Issues in Holocaust Education

by: Geoffrey Short and Carole Ann Reed

The following is an excerpt from Geoffrey Short and Carole Ann Reed’s book, Issues in Holocaust Education (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company). Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

School Ethos

The chief organisational issue we believe it necessary to address is that of school ethos, a characteristic of the educational system that has long been acknowledged as crucial to the promotion of citizenship and the teaching of democracy. Nearly a hundred years ago the philosopher and educator John Dewey (1916) was insistent that teachers could not adequately prepare their students for democracy just by transmitting a body of knowledge; schools also had to be run democratically and this meant, amongst other things, limiting authoritarian relationships within them. Throughout the twentieth century similar sentiments were echoed by academics in the field of human rights education including those involved with ‘race’ and ethnicity. Gordon Allport (1954) was a prominent enthusiast.

As in the home, the atmosphere that surrounds the child at school is exceedingly important If segregation of the sexes or races prevails, if authoritarianism and hierarchy dominate the system, the child cannot help but learn that power and status are the dominant factors in human relationships. If, on the other hand, the school system is democratic, if the teacher and child are each respected units, the lesson of respect for the person will easily register. As in society at large, the structure of the pedagogic system will blanket, and may negate, the specific intercultural lessons taught. (Allport, 1954:5 11. Original emphasis)

In the United Kingdom, the importance of the relationship between the way a school is run and the learning that takes place within it, was recognised and highlighted in the final report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship (DfEE, 1998). It stated that ‘schools need to consider to what extent their ethos, organisation and daily practices are consistent with the aim and purpose of citizenship education, and provide opportunities for pupils to develop into active citizens’ (p. 55). While this exhortation is to be welcomed, it must be admitted that with few exceptions (such as Summerhill and Dartington Hall in England) schools have never operated as democratic institutions and there are clear limits to the extent to which they can be made more democratic. However, Alf Davey (1983), who shares Allport’s concern that the medium be compatible with the message, suggests how the two might be brought closer together. Although commenting on multicultural education, his remarks are equally pertinent to teaching about the Holocaust.

Purging the textbooks of black stereotypes, boosting the minority groups in the teaching materials and adjusting the curriculum to accommodate cultural diversity, will have little impact on how children treat each other, if teachers make rules without explanation, if they command needlessly and assume their authority to be established by convention. We learn to cooperate with one another, not by hearing about cooperation, or by reading about cooperation, or even by discussing cooperation, but by living In a community in which cooperation is practised and rewarded. … (Teachers) need frequently to re-examine whether the way in which they group children together for different purposes, the manner in which they negotiate with them and the extent to which they are prepared to share t heir authority with them, is likely to foster or inhibit intergroup friendship. (Davey, 1983 181-182)

Arguably, the Holocaust educator best known f or stressing the importance of school ethos is the American academic Pearl Oliner (1986). She maintains that:

It is out of a sense of community that people are more likely to engage in those acts of kindness, civility and helpfulness which enhance the quality of life. It is in the context of community consciousness that individuals begin to feel expansive responsibilities towards each other. (Oliner, 1986:397)

She goes on to plead for schools to be transformed into more caring communities where:

Students, teachers, bus drivers, principals, and all others receive positive affirmation for kindness, empathy and concern … What is required is nothing less than institutionalized structures that promote supportive relationships with the same seriousness as is currently devoted to academic achievement. (Oliner and Oliner, 1988:258/259)

She recognises that in order to facilitate such a transformation it will be necessary, among other things, to re-structure the nature of citizenship education. The approach she derides concentrates on the institutions of government, dealing with topics such as political parties, elections and constitutional issues and with key political concepts such as democracy. Oliner believes that this emphasis on government is excessive and she decries the absence in social studies programmes of any reference to prosocial citizenship behaviours that ‘demonstrate caring and concern and … increase feelings of benevolence, bonding and rootedness’ (ibid.).

