"Religious diversity must make its mark in history lessons"

Frank-Michael Kuhlemann | Photo: Kirsten Lassig, MZ, TU-Dresden
Frank-Michael Kuhlemann | Photo: Kirsten Lassig, MZ, TU-Dresden

On 22 November, German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosted the award ceremony of the German history competition 2016/17 in Bellevue Palace in Berlin, his official residence. More than 5,000 students conducted local and family history projects on the topic of »God and the world. Religion makes history«.

The competition’s results have been assessed by the German expert Frank-Michael Kuhlemann who holds the Chair of Modern and Contemporary History and Didactics of History at the Technical University of Dresden. In an interview with Bernd Vogenbeck, Program Manager at the Körber Foundation, Mr. Kuhlemann stresses the importance of religion for history lessons.

BV: Mr. Kuhlemann, were you surprised by the positive response to the competition topic »Religion«?

FMK: The participation figures show that the subject of religion is something that moves young people. However, apart from individual cases, this is not significantly related to belonging to a religious community. This is shown partly by the choice of topics of many young people, and it is also indicated by the distribution of the contributions: Both the federal states in northern Germany, which are characterised by a more liberal understanding of religion, and the federal states in eastern Germany where religious affiliation is low, participated very actively. I interpret this success in a different way: Many young people concern themselves with meaningful elements of religion and question the meaning of beliefs for their identity – this interest in the topic is reflected in the contributions.

BV: What do you think attracted young people to the topic?

FMK: It is particularly the moral problems that arise from personal religious beliefs and the political side of religion: What is right? And what is wrong? How can we assess the actions and activities of people and communities? Have people stood up for "good" or for ideals and have they offered resistance where necessary? These are value issues in which young people seek orientation and which involve a high level of identification and motivation.

BV: What conclusions can be drawn from this for standard history lessons?

FMK: The contributions make it clear that religion is seen as an important factor in history – not as a dogma, but as a value entity that is an integral part of social problems, is at the same time negotiable and calls for participation. The interest of the pupils reflects current socio-political issues and at the same time takes up scientific discourses. All these points justify treatment in history lessons, and yet religion is still faced with a difficult situation in this context: Its significance in contemporary history often remains unacknowledged because it is perceived as being suspicious, or it is marginalised as not playing a key role in shaping history. However, the significance and diversity of religious beliefs are part of our society – and this must also be reflected in history lessons!

BV: Where do you see points of contact for the topic of religion in history lessons?

FMK: The competition entries cover a broad spectrum – from the history of violence to art and architecture. I see implications for the traditional orientation of history lessons above all where connections between religion and politics can be established. However, approaching the history of everyday life and mentalities can also open up new perspectives in history lessons: A history of labour migration during industrialisation or the integration of displaced persons after 1945, taking into account customs and welfare, would allow completely different insights to traditional economic or social historical approaches. Questions of identity and integration that could be posed in this way are relevant to pupils for age-related reasons and important in order to reflect on the challenges of a pluralistic society.

BV: The topic "lslam" was only taken up in less than four percent of the competition entries – how would you interpret that?

FMK: The reasons for this are undoubtedly as varied as the contributions themselves. This figure shows that, despite the now sixty-year-old presence of Muslim communities in Germany, they have only been addressed as part of our society in recent years. The assertion by former Federal President Wulff that Islam belongs to Germany has not yet led to a perception that Islam has also become part of more recent German history. In addition, there is – besides questions regarding the availability of sources – some uncertainty among teachers and students when dealing with the topic.

BV: What role should religious diversity play in history lessons in the future?

FMK: Multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity may have become part of the historical didactic debate, but the curricula still have a lot of catching up to do. Furthermore, religion in particular, which is what often accounts for this diversity, is hardly taken into consideration. The fact is that it can be understood not only as a factor of diversity, but also as an inclusion factor: Dialogue only becomes possible with the understanding of one's own values as well as the values and world view of others.

BV: Thank you!


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