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Maastricht University

Re-educational Strategies beyond the Postwar Moment

Jana Aresin & Katharina Gerund, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg

The term ‘re-education’ is most readily associated with the immediate postwar era and the Allied occupation of Germany after the Second World War. It features prominently in narratives about the successful democratization of Germany through American tutelage and the forming of the transatlantic partnership between the two countries, while facilitating claims about the supposed model character of American democracy. The historical genealogy of the notion of ‘re-education’ was, however, far more complex than this simplistic understanding would suggest.

US Re-education poster (around 1947) Deutsches Historisches Museum
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the case of postwar Germany, US officials quickly discarded the label re-education (in German: Umerziehung) in favour of ‘re-orientation’ to usher in a new phase of occupation policies within the broader context of the emerging Cold War. This change of terminology and the concomitant shift ‘from directive to persuasion’ marked an important turning point in the overall ruling strategies of the American occupiers, remaking the former enemies into allies and even friends. Despite this shift in rhetoric and political action, the power dynamics of the occupation period persisted: Allied control shaped German realities and US influences affected many areas of West German public life. Although significant differences existed between British and US re-education policies, they shared an underlying logic based in imperial and colonial experiences. In tracing these continuities and the way colonial rule informed postwar military occupations, re-education provides a useful analytical category that highlights the significance of education as a practice involving nurture, development and instruction, while also entailing elements of discipline, coercion and control.

Re-educational strategies were used in different postwar settings – whether explicitly labelled as such or discussed and implemented under other banners. In Japan, for example, which was also under US control, many of the occupation policies resembled the agenda pursued in Europe. These included, for instance, reforms of education and of schools, of the political system, and more generally interventions into social and cultural life to effect a change of attitudes and views amongst the occupied population. In this context, however, the term re-education has hardly been applied, either by the American occupiers at the time, or subsequently by historians. Conversely, transpacific discourses emphasize democratization (in Japanese: minshuka 民主化) as the umbrella term for the changes and reforms that were introduced after the war. However, as recent studies by Susan Carruthers, Christine de Matos, Holger Droessler, and Ji Hee Jung – to be published in a forthcoming special issue of the International History Review on re-education and empire – show, the re-educational strategies pursued both in Japan and in Germany emulated educational projects and logics from colonial contexts and influenced US cultural policies during the so-called Cold War and beyond. While many studies have alluded to these continuities, Boris Barth and Rolf Hobson’s edited volume Civilizing Missions in the Twentieth Century is among the notable exceptions that have systematically positioned postwar policies in a longer history of imperialism that ranges from colonial civilizing missions to more recent development programmes.

The term re-education may have lost traction today, but, as Heike Paul has recently argued in the introduction to a special issue of Comparativ, it still has untapped analytical value, and the measures, methods, and ideas that circulated under this heading during the Second World War and in its immediate aftermath have survived in various iterations and adaptations. It is thus worthwhile to examine re-educational strategies in the longue durée and before the term was widely employed. Doing so reveals that the seemingly unique programmes that evolved in the early mid-twentieth century in response to the rise of fascism in Europe (and elsewhere) relied in significant ways on colonial and imperial discourses, while also functioning as blueprints for subsequent occupations and neo-imperial agendas.

To trace the similar practices and discourses that underlie seemingly disparate imperial projects, we define re-educational strategies as encompassing educational agendas, information campaigns, and cultural programs. These can appear in different forms on a spectrum from coercion to persuasion, falling into the category of soft power measures, but frequently made possible, accompanied, or implemented by force. They may serve as a means of deterrence by presenting the population of the colonized, occupied, or controlled region as ‘backward’ and their potential ‘misguided’ future as dangerous or regressive, or alternatively function as an incentive by presenting a ‘model’ political, economic, or cultural system (usually that of the imperial or occupying power) as a desirable potential future.

