Teaching WWII

This year, my son is studying U.S. history.  Last year’s history curriculum started in the 1600’s and ended with President William McKinley.  We studied the famous painting, Signing of the Peace Protocol Between Spain and United States,  where President McKinley stands presiding over the signing. That painting hangs in the Treaty Room at the White House.  The history curriculum this year, 6th grade, began with the turn of the century and President Theodore Roosevelt.  We have made our way through WWI, the Great Depression, and now the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Next, I have to discuss WWII.  I have been dreading this era since we started school.  How do I discuss Hitler and the Holocaust? It isn’t going to be easy.

Today, I began reading aloud WWII for Kids, and I explained that Hitler’s army invaded some European countries, including Austria.  With the mention of Austria, I immediately thought of the movie, The Sound of Music.  I thought about the scenes that depicted the Nazi Party and how it could relate to what we were discussing.  I remembered the part in the movie when Captain von Trapp rips the Nazi flag to show his anger and disapproval of the new “leadership”.  At the end of the movie, the von Trapp family, full of fear, fled Austria during the night to hide from the Nazis.   That alone told me, even as an adult, that the Nazis were bad news.

A second movie that had historical references of Hitler’s regime came to mind,  Schindler’s List.  This movie is not for children to watch.  Even for an adult, the movie is shockingly brutal.  Knowing this, I told my 11-year-old that I would find some mild scenes where the [German] army invades the Jewish ghettos [in Poland] and then I would call him into the room.  My intention was to show my son how clever the [Jews] were with making hiding places.  My idea didn’t work.  As I watched the parts where the German army invaded the ghetto, I noticed how often someone was shot, usually in the head at point-blank range.  Even in black and white, the scenes were disturbing.  The movie was so intense that I turned it off.  I never allowed my son to see any of it.  How on earth did I ever watch it before!?  I guess looking at a movie through the would be eyes of a child puts things in a new perspective. 

After today, I thought about Schindler’s List in a different light.  I use to think films like it were brilliant for showing the ugly realities of war.  Not anymore.  I have realized that I don’t need to see a soldier mercilessly shoot a man in the head and then watch the blood soak into the snow on the road just to understand how horrible Hitler was [towards those who he thought were inferior].  Some people welcome that realization, but I don’t, and children definitely should not. 

So, from my WWII lesson, I reflected on two movies that portrayed the evils that came from Hitler and Nazi Germany. What a contrast in depictions, from The Sound of Music to Schindler’s List!  Call me sensitive or naive but Captain von Trapp’s ripping the Nazi flag says all anyone needs to know about Hitler.

Note-I have made a few corrections since posting this entry.  There were some erroneous references that I didn’t catch it in my editing (it was very late when I wrote first wrote it and I was tired.)  Glad I don’t get paid to blog. :-)

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Teaching WWII

  1. I watched “The Great Escape” as a kid and didn’t need therapy or anything afterwards. It implies certain things without being too violent ( except the on screen shooting if Ives as he tries to escape and the offscreen gunning down of 50 or so people at the end of the movie) … and it is a cool story that kids (boy kids) can get into.
    Hey! What boy has never thought about digging a tunnel?
    … and Steve McQueen is so cool!!!!

    • planetross: I forgot about “The Great Escape!” I never saw it, but I remember hearing about it. My son has drawn out detailed plans for tunnels so I’m sure he’d get into it.

  2. Not sure how old your son is. I was about 9 when WWII was first taught to us. We had a really great teacher who introduced us to children’s fiction about WWII and talked us through the themes. Two books that I particularly liked were I Am David by Ann Holm, about a boy who walks his way to freedom and the people he meets along the way, and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr about a little girl who is confused about the danger of being Jewish in Berlin. In film there’s a really interesting one about a little evacuee (London kids were sent to live with countryside families during The Blitz) adapting to his new life – it’s called Goodnight Mister Tom. Empire of the Sun is another film about the Japanese occupation of Shanghai seen through a little boy’s eyes – a good one for your son I think. So a variety of perspectives about different things going on in different parts of the world during WWII. Gosh – such an intense topic to teach.

    • Epicurienne: My son is 11. We have moved on into the Cold War era, but I maybe look for those books you suggested at my library. We can read them together. They sound very interesting!
      I remember the movie Empire of the Sun. It has been years since I have seen it.

  3. You can look for The Zinn Project for all phases of history.http://www.zinnedproject.org/
    Sign/join as an educator and they have curriculum for each topic.
    Less the Euro-centric spin, it is based on Zinn’s A People’s History.

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