What to Teach about the Holocaust

The IHRA Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust aim to deepen the understanding of the Holocaust by asking crucial questions concerning the historical context of the Holocaust, its scope and scale and why and how it happened. This excerpt presents a series of critical questions that educators can use to frame their examination of the Holocaust.

Download the full IHRA Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust here.

Teaching and learning about the Holocaust will vary depending on national and local contexts. These contexts will inform decisions regarding which questions are explored more deeply and which are addressed more concisely. The time allocated for teaching about the Holocaust must, however, be sufficient for learners to be able to answer the following questions in significant rather than superficial ways:

  • What were the historical conditions and key stages in the process of this genocide?
  • Why and how did people participate or become complicit in these crimes?
  • How did Jews respond to persecution and mass murder?
  • Why and how did some people resist these crimes?

The issues and questions raised here are not intended to be exhaustive, but rather a set of core learning goals and content. Bear in mind that concerns about the Holocaust will change over time; questions that do not seem relevant today may become very important in the future. With these important caveats in mind, educators are encouraged to enable learners to explore the issues and questions which follow.

What to teach about the Holocaust: core historical content

Holocaust education, man looks at posters
Photo by Luis Paredes

 

The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and murder of Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. A continent-wide genocide, it destroyed not only individuals and families but also communities and cultures that had developed over centuries.

  • What were the key stages, turning points and decisions in the process of genocide?
  • How and why did people perpetrate/participate/become complicit in these crimes?
  • How did Jews respond to persecution and mass murder?

 

2.1 Scope and scale of the Holocaust

Learners should know and understand that the Holocaust was a continent-wide genocide that destroyed not only individuals and families but entire communities and cultures that had developed in Europe over centuries.  

 

2.2 Why and how did the Holocaust happen

Learners should be given opportunities to explore why and how the Holocaust happened, including:

  • What were the key stages, turning points and decisions in the process of genocide?
  • How and why did people participate/ perpetrate/ become complicit in these crimes?
  • How did Jews respond to persecution and mass murder?

 

2.3 Contexts and developments of the Holocaust

In order to understand how the Holocaust was possible, one needs to consider it from a number of perspectives and in the context of a variety of processes, taking the following questions as a starting-point. Incorporating connections to and examination of the national and local contexts is essential throughout.

2.3.1 Precursors to the Holocaust

  • What was European anti-Judaism and how was it related to Christian teachings?
  • How did antisemitism and racial thinking develop in the nineteenth century and how was it related to nationalist ideologies?
  • What was the impact of the First World War and political developments in Europe in the interwar period on Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations?

2.3.2 The rise of the Nazis, their worldview, their racial ideology and political practice

  • How and why did the Nazis target Jews and others in their propaganda and politics?
  • How did the establishment of the National Socialist dictatorship, in particular the abolition of fundamental rights and the perversion of the rule of law, pave the way to the Holocaust and how did German society respond to this process?
  • How did the Nazis particularly target the rights and property of Jews in the prewar period?
  • How did the world respond to Nazi rule and policies?

2.3.3 The course and development of the Holocaust in the context of the Second World War

  • How did the Nazis radicalize the persecution of Jews after Nazi Germany had started the Second World War, and how was this influenced by the course of the war?
  • How and why did the Nazis organize the expropriation of Jews and how did this impact their chances to survive?
  • What were the different types of ghettos and how were they used to segregate, concentrate and persecute communities?
  • How were the mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) able to murder hundreds of thousands of Jews within half a year after the German invasion of the Soviet Union?
  • At what stage did the Nazis take the decision to attempt the murder of all European Jews?
  • How did the mass murder of people with disabilities pave the way for the systematic killing of Jews?
  • How did the Nazis use death camps and other camps to realize the intended “Final Solution of the European Jewish question”?
  • What was the influence of collaboration or resistance in countries allied with Germany and in the occupied countries on the persecution?
  • What role did the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies play in bringing the Holocaust to an end?

 

2.3.4 Post-War: Immediate aftermath

  • What challenges were faced by survivors of the Holocaust after liberation? How did the situation of surviving Jews after liberation differ from the situation of non-Jewish victims of persecution and warfare?
  • What elements of transitional justice were provided after the end of the Nazi regime and the war in Europe? In what way were they successful? What was not achieved?

 

2.4 Conceptual understanding of the Holocaust

Learners should be able to differentiate between different mass atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators, each with their own causes and outcomes. Questions to consider might include:

  • Which groups became victims of Nazi persecution and mass murder, out of which motivations, and with what outcomes?
  • How does the genocide of the Jews relate to the other atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators including the genocide against the Roma and Sinti?

2.4.1 Responsibility

If learners are to begin to understand how the Holocaust was possible, and to consider what questions this raises for societies today, then they need to recognize that it is not sufficient to limit responsibility for these crimes to Hitler and the Nazis. Questions to consider might include:

  • Who was responsible and complicit and what were their motivations? What are the differences between responsibility and complicity?
  • Men were overwhelmingly involved in the killing actions, but what supporting roles did women play, and what responsibility did women also bear for these crimes?
  • What were the roles of local non-Jewish and Jewish populations (including rescue and collaboration)?
  • What attitudes did the majority of the population in occupied countries adopt toward the persecution and murder of the Jews?
  • Who were the individuals and groups who took the risk to help and rescue Jews? What motivated them? What prevented or discouraged others from taking similar action?
  • What was known about the persecution and murder of the Jews and when?
  • How did the world respond to information about the persecution and murder of the Jews?
  • What was known about the genocide of the Roma and why did it not receive attention outside the Nazi-dominated region?
  • What did the Allies, neutral countries, the Churches and others do to rescue victims of Nazi crimes, and could they have done more?

2.4.2 Agency of the victims

It is essential that the Holocaust is not seen only from the perspective of the perpetrators’ sources, actions or narratives. Jews and additional targeted victims must appear on the historical stage as individuals and communities with their own contexts and histories rather than as passive objects to be murdered en masse. As such, educators need to ensure that learners recognize that the victims had agency, and responded to the unfolding crimes as best they could, in light of their previous understanding of the world and their place in it, and the information available at the time. This might include an examination of:

Pre-war life

  • How did Jews live in their home countries and how were their lives affected by the persecution initiated by the Nazis, their allies and collaborators?

Responses and resistance

  • How did the Nazis isolate Jews from the rest of their societies? How did Jews respond to this isolation?
  • What characterized Jewish leadership, education, community, religious practice and culture during the Holocaust?
  • To what degree and in what ways could Jews offer resistance? To what extent did they do so? What constrained or empowered them in these decisions and actions?
  • How were men, women and children affected differently by Nazi persecution and how did they respond?

2.4.3 Relevance of the Holocaust for contemporary questions

Learners should be given the opportunity to discuss the relevance of the historical experience of the Holocaust for today. Questions to be addressed may include:

  • How can the study of the persecution of the victims of Nazi ideology advance the understanding of the impact of human rights violations on societies today? In particular, what can it tell us about the relationships between stereotypes, prejudices, scapegoating, discrimination, persecution, and genocide?
  • How can knowledge about Jewish refugees before, during and after the Holocaust be relevant for understanding contemporary refugee crises?
  • What can learning about the Holocaust tell us about the process of genocide, its warning signs, and possibilities for intervention that might strengthen contemporary efforts at genocide prevention?
  • Are there contexts where the use of Holocaust imagery and discourse are unhelpful or actively problematic? Are there representations of the Holocaust which are particularly problematic?

  Read other excerpts from the recommendations: