Why Teach About the Holocaust

Considering how best to make any examination of the Holocaust meaningful and relevant for learners in their national contexts is essential. This section is meant to help policymakers, school leadership, educators, and other educational stakeholders formulate rationales for teaching and learning about the Holocaust by sharing a variety of objectives that examining the Holocaust can address. This is of special importance for the IHRA member countries who have committed to teaching and learning about the Holocaust in their countries.

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

Teaching and learning about the Holocaust provides an essential opportunity to inspire critical thinking, societal awareness, and personal growth. The Holocaust, a watershed event in world history, spanned geographic boundaries, affected all segments of societies, and occurred in the context of the Second World War. Decades later, societies continue to wrestle with both the memory and historical record of the Holocaust in the midst of contemporary challenges. These include persistent antisemitism and xenophobia, unfolding genocides in the world, the ongoing refugee crisis, and threats to many democratic norms and values. This is particularly relevant with the rise of authoritarian-style governments as well as by populist or extreme movements within (liberal) democracies.

Read more from the Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust.

Educators in formal settings (such as schools) and informal settings (such as museums and other such entities) can engage learners through responsible, fact-based historical approaches informed by other disciplines. Although unique in time and place, the Holocaust was nonetheless a human event that raises challenging questions: about individual and collective responsibility, the meaning of active citizenship, and about the structures and societal norms that can become dangerous for certain groups and society as a whole.

Read other excerpts from the recommendations:  

Key Arguments for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust

A woman looks at a presentation, black and white
Photograph by Luis Paredes.
  • The Holocaust was an unprecedented attempt to murder all European Jews and thus to extinguish their culture; it fundamentally challenged the foundations of human values.
  • Study of the Holocaust underlines that genocide is a process which can be challenged or perhaps stopped rather than a spontaneous or inevitable event. The Holocaust demonstrated how a nation can utilize its bureaucratic structures, processes and technical expertise while enlisting multiple segments of society to implement policies over time ranging from exclusion and discrimination to genocide.
  • Examination of the history of the Holocaust can illustrate the roles of historical, social, religious, political, and economic factors in the erosion and disintegration of democratic values and human rights. This study can prompt learners to develop an understanding of the mechanisms and processes that lead to genocide, in turn leading to reflection on the importance of the rule of law and democratic institutions. This can enable learners to identify circumstances that can threaten or erode these structures, and reflect on their own role and responsibility in safeguarding these principles in order to prevent human rights violations that are liable to explode into mass atrocities.
  • Teaching and learning about the Holocaust is an opportunity to unpack and analyze the decisions and actions taken (or not taken) by a range of people in an emerging time of crisis. This should be a reminder that decisions have consequences, regardless of the complexity of the situations in which they are taken. The Holocaust involved a range of individuals, institutions, organizations, and government agencies at the local, national, regional and global levels. Analyzing and understanding actions taken or not taken at different levels during the Holocaust raises complicated questions about how individuals and groups responded to the events of the Holocaust. Whether the focus is on the political calculations of nations or the daily concerns of individuals (including fear, peer pressure, greed or indifference, for example), it is clear that dynamics that felt familiar and ordinary led to extraordinary outcomes.
  • Teaching and learning about the Holocaust may equip learners to more critically interpret and evaluate cultural manifestations and representations of this event and thereby minimize the risk of manipulation. In many countries, the Holocaust has become a theme or motif commonly reflected in both popular culture and in political discourse, often through media representation. Teaching and learning about the Holocaust can help learners to identify distortion and inaccuracy when the Holocaust is used as a rhetorical device in the service of social, political and moral agendas.
  • Studying antisemitism in the context of Nazi ideology illuminates the manifestations and ramifications of prejudice, stereotyping, xenophobia, and racism. Antisemitism persists in the aftermath of the Holocaust and evidence demonstrates it is on the rise. Teaching and learning about the Holocaust creates a forum for examining the history and evolution of antisemitism – an essential factor that made the Holocaust possible. Examination of different tools used to promote antisemitism and hatred, including dangerous speech, propaganda, manipulation of the media, and group-targeted violence, can help learners to understand the mechanisms employed to divide communities.
  • Teaching and learning about the Holocaust can also support learners in commemorating Holocaust victims, which has in many countries become part of cultural practice. As part of their school curriculum learners are often invited to participate in international and local memorial days and commemoration events. Commemoration cannot replace learning, but study of the Holocaust is essential to help learners build the necessary knowledge and understanding for meaningful present-day commemorations and to continue this cultural practice in the future. Similarly, commemoration can help participants to engage with the emotional labor that forms a part of studying sensitive or traumatic history, creating space for philosophical, religious or political reflection that the academic curriculum may struggle to accommodate.