My story – our history: Adolescents discuss the historical events that are important to them

The 9th of November was a fateful day in German history: It coincides with the proclamation of the Weimar Republic in 1918, Pogrom Night (‘Night of Broken Glass’) in 1938 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For today’s students much of this already seems like ancient history. They weren’t yet born and in many cases, their parents and grandparents hadn’t migrated to Germany yet. What significance do these dates have for youths? What other dates are important to them? Julia Gerlach and Aylin Yavaş spoke with 10th graders from Robert-Koch-Schule in Berlin-Kreuzberg about this. The following is an interview transcript.

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Aylin Yavaş: Thank you for joining us for this discussion. We are interested in knowing which historical events have significance for you. Let me start by saying that, for me, the 30th of August 2010, is an important date. This is when Thilo Sarrazin‘s book Deutschland schafft sich ab was released. I remember this date very clearly: I was at school taking an advanced politics class. My teacher brought this book to the lesson and we read some excerpts out loud. I was taken aback by the fact that it had apparently become socially acceptable to spread such racist drivel. It’s one of the main reasons why I now deal with this topic both at university and professionally.

Julia Gerlach: There are many days that I could say had an impact on my life: My wedding day, for example, or the day my father died. But today our discussion is not about personal events and so 9 November 1989, when the wall came down, is indeed a true watershed for me. At the time, I was living in a flat-sharing community and my American roommate exclaimed: ‘Hey guys, your wall fell!’ I didn’t believe him until I switched on the television. It’s typical that one can remember such momentous days – and also know exactly what one was doing when first hearing the news. What such eventful dates also have in common is that they change one’s own life.  What are the events that play such a role in your lives?

Aylin S.: This summer there was a military coup attempt in Turkey. It caused a lot of arguments in my family and it was a very stressful day for me.

Wassim: For me, the beginning of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia was such an important historical event. Since I’m half-Tunisian, I am affected by changes that occur in that country. Even though true democratization has not taken place, something important nonetheless has happened. And it also had an influence recent history: Syria has disintegrated, terror is on the rise and that too impacts Europe. I am personally affected because I worry about my family and the other Tunisians. I ask myself whether they are fine or whether they are being oppressed by the government.

Amira: In recent times, there have been several terror attacks here in Europe, for example, in Paris. This affects one’s sense of security here in Germany. People are more afraid and they worry more. Since terror has now gotten closer, people are more concerned. For me that’s not really a new development because I’m both German and Palestinian and Palestine has been in the grip of violence for a long time. But terror in Europe has changed my immediate environment: There are more discussions and there’s more fear. There is also more right wing extremism – the rise of the AfD attests to that.

Aylin S.: My circle of friends also experiences this fear. We feel a sense of panic when we visit public places.

Burak: You can also tell by the lack of tourists from countries in which war and terror is being waged.

Aylin S.: I’m often told not to go to crowded places – such as Alexanderplatz, for example. Or other major public events including the street festival ‘Karneval der Kulturen’. You almost expect an attack. But I went to the festival anyway. It’s more than just fear; it’s real paranoia. Terror really has changed our lives.

Wassim: It makes me very angry when people like Donald Trump exploit this fear. The people who voted for him assume that they are personally powerless and support him in the hope that ‘the great Donald’ can finally effect change.

Julia Gerlach: Let us hope that November 8th 2016 doesn’t become an historical day because Donald Trump is elected on that day! We will wind up this round for now and show you some photos. They show various historical events. Have a look and tell us which of these events have significance for you – something that you relate to. So, who would like to start?

Ramies: I have a photo of PEGIDA as they demonstrate against the ‘Islamization of the Western World’ in Dresden and other cities. That makes me angry because I am a Muslim myself.

Mert: Since we live in a country with freedom of speech, they are allowed to say that.

Amira: I agree that it’s important to be allowed to speak one’s mind but it still makes me angry when they say that Islam doesn’t belong to Germany. It’s totally sad to see how many people share this opinion and join such demonstrations.

Aylin S.: And it’s also racist to say that.

Dila: I chose the protests against Erdoğan’s government on Taksim Square. I’ve been in Germany for just two months; before that I lived in Turkey. When Erodğan became president, everything in Turkey changed. I even got into fights with my friends about it. Turkey used to be on a much better path but now it’s like a dictatorship. So the turning point wasn’t the president’s election but rather the changes he instituted.

Aylin Yavaş: The Taskim Square demonstrations probably also mark the juncture when it became visible that there are actually people who don’t agree with the government.

Aylin S.: I chose an event that doesn’t even really relate to me: the Srebrenica Massacre. A friend of mind told me that his father was killed there. This part of history really touched me and interests me because it’s so little known.

Mert: ‘2014 when Germany became the football world champion … that really touched me (the class laughs out). Now I can show off about it in Turkey. I goad them by saying: ‘So, we’re the world champs – what about you?

Bekcan:  Who cares – it has no effect on us.

Mert: But you live in Germany – doesn’t it make you happy when everyone else is happy?

Tuğçe: Yes, sure, I was also happy at that moment but it’s not an event that I will still remember in ten years.

Meltem: For me, that’s not an historical event because I’m not interested in the German football team – if Turkey had won I would have identified more with that.

Wassim: If I were interested in football, I might consider it an important event too. I too have specific interests and there are certain events that have meaning to me because of that. Everyone is different in that respect and you have to take that seriously.

Amina: The world championships were one of just a few happy events that we addressed. So that alone might make it something special, an occasion to celebrate and have fun – without victims.

Gizem: I chose the French Revolution. Obviously, I wasn’t there but I think it’s meaningful that people stood up for their rights. Europe would probably be a different place had it not been for the French Revolution and the ideas it embraced. And then there’s the nuclear catastrophe of Fukushima in 2011. I wasn’t very aware of it at the time but now there are a lot of demonstrations against nuclear power plants and there is a heightened consciousness about it.

Amina: I chose the 2014 war in Gaza. I still remember it clearly. My aunt lives in Gaza and my grandmother kept trying to reach her the entire time but she never answered the phone. My cousin lost a leg in that war. We don’t go to Palestine for vacations because my mother thinks it’s too dangerous.

Julia Gerlach: If you could decide which event should be introduced as a national day of remembrance – or national holiday – which event would that be?

Aylin S.: I would designate the massacre of Srebrenica as a day of mourning so that this event is never forgotten.

Ramies: I think we should treat the war in Gaza the same way we treat 9/11.

Ahmet: I don’t think it will be possible to agree on one particular day. There are too many differing opinions and stories.

Julia Gerlach: So, do you think that everyone should get to take off one day each year to commemorate a very special event? But aren’t official holidays meant to bring together the people of one nation so that they can jointly commemorate an event that was meaningful for them as a nation?

Wassim: To be honest, I don’t think that those kinds of national holidays pan out the way you expect. Most of the people would just enjoy a day off. I’m actually an optimist but I think you have to be realistic and honest about that.

Aylin Yavaş: While I’m aware of what happened on 3 October, I don’t sit around at home thinking about the German division because I didn’t experience it. But, when it’s September 11th, I remember what happened and how my mother let me into our home after school and tried to explain the pictures running on our television. As part of the discussion, it became clear that it is primarily the events that you witnessed yourself that are important …events that you can relate to.

Amina: Maybe it’s always like that on such public holidays: Some people commemorate but for others it’s just a day off.

We would like to express our appreciation for this discussion to the students and instructor of the philosophy course!


Related topic:

As part of the exhibition: ‘Was glaubst du denn? – Muslime in Deutschland’ (So, what do you believe? – Muslims in Germany), students created a personal ‘wall of history’ in which they offer insights into which historical events are important to them: