This post is a reflection on a presentation I attended on June 27 by Dr. Georg Marschnig, Ph.D., University of Waterloo. The post has been supplemented by additional online sources along with the presentation notes kindly provided by the author.
On the morning of March 4, 1945, a B-24 bomber the Strange Cargo took off from its base in Italy. Their mission was to bomb the rail lines in Graz, Austria. The crew was in a good mood, they were scheduled for a few days at a rest camp after the mission (“Former Army Pilot Recalls Little-Known WWII Tragedy, the Mates Who Didn’t Make It,” 2017)
The Strange Cargo was last seen shortly after 1:00 pm by fellow airmen. Around 15 seconds after dropping its bombs, the plane was hit in the nose and wing by flak and burst into flame. Eight of the ten crewmen were able to parachute out of the plane before it crashed. (“Operation Graz, Austria March 4, 1945,” n.d.)
Two of the crewmen were quickly captured by the local police. A major in the SS arrived on the scene and ordered one of the police officers to shoot the Americans. The police refused. A soldier on medical leave Max Karl Lienhart then arrived on his bicycle, pushed through the gathering crowd and shot the two fliers.
A third airman was captured by the police and was transferred to SS custody. Lienhart followed the SS soldier and shot the American. A fourth aviator was found by German soldiers, and he too was executed. The two pilots were smuggled out of Graz by Austrians and survived the war.
In the summer of 1945, a memorial was erected to the murdered airmen, no one knows (or will admit) who erected the monument.
Why this project?
- What new insight did you gain about schooling;
The talk was presented by Dr. Georg Marschnig, Ph.D., Senior Scientist for the Didactics of History at the University of Graz. His lecture was part of the History Education in International Contexts series organized by the Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future project. Professor Marschnig is a former high school teacher who conducted a local history project starting in 2016 to investigate the origins of the war memorial erected in Graz (Georg Marschnig, 2022).
Over the years, the memorial has been vandalized and remained half-hidden on the side of a busy roadway. Dr. Marschnig, then a high school teacher, worked with his students to uncover the story behind the monument. The research was conducted by the students over a two-year period and stands as an excellent example of Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR). The students undertook an extensive study of World War II air warfare, held town meetings with the residents of Graz and interviewed local residents and former fliers. As a concluding activity, the students proposed remodelling the memorial in order to tell the full story behind the deaths of the Americans (“Operation Graz, Austria March 4, 1945,” n.d.)
- How do schools frame notions of citizenship;
The project really is an attempt to redefine the story of a community at the end of the Second World War. It reframed citizenship through their investigation. Citizens were obliged to look back to a time long forgotten. Their work showed that members of the community were complicit in war crimes, something the town was not interested in resurrecting. The story is well documented in the records of war crimes trials and Lienhart was found guilty of three of the murders and was hanged in 1946.
- What kind of relationships in schools and in educational decision-making processes foster real learning;
Because this is an action research project, the students along with their teacher became actively involved in uncovering events in the past that the community preferred to forget. In doing this work, the community became engaged in looking at their own stories and was obliged to reflect on the actions of some of their neighbours.
- How do power structures affect learning?
This is a question that I asked during the presentation:
It seems that the students were revealing a dark past the community wanted to forget. In essence, they were revealing an important truth. Has this had any impact on how the students look at modern-day politics and the post-truth environment?
Professor Marschnig responded by focusing on the relationship between power and truth:
They learned a lot – some stories are told some are not – [there is] a strong connection to power. It is always important to look and double-check the information that they have. (Georg Marschnig, 2022)
In the notes to his presentation he also writes:
For the young people, it became crystal clear that cultures of remembrance in the public sphere are always linked to questions of power and are embedded into a field of discourse, which responsible citizens can influence and change. The first, authentic steps in this field were taken as part of the school project and it should not come as surprise to you that some of the young people are now actively involved in local politics (2022).
Some elements of the community did have a vested interest in keeping these stories quiet and the students were publicly confronted when they presented their findings to the community. They were accused of dragging up the past, something that no one wanted to do. City politicians also pushed back against any proposed changes to the monument but were eventually obliged to agree to changes that illuminated the dark history behind the murders.
- How were race, class, gender differences framed in the event?
The YPAR project brought to the surface old animosities that had laid dormant for 60 years. While the old memorial did state that four American airmen had died on March 4th, 1945 in Graz, there was no mention that the airmen had been executed by local community members following a Nazi policy called Fliegerlynchjustiz in English – “lynch justice for fliers”. Rather, the old monument stated that the aviators had been killed by “cowardly Nazi-fascist murderers”.
The stories about the murders are available from a few sources (Baltimore Sun, Mar 04, 2017 ; Archive Report US Forces 1941-1945), however, there had never been a local examination of the event. It is important to note here that the students were the ones who chose to work on this project. This closely follows the methodology outlined in YPAR.
- What connections can you draw with readings, lectures, and discussions we have held in the class?
Notions of citizenship are fluid. How we define ourselves as citizens can change when new information comes to light. The investigation of the students centred on a forgotten war-time memorial. Their work led to public remembering of a war crime committed in March of 1945. The students also participated in rededication plans for the memorial to make clear what had happened.
- What creative ideas or astute analysis about education did you encounter in the event?
Youth Participatory Action Research is a powerful tool to examine local issues of interest to the researchers. One of the key principles of YPAR is that young people become active participants in the work and play a large role in researching the truth. (Petrone et al., 2021)
This is an important technique that can be used by students and teachers to combat the miasma of post-truth that we struggle with today. By completing this work, the students were able to gain a greater respect for the truth and the challenges that come from confronting stories that have been buried in the past.
The methodology (YPAR) used by the students has been suggested as a way to gain a stronger affiliation with the truth, so important in a post-truth world. (Chinn et al., 2021) Students involved in this project have now become involved in local and regional government. It would seem that YPAR is good preparation for anyone who intends to enter a political career in the post-truth future.
The project provided the students with a way to start conversations with parents and grandparents about the war. Family stories can differ greatly from what the official stories present. The students best sum up why it is important to understand a community’s past:
“’What’s the point now?’ We were asked more than once. ‘They’re dead
anyway!’ Well, ‘they’ may be dead, but we’re not. […] Why does this affect us
now, although it has happened so long ago? It affects us because we live and
our present and future are built on that very past that we wonder what it has
to do with us.”
Archive Report: US Forces 1941-1945. (n.d.). Aircrew Remembered. http://aircrewremembered.com/crockett-james.html
Chinn, C. A., Barzilai, S., & Duncan, R. G. (2021). Education for a “Post-Truth” World: New Directions for Research and Practice. Educational Researcher, 50(1), 51–60. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X20940683
Former Army pilot recalls little-known WWII tragedy, the mates who didn’t make it. (2017, March 4). The Baltimore Sun. https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/bs-md-world-war-ii-pilot-saga-20170304-story.html
Georg Marschnig. (2022). Sometimes it is enough to look back to see the Future clearly.
Petrone, R., Mirra, N., Goodman, S., & Garcia, A. (2021). Youth Civic Participation and Activism (Youth Participatory Action Research). In J. Z. Pandya, R. A. Mora, J. H. Alford, N. A. Golden, & R. S. de Roock, The Handbook of Critical Literacies (1st ed., pp. 50–60). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003023425-6