The website "Learning from History" is a publication platform
for educational projects (realized in schools
and in out-of-school, youth education)
dedicated to the history of Poland and its neighbors in the 20th century and human rights
’And… Action! Against Nazis’ - pedagogical guidance for educating about right-wing extremism
Location / Region: Berlin
Institution: Amadeu Antonio Foundation
Patron / Project supervision: Foundation „Rememberance, Responsibility and Future”
Project authors: Amadeu Antonio Foundation
Age group: Mixed group
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Amadeu Antonio Foundation
Carmen Altmeyer
Introductory remarks

Educating people about historical issues can be a daunting task since many feel that things which happened in the past do not possess a lot of meaning for their everyday lives. However, the Amadeu Antonio Foundation believes that history education is absolutely necessary to achieve meaningful social and political changes and to hinder atrocities such as the Holocaust from ever being carried out again. As Theodor W. Adorno has written, “the premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz shall never happen again”.

In its efforts to educate young people about current manifestations of right-wing extremism and the Holocaust, the Amadeu Antonio Foundation has developed a project called “’And… Action! Against Nazis’ Pedagogical guidance for educating about right-wing extremism with the help of documentaries and motion pictures”, funded by the Foundation „Rememberance, Responsibility and Future” and Dreilinden gGmbH. Its innovative approach combines education about right-wing extremism and history with human rights education. The following article does not only describe this project and its methodological tools in detail, but also elaborates on the benefits and the problems which arise by combining history with human rights education and by working specifically with the medium film. This text is mainly based on two articles written by Dr. Heike Radvan, Julia Stegmann and Anne Thiemann which form part of the pedagogical guidance published by Amadeu Antonio Foundation in 2013.  

Using movies which display right-wing violence to teach human rights seems paradoxical at the first glance – how can teachers “prove” that human rights are important when they show their students movies displaying human rights violations? As the innovative pilot project “And… Action! Against Nazis” demonstrates, this approach can be an effective and sensible pedagogical method if the right kinds of movies are chosen and the educators know didactical approaches which work. Therefore, the guidance/brochure published by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation aims at supporting educators who would like to teach human rights at the same time as historical knowledge, focusing in particular on right-wing extremism. 

Movies as educational tools

Movies do not only enable us to understand contemporary situations in their having-become, they also address people on a deeper, emotional level which makes it possible to get young people talking about difficult issues in an unbiased way. Watching movies with students breaks up the normal school setting, helps to start discussions and to support opinion making. However, working with movies also poses several difficulties which are not easily resolved. Most movies dealing with current forms of right-wing extremism narrate from a very specific perspective: usually, they focus on male teenagers who are entering the right-wing scene or are already established members of a neo-Nazi group. These movies try to explain the individual motivation of these young people for choosing a neo-Nazi-lifestyle, often in a psychologizing and paternalistic way. 

This causes two main pedagogical problems: the movies pose “identification traps”, and they do not offer a change in perspectives. People affected by neo-Nazi violence and their experiences and concerns do not get highlighted in these movies. In the majority of cases, they do not play a role at all because of the strong focus of the movies on the perpetrators. The movies’ protagonists can work as identification figures for young people desperately searching for orientation because they are usually portrayed as strong and assertive personalities. Moreover, the typical movies about right-wing extremism are problematic from a gender perspective since they always show men as authoritarian and violent, something which also can also serve as an identificational trap for male teenagers wanting to be „proper men“ and feeling attracted by the aestheticizing depiction of violence. Last but not least, the importance of right-wing ideas and ideology as a motivation to enter the neo-Nazi scene usually gets downplayed, even though the importance of ideology as well as racist and sexist stereotypes should not be underestimated. 

In Germany, there are many examples for movies possessing the characteristics outlined above. Since the turn of the millennium, these movies do not only get broadcast on many TV channels but have also found their way into the programs of major cinemas. Prominent examples are the documentaries “Traffic Jam – Let’s get started”  by Thomas Heise (1992) and “Occupation neo-Nazi” , a documentary produced by Winfried Bonengel in 1993.  Another international example is the movie “American History X” by Tony Kaye from 1998. 

In very well-prepared contexts and when working with groups which are not prone to identify with the protagonists of such movies, it can be possible to watch them and discuss their inherent sets of problems. However, under “normal” pedagogical circumstances, the Amadeu Antonio Foundation advises educators to refrain from doing so and to choose a different, more successful approach by picking movies with other characteristics. 

Educators need to identify the dehumanizing statements in all of these movies and counter them in a way comprehensible for everyone. It is essential that they position themselves, disclose their opinions and portray human rights and democratic values as superior to neo-Nazi ideology. Using basic methods and assumptions from a human rights education approach makes it possible to reach this goal. 