Promoting Anti-Semitism

A major ethical concern inherent in teaching about the Holocaust is the risk of unintentionally fostering anti-Semitism. It will be recalled from Chapter 1 that Lionel Kochan is opposed to schools teaching about the fate of European Jewry during the Second World War partly because it reinforces the stereotype of the Jew as ‘predestined victim of persecution.’ However, the problem, in our view, goes beyond the reproduction of unflattering imagery, for subject matter that reinforces the widespread association of Jewish history with persecution could prompt some students to assume that there is no smoke without fire and to conclude that Jews are, at least to some extent, the authors of their own misfortune. There has long been a school of thought that sees Jews in this light, a form of blaming the victim that Brian Cheyette (1990) refers to as the ‘interactionist model of racial hatred.’ Among the more illustrious names associated with it is that of the British novelist and Liberal Member of Parliament Hilaire Belloc and the writer H. G. Wells. In his book, The Jews, published in 1922, Belloc claimed that ‘the anti-Semitic movement is essentially a reaction against the abnormal growth in Jewish power and the new strength of anti-Semitism is largely due to the Jews themselves’ (p. 159). In the same vein, Wells wrote that ‘There is room for some very serious research into the question why anti-Semitism emerges in every country the Jews reside in’ (cited in Wheatcroft, 1996:340). While noting that this line of thought continues to find an echo in certain quarters (surfacing most recently in the David Irving libel trial) there are ‘reasons’ other than so-called ‘Jewish behaviour’ why some might accept that Jews should be held responsible for anti-Semitism. In particular, in societies where the Christian motif of the Jew as Christ-killer is deeply ingrained in popular consciousness, students may be more inclined to indulge a religious version of the interactionist model and interpret the Holocaust as the ultimate act of expiation.

It is clearly unacceptable to teach history in such a way as to strengthen the suspicion that an entire ethnic or religious group is eternally damned. This is not just because such teaching threatens the most fundamental tenet of natural justice, namely, that the innocent should not suffer along with the guilty, but because, in the case of the Jews, it is simply bad history. As we have already indicated, the Jewish past is not synonymous with unremitting torment and should not be taught as though it was.

A second way in which teaching about the Holocaust could give rise to anti- Semitism stems from having to acquaint students with anti-Semitic propaganda, for they will need to know how the Nazis conceptualised Jews in order to understand why the genocide was planned and implemented. Some students will be learning about anti-Semitic stereotypes for the first time; others will already be familiar with them as a result of what they have gleaned from parents and peers or come across in the media. The moral imperative for teachers is to ensure that they do nothing to reinforce these beliefs and whatever they can to undermine them. This objective, however, is unlikely to be realised; indeed, the opposite may be the case if students are merely told about the existence and content of anti-Semitic stereotypes. The problem here is twofold. On the one hand there can be no doubt that Germany, at the time of the Nazi take-over, was in many respects a culturally sophisticated society and was indisputably a technologically advanced one. A substantial number of influential and well-educated people subscribed to anti-Semitic stereotypes, and if this fact is made known to students, as it should be, along with all other relevant facts, the stereotypes may well acquire an enhanced status by association. They may be seen to possess a core of respectability that would be denied them had they been accepted and articulated exclusively by the disaffected, the uneducated and the socially disadvantaged. The second problem with merely informing students of the content of Jewish stereotypes central to Nazi philosophy is that the media (wittingly or otherwise) occasionally reinforce them and thus, once again, add to their credibility. A relatively recent example involved attempts by Holocaust survivors across the world to recover assets that before the war had been lodged in Swiss bank accounts. The publicity surrounding the attempt to return the contents of these deposits to their original owners may well have reinforced the perception of Jews as invariably affluent; it certainly did nothing to weaken the association in the popular imagination of Jews with money. Another example that occurred some years earlier concerned George Soros, by all accounts an exceptionally wealthy Jewish financier who, at the time of the United Kingdom’s forced departure from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, was described in the Press as a Hungarian born Jew and as ‘the man said to have broken the pound’ (The Times, December 19,1992). If students learn from studying Nazi propaganda that Jews are an unpatriotic element intent on manipulating both the domestic and the international economy for their own ends, such portrayals may be seen to legitimate Nazi claims and, in the process, help to engender sympathy for the perpetrators of the Final Solution rather than its victims. In order to avoid such an outcome it will be necessary to expose students to the fraudulent nature of anti-Semitic beliefs and, more generally, to teach them about the nature of stereotyping. Ideally, this type of work would be undertaken as part of an antiracist or moral education programme carried out some time prior to studying the Holocaust. Research suggests that initiatives of this kind can be pursued successfully in the upper reaches of the primary school (Short and Carrington, 1991).

One further way in which teaching about the Holocaust could lead to a growth in anti-Semitism arises from the Nazi perception of the Jews as a racial group rather than a religious one. Students who are not conversant with this crucial distinction will need to made aware of it, but in so doing, is there not a risk of teachers encouraging their pupils to regard Jews as an alien wedge, a nation within a nation and thus potentially as the enemy within? No means of countering such a perception can be sanctioned if it involves distorting the truth and thus students should not be led to believe that the Jews perished because of their religious convictions. A more ethical and certainly an educationally more useful means of dealing with this problem would seem to require that at an early stage in their learning about the Holocaust, students consider whether there are any grounds on which it is legitimate to cause suffering to an entire racial or ethnic group rather than to individual members of that group. The intention of such an exercise would be to bring students to a realisation that people ought only to suffer as a result of human agency if they have committed an unjust act, and that belonging to an ethnic, racial or religious group by accident of birth cannot possibly be construed as constituting such an act.

