Holocaust education: Misconceptions and myths

Written by: Dr Alice Pettigrew | Published:
Image: iStock

Drawing on research by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education, Dr Alice Pettigrew highlights some key concerns about young people’s perceptions of the Holocaust and considers the implications for teachers

The Holocaust has been included as compulsory content within the national curriculum for secondary school history since 1991 and in recent years the government, through the establishment of the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission, has publicly reaffirmed the importance it places upon educating future generations about this history.

However, researchers from the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education have recently published findings of a national study – entitled What Do Students Know and Understand About the Holocaust? – involving more than 8,000 secondary students from schools across England which issue a sobering challenge to all those working in this field.

For in spite of very high reported levels of interest and enthusiasm among the young people surveyed, the research demonstrates that there remain significant gaps in student knowledge of this period – even among those who have formally studied the subject – and several troubling myths and misconceptions appear to be very widely held.

Such myths and misconceptions matter. During Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27, events held up and down the country will have heard two common refrains: “We must remember this history to honour the voices of its victims” and “We must learn the lessons of the Holocaust to help prevent anything like it from being allowed to happen again.”

But how can we really hope to learn meaningful, preventative lessons if, as the research indicates, so many students fundamentally misunderstand the specific context within which the Holocaust itself was able to unfold? And how secure actually is our “memory” if many of today’s students remain unclear as to who exactly the victims of the Holocaust were, or why they were targeted for genocide?

In this regard, the specific content and accuracy of students’ knowledge and understanding is important. It is encouraging that among those who took part in our study, the overwhelming majority of young people were very positive in their attitudes towards learning about this history:

  • Eighty-three per cent believed it was important to study the Holocaust at school.
  • Eighty-two per cent considered the subject interesting.
  • More than 70 per cent of those who had already been taught something about this history said they wanted to learn more.

There was very little evidence of any sense of so-called “Holocaust fatigue”. But by itself, such enthusiasm and interest is insufficient. In order for this appetite to be translated into potentially transformative learning, we believe that several of the most significant common confusions and gaps in student understanding must first be directly confronted in schools.

For example, when invited to consider who was responsible for the Holocaust, half of all students surveyed appeared to believe that the Holocaust was solely attributable to the beliefs and actions of Adolf Hitler. A further 20 per cent of students attributed responsibility exclusively to “Hitler and the Nazis”. For most students, “the Nazis” were understood and described as an elite group, loyal to Hitler, rather than as a political party that enjoyed broad-based popular support.

Fewer than 10 per cent of students appeared to believe that the broader German public could also be considered complicit or responsible. Many students described that ordinary Germans succumbed to the will of Hitler and the Nazis through “brainwashing” or through terror and intimidation, while others assumed the general public were largely ignorant to the reality of the Holocaust.

We believe that it is problematic that, for so many students, answers to the question “who was responsible for the Holocaust?” begin and end with Hitler, or with “Hitler and the Nazis” at best. If students consider that the Holocaust was fundamentally due to the desires and decisions of just one man who “brainwashed” or “terrified” others into submission then they are unlikely to confront critical broader issues of individual and societal responsibility, agency and choice.

The notion that, through learning about the Holocaust, students can become better equipped for responsible 21st century citizenship – or future genocide prevention – is then seriously undermined.
In a similar manner, although the majority of students surveyed recognised that Jews were the primary victims of the Holocaust, most had little understanding of why they were persecuted or murdered.

Even among those who had already studied the Holocaust in school, only 37 per cent recognised and understood the term “anti-semitism”. Without this understanding, students’ attempts at explanation often had to draw on popular misconceptions and problematic stereotypes: that “the Jews” were “rich” and “powerful”, for example, or that they “dominated” German society.
Within interview, students seldom appeared to critically engage with the deep-seated historical prejudices upon which the racist ideologies of Nazism were able to draw.

Many students knew that other groups of people were also victims of Nazi persecution and murder, but did not commonly know why they were targeted or in what ways. Most were unfamiliar with any of the specific policies enacted against each victim group. Students often appeared to assume that all victims of Nazi persecution were treated in the same manner and for the same reasons and that a generalised racism, intolerance or fear of “difference” was to blame.

We do not believe it is sufficient – nor instructive – to understand the Holocaust by collapsing the experiences of all victims of Nazi persecution into one homogenous group.

It is important that young people are given opportunities to recognise that political opponents, gay men, Jehovah’s witnesses, people with disabilities, Black people and the Roma and Sinti, for example, were each identified as a threat to the Nazi regime at different stages and for different reasons and were therefore targeted in different ways.

Moreover, it is critically important that students recognise that the Nazi’s distinctive intention to exterminate every last Jewish person in Europe can only be “explained” with reference to their mobilisation of centuries old anti-Jewish prejudice, modern racial ideologies and popular nationalism, and not as in any way the responsibility of Jews themselves.

The researchers involved in this study do not interpret or present their findings as a criticism of students or their teachers.

On the contrary, they emphasise throughout their report that student understandings – and misunderstandings – of this history are powerfully shaped by the ways in which the Holocaust is commonly represented in wider society.

However, they also believe there is a critically important role for schools here in providing students with access to accurate and detailed historical content knowledge in order that common myths and misconceptions can be effectively challenged and not simply reproduced.

Last week, the Education Select Committee published the results of its inquiry into Holocaust education. Crucially, the MPs’ report found that too few teachers are being trained to teach the Holocaust and, while much of the training available is of a high standard, more needs to be done to extend its reach to subjects other than history, such as English, drama and PSHE (see SecEd’s coverage of this report at http://bit.ly/1Pz76BU).

We welcome and agree with these findings and support the emphasis placed by the committee on the importance of quality-assured teacher training in this field.

In our earlier study, Teaching About the Holocaust in English Secondary Schools, teachers themselves identified this crucial need. In response, we offer a wide-ranging and free Holocaust educational programme appropriate to teachers at all career stages and provides accompanying educational resources designed to address clearly identified classroom needs.

  • Dr Alice Pettigrew works as one of a team of researchers at the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education.

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