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The Nuremberg Trials: (re)acting to the past

Igor Costa Pereira de Souza, Social Studies teacher (Pueri Domus Bilingual Programme)

ABSTRACT: The Nuremberg Trials project was developed with 8th grade students from a Brazilian International School. The project focused on a specific and highly sensitive historical period in modern history: WWII and the Holocaust. The Nuremberg Trials Project was organized into four axis: i) analyses of different historical sources; ii) academic writing styles; iii) collective research; iv) the writing of a collective Nuremberg Trials transcripts which were later acted out in a school event. This article comes as an outcome of a national conference as the experiences for its conclusions were shared with hundreds of other educators. As I describe teaching strategies I have adopted in order to mature the project I also share the unpredictable situations that arose from it: sexual assaults, respect for differences and bringing Modern European History closer to Brazilian history in post activity moments. All students are EFL students and contents were taught alongside a perspective of furthering English language skills.

Keywords: Holocaust, Social Studies, Enactment, Performance, Historical Sources

Every teacher has come across the situation where the contents seem abstract and far from students´ realities. Blank faces and stares, silence and a certain level of enmity are a common on such contexts. Social Studies are probably among the subjects ranking highest in terms of abstraction and the difficulty of making history, societies, cultural processes and historical periods accessible to pupils and their highly productive minds. Not only the remote concepts but also the rigorous requirements for writing and analysis may appear as obstacles to a more efficient and holistic learning process. The challenges described above are common for many teachers. I personally was faced with the blank stares and boredom when teaching one of teachers´ and students´ favourite 8th grade subjects: World War II. To clarify the ground rules: whenever I am teaching a class with sensitive issues such as prejudice, racism, religious intolerance, inequalities and other forms of oppression I will always side with a human rights´ perspective while working through the content in class. I make sure my students know where I am talking from and which perspectives I am conveying to them and try to create an open and accepting environment for different ideas, opinions, thoughts and experiences. Schools are no different than the rest of society and I cannot expect homogenous views and opinions and see my role more as guiding discussions rather than imposing a pre-chosen superior view. I make this point in this article so readers know exactly where I stand on such topics. In times of rising intolerance seen across the world through media and other outlets I believe Dante Alighieri´s idea of accountability for those who remain silent in times of moral crisis is still as applicable for the 21st century as it was in 11th century.

Not only World War II is highly documented as it has undergone several different interpretations throughout the decades following the conflict. Movies, plays, video games, TV series, books and music fashion a certain collective imagery of what the conflict was like and those involved in it. As a teacher it has been my role not only to see the content through and to provide students with the social, political, cultural and economic impacts of the WWII but also present them with a more humane perspective of the brutalities perpetrated during the conflict.

How to engage students with a humanistic approach to a conflict often portrayed as highly mechanized and glamorized by the cultural industry or to provide a sense of inner contact with the subject without transforming events of the past into something far away and frozen as in a photograph are some of the questions forming the teaching process. What about breaking through for students to the actions, not just the words of events, even as classroom engagement moves from formal knowledge to interactive learning? Those were some of the questions that led me towards thinking and planning a reacting to the past activity. The focus: teaching WWII content/theory at the same time as providing a theatrical and emotional experience with what was seen in class.

The Nuremberg Trials therefore presented themselves as the X on a pirate´s treasure map: teaching content all the while trying to unearth the golden chest at the end of the quest. The trials took place immediately after the conflict was over on the European theaters of war and could be used as means of inferring on the causes of the war and its effects as well as providing students with broader approaches to historical research.

Objectives and Outcomes

Students were challenged to build a court case based on one of history’s most famous trials by putting Nazi leaders and the Nazi ideology on trial supported by facts, arguments, real stories and heavy evidence. The extensive research for the trials resulted in a presentation for school staff and parents as well as an official student made transcript of the trial.

Some of the guiding questions proposed to the class were:

  1. Whose story is it?

  2. Is history told by winners?

  3. What can a government do?

  4. How does belief influence action?

  5. How do personal stories influence views of others?

As we slowly started answering these questions collectively throughout our classes students were constantly exposed to document-level skills, contextualization and spatiotemporal context, concepts of corroboration and comparison and with a widening of the concepts referring to what primary and secondary sources are all about. They were asked to jot down films, games, songs which referred to WWII that they were familiar with and using those as starting points we were able to infer on how History is produced and transmitted through various means.

Students were split into four different groups and organized accordingly to the actual Nuremberg Trials layout. They were divided into the following groups:

i) Judges

ii) Defence Counsel

iii) Chief Prosecutors

iv) Witnesses

Each group was then instructed towards researching the arguments used by each section of the real Trials. Sources such as photographs, songs, political speeches, testimonials, films, documentaries, exhibits and a number of other materials were added to each group’s case by its own members.

