London in ruins after bombings
- No war in history has been deadlier than World War II. Estimates of the fatalities range from 50 to 70 million-a staggering figure difficult for anyone to grasp. In this lesson, The Casualties of War, loss is presented in an increasingly widening context of destruction. It is arranged in a series of sections or parts. Students first encounter the wreckage of family, then move to the devastations of community, city, and country. Finally, the lesson enlarges to include other targets of war-culture, the diversity of creative expression-and guides students to probe the full magnitude of The Greatest Theft in History.
Teachers may use this lesson to introduce students to the scope of the war’s impact on people and society, as well as its destruction of places-or they may use it to enhance and reinforce learning that has already occurred in the classroom. Teachers may select parts of the lesson’s sections to better meet classroom needs. Another option is to use the lesson’s structure as a framework for an extended study of the Second World War. It is recommended that The Casualties of War follow after the lesson Hitler, Art, Race, and Society. Ideas presented in More Than an Object, More Than a Place also will help prepare students for this lesson. Partnering this lesson with learning that relates the unfolding of the war to social, political, and economic factors is strongly recommended.
Social Studies, Visual Arts
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- Understand the impact of World War II on families, communities, cities, and countries.
- Examine how Nazi aggression, as a multi-tentacled enemy, combined its attacks on people with attacks on diversity, culture, and human achievement.
- Determine necessary moral responses to these destructions.
The Greatest Theft in History grounds historical events of World War II through the use of a variety of objects (most of artistic and/or cultural significance) that serve as evidence of what occurred. This does not imply that material culture is of greater value than the loss of human life nor more significant than other costs incurred by the war. The goals are to foster a fuller understanding of the range and scope of the war’s impact-and to contribute to the development of skills necessary for moral, responsible approaches for the protection of life and cultural heritage in future conflicts.
It is of equal importance to avoid comparisons about suffering. The sufferings that befell hundreds of millions of people-whether illustrated by an individual family, a community, or a country-are not to be used to dwarf the sufferings experienced by other victims during World War II, nor in conflicts before or since. Assertions that the horrific scale of the events of the Holocaust, for example, diminishes the agonies of other genocides are to be avoided.
Methodological guidelines for teaching about the war and, in particular, the Holocaust, appear on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Part One: The Destruction of Families
War tends to be a remote abstraction for many young people. To open the lesson, ask students to think about what happens during a war. Provide or elicit a few observations: Armies fight, people die, things get destroyed. And it wasn’t just military personnel who died in World War II; millions of civilians got caught in the cross-fire.
Direct students to journal a brief, in-class response to the question, "What is meant by a casualty of war?" This will be the first of several journal entries woven into the lesson.
- The Nazi Looting Machine
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Ask students the extent to which Altman is a victim of the war. Discuss what was stolen from him. Guide students to interpret his experience in a wide context: Altman lost his parents, siblings, other family members, his friends, his possessions, his heritage, his security, his place in the world, his future. To this, Altman adds, "I lost all my family memories."
The Greatest Theft in History considers the roles given to objects, great and small. Ask students to imagine that some of the items belonging to Jacques Altman’s family were later identified (none have). Should Altman receive them? What if these items had been in the possession of someone else since the war?
Assign a second journal entry. Students first reflect on the ways the war was a thief to Altman, then consider whether he would be the rightful owner of any newly discovered family property.
Establish that Jacques Altman’s story is one of countless stories about family suffering during the war. Jewish families were systematically destroyed, as were myriad other families also singled out on racial or religious grounds. Most European families, even if they weren’t directly targeted as enemies, suffered as well. Fathers and sons left to fight in battle, millions died, homes were destroyed, and daily life was turned upside down. Families in the United States endured hardships in a multitude of ways. Worldwide, few were spared from feeling the war’s consequences.
A distant war has the ability to make itself felt just about everywhere. To illustrate, ask students to recall their family histories. By a show of hands, ask students if over the last several generations, any war had a fundamental impact on their own families. (Remind students that families often emigrate because of war.) Assign a third journal entry in which students discuss the effect of war on families, including, if they are able, their own family.
Elicit reactions from the class. Note that the past continues to shape the present. How many generations of the Altman family have been affected by the war?
- Life as a Survivor
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These additional clips from The Greatest Theft in History DVD set present narratives about families during the war:
The Nazis through the Eyes of a Boy (Wolfgang Fischer)
The Anschluss: Vienna in 1938 (Maria Altmann)
My Grandparents (Ernie Buehler)
To conclude PART I, remind students that decades after the Second World War ravaged the world, knowledge about the fates of family members is still sought. Following the war, many organizations were created to assist with information about missing family members and to help surviving families reunite. Present the website of one of these organizations, the International Tracing Service. It relies on Nazi records. For all their faults, the Nazis were really quite efficient.
