Summary: Why, What, and How to Teach about the Holocaust

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. The Holocaust occurred in the context of Nazi-led persecution and murder that targeted many additional groups. Sessions and activities should always help learners to advance their knowledge about this unprecedented destruction and preserve the memory of persecuted and murdered individuals and groups. Educators and learners should be encouraged and empowered to reflect upon the moral, political and social questions raised by the Holocaust and their relevance today.

Benefiting from the expertise of delegates from more than 30 member countries, the IHRA Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust are intended to provide a basis for policymakers, practitioners, and educators that will help them:

  1. Develop knowledge of the Holocaust, ensuring accuracy in individual understanding and knowledge and raising awareness about the possible consequences of antisemitism;
  2. Create engaging teaching environments for learning about the Holocaust;
  3. Promote critical and reflective thinking about the Holocaust including the ability to counter Holocaust denial and distortion;
  4. Contribute to Human Rights and genocide prevention education.

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

Why teach about the Holocaust?

In addition to equipping learners with knowledge about an event that fundamentally challenged human values, teaching and learning about the Holocaust gives learners the opportunity to understand some of the mechanisms and processes that lead to genocide and the choices people made to accelerate, accept or resist the process of persecution and murder, acknowledging that these choices were sometimes made under extreme circumstances. The “Why teach about the Holocaust” section articulates a number of these deeper understandings. Educational stakeholders can use these to frame the study of this past event with consideration about how it shapes the present. Teaching and learning about the Holocaust provides an essential opportunity to inspire critical thinking, societal awareness, and personal growth.

Read an excerpt from the Why section of the Recommendations

What to Teach about the Holocaust?

The Recommendations 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. The section presents a series of critical questions that educators can use to frame their examination of the Holocaust. Four essential questions are suggested:

  • 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?

More detailed questions are offered to help learners explore how and why the Holocaust happened through a variety of perspectives. Questions prompt examination of conditions and behaviors before, during, and after the Second World War. They encourage study of the relations between the Holocaust and other mass atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators, such as the genocide against the Roma and Sinti. They encourage educators to explore who was responsible and complicit and what motivated the behavior of perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders, and rescuers. They emphasize the great variety of responses by the victims. They also suggest discussing the relevance of the history of the Holocaust for contemporary questions such as the policy towards refugees, the consequences of human rights violations not only for the concerned individuals, but for societies as a whole, and the efforts for genocide prevention.

Read an excerpt from the What to Teach section of the Recommendations

How to Teach about the Holocaust?

Above all, educators should be confident that the Holocaust can be taught effectively and successfully with careful preparation and appropriate materials. The section “How to teach about the Holocaust” discusses possibilities and challenges for teaching and learning about the Holocaust by presenting practical approaches and methods to apply in both formal and informal educational settings. The importance of accuracy and precision with regard to historical facts, historical comparisons, and use of language is emphasized. The section encourages the use of learner-centered approaches that support critical thinking and reflection. Attention is paid to the importance of carefully selecting primary and secondary sources appropriate for the learners which make clear the individuality and agency of historical actors. The section also discusses the importance of including a nuanced historical context and avoiding ahistorical comparisons when exploring the Holocaust in the context of other fields such as genocide prevention and human rights.

Read an excerpt from the How to Teach section of the Recommendations