Fly your Nazi flag

It is useful to remember that one of the ways Nazism came to power in Germany was through efforts to suppress it. Driven into dark corners, it thrived on the fringe and then worked its way into the mainstream. The point is worth making in the wake of a dispute over the display as a teaching tool of a Nazi Youth flag in a Washoe County middle school classroom. The flag should upset the upcoming generation as it has the last generation. While it’s great that the parties reached meeting of minds, it’s also important that an enduring lesson is learned—sometimes it’s important to use upsetting symbols because they are upsetting.

It is not difficult to understand the legitmate anguish of Jewish members of our community about this incident. One of them told the Reno Gazette-Journal, “We take this symbol to be as serious as a heart attack. This is a symbol of someone who wants to kill Jews.”

Exactly. Which is why the use of the flag serves as a learning tool in helping teach students the evils of Nazism. Nazi Germany’s history is supposed to disturb people, including middle school students.

Would we want instruction that does not? If we drain the horror from the history of Nazism to make it palatable to students, we will also drain it of its power to teach. The teacher who hung the flag is doing exactly what his critics want him to do—impart the dread of that terrible time. The flag will, if the teacher does his job, inspire the heart attack-style feelings his critics lament.

The school district and the teacher’s critics have focused attention on how long the flag was displayed. But it’s the teacher who’s actually in the classroom. Critics and the school district shouldn’t second guess those on-the-scene decisions. The omnipresence of Nazi indoctrination was a part of classroom life in Germany, and keeping the flag in place for an extended period is a reasonable way of showing that.

“I approach the lesson as to how Hitler manipulated children,” the teacher says. “He gave them their own flag. He gave them their own uniform. He gave them their own songs. … Then we talk about the death camps under that flag. We talk about Hitler sending children to war under that flag.”

It sounds like this teacher has his head screwed on right and deserves the support both of the school district and of his critics. Part of “Never again!” is understanding what happened before.

In a famous 1890 case of an economics teacher who exposed his students to the tenets of socialism and therefore faced loss of his job, the regents of the University of Wisconsin announced, "We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented."