The selective way in which countries cover the Holocaust in learning materials

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by Peter Carrier, Georg Eckert Institute

This blog assesses how the Holocaust is addressed in official curricula and textbooks worldwide. It shows that, while discrepancies between historical knowledge in different countries challenge global citizenship, historical education nonetheless contributes towards greater awareness of human rights violations and the prevention of atrocities in the long term.  The UNESCO report about The International Status of Education about the Holocaust (2015) thus contributes towards our understanding of the impact of curricula and textbooks, as outlined in the 2016 GEM Report.

One of the most striking aspects of education about the Holocaust is that no country is alike. Even when two countries stipulate simply ‘the Holocaust’ in their national curricula, the event is invariably contextualised in idiosyncratic ways. England, for example, stipulates that the Holocaust be taught in the context of the Second World War, while the curriculum of Mexico demands that it be taught in the context of lessons about human rights violations. Some countries place the Holocaust squarely in the centre of the history of the twentieth century, while others place it within European history or do not mention it at all. In short, among the 195 officially recognised countries in the world, curricula stipulate at least 135 different versions of the Holocaust.

Representations of the Holocaust in history textbooks are more complex than those found in curricula. The UNESCO report International Status of Education about the Holocaust – A Global Mapping of Textbooks (2015) documents the narratives of the Holocaust in eighty-nine textbooks published in twenty-six countries since 2000. The findings show that there are broadly shared patterns by which the Holocaust is represented – patterns which convey recurrent geographical boundaries and time spans, protagonists, interpretative patterns, narrative techniques and pedagogical methods. However, all countries demonstrate narrative idiosyncracies by emphasising selective information and the local significance of the event, or by appropriating it in the interests of local populations.

Textbook by Hannah Vogt

Textbook by Hannah Vogt

For example, the event is named in very different ways. Although it is generally referred to with the term ‘Holocaust’, some textbooks use the term ‘Shoah’ or else both terms in conjunction. In some cases, authors forego both the terms ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Shoah’, preferring to address the ‘genocide of the Jews’ or ‘atrocities’, ‘mass murder’ and ‘genocide’. Indirect or partial references to the event are also common, with terms such as ‘extermination’, ‘concentration camp’ or ‘Final Solution’, or by combining terms which clearly indicate teaching about the Holocaust (such as ‘destruction’ and ‘Jews’, or ‘murder’ and ‘National Socialism’).

The temporal or historical contexts ascribed to the Holocaust also give rise to national idiosyncrasies. The time span most commonly ranges from 1933 to 1945, corresponding to the rule of the National Socialist party. Other nations’ textbooks mention key changes in 1938 (the November pogrom) or 1942 (the beginning of systematic mass murder) or the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943. References to deeper historical currents such as racial theories from the nineteenth century also occur in textbooks in Brazil, India, Germany and Namibia; Jewish history, emigration, or pre-twentieth century antisemitism are addressed in Argentinian, German, Japanese and US textbooks. Likewise, several textbook authors in Argentina, France, Germany, Namibia, and Russia write about the aftereffects or memory of the Holocaust after 1945. No textbook in any country presents an ahistorical or universal narrative of the Holocaust.

The main finding of the UNESCO report is that, in spite of certain international consistencies in textbook representations, education about the Holocaust is also partially contingent on local historical concepts and narrative traditions. Textbooks reflect a dual pattern, characterised by both convergence and divergence. While certain consistencies are evident in quite a few regions, the concepts, narratives and thematic focuses largely differ not only from one region or country to another, but even from one textbook to another in relation to topics, events and didactic traditions with which the Holocaust is associated locally. The findings therefore suggest that learning materials provide a foundation not for a common education, but for a number of different approaches or educations about the Holocaust

jewish-catastropheA striking effect of the influence of local historical concepts and narrative traditions on textbook representations of the Holocaust is apparent in countries which have suffered local atrocities, and also in Middle Eastern countries, or even in countries with no apparent historical relation to the event. In such cases, the Holocaust is de- and recontextualised. For example, some South African and Rwandan textbooks suggest that the main cause of the Holocaust was racism, while playing down the influence of war, nationalism, as well as economic, political and moral factors. They do this by printing large illustrations of Hitler and Darwin side by side, or by evoking analogies between life under apartheid and persecution carried out by the National Socialists.

Alternatively, the Holocaust is domesticated, by being conceptualised in local ways, as in Chinese textbooks, which (in relation to the Nanjing massacre of 1937) employ no derivatives of the terms ‘Holocaust’ or ‘Shoah’, but rather the terms ‘genocide’ (datusha) and ‘kinds of crimes’ (zhongzhong zuixing). Chinese textbooks thereby render the event understandable for local readers in a language which is familiar to them, yet do not convey the historical specificity traditionally ascribed to the Holocaust by western scholars and teachers.

In sum, while the Holocaust is referred to in the textbooks of almost all countries around the world, those which provide knowledge of the event do not necessarily provide thorough historical knowledge about it. Instead, the Holocaust regularly functions as a model, paradigm or measure of representations of other atrocities in accordance with a process of ‘shifting frames of reference’, whereby explanations of the event change over time or in different places. Likewise, analogies between the Holocaust and other events are constructed by adopting vocabulary and narrative tropes from the Holocaust with respect, for example, to the Ukraine Famine or apartheid in South Africa.

In short, the Holocaust is not covered in a standard way across the world. The actual coverage of the event reflects very divergent overlapping narratives, within which the local significance of the event is apparent. Although similarities occur between specific textbooks or between regions, nations and continents, they do not adhere to a singular pattern. The ways in which textbooks cover the Holocaust therefore serve as an interesting test case, with which the distribution and articulation of historical knowledge worldwide may be monitored.

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