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The Arolsen Archives – a Very Special Learning Environment

Marcus von der Straten was born in 1968 and lives in Ahnatal, close to Kassel, Germany. He studied Ancient History, Medieval History and Modern History, Economic and Social History, Political Science, German Language and Literature, and Education at the Georg-August University in Göttingen. He has been teaching History, German, Geography, Politics, Economics, and Performing Arts at the Wilhelm-Filchner-Schule in Wolfhagen since 2005. He is a senior teacher and became Head of History in 2006.

By Marcus von der Straten

The following text is a report on the successful long-term cooperation that exists between the Wilhelm-Filchner-Schule in Wolfhagen and the Arolsen Archives in neighboring Bad Arolsen.

Alongside the use of descriptive texts, the critical analysis of written sources has a firm place in the disciplinary canon of methods used in the field of history teaching and has long been an accepted element of standard textbooks. However, a difficulty with the source editions of many textbooks is the fact that they differ optically, i.e. (typo)graphically, from real documents and that the didactic approach applied sometimes changes the material beyond recognition. But this does at least have the advantage of making it possible to contextualize and interpret historical sources and incorporate descriptive texts within the rigid timeframe and methodological constraints of normal lessons. In addition to these text-based materials, modern learning should involve as many other different types of sources as possible (images, objects, and audio-visual sources), film documentaries, history films, digital media, etc., as well as out-of-school learning environments.

Visits to archives, for example, provide didactical and methodological learning opportunities that, however, are not usually (or cannot usually be) exploited within the normal school routine for organizational reasons. But it is this very departure from routine that contributes to the positive effect that excursions of this kind have on students' motivation. Another aspect worthy of positive mention is that the fact that a visit to the Arolsen Archives, for example, enables students to experience history directly by giving them the opportunity to work with documents that have neither been specially prepared for use in the classroom nor previously deciphered. In the context of research-based learning, this encourages students to formulate their very own questions about history!

The Arolsen Archives and school - in practice

The Wilhelm-Filchner-Schule and the Arolsen Archives (formerly the International Tracing Service, ITS) have been cooperating in various ways since 2010. After attending initial training courses, teachers were able to use the archive for research purposes, receive digitized archival materials for use during the preparation of visits to memorial sites, and use publications from the ITS Digital Archive for teaching purposes. In addition to these forms of project-specific cooperation, students are also allowed to use the archive and its library on their own when working on presentations or special assignments, for example.

Day trips to the archive organized on a regular basis by the History Workshop, an optional course for year 10/11, are a central element of the cooperation. The following procedure is usually followed: welcome and discussion of expectations, presentation on the history and the mandate of the Arolsen Archives, introduction to the archival database, individual research in the ITS Digital Archive with support from staff, complementary use of the library, short presentation of results, feedback, further work and final presentations in school. The young people usually learn how to use the digital archive very quickly at a technical level as it is a medium which is familiar to them from their everyday lives. However, in view of the complexity of the archival holdings, students require professional support from the helpful staff of the Arolsen Archives and from the teacher supervising the group when it comes to conducting their own research. While the questions students ask at first tend to be related to the application itself (directory structure, file paths, etc.) and to be of a general nature (technical terms, foreign words), most of the questions they ask later on are concerned with specific aspects of the subject of their research. Given appropriate support, most students are able to conduct their own research on a specific topic successfully and to evaluate documents accordingly. The material that students find during their research is provided free of charge at the end of the day so that they can continue to use it at school afterwards. The team at the Arolsen Archives will carry out further research on request.

The potential of research-based learning at the Arolsen Archives for history teaching 

In order for a research visit to Bad Arolsen to be successful, it is essential to contact the staff at an early stage and to prepare the students by introducing the subject matter in advance. Lessons should cover key themes appropriate to the specific focus of the visit (e.g. Nazi ideology and its supporters, propaganda and terror as instruments of power, organization and structure of the concentration camp system, groups of victims and prisoners, everyday life in the camps, forced labor). In addition, the teacher who accompanies the group must be willing to provide active and knowledgeable support.

The Arolsen Archives are Europe's largest archive on National Socialist crimes and their aftermath. As a tracing and information center, they are a particularly good resource when it comes to searching for specific names and places within the territory of the former German Reich or within the territories which were occupied by Germany. A large quantity of general documents and person-related documents from the "Imprisonment", "Forced Labor", "Displaced Persons" and "Tracing Service" sections of the archive are available to the learning groups and can be used by them for the purposes of reconstructing individual fates or exploring the contents of official documents. The archive comprises collections of Nazi documents as well as collections which come from the Allies, from the Arolsen Archives themselves, and from their predecessor organizations. Most of the holdings have already been digitized.

The research carried out by the students is not always entirely successful or productive for a number of reasons: sometimes the data or documents available on individual persons, specific places, or topics is only rudimentary, and sometimes problems arise in connection with documents in foreign languages or with documents that are damaged or difficult to read. Despite these difficulties, the young people are usually very satisfied with their achievements and with the support they receive. Because the students have such a high level of identification with their own work, it is often necessary to stop the research session before the students are ready because of the limited time available. Research-based learning is particularly good at fostering intrinsic motivation and has an activating cognitive effect. Experiences of authenticity and empathy when viewing original documents and considering the lives of specific historical persons enhance learning: discovering a name on a deportation list or looking at ego documents authored by a concentration camp survivor has a very different effect than reading an abstract description of the same theme. This approach leads to a deeper understanding and to a concretization both of subject matter that is familiar to the students from previous lessons and of subject matter that is unfamiliar. Building on the desire to learn more about the Nazi dictatorship, the Holocaust, and the immediate post-war period that many students express, their prior knowledge can be consolidated and expanded in this way – and with a definite regional focus too.

The students also practice and strengthen their ability to deal with written sources, a key competence. In view of the changing culture of writing, reading and reception (keyword: fake news), extracting meaning and reading critically have become all the more important in recent times. In addition to subject-specific competences such as source criticism, contextualization and interpretation, studying official documents, for example, can also serve to sensibilize students to the revealing, euphemistic language used by the National Socialists or help them recognise the inhumanity of administrative processes. In this respect, the Arolsen Archives offer challenging and varied opportunities for active, discovery-centered historical learning by encouraging students to formulate questions of their own, apply analytical skills, develop problem-solving strategies and hone their historical and contemporary awareness (powers of perception, analysis, judgement and orientation).

At the end of this process of independent, cooperative, co-determined and reflective learning, some kind of joint - and, if necessary, assessable - product should result (narrative competence). This might be a commemorative speech, commemorative plaque, exhibition display case, video, website, history newspaper, textbook chapter, presentation, poster, etc.

A plea for using archival materials (from the Arolsen Archives) in schools

Generally speaking, greater use of existing archives, memorial sites, museums, libraries etc. by schools should be encouraged, as these environments provide opportunities for experiential and discovery learning using concretehistorical examples.

Working with the Arolsen Archives and using the documents from the ITS Digital Archive have proved very successful in practice, both from a general educational perspective and from the specific perspective of history teaching. Going beyond everyday, run-of-the-mill lessons based on textbooks and worksheets provides teachers with the opportunity to arouse genuine curiosity in students and to awaken their detective instincts. Confronting students with source materials that have not been specially prepared for teaching purposes can help them develop competences that are both subject-specific and universal, both content-based and process-based. In the context of this institutional learning opportunity, students actually take ownership of a "school" topic and make it their own, they apply historical methods themselves, and participate voluntarily with greater intensity.


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