OPRF’s Foreign Exchange student program offers a number of unique experiences for students visiting here from other countries.

But some of the German students visiting this fall weren’t prepared to see a relic from their country’s past here on American soil – and at an American high school.

On their first day at the school on Sept. 20, they toured the spacious OPRF campus. They saw the television studio, large theater and Student Activity Center. Their school back home doesn’t have any of these amenities. But when they toured the Library, they were taken aback after seeing a copy of Adolph Hitler’s autobiography and hate manifesto Mein Kampf sitting on the shelf.

“We were very surprised to see Hitler’s book Mein Kampf,” said 17-year-old Pia Radojkovie. “You would never see it in a German school. Maybe a teacher would have it. But the German students are not allowed to read it. It’s not available in any official library. I think it’s forbidden.”

Such works as Mein Kampf (translated “My Struggle, or My Battle”) are readily available in America. U.S. schools have used such books as educational tools. The book is not quite forbidden in Germany, but it’s true that many of Germany’s youth have never seen an actual copy, let alone read it. Hitler’s infamy is not lost on the visiting OPRF German students or those back in their homeland. They know very well about that dark period of their country’s history, and the man who ushered it in.

Germany is much different today, but for some, seeing the book in a U.S. school brought up thoughts of old stereotypes that may still linger with some Americans. The students realize such ideas stem from misunderstood history.

“When we came here, there were some questions about Germany. One guy asked me, ‘Do Germans still have the long socks to their knees and the short trousers?’ and I was like, no, look at me, I’m like you,” said Christen Gifhorn, 17. “And I think they just don’t get that there is another Germany. I think that’s the problem.”

The German students themselves actually seemed more enlightened about American culture. But overcoming old ideas about Germany is something the students sometimes find themselves struggling with, said Karen Badstein, the student’s teacher and chaperone.

“I don’t think people like to be reduced to just being German and having connections to that era,” she said. “It’s part of our history and our country, but we want people to know that there is a very different Germany and a more modern and democratic Germany. And I guess that’s why the kids, and even when I saw it, were so surprised. It’s like, now they’re coming back with all the old stereotypes.”

Hitler didn’t actually wrote the book. While in prison in between 1923 and 1924, he dictated his life story and political views on Nazism to Rudolph Hess. In the book, the tyrannical future German leader formally exposed his hatred for Jews and communism, and he stated his intention to do away with both. He even went so far as to separate people by physical looks, seeking to establish a pecking order of higher and lower class humans.

Germans, he mused, with their fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes, were at the top of that pecking order. Those views both formed the basis for the rise of Nazism in 1930’s Germany and helped shape much of the Neo-Nazi movement in America in the late 1950s. It has been movements like those that have stoked the flames of bigotry in America.

In Germany the history of Nazism is well documented, despite not having Hitler’s book available to the country’s youth, said German teacher and chaperone Ingrid Gropl. The lessons of tolerance, she noted, are being learned.

“The whole political philology is covered,” she said. It’s covered in different subjects; in German literature and history. It’s not that important to have a single work, but a history of ideas.”

CONTACT tdean@wjinc.com

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