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Berlin - Small: History of Holocaust Education

Politics and Education Reform

   Years following the war, “German society was characterized by despair in the light of the lost war. Most Germans thought of themselves as victims (Wagensommer 2009, p. 94), and avoided taking responsibility for the crimes committed against the Jews and others (Boschki, 2010).” In the western part of Germany the first steps towards dealing with the Nazi past were imposed by the western allied forces. The foreign pressure led to an immediate public discussion of the Holocaust and at least a partial attempt to prosecute and punish the perpetrators. At the end of World War II, all schoolbooks containing the National Socialist version of history were confiscated by the occupying forces. As early as 1947, new curricula appeared; even at this early date they dealt frankly with the Nazi period.

(Boschki, 2010)

   A decision was made by the Cultural Ministry as early as 1960 to not only require the teaching of the history of National Socialism in history and social studies classes, but also to embed instruction in democracy and value formation as part of a broader strategy against antidemocratic and anti-Semitic attitudes (see Dudek 1995, p. 273) This aim is reflected in the position taken by the West German government in 1961 on the report, “Lessons from the Observation and Defense Against Right-wing Extremist and Anti-Semitic Tendencies,” which envisioned the use of historical and political education for “the awakening and consolidation of a democratic national consciousness and in the intellectual engagement with the National Socialist past” (quoted in ibid., p. 277).

(Meseth 2012)

   Little by little, it became clear that education would be the key to prevent anti-Semitism in the future. In 1960 and 1962 the education ministers of the German Federal State agreed to include Germany’s most recent past in history and social studies curricula across all schools. However, when Theodor Adorno delivered his speech in 1966, the public was still not prepared to implement his appeal for an education that would not permit a repetition of Auschwitz, and would instead create a spiritual, cultural, and social climate of humanity. In 1968, the student