content of the Nazi German respectively Communist East German textbook she examined. And the time she could invest in her research was limited by the many other obligations she, as a high school student, had.
In the last couple of months, being provided the East German textbook covering the High Middle Ages, Sang Bin seemed more confident and then wrote down the results of her research.

From the beginning, I told her that I did not expect her to find every distortion, omission, exaggeration or false statement in the books. Her task was rather to describe how history was used to justify the totalitarian ideology prevailing at the respective time.

Sang Bin has detected ideological input of the obvious kind as well as of the subtle kind; the East German textbook covering the Weimar Era dealt exclusively with Russian and German history; other countries seem not to have existed - an obviously ideologically influenced choice of subjects. However, the name of Stalin, in a book covering this period of history, is mentioned only three times - subtle.
In the Nazi textbook on the High Middle Ages Sang Bin detected an attempt to redefine the Romanesque architectural style as being German in nature.

In her paper, Sang Bin follows the organization of the textbooks she examined. In her conclusion she discusses the purpose history class served in Nazi Germany and in the GDR, and the extent to which both Nazi Germany and the GDR used history to serve their purpose. Sang Bin's paper is a solid analysis, supported by numerous quotes in translation, and by appendices such as translates tables of content and a glossary, which make the books better accessible to non-readers of German language.
Among the papers students have written in Research Seminar History at KMLA, Sang Bin's paper stands out because (1) she made thorough use of her knowledge of German language, way beyond the AP 5 level, (2) because of the time and effort she invested and (3) because her study is based on primary sources.


December 20th 2005

Alexander Ganse



Hong Sang Bin

How Ideology Influenced History Textbooks in Nazi Germany and in the German Democratic Republic