A second stage involved analyzing the materials collected. At this point the groups were taught how to corroborate alleged evidence they had found to real stories. Trustworthy sources had to be separated from doubtful information and even conspiracy theories. At this stage each group conducted their own research and were asked not to share their findings with their opposing groups.

After the completion of these stages an extremely important step was taken: students were asked to sit on a round table and each group was handed a sheet such as the one bellow:


(the actual sheet was much wider than the one below)

I intentionally placed a female student as the head judge for it provided a great opportunity of talking about gender inequality in power positions and how women are often portrayed in historical images, songs, etc. Students showed great interest on this topic and were particularly impressed with the simple but highly objective Elle magazine video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEKo22ryWxM

The video was later used as means of comparing the most famous images of WWII and the absence of women on most occasions.

The spaces were left in blank and each group was asked to share the research findings they deemed most important with the rest of the class. At this point it was clearly stated that each group had three minutes to share their findings while the other groups had the same amount of time to write down the information provided. The findings that each group deemed relevant that should be opposed while on trial. At this point photos were shared with the class, actual holocaust survivors’ accounts, excerpts of the real Trials were provided and a number of other sources that each group thought was relevant for their case. The class was instructed at this point that each group was now accountable for building their statements, arguments, accusations and defense strategies. Judges’ decisions were to be based on the arguments presented in court. Their decisions had to be based on their peers’ public statements and evidences. Every single word, concept, argument and evidence had to be used in context and well thought through. The witnesses’ role presented some challenges which I will lay out below and some of the challenges that me as a teacher had to deal with.

The witnesses were instructed as follows:

I) research actual accounts, events, circumstances and experiences of WWII survivors.

II) part of witnesses had to account for Jewish experiences during the conflict and focus especially on the Holocaust.

III) the other half of the group had to focus on other minorities that were persecuted by the Nazi regime (e.g. Roma, homosexuals, people with disabilities and others). Their experiences of the war had to be accounted for as well.

IV) they could never lose track of the gendered experience of war: a man’s account may be much different than that of a woman. What was different? What was similar? Is the world experienced the same by both men and women alike?

The last point was greatly emphasized by me and though students understood the point I was trying to make a very uncomfortable and sensitive situation was brought up and had to be dealt with in class.

They were instructed to gather a number of testimonies that would result on characters that mingled “general characteristics” of the accounts they had come across with. Following these indications they came up with four different characters for the Trials: a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor; a Czech Roma survivor; a Russian Jewish survivor and at last but not least a German female political survivor of forced labour camps. This last character is the one I want to call the reader’s attention to.

The female student who was in charge of recreating a woman’s experience in concentration camps based her character on two accounts of women who were subjected to one of the most horrid situations a person can go through: that of rape not only by one man but by several and on a number of occasions. The character’s script mentioned several situations of sexual abuse, humiliations and indignities not worthy of mentioning on this article. My first reaction was of shock followed by: what now?! We as teachers are totally entitled to turning down a student’s assignment or on a simple and authoritative way say ‘rewrite this. It’s wrong’. Though entitled to do so, I suddenly found myself incapable of doing that for ethical reasons. The student had done a very deep and thoughtful research and created a character’s experience which unfortunately is quite feasible. After a week’s of thoughtful consideration to the written piece and being aware that the rest of the class was also aware of the contents narrated by the character I decided to undertake a different approach to the situation.

First I explained to her the importance of the fictional experience she created for her character and the social stigma victims of such crimes may carry for their entire lives. I explained that her written piece was very powerful but that I could not allow her to make a public presentation of it considering her age and that her parents and relatives probably would not enjoy such public performance. She digested it quite well but asked a few questions on the social relevance of this topic (even if she did not name her questions thus). This was done at an individual level.

My second approach to the situation was a public one. How can we propose a more humane approach to history avoiding uncomfortable topics? I decided to use sociology data (I am sociologist and historian myself) with the class and discuss the seriousness of sexual harassments and assaults against women in Brazilian society. On a recent 2016 poll conducted by Brazil’s largest newspaper showed that 29% of Brazilian women have been subject to some sort of physical or verbal abuse. But the numbers do not halt at this point. 40% of Brazilian women declared being harassed in public spots such as streets and public buses. According to a UN research a woman is raped every 11 minutes on Brazilian soil and that in 60% of the cases analyzed the perpetrators of such crimes were committed by a victim’s acquaintance or relative. Due to this sort of data collected by several researchers Sundays were shown as the most dangerous days for women in the country. Sundays are days which husbands and other male acquaintances are home and the probability that some sort of aggression might occur.

We spent an entire class discussing the gendered experience a human body goes through while alive. How women are most likely subjected to some types of abuses that men may not be the most likely victims (at this point we even discussed the social restraints men might go through while trying to file a report about such situations they themselves might suffer for instance). How films and the media portray such situations. Students even gave examples of some videogames that such situations occur to characters. Amazingly the class was very engaged and respectful while talking about this topic which provided a subjective connection with the deglamorization that the study of wars might incur to. Students cannot be treated as uncritical and barren of opinions and thoughts and experiences. Kids experience the world in a way that when they reach adulthood much of their prior background will be brought about as they get older. They are able to convey enlightening perspectives on difficult and delicate situations many adults will never be able to.


We finally reached the stage of writing. Students were instructed to write formally and I provided real examples of courts transcripts for them so they could base themselves grammatically on how to present their case. This process was a bit longer than expected as we had to agree on common forms of expressions to be used such as “I ask the defendants be set free” or “I find the defendants guilty”. The drafting-correcting-rewriting process took about two weeks. The results were shared with the class and rehearsals took place for another week.

Below are some excerpts of what students came up with on this process:

Though a bit long these excerpts may help readers see the depth of the analysis undertaken by students and myself alike. History and common historical heritage are not only lines written on old books or on a Wikipedia page but also something that was experienced by real people. Persons of all ages, creeds, backgrounds and social classes have at some point or another experienced anguish, anxiety, terror and happiness and those are aspects that can be used towards engaging students on a deeper and more meaningful learning process. The presentation was a success and parents were very proud of their kids’ learning process. When asked what should happen to this project the coming year some students said: “Do it again for the incoming class next year. It was amazing”.

All the written materials were put together into a booklet which was handed to parents at the beginning of the presentation so they could keep track of what was happening. The booklet also contained a short explanatory note on what the project was all about and the historical context in which it was taking place. The classroom was decorated with victory theme headlines and I myself was the host for the evening’s presentation and dressed as one of the 40s and 50s street newspaper sellers as I updated parents on the end of World War II and the beginning of the Nuremberg Trials procedures.

(A student/witness shares his character’s experience during his period on a concentration camp)


(Judges’ desk: as each judge read his/her decision they stood up and explained how their decisions were being taken. The use of iPads though criticized by me was left to the student to decide whether to use paper or not)

Should you do it with your class?

The process was tiring at times and quite challenging on critical moments as described above. The whole process lasted about a month and it included required content teaching as well but at the final product was not only a formal assessment on a written fashion but also a holistic one. Getting students engaged in discussions all the while producing new knowledge is an experience every teacher has had or will have at some point in their career. Eye opening moments, quite smart and confrontational questions and a meaningful connection with what is being taught in class fuels any teacher’s commitment to a classroom. Maybe not all contexts and contents will be ideal for a drama/academic/subjective type of teaching-learning process but opportunities may arise and I urge other teachers not to let them go. I could finish this article with a beautiful and purposeful quote or quite exciting ending but I choose to let students talk for themselves.

A few months after the Nuremberg Trials activity, I was invited to speak at a teacher’s conference on my experience with the project. As I was getting ready for the conference I decided to form a focus group with some of the students involved in the process. As we talked about the experience we went through the previous semester some insightful comments were made by them and I leave you with those as they for sure are fueling my commitment to teaching for more years to come.

“The research was nice when we found out things that happened to actual people. Learning the point of view of the people who went through so much. The ones who were prosecuted criminals and the ones who prosecuted criminals”

“In my opinion what was great was that we learned different points of views. We learned other perspectives and arguments in general and we had to make the information fit into the activity”

“Brazil was a slave country and we had our own concentration camps. The slave farms. It made me think of our own history”

“I just knew the superficial things on WWII. The research helped me have a deeper understanding of the context”

“The whole process was hard. The research, the presentations and specially talking in a clear and respectful way. We were teaching our parents!” 

“We had to be serious with our roles. We were making history.”


Explanation provided to parents before the Trials project was acted out in school

References

Arthur-Bertrand, Y. (2015, september). Francine Christophe: Human.

Butler, J. (2004) Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence. London, UK; Verso

FLACSO Brasil. (2015) Mapa da Violência 2015: homicídio de mulheres no Brasil. Retrieved from: http://www.mapadaviolencia.org.br/pdf2015/MapaViolencia_2015_mulheres.pdf

Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública. (Março, 2016). 10 Anuário de Segurança Pública. Retrieved from: http://www.forumseguranca.org.br/publicacoes/10o-anuario-brasileiro-de-seguranca-publica/

Orwell, O. (1944, February 4). History is written by winners. Tribune. Retrieved from: http://alexpeak.com/twr/hiwbtw/

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