If the class is familiar with issues of provenance, point out the distressing parallels between tracing an artwork’s provenance and tracing people lost to the war.
Part Two: The Attack on Communities
The destruction of families was a result of the Nazi campaign conducted against groups of people identified as undesirable. The Nazis and their collaborators pinpointed a variety of enemy groups. These included both Jews and non-Jews. Nazi ideology about race and religion called for the persecution and destruction of not only Jews, but also gypsies, Slavic peoples, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others. Groups with perceived mental or social disabilities were methodically exterminated. In addition, some groups were under attack for their nonconformance to perceived societal norms, such as Freemasons and male homosexuals. By defining enemies at the group level, the Nazis struck at entire communities.
For an overview of Nazi targets, see Mosaic of Victims: In Depth, found at the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Social scientists have offered many ways to define the term community, but these can be simplified into two main contexts. The first emphasizes a group’s cohesion through shared values, interests, or privileges (for example, a community of chess players). The second set emphasizes a group’s cohesion though shared residency in a particular geographic area (such as a city neighborhood). Distinguish these two types of communities with examples that have relevance for members of the class. Begin with the classroom as an example of a community of learners.
The Nazis conducted campaigns against communities in both contexts. In some cases the two overlapped: Jews, for example, were identified as an enemy group for reasons of religion and race-and often lived alongside other Jews in both rural and urban locations. In the Central and Eastern European countryside, a shtetl was a small town with a large Jewish population. By the end of World War II, thousands of shtetl communities disappeared as a result of the Holocaust and emigration.
As a way to illustrate the extent of the devastation to Jewish communities, explore Yad Vashem’s Valley of the Communities then search Valley of the Communities. The Valley of the Communities is a large-scale monument to Jewish communities that were destroyed during the war. The stone monument contains the names of more than 5,000 communities erased by the Holocaust.
Communities, Social Markers, and Objects
Communities with shared values, interests, or privileges often make use of special objects that help maintain group identity. These objects are social markers. Outsiders also may recognize the markers and use them to "place" people they meet. Social markers become a shorthand way to signal an individual’s affiliation to a group. Language and behavior also may be social markers.
As a class, brainstorm the social markers of a few of the communities to which students might belong. For example, the social markers of a chess community (sometimes termed a subculture in this context) would include a chess set (object), knowledge of chess terms (language), and chess skills (behavior). Ask students to identity the different communities in which they hold membership and to identify objects-the shared social markers-that reflect those associations. This can be a journal assignment.
The Nazi assault on enemy groups relied on a variety of social markers. Making Jews look, behave, and sound different from non-Jews were Jewish religious and cultural customs, Hebrew, Yiddish, synagogues, and ritual objects. Other enemy groups had their own sets of social markers. Freemasons, a fraternal organization, met at special halls (lodges) and used secret paraphernalia that included tracing boards, special manuscripts, and constitutions. The peoples who spoke Roma and Sinti, both dialects of Romani, were classified as undesirable Zigeuner (the German word for gypsy). Social markers that deviated from the idealized Aryan norm served as evidence of supposed group inferiority.
Break the class into small groups and assign research on the following groups:
Mentally and physically disabled Germans
Political opponents of the Nazis
Students should use the Internet to find information about the treatment of these groups during World War II. Emphasize primary sources, such as texts of speeches or publications, propaganda posters, cartoons, or other media. Secondary materials may supplement student findings. Students should gather information about legislation or decrees directed at their group, the reasons for discrimination, and the numbers of people victimized. Instruct students to also look for information about social markers or objects associated with the groups. In some cases, objects were seized. Which? Why? Be sure to provide adequate research time either in class or as homework.
Determine the best methods for students to record their findings and to share the results of their research. Possible products include oral reports, posters, and PowerPoint presentations. As with all presentations that utilize sensitive material, monitor for respectful, accountable language. Partner this activity with journal assignments that record student reactions to their research.
Conclude this section with a summarizing conversation that draws from student research.
What were the Nazis doing by systematically collecting many of the objects that were social markers?
Devote a portion of the conversation to the ideas of stereotypes and scapegoats.
To provoke thought, encourage careful comparisons between Nazi stereotyping and student impressions of scapegoating and stereotyping activities in the United States.
Consider whether the conversation may benefit from a discussion of profiling-by race, ethnicity, etc.
Assign a journal entry that draws from ideas raised in class.
Suggestions for Extending Part Two
The following clip presents the efforts of a German non-Jew to return religious-ritual objects taken during the war.