Human rights education 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 as a reaction to the atrocities committed during the Second World War. They paint a vision of an equal living together of all human beings which are “born free and equal in dignity and rights”, according to the first article of the UDHR. Even though they leave room for interpretation and development, human rights are indefeasible and indisputable. This means that they constitute a counterpoint to right-wing ideologies of disparity, discrimination and violence.

The practical implementation of human rights is only possible when broad levels of the population support this and participate in long-term learning processes. Human rights have to be communicated and learned explicitly when they shall be respected and effective. According to Anne Thiemann, human rights education is therefore an activity-oriented learning process directed at the realization of human rights.  Without basic clarifications about human rights, pedagogical efforts are often doomed to fail. 

Using human rights education to work against discrimination and right-wing extremism

Human rights education is a powerful prevention tool because of several reasons. Human rights strengthen one’s position and support one’s argumentation. They can change perspectives and help (young) people to defend their democratic positions against right-wing ideology at school and in all other areas of life. 

Most importantly, human rights set the benchmark and serve as the standard against which discriminatory behavior and structures can be measured. Not all people are naturally convinced that all people (should) have the same rights and possibilities. This is why it is indispensable to have standards which enable us to criticize existing inequalities and power relations and to perceive discrimination not only as an empirically identifiable fact but as a severe problem. As Ulrike Hormel and Albert Scherr have written, human rights are a standard against which attitudes and positions have to be measured beyond religious beliefs, origin and weltanschauung (world-view).  

The project’s movie selection 

The pedagogically valuable movies dealing with right-wing extremism which the Amadeu Antonio Foundation presents in its brochure are all multifaceted and approach the topic from different perspectives. They do not focus on the perpetrators, instead they portray those people which are affected by neo-Nazi violence and discrimination and explicitly take their positions. From a human rights perspective, visualizing the victims is an extremely important pedagogical and political positioning which helps to establish a discourse of empathy and interest concerning their experiences. Furthermore, these movies portray different democratically-minded persons which can serve as identification figures for young people. By depicting right-wing extremism as a very complex problem which affects all members of a community, they show that different people can find different solutions and ways for civil society and governmental action. 

Last but not least, showing these kinds of movies is a warning signal addressed at followers of right-wing ideologies as well as a way of showing solidarity with young people affected by neo-Nazi violence and discrimination. It is one of the main concerns of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation to criticize the low public visibility of and the missing empathy with victims and to be conducive to positive changes in this realm. 

The Amadeu Antonio Foundation has selected documentaries as well as motion pictures, capturing a wide range of topics and cinematic approaches. 

Concerning the escalation of racist violence, the project recommends the documentaries “Who sows violence… about arsonists and upright citizens“  from 1993 and “The Hoyerswerda syndrome”  from 1996. 

Recommendable movies highlighting racism, anti-Semitism and hate directed towards weaker members of society are “The life of Norbert Plath” , a documentary from 2001, and the documentary “Eight Turks, a Greek and a Policewomen – The victims of the right-wing terrorists“  from 2012.  

The documentaries „The brown chameleon“  and „The tragedy of the province“  as well as the motion pictures „Solstice “  and „The kick“ open up a multi-perspective view concerning current manifestations of right-wing extremism. 

Another very important, but seldom highlighted topic, is the roles women and girls occupy in the neo-Nazi scene. The documentary “Brown comrade”  from 2010 and the motion picture “Warrior”  from 2011 portray several female right-wing extremists. 

The documentaries “Per la vita” (2010) and “After the fire”  (2012) are dedicated to the murder victims and their resistance. 

The dissemination of the project

The results of the project and the educational materials were printed in an A4 format brochure, but they were also published online on a specifically created homepage. Moreover, the online version of the brochure has been uploaded to several online training platforms for teachers and other educators. This dissemination strategy was very successful – the project’s ideas and materials have been widely diffused and used by countless individuals, projects and initiatives. 

Final thoughts

Even though this project is a German one and most of the movies are only available in German, the debate concerning movies depicting right-wing extremism is international, as shown for instance by the internationally successful but criticized blockbuster “American History X”. It is an enormous problem that movies focusing on perpetrators usually get a lot of attention and earn their producers stacks of money, while movies highlighting the perspective of the victims of neo-Nazi violence often operate on a very low budget and do not get enough public attention. The influence that these movies have and could have should not be underestimated. This problem is truly international and should therefore be tackled by further similar projects and also international and/or European cooperations.  

Combining history and human rights education is a task which can be overpowering, but if it is well done it can have very gratifying results. Amadeu Antonio Foundation would like to encourage educators and other non-governmental organizations to give its methods a chance, to try new approaches and to be courageous. 

Translation: Katarzyna Dawid

Didactic text

The main goal of the project was to elaborate a brochure providing educational materials for school teachers and other educators. These educational materials were developed by a film theorist and several educationalists. The newly produced worksheets and ideas then got tested by groups of teachers as well as students and youth groups. The new ideas and recommendations voiced by the ...

Movie analysis
Preparing a brochure with educational materials
Human rights
Right-wing extremism