Goethe, the Grimm Brothers, and Bonhoeffer: The Intolerant Ones of German History
In a recent article that garnered some 2,000 comments on NRO, Kevin D. Williamson writes of the plight of homeschooling families in Germany and the Obama Administration’s efforts to ensure that one family in particular does not find refuge in America.
While the inability to homeschool may be dubious grounds for seeking asylum under current U.S. law, the story of the Romeike family is still one that hits close to home. When I was 13, my family moved to Germany from New Zealand, where I and most of my siblings had been previously homeschooled. Upon our arrival, my younger brother and I were enrolled at a local high school, which proved dissatisfactory on several counts. So naturally we began – or continued, rather – to educate ourselves at home while we looked for a school that better met our requirements.
To the casual observer, deciding to homeschool in a country where it is decidedly illegal to do so may seem an odd choice at best. Parents have been routinely known to lose permanent custody of their children for committing this very crime. But two facts must be appreciated: (1) The enforcement of the homeschooling ban is heavily dependent on the will of local authorities. If the social workers of the local Jugendamt turn a blind eye or if you are fortunate enough to slip beneath their radar, you might just join the ranks of the estimated 400 families who do just that. (2) My parents, while also kind and holy, are blessed with particularly rebellious souls and a tendency to consider laws, when inconvenient, strongly worded suggestions.
Alas, we were not able to continue undetected in our criminal ways for long. Very soon, threats of exorbitant fines arrived along with promises of worse. After only two months of defiance, we enrolled in a school, albeit one that was a considerable improvement on the first. This experience, as brief as it was, remains bitterly etched in my memory. Each new story of families – good and loving families of an increasingly rare kind – being torn apart infuriates me to no end.
It was the National Socialists who for the first time categorically outlawed homeschooling, in a law, the Reichspflichtschulgesetz, that effectively remains in place today. Prior to it, homeschooling had a proud tradition in Germany. Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, Humboldt, and Bonhoeffer were all homeschoolers. The National Socialists’ rationalization for eliminating alternative education (homeschooling and private schools) was hardly a state secret. Seizing monopolistic control of the education of young impressionable minds represented a necessary component of the Gleichschaltung strategy, which sought to orientate all public and private life toward the goals of National Socialism.
Ricochet member Joshua Einstein recently lamented Germany’s obsession with its dark but relatively aged past, suggesting that the collective guilt felt by those who had nothing to do with the crimes of their parents has been politically counterproductive. I am sympathetic to this. But ignorance of history tends to precede a repetition of history’s mistakes and the collective guilt felt even by Germans today serves the valuable purpose of promoting the study of history. Unfortunately, the lesson drawn from this study has been a disappointingly incomplete one; it seems to have merely produced a repulsion of racism and xenophobia – a healthy development, to be sure, but not enough.
What Germany needs to learn is a healthy tolerance and appreciation of the diversity of ideas. Germany needs more contrarians, an appetite for intellectual confrontation. National Socialism succeeded in part because a certain groupthink pervades German culture. The beliefs of Germans, both good and the bad, seem to be taken on in uniformity, and this lends itself to totalitarianism. This is what I believe makes German politics so very boring. There is no great ideological divide to feed major political differences. As Charles Krauthammer says, American politics is fought between the 40 yard lines. To borrow the metaphor, German politics might be played on the whole field but with no opposition. To wit, the parties that form the Bundestag are all ideologically committed to environmentalism and none questions the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the European project or even the common currency. Opposing abortion or even bringing the topic up long ago left the realm of acceptable public discourse.
In a December ruling that denied would-be homeschoolers Dirk and Petra Wunderlich legal custody of their four children, one denizen of this intellectual slum, the presiding judge, declared that, if homeschooled, the children would “grow up in a parallel society without having learned to be integrated or to have a dialogue with those who think differently and facing them in the sense of practicing tolerance.” Putting aside this man's stunning lack of a sense of irony, the small problem here is that “dialogue with those who think differently” and “practicing tolerance” is a futile proposition in a society where no differences of opinion exist to be tolerated.
Image from Home School Legal Defense Association