Donald Snyder Teachers combat threat to democracy
I huddled with the young East German couple in their dimly lit living room in Leipzig. It was 1968. I was covering the annual Leipzig industrial fair for the Mutual Broadcasting System, and they were my host couple.
We spoke in whispers because the couple feared their children in the next room would hear them criticizing the hardline communist regime. Children in East Germany were encouraged to report anyone who did not toe the party line, including their own parents.
Fast forward to today.
Ulricke Fischer was raised in East Germany and taught there. She knows what it’s like to live in a dictatorship where the Stasi (East German secret police) were everywhere. Now teaching in Dresden, which was in East Germany before German reunification in 1990, she is troubled by a new online platform that the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AFD) has introduced. It enables students to report on their teachers. This platform, reminiscent of the communist era culture, makes her angry.
“The AFD wants students to say bad things about teachers and get us fired,” Fischer told Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcasting system.
The AFD is a xenophobic, racist party that’s represented in all of Germany’s 16 states and is the main opposition party in the Bundestag (parliament). It is critical of Germany’s membership in the European Union (EU) because of the EU’s liberal values and what the AFD considers encroachment on German sovereignty. It is anti-Muslim and opposes the influx of refugees from the war-ravaged Middle East. It also calls on Germans to stop feeling guilt for World War II.
Teachers in Germany are required to obey a neutrality code that prevents them from using their authority to influence the political views of their students. The AFD created the online platform to enable students to report teachers who violate the neutrality code in discussions of the party positions.
Fischer says this makes her all the more determined to speak out. She will not allow herself to be intimidated. Engaging in democratic discussions about politics is the only way to involve students in civil society as they are growing up, she says.
She is not alone. Christian Piwarz, culture minister of the state of Saxony, where Dresden is located, says the AFD is breeding a despicable mindset of dictatorship from the times of the Nazis and of the East German Stasi.
Far-right nationalism is threatening democracy in much of Europe. Yale historian Timothy Snyder recently observed that democracy failed in Europe in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s. “It is that history and experience that reveals to us the dark range of our possible futures,” he wrote.
Standing up for democracy and freedom assumes great importance in an environment that denounces critical journalism as “fake news,” condemns immigrants and refugees as invaders, and asserts a Christian nationalism. This xenophobic, nationalist rhetoric is taking hold in Europe and in the America of Donald Trump.
Germans understand this toxic language better than most Europeans because of their dark history. They have learned from the inhumanity of the Nazi era and from the Communist period in East Germany that democracy is the only path forward.
Indifference is dangerous.
“Indifference is always the friend of the enemy,” wrote the late Elie Weisel, a Holocaust survivor and scholar, “For it benefits the enemy, not the victim.”
The protection of democracy requires that teachers, like Fischer, maintain their commitment to free speech in the education of Germany’s youth. If the next generation is to uphold democracy, its teachers must have the moral courage to stand up to those who seek to stifle discussion.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, executed on April 9, 1945 for participating in a plot to kill Hitler, attests to the importance of what we bequeath to future generations.
“The ultimate moral test of mankind,” said Bonhoffer, “Is the kind of world it leaves to its children.”
Donald Snyder, a Greenwich resident, is a former foreign correspondent and a retired producer for NBC News.