As part of colonial civilizing missions, supposedly humanitarian and educational practices often served the exploitation and management of material resources, and the dispossession and displacement of populations. As numerous theoretical works in postcolonial studies such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo’s seminal book Decolonizing the Mind (1986) and more recent studies such as Gayatri Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2013) as well as decades of scholarship on the concrete interconnections between education and colonialism (for example Kelly and Altbach’s Education and the Colonial Experience (1984), Matasci, Jerónimo, and Dores’s Education and Development in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa (2020) or Julian Go’s work on Puerto Rico and the Philippines (2008)) have demonstrated, colonizing forces relied on educational work in order to prevent uprisings, convert indigenous populations to their religions, and potentially assimilate them to their respective cultures. Such colonial civilizing missions that emerged with Enlightenment discourses and reached a zenith with the heyday of European empires at the end of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries have subsequently lost much of their legitimizing force, but (neo-)imperial endeavours based on similar notions of civilization, civility, ‘improvement’ through education, and progress or uplift brought by supposedly superior cultures or nations have survived in different forms. Notably, the mid-twentieth century saw a turning of the civilizing mission back onto itself as European and US politicians, intellectuals, and many members of the general population tried to make sense of the obvious incompatibility between the rise of fascism and the atrocities committed during the Second World War and their supposed Western civilized ideals and values. This dynamic was aided by the newly established discipline of social psychology, which had been used in US mobilization and propaganda campaigns during the Second World War both directed at the population on the home front and in the form of psychological warfare against enemy countries. This focus on psychology as epitomized by, for example, the works of Richard Brickner and Kurt Lewin, significantly shaped the idea of re-educating the defeated fascist/militarist nations and ‘rehabilitating’ them for a return into an imagined liberal democratic and capitalist world order. While US postwar re-education implicitly reactivated discursive strategies of educational work in colonial contexts, its logics differed from colonial projects in their focus on re-civilizing a Europe with presumably modern democratic foundations.

Cold War anxieties intensified this perception of Western modernity and its ideals as fragile, under threat, and easily subverted. The postwar period thus saw a growing interest in the management of social relations and practices in an ongoing process of self-re-education and increased attention to not only people’s ideological views and beliefs but also to culture – as material culture, social relations, everyday habits and practices that were conflated with ideological worldviews. Re-educational strategies became part and parcel of containment efforts in US domestic and foreign policies: from a conservative backlash in gender politics to Anti-Communist propaganda, and from cultural diplomacy projects through the United States Information Agency (USIA) to the psychological warfare during the Vietnam War. Furthermore, they have returned as an ideological blueprint for post-Cold War military operations and occupations. The US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have often been cast as efforts similar to interventions in and after the Second World War in Germany – despite the obvious and glaring cultural, political, and social differences between these settings and time periods.

Civilizing missions in colonial contexts, the re-education projects of the postwar period, and the information and propaganda campaigns of the Cold War share a focus on engineering social behaviour and relations within small-scale units (family, neighbourhood, associations, schools etc.) in order to manage the attitudes, values and perceptions of a country’s population and its larger economic and political development. Such practices, however, were characterised by their top-down nature: re-education policies were often administered by a foreign power to suit its own geo-political and economic interests yet were typically portrayed in public as benevolent and altruistic. Different levels of force and exploitation can be observed in different contexts: in the case of Western Germany, re-education policies were part of a deliberate attempt to achieve key economic and political objectives while minimising the use of force. In other contexts, most notably during instances of foreign rule outside of Europe, re-education was tied to violent, coercive, and exploitative practices. A comparative study of these different historical contexts can help understand the mechanisms behind the reproduction and stabilization of a particular Western political and economic system, namely liberal democracy, and the attempts to export it globally. A focus on re-education strategies highlights the significant role of education and its ambivalent meanings and effects in the context of imperial and colonial projects, and allows for a systematic study of the continuities and similarities between its application in different settings, including those labelled explicitly as ‘occupations’ or ‘colonial rule’ as well as those that were more implicitly shaped by neo-imperialist influences.



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This article was written as part of the German Research Council (DFG) funded research project ‘Reeducation Revisited: Transnational and Comparative Perspectives on the Post-World War II Period in the US, Japan and Germany’ (Project No. 407542657). The article summarizes the findings of a special issue of the International History Review on re-education and empire published in May 2024..


Photo credits:

Cover picture: ‘The pull of the Monroe magnet’, colour print by Udo J. Keppler, 1913
Source: US Library of Congress Reproduction number LC-DIG-ppmsca-27972

Katharina Gerund is Senior Lecturer in American Studies, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.

Jana Aresin is Doctoral Researcher at the Friedrich-Alexander-University, Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.