Seek student reactions to Rossmeissl’s commitment to return seized religious artifacts. Rossmeissl recognizes the artistic beauty of these objects, but he doesn’t succumb to the temptation of seeking the potentially high prices these objects could fetch among collectors. Raise these questions:
- A Shabbos Goy
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- How does Rossmeissl’s work help to rebuild and renew communities?
- Is Rossmeissl’s story worth telling because he is so out of step with most people-or because he illustrates what anyone is capable of doing?
- If by now the class is familiar with the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) effort, ask students to compare the actions of the Monuments Men to those undertaken by Rossmeissl.
- The Collecting Points
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To explore one community in greater depth, share the history of the Jewish community in Danzig. In early 1939 members of the community of Danzig (which is now a city in Poland, but was then an autonomous Free City) recognized the approaching threat of the Nazis. In the hopes of protecting their most valued Judaic objects, books, scrolls, and other treasured items, 10 crates were sent to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The objects were to stay there for safekeeping during the war, and the transaction was used to help finance the emigration of some Danzig Jews. Accompanying the collection was a provision that the objects would be returned if the community was intact 15 years later. Like countless other communities, Jewish Danzig was obliterated. Unlike other Jewish communities, the community chose to dissolve itself. Residents were urged to emigrate in order to escape the certainty of further hardships promised by the Nazi regime. The Danzig Collection is at The Jewish Museum in New York.
- Monuments Men
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An overview of the history of the Danzig community is Gershon C. Bacon’s article Danzig Jewry: A Short History. It can be found online at this page.
The destruction of communities during the war led to the creation of temporary new ones. Assign research on the Warsaw ghetto, Theresienstadt, the White Rose, and the Bielski partisans. After students present their findings, draw out class reactions. Conclude with a journal assignment.
Part Three: The Attack on Cities
As the war progressed and mounting numbers of people lost their lives, Europe’s landscape became increasingly battled-scarred. In this section, students explore the physical devastation of cities.
Mr. Ukhnalev survived the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, an epic event of World War II. In this clip he recalls the impact of the war on both the people of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and the physical city. As Mr. Ukhnalev summons up memories about the horrors experienced by people, he includes the city’s transformation during the blockade. Share details or direct students to research the events leading up to the siege, when and how the siege was broken, the human casualties, and the damage to the city.
- The Blockade
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Assign individual or small group research about these other cities during the war.
Florence (see ClipGallery in The Greatest Theft in History)
Vienna (see ClipGallery in The Greatest Theft in History)
Warsaw (see ClipGallery in The Greatest Theft in History)
Include details about the tactical reasons for targeting these locations, which armies were responsible, and the extent of the damages suffered. Following research, have students share their findings.
At the beginning of the war the United States was a neutral power. President Roosevelt urged battling countries to limit bombing attacks to military targets. To what extent was this request followed? How was the war fought by the time the United States joined the European theater?
Refer to the proverb "All’s fair in love and war." Ask students to comment in light of their research. Conclude the discussion with a journal reflection assignment.
To complete this section, share a visually powerful overview of the attack on Dresden.
Der Spiegel Online: "The Destruction of Dresden"
A Multimedia Overview of the Firestorm
Following the Der Speigel Online presentation, point out that Dresden Elbe Valley is on the World Heritage List. Visit web site site with the class and look at the entry. The rich heritage of Dresden has been recently put at risk again. Review the site to discover why, and elicit student reaction. How do students interpret the struggle to preserve the past and simultaneously meet the needs of the future? Is balance a goal? Is it possible?
Part Four: The Attack on Countries
Enlarge the focus from cities to countries during the war. Select countries that best support the goals of the class or build on student interest. One strategy is to limit the focus to European countries. Another option is to widen the inquiry to take into account the war’s impact worldwide.
Assemble a list of countries and assign them for individual research. If restricting the study to Europe, include Denmark, France, Greece, Holland, Norway, Poland, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Spain.
The goal of the assignment is not to prepare an extensive report of war events in the research country. Instead, a brief summary of key war details should introduce each student’s report, to be composed of two research components.
The first component is to present information that casts light on a few people in the country and the war roles they took on. (The lesson Heroes and Villains of the Greatest Theft in History develops the concept of war roles; these include perpetrator, collaborator, supporter, oppressor, resister, bystander, rescuer, victim, and profiteer.) Direct students to look for information that illustrates the war’s impact on the lives of real people and their responses to finding themselves living at a time when war entered their daily routines. The stories the students gather should capture something about the context of the war in the country under review, the situations people faced, and the choices they made under war conditions. Students also can be asked to explain why they believe their selections have value and what can be drawn from them.
