Asking Too Much of Holocaust Education

If we assume that autumn 1941 saw the beginning of the systematic murder of the Jews of Europe, then this year we mark 78 years since the onset of the Holocaust, 86 years since the start of the Nazi regime (1933) and 74 years since the liberation of Auschwitz (27 January 1945). The scale of the horror of the Nazis’ crimes continues to fascinate and shock all thinking people, which is why publications on the subject continue to appear at a rapid rate; why artistic works of all varieties, from film to theatre to the fine arts grapple with the Holocaust so often; why Holocaust Memorial Day is marked worldwide – or is at least recognised by the United Nations – and why Holocaust education is embedded in school curriculum in numerous countries.

Given the seeming ubiquity of “Holocaust consciousness”, the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) was perhaps unsurprisingly disappointed to learn, following a survey of 2,006 randomly-selected adults aged 16 or over conducted by research agency Opinion Matters, that 5.4% of adults in the UK do not believe that the Holocaust happened, that 8% say the scale of the murders has been exaggerated, and that 64% do not know how many Jews murdered, “or grossly underestimate the number.” The HMDT’s article marking the release of this information cited a researcher and a survivor saying that the figures were worrying, and that the only way to combat Holocaust denial is through education. It is therefore vital to observe, in survivor Steven Frank’s words, that “people don’t have a solid understanding of what happened during the Holocaust”, which is why “I am so committed to sharing what happened to me.” The dedication of people like Steven Frank – who is also the subject of a moving short film, produced by the BBC’s Newsround programme, showing him and his granddaughter retracing some of his footsteps during the Holocaust years – is admirable. It is obviously true that if we want future generations to know about the Holocaust, then teaching about it is a sine qua non. But to what extent do we expect too much of Holocaust education? Will spreading the word even more mean that the recalcitrant 5% will have disappeared in, say, twenty years, or that the majority of the population will have a “solid understanding” of what happened to the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe?

I hope it will be not considered flippant to wonder how much a random sample of 2000 or so British adults could say about the genocide in Rwanda, whose 25th anniversary is this year. I wonder how many British adults could find Rwanda on a map or know what its capital city is, never mind explain in any detail what happened there in 1994. How many British adults can offer a handful of facts about the Vietnam War, about the 1956 Hungarian uprising, about World War I, or, given the passions roused by Brexit, about the history of the European Union? Going further back in time, what do most people know about the French Revolution, about the English Civil War, or about the Peasants’ Revolt? None of these events might seem as earth-shatteringly significant to us as the Holocaust, but several of them – especially the French Revolution and World War I – were experienced as world-historical events by contemporaries, while one Holocaust historian, Alon Confino, places the French Revolution side by side with the Holocaust as a foundational event in modern history.

My immediate response to the HMDT’s statistics was to be impressed. Given the supposed prevalence of Holocaust denial, the fact that 5% of people do not believe the Holocaust happened does not strike me as too shocking. Probably 5% of adults think that having their children inoculated against measles is dangerous, or that the moon landings never happened either. I no longer find it remarkable when someone tells me after a public lecture that Josef Mengele is still alive. The fact that 64% of adults can’t say for sure how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust is perhaps surprising, since (or so it seems to those of us who work in education) the figure of six million is so commonly heard and so memorable. But it does not necessarily indicate any negative or harmful intent, merely ignorance. Besides, the same research showed that fully 83% of respondents said it is “important to know about the Holocaust in today’s world.”

The striking point about the HMDT’s research was that those surveyed were not just asked open-ended questions, such as what they knew about the Holocaust (though they were asked this). They were also invited to respond to the statement: “The Holocaust never really happened.” If one replaced “Holocaust” here with “Ukrainian famine”, “Great Terror”, “Cultural Revolution”, “Armenian genocide” or a whole host of other possibilities, my guess is that more than 5% would agree with the statement and that considerably more than 5% would fall into the “don’t know” category. The concern over Holocaust denial tends to produce results in surveys such as this which look shocking but which have been generated by inviting statements and which are in fact reasonably satisfactory, even if not wholly reassuring.

Of course, bodies like HMDT, which promote Holocaust education and commemoration, can justly argue that there is more work to do and that they will not be satisfied until ignorance and prejudice are eradicated. Yet I wonder whether Holocaust education can do this on its own. The rise of the radical right in many parts of the world, and even more so the rise of nationalism, protectionism, xenophobia and racism, has occurred despite the fact that the Holocaust has been on the curriculum in many countries for twenty years or more. What this indicates is that simply educating people about terrible things that happened in the past is insufficient to produce nicer societies. The setting in which education takes place is more important, and if that setting is one of austerity, competition for resources, climate change, permanent fear of refugees and immigrants being whipped up by the media and by politicians, then a few hours’ worth of lessons on the genocide of the Jews is not going to turn things around. Indeed, these are the conditions in which one might expect Holocaust denial to flourish, so the 5% denial figure cited by HMDT might actually be regarded as a success for Holocaust education in such a difficult climate. Perhaps we are asking too much of Holocaust education: it cannot take on the responsibility of creating a better world. Rather, let us create a better world and Holocaust education will find a meaningful place within it.

Professor Dan Stone is a Senior Fellow with CARR, and Member of the HMDT’s Experts Reference Group. See his profile here:

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