Dubious Role Models: Study Reveals Many German Schools Still Named After Nazis

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A new study shows that several German schools are still named after Nazis, including proponents of racial hygiene, rocket scientists and high-ranking party officials. But local authorities are often reluctant to change the names.

Throughout his life, teacher Max Kästner dedicated himself to the study of the history and vegetation of the Ore Mountain region. Even as a pensioner, Kästner, who died in 1959, often instructed new teachers in local history.

Kästner was honored posthumously in his home town of Frankenberg near Chemnitz in Saxony when a special needs school took his name 15 years ago. The decision was based at least in part on the fact that he'd written a book about the town. "Max Kästner created a memorial for himself in 1937 when he compiled a book on the local history of Frankenberg to coincide with the town's 750th anniversary celebrations," explains the school on its Web site.

The city fathers of this tradition-conscious town, population 18,000, must not have read the book. If they had, they would have come across a number of unsavory passages. In one section the author eulogizes the Nazis' reign of terror. "The last Marxist hideout was smoked out," he writes, going on to note that a highpoint in Frankenberg's history was when it was home to SS concentration camp guard unit SS-Totenkopfsturmbann Sachsen. "We regretted seeing the SS depart when they were relocated to Weimar-Buchenwald for important political reasons," he writes.

The bigoted town chronicler is just one of several dubious figures whose names currently grace German schools. Among the roughly 2,000 schools in the state of Saxony alone, eight are named after Nazi party members, three after SA members, and one after an SS member.

These numbers come from a newly published study conducted by Chemnitz historian Geralf Gemser. He's compiled the biographies of all the men and women with Nazi connections who are namesakes for schools in Saxony.

When schools in Saxony and other parts of the former East Germany were renamed after the fall of the Berlin Wall, prominent locals -- some of whom had Nazi connections -- set out to scrap the names of Communist luminaries who had previously lent their names to schools, such as Socialist Unity Party General Secretary Walter Ulbricht and GDR President Wilhelm Pieck. But the Nazi names aren't just an eastern phenomenon. The West has its own dubious legacies, and Gemser estimates that the number of schools across Germany named after Nazi party members could be in the hundreds.

In the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, for example, one high school was until recently named after Erich Hoepner, a Wehrmacht general. Hoepner was, admittedly, sentenced to death for plotting against Hitler in the 1944 Stauffenberg conspiracy. Before that, though, Hoepner had pursued a scorched-earth policy in the Soviet Union, where he demanded "ruthless and complete destruction of the enemy" from his soldiers. When Gemser brought this history to light, the high school was renamed after the Berlin-born Jewish art mogul Heinz Berggruen.

Gemser admits that schools are seldom named after "perpetrators in the legal sense of the word" -- in other words, Nazis who committed war crimes -- but he says schools should be careful. "With their names, schools occupy a place in a historical tradition, and Nazi supporters and functionaries should be excluded from that," he says. According to state regulations, school names should reflect educational ideals. Choosing names, however, is left to local authorities -- with unpredictable results.

Nothing to Do With Politics?

A stark example involving a school in Kreuztal, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, shows how difficult it can be to avoid familiar names. Until two months ago, one local high school was named after Friedrich Flick, the wealthy industrialist convicted as a war criminal at the Nuremberg Trials in 1947. He had donated millions to pay for the school's construction.

Former students launched an initiative to rename the school. Teachers demanded that the city council free them from "the burden of the name." But nothing changed until incredulous reporters from Eastern Europe came to investigate whether it was true that a man who had promoted Aryanization and presided over an army of forced laborers was indeed still being honored in Germany. Only then did the city council decide to rechristen the school.

In Bernstadt, in the Oberlausitz region, rocket scientist Klaus Riedel has a school named after him. The inventor worked on the V-2 rocket, among other projects. The missile was responsible for the deaths of roughly 10,000 civilians in other countries, and around 12,000 forced laborers died producing it.

Meanwhile schools in Friedberg in Bavaria and Neuhof in Hesse are named after Riedel's boss, the astronautics engineer Wernher von Braun. Von Braun led the military's rocket development facilities in Peenemünde on Germany's Baltic coast and was promoted to the rank of SS Sturmbannführer. After the war, von Braun went on to work for NASA's space program in the United States. Until his death, he insisted that science has nothing to do with politics.

Even if that is true, certain scientists who have given their names to schools are hardly fit to be role models. A high school in Grossröhrsdorf in Saxony is named after the surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch, who served as doctor to Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. As a member of the Reich Research Council, he approved funding for medical experiments on concentration camp inmates.

His colleague Rainer Fetscher even compiled a file on "biologically inferior persons." The 1933 Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring was lauded by the doctor as "a promising start," as it not only instigated "the possibility of racial-hygienic sterilization, but also allow(ed) the use of force." He himself performed forced sterilization in at least 65 cases.

Because Fetscher later left the SA and opened a practice that treated Jews and other victims of the Nazis, some Dresden residents regard him as a member of the German resistance. His hometown named a school after him. Of all things, it happens to be a school for the physically handicapped.

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