For the second component, students complete research on war issues that remain unresolved. The issues may center on relationships between or among groups, objects, political borders, local controversies, etc.
Following their research, students will be invited to share their results. Make connections to the themes and topics already explored in The Greatest Theft in History or use student interest to present other material from the curriculum. Assign a journal essay that reflects the research experience.
Part Five: The Attack on Culture and Heritage
When the Nazis made their first inroads into establishing Germany’s dominance and eliminating the people they defined as enemies or Untermenschen (subhuman), few could image the scale the campaign would become, as well as the overwhelming magnitude of its consequences.
In this final section, return to Jacques Altman, the French man featured in the first part of the lesson. Remind students about what Altman lost because of World War II: his parents, siblings, other family members, friends, possessions, heritage, his security, his place in the world, his expectations for a reasonably predictable future.
Do students feel they can grasp the significance of his losses? Remind them that the human death toll from the war ranges from 50,000,000 to 70,000,000. Do numbers with so many zeros help students recognize the ravages of war that much more, or does it numb their responses because it seems so abstract? Explain that students don’t need to understand all aspects of the war to know that it was terrible. As long as they understand, even on a limited scale, how the war caused loss and injustice, they can, and ought to, be able to extrapolate and formulate ideas about the gravity of war and ways to reduce the impact of war in the future.
This section is called The Attack on Culture and Heritage. Ask students how the war, spearheaded by the actions of Hitler and the Nazis, was an attack on these two elements. Encourage them to think about the people, places, and objects they encountered in the lesson (or in other lessons about the war).
What did the Nazis steal? In what ways was the war the greatest theft in history?
- What did the Nazis steal? In what ways was the war the greatest theft in history?
- Does including an emphasis on a painting, building, ritual object, or some other object stolen or destroyed during the war somehow diminish the millions of deaths, the annihilation of communities, the loss of families, and the destruction of towns and cities? Why or why not? Explain.
- Does an event that is more than 60 years old remain important today? How and why?
Return to the World Heritage website at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).
- Share the explanation about world heritage and the UNESCO mission
- Review the list of World Heritage sites
- Also look at the section World Heritage in Danger
- In what ways are the sites included on this list in danger?
- Does war have a role in any of these threatened locations?
- What other human activites threaten these locations?
- Do we have an obligation to protect these sites?
- Is the obligation to the past, to the future, or both? Explain.
Invite students to make final observations about safeguarding the legacy of the past and the creative contributions of people. Link comments to the lessons of the war and to the assertion that World War II represents the greatest theft in history.
A culminating journal reflection completes the lesson.
Student assessment draws from an evaluation of student ability to conduct the research assignments and to present the information in the appropriate formats, as well as from journal entries and student demonstration of knowledge during class discussions and any oral presentations.
National Council of the Social Studies more info
II. Time, Continuity, and Change
V. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
VI. Power, Authority, and Governance
IX. Global Connections
X. Civic Ideals and Practices
National Standards for Arts Education more info
Viewing Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.
5. Uses strategies to analyze stereotypes in visual media (e.g., recognizes stereotypes that serve the interests of some groups in society at the expense of others; identifies techniques used in visual media that perpetuate stereotypes).
Media Standard 10. Understands the characteristics and components of the media.
10. Understands the influence of media on society as a whole (e.g., influence in shaping various governmental, social, and cultural norms; influence on the democratic process; influence on beliefs, lifestyles, and understanding of relationships and culture; how it shapes viewers’ perceptions of reality; the various consequences in society of ideas and images in media).
The Greatest Theft in History: Lesson Links
- Heroes and Villains of the Greatest Theft in History This lesson highlights the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (MFAA), known as the Monuments Men plus other individuals who, as a way of fighting a dangerous foe, acted in the interest of safeguarding art and cultural heritage. Students also discover the identities and intentions of several particularly lethal enemies. The consequences of their actions on art and heritage are emphasized.
- Hitler, Art, Race, and Society The underpinnings of Nazi ideology are explored through an examination of Hitler’s thwarted artistic dreams, along with the German racial "science" that gave further expression and impetus to Hitler’s prejudices.
- Is Art Worth A Life? This stark question generates strong debate. Students probe the idea of sacrifice through classroom activity and discussion.
- More Than an Object, More Than a Place How do meanings attach to objects and places? Where do those meanings draw from? The lesson explores these questions and guides learners to understand connections to identity and cultural heritage, and how they fall prey to war.
- Reparations as Resolution This lesson presents both sides in the long running debate over who owns cultural property taken from Germany by the Soviet Army at the end of World War II.