Nazi era lives on in German schools

The 'father' of the US space programme is honoured with two schools named after him but he was also in Hitler's SS.

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BERLIN // In the 1930s, Dr Rainer Fetscher conducted research into "racial hygiene", kept extensive records of "biologically inferior persons", joined Adolf Hitler's Brown Shirts and had 65 people sterilised. Yet there is a school for physically disabled people in the German city of Dresden that is named after him. In the eastern town of Bernstadt, there is a Klaus Riedel high school that honours the rocket pioneer who helped develop Hitler's V2 ballistic missiles that killed thousands in the final months of the war, and that were built by slave labourers, about 20,000 of whom died in the process. An estimated 100 schools across Germany bear the names of Nazi party members or scientists who worked for the Nazis, according to Geralf Gemser, a historian and author of a new study that has revealed startling historical insensitivity, prompted criticism of school authorities and led to urgent calls for name changes.

"If you're going to choose a person from the Nazi era, the name should represent resistance to the regime or at least rejection of it," Mr Gemser said in an interview. "School names are excellently suited to honouring victims of the Nazis." Mr Gemser conducted a comprehensive survey of the 2,000 schools in the eastern state of Saxony and found that eight of them bore the names of Nazis, while only two were named after Holocaust victims. "That's unacceptable," said Mr Gemser, and many people agree with him. He said that after German unification in 1990, many eastern schools that had been named after communist leaders were hurriedly renamed, and that some had not been rigorous enough in checking the backgrounds of the people they were honouring.

In five cases in Saxony, school authorities chose the names of people they knew to have been in the Nazi party, Mr Gemser said. He admits it is a grey area - two of the names on his list in Saxony joined the Nazi party for financial reasons rather than out of any political conviction. The party was so powerful that anyone who came to prominence or wanted to climb the career ladder during its 12-year rule had to join it or at least submit to it, and is therefore bound to be tainted. Wernher von Braun, for example, is honoured as the father of the US space programme that took man to the Moon. Before that, he happened also to have been a member of Hitler's SS and in charge of designing the V2. Two schools in western Germany are named after him. Even racial hygienist Dr Fetscher is not a clear-cut case. The Rainer Fetscher School in Dresden celebrates Fetscher as an "active opponent of Hitler" because he went on to oppose the Nazi euthanasia programme and was shot dead at the end of the Second World War, although it is unclear whether the bullets were fired by Nazis or the Soviet Red Army. Susanne Petschke, the Fetscher school director, said last week she saw no need for a name change, but the school has since put a notice on its website saying the name is now under review. "I've had a variety of reactions to the study. The director of one school with a problematic name politely invited me to a school conference to review the issue. That's the right way to go about it. Other schools have refused to discuss it," Mr Gemser said. He now plans to widen his research to schools in other parts of Germany. Last year, a high school in western Berlin voted to drop the name Erich Hoepner, a German Wehrmacht tank general, who told his troops the invasion of the Soviet Union would be led by an "iron will to carry out the merciless, total destruction of the enemy". The school had been named after Hoepner in 1956 because he had joined an army plot to kill Hitler and was hanged by the Nazis. "The name had been controversial from the start and was repeatedly debated," said Gerald Thimm, the school's director. "I don't think a general is a very suitable name patron for a school. "I can't judge his role in the resistance to Hitler, but many aspects of his role in World War Two are less than salubrious." Teachers, parents and pupils decided of their own accord to drop Hoepner and chose to name the school after Heinz Berggruen, a Jewish art dealer who fled Berlin in 1936 and died in 2007. "It's a mistake not to deal with your past," said Mr Thimm, whose school regularly conducts visits of Holocaust memorial sites and invites Holocaust survivors to address pupils. "Unfortunately the eyewitnesses are dying out and it's becoming more difficult to talk to people who can describe what happened." The Klaus Riedel School in Bernstadt, meanwhile, has no plans to rename itself. It adopted the name in 2007 and only after media protests and some prompting from the Saxony local government did it agree to mention on its website that many innocent people were killed by the V2 rocket Riedel had helped to develop. The engineer was raised in Bernstadt, and the town built a memorial to him in 1993. Harald Tresp, Riedel's biographer, last year voiced misgivings about naming a school after Riedel. "He wasn't a Nazi, but he knew exactly what the rocket would be used for," he said.