Freedom of Speech

Another ethical considerations related to teaching about the Holocaust is the extent to which freedom of speech should be permitted in the classroom. It is manifestly not the case that everyone regards the attempted destruction of European Jewry as an unmitigated evil and in this sense the subject can be seen as controversial. Bearing in mind that even children of primary school age are capable of articulating anti-Semitic sentiments (Carrington and Short, 1993), the question that faces teachers of adolescents is whether, in the interests of freedom of speech, they ought to allow the expression of any view that would appear to justify, or even to condone, the Holocaust. If teachers are prepared to provide a platform for such views, they will need to consider whether they ought to respond and, if so, the form that their response should take. Over the past couple of decades, the issue of how to deal with controversial issues in the classroom has featured prominently in the debate over political education in schools. Doug Harwood (1986), who has made a significant contribution to this debate, lists the range of options available to teachers. While most demand that, at some stage, teachers make their views known to their pupils, others insist on them keeping their own counsel. Harwood’s own preference is for what has come to be known as the neutral chairperson role or procedural neutrality. This position was initially proposed by Lawrence Stenhouse (1970) when directing the Humanities Curriculum Project and requires teachers to allow all sides of an argument to be heard while ensuring their own views remain firmly under wraps. However, as Robert Jeffcoate (1984), a keen supporter of neutrality, points out:

This did not mean that teachers were to abrogate all their normal responsibilities. They were expected to aim for orderly and purposeful discussions, querying and challenging where necessary, restraining the voluble and encouraging the diffident, above all trying to get their pupils to submit to ‘the discipline of the evidence’. (Jeffcoate, 1984: 140)

The neutral chair approach has been seen to work well in respect of certain controversial issues, but for others, it has been widely condemned as inappropriate. Citing a study by Straddling et al. (1984), Singh (1988) argues that:

(If) students have a lot to say, if there is a broad spread of opinion, and if their views are based on knowledge and experience, rather than blind prejudice, then there is a good case for adopting the role of a neutral chair. In other circumstances, the balanced or more committed approach might be more appropriate. (Singh, 1988:96)

There would seem to be particular dangers in employing the neutral chair in respect of the Holocaust. First, teachers’ refusal to voice their own point of view might be construed by students, not as a pedagogic strategy designed to encourage open, coherent and rigorous enquiry, but rather as an inability to decide where truth and justice lie with regard to Nazi racial ideology. While equivocation might be acceptable and even desirable in an area of genuine historical debate, in relation to the Holocaust, it would be unconscionable. A further objection to neutrality is that some students might simply interpret their teacher’s impartiality as indifference, leading them to conclude that the Holocaust is a topic of little consequence. Whatever the objection, the net result would be to diminish the significance of the Holocaust in the eyes of the students and for this reason, if for no other, the neutral chair must be rejected as a morally unacceptable basis for debate amid discussion in this area of the curriculum. However, while teachers ought to state publicly their abhorrence of the Holocaust and the thinking that underpinned it, there should be no attempt to silence contrary opinion. The classroom atmosphere should be such that students feel free to state whatever beliefs they hold, for only if anti-Semitic attitudes and other manifestations of prejudice are openly articulated can they be effectively challenged.

Although we recognise that some teachers might hold anti-Semitic views, they cannot, of course, be granted the same freedom of expression that their pupils enjoy. On the contrary, any attempt to articulate pro-Nazi sympathies should in our view, result in instant dismissal. Although there have been no cases of this kind in the United Kingdom, there have been a couple in Canada. We referred in Chapter 2 to the better known. It involved James Keegstra, a high-school history teacher in Alberta who was brought to trial in 1984. According to Joseph Kirman (1986):

Keegstra was teaching children that there was a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. The Jews were being blamed for communism and capitalism, and, the Holocaust of World War II was being called a hoax. (Kirman, 1986:209)

After protracted legal wrangling, Keegstra was eventually fined 5,000 (Canadian) dollars. His case was followed by that of a New Brunswick teacher, Malcolm Ross, who, in 1991, was barred from the classroom for writing books disputing the existence of the Holocaust.

Holocaust Denial

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of freedom of speech concerns the approach that ought to be adopted towards revisionist ‘historians’ who wish to deny or to trivialise the Holocaust. The question, though, is not just whether, in the interests of protecting the liberal ideal of reasoned dialogue, teachers should allow discussion of the revisionist point of view, but whether they should take the initiative and raise the issue if their pupils do not. Some writers are in no doubt that they should; Carlos Huerta and Dafna Shiffman-Huerta (1996) going so far as to advocate that students be encouraged to read revisionist literature of various kinds. However, it is not clear from their article whether they make this recommendation with both schoolchildren and university students in mind or with the latter group only.

The dilemma facing teachers is that if they encourage, or even permit, denial to be raised in the classroom they risk weakening, and maybe destroying, the Holocaust’s status as a subject worthy of serious scholarship; for merely by making students aware of the revisionist point of view is to give it a degree of credibility. And when we acknowledge just how extraordinary a phenomenon the Holocaust was, denial has an intuitive plausibility. [Elie Wiesel (1983) Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, has claimed that ‘Auschwitz defies imagination and perception.’] But a deliberate decision to suppress all mention of revisionism is also problematic. In the first instance it might be thought to raise the spectre of indoctrination and in so far as only one side of the ‘debate’ is put forward, it could be argued that there is a prima facie case to answer. The charge, however, cannot be sustained, for one of the defining characteristics of indoctrination (deriving from its etymological connection with doctrine) is that it involves an attempt to inculcate beliefs the truth of which cannot rationally be demonstrated. On this ground alone, the wealth of documentary, photographic and eye-witness testimony puts paid to any suggestion of indoctrination. There is, though, a second and an entirely valid argument for teaching the revisionist point of view; namely, that a failure to do so would leave students unprepared to deal with the sophistry should they encounter it later in life. Subjecting Holocaust denial to critical scrutiny on the other hand, examining the grounds on which it casts doubt on the existence of the death camps, can help to inoculate students against the claim that all talk of a Holocaust is nothing more than a Zionist-inspired hoax. However, as we show in the following chapter, textbooks on the Holocaust that are in use in schools rarely adopt this position. A notable exception is Carrie Supple’s (1993) From Prejudice to Genocide. A couple of pages in the book are devoted to a discussion of revisionism and pupils are urged to reflect not only on the nature of historical evidence but on the motives some people have for ignoring or distorting it.

The Infliction of Pain

While the conditions under which one person may legitimately inflict pain on another may be a matter of opinion, the willful infliction of pain without good reason can never be justified. Learning about the Holocaust, if it is taken seriously, will necessarily be an emotionally taxing experience for all but the psychologically deranged, yet there can be no doubt that the learning is intended to serve a valuable purpose. Summarising a number of the arguments we advanced in Chapter 1, Landau (1989) contends that:

If taught properly the Holocaust can civilise and humanise our students and, perhaps more effectively than any other subject, has the power to sensitise them to the dangers of indifference, intolerance, racism and the dehumanisation of others – the ideal educational formula for creating good responsible citizens in a multicultural society. (Landau, 1989:20)

The moral issue concerns the lengths to which teachers are entitled to go in informing pupils of the horrors of the Holocaust. Downey and Kelly (1986:160) assert that, ‘most of us respond to rnoral issues rather more often according to how we feel about them than as a result of a carefully thought-out intellectual appraisal.’ If they are right, it follows that teachers ought to make a conscious effort to engage their pupils’ emotions, but at what point ought they to call a halt? Clearly, it is unacceptable to subject students to any more pain than the minimum necessary to achieve the desired effect – a feeling of revulsion at where racism and anti-Semitism can lead, but in practice this will be a difficult judgment to make. The film Warsaw Ghetto was included as part of the original Facing History and Ourselves curriculum because of its vivid portrayal of the suffering of Polish Jews. However, Betty Bardige (1981) has observed that:

Students at all levels, even though they are prepared for what they will see, respond with great emotion. Some cry, some feel like vomiting. some get angry. Sorne students need to discuss the film, others are unable to talk or write. (Bardige, 1981:44)

Similarly, Dawidowicz (1992:71) observed that role-play techniques designed to teach the moral lessons of the Holocaust ‘have been known to produce unprecedented tension in the classroom …’ In view of these claims, the solution to the problem of how far to go may be to let individual students decide for themselves. When they feel they can take no more, they should literally allowed to walk away until such time as they regain their composure and feel able to return to focus on some less painful aspect of the lesson.

While the ethical dimensions of inflicting pain has constantly to be borne in mind, teachers need also to take cognisance of the pedagogic implications of painful material. In other words, they must appreciate the relationship between anxiety and the ability to learn. To understand the connection, the literature on the psychology of persuasive communications while not, perhaps, directly analogous, is none the less instructive. In contrast to earlier research (e.g. Janis and Feshback, 1953), McGuire (1969) found that high rather than low levels of fear were effective in promoting attitude change. Very high levels of fear, however, engendered avoidance and defensiveness. The implications for teaching the Holocaust are self-evident.

There is one further issue that should be addressed when dealing with the question of pain. It concerns the way in which teachers ought to treat the presence within their classroom of students who identify themselves closely with any of the groups singled out by the Nazis for persecution. Their pain threshold may be significantly lower than that of other children, necessitating a special sensitivity on the part of teachers. The situation has close parallels with research in the area of children’s racial attitudes where black youngsters have sometimes been subjected to an intolerably high degree of stress. The problem is well illustrated in the classic American study by Clark and Clark (1947). When their subjects, aged between 3 and 7, were presented with an array of dolls, some of which were black and others white and were then asked to make self-identifications, a number of the children ‘who were free and relaxed at the beginning of the experiment, broke down and cried’ (p. 611). It has been claimed that in the United Kingdom, partly as a result of such studies, ‘those with a responsibility for authorising research in the area of children and ‘race’ are more alert to the possibility of (causing) distress and are consequently … circumspect in their treatment of research proposals involving black children’ (Short, 1994:61). In contrast, there would seem to be no concern among educationalists, nor even any recognition, that learning about the Holocaust may be a qualitatively different experience for some students than it is for others. Whether the parents of students deemed to be particularly vulnerable to learning about the Holocaust should have the right to withdraw them from this part of the curriculum is a question worthy of consideration.


Allport, G.W. (1954) The Nature of Prejudice, Cambridge, MA, Addison-Wesley.

Bardige, B. (1981) Facing History and Ourselves: tracing development through analysis of student journals, Moral Education, Forum (Summer).

Carrington, B. and Short, G. (1993) Probing children’s prejudice – a consideration of the ethical and methodological issues raised by research and curriculum development, Educational Studies, 19, 2, pp. 163-181.

Cheyette, B. (1990) Hilaire Belloc and the ‘Marconi Scandal’ 1900-1914: a re-assessment of the interactionist model of racial hatred, in: T. Kushner and K. Lunn (eds) The Politics of Marginality: Race, the Radical Right and Minorities in Twentieth Century Britain, London, Frank Cass.

Clark, K. and Clark, M. (1947) Radical Identification and Preference in Negro Children, in: T. M. Newcombe and E. L. Hartley (eds) Readings in Social Psychology, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Davey, A. (1983) Learning to be Prejudiced, London, Edward Arnold.

Dawidowicz, L. (1992) What’s the Use of Jewish History?, New York, Schocken Books.

Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) (1988) Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, London, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education, New York, Macmillan.

Downey, M. and Kelly, A. V. (1986) Theory and Practice of Education 3rd ed., London, Harper and Row.

Harwood, D. (1986) To advocate or educate, Education 3-13, 14, pp. 1-57.

Huerta, C. C. and Shiffman-Huerta, D. (1996) Holocaust and Denial Literature: Its Place in Teaching the Holocaust, in: R. Millen (ed) New Perspectives on the Holocaust, New York, New York University Press.

Janis, I. L. and Feshback, S. (1953). Effects of fear-arousing communications, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 48, 78-92.

Jeffcoate, R. (1984) Ethnic Minorities and Education, London, Harper and Row.

Kirman, J. (1986). James Keegstra and the Eckville High School incident, The History and Social Science Teacher, 21, pp. 209-211

Landau, R. (1989) No Nazi War in British History?, Jewish Chronicle, 25 August.

McGuire, W. J. (1969) The nature of attitudes and attitude change, in: G. Lindzey and A. Aronson (eds) Handbook of Social Psychology vol. 3, 2nd ed., Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley.

Oliner, P. (1986) Legitimating and implementing prosocial education, Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 13, pp. 389-408.

Oliner, S. and Oliner, P. (1988) The Altruistic Personality: rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, New York, The Free Press.

Short, G. (1994) Teaching about the Holocaust: a consideration of some ethical and pedagogical issues, Educational Studies, 20, 1, pp. 53-68

Short, G. and Carrington, B. (1991) Unfair discrimination: Teaching the principles to children of primary school age, Journal of Moral Education, 20, 2, pp. 157-177

Singh, B. (1988) The teaching of controversial issues: the problems of the neutral-chair approach, in: B. Carrington and B. Troyna (eds) Children and Controversial Issues: Strategies for the Early and Middle Years of Schooling, Lewes, Falmer Press

Stenhouse, L. (1975) The Humanities Curriculum Project: an Introduction, London, Heinemann.

Supple, C. (1993) From Prejudice to Genocide: Learning about the Holocaust, Stoke-on-Trent, Trentham Books.