This month marks the 70th anniversary of the British liberation of the Bergen-Belsen death camp, but a study of 8,000 11 to 18-year-olds has revealed that many misunderstand crucial aspects of the events of the Holocaust.
Researchers at the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education fear that the name Bergen-Belsen, synonymous both with the horrors of Nazi brutality and with British relief efforts, is “slipping out of the consciousness of young people across England”.
When soldiers from the British 11th Armoured Division entered Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, they were confronted by a humanitarian crisis of around 60,000 starving and seriously ill prisoners. Film and photographs of these atrocities were later shown in cinemas in Britain. It is thought that these images led to the often-repeated myth that Britain went to war to “save the Jews”.
Indeed, more than half of the pupils when asked “What happened when the British government knew about the mass murder of the Jews?”, wrongly believed that Britain “declared war on Germany” or “thought up rescue plans” to save the Jews.
The survey also shows that a quarter of the pupils believed that the British government knew nothing about the Holocaust until the end of the war.
Less than seven per cent understood that the British government had detailed knowledge of the Nazi mass murder of the Jews but did nothing but state that the perpetrators would be brought to justice after the war.
Stuart Foster, the centre’s executive director, explained: “Britain’s story during the Holocaust is complex, and there is much about its record that is understandably celebrated. But it appears that difficult questions such as why saving the Jews of Europe never became a war aim are rarely confronted and the simplistic picture of ‘Britain as liberator’ is rarely challenged or reflected upon in the classroom.”
Programme director Paul Salmons added: “These findings uncover widespread misconceptions about how Britain responded to the Holocaust. But more than this, they also reveal a fundamental lack of understanding about why this country went to war with Nazi Germany in 1939, which certainly had nothing to do with rescuing Jews from persecution.”
The Centre for Holocaust Education is hosting a free workshop for secondary teachers, Britain and the Holocaust, on October 13 in London. Visit www.holocausteducation.org.uk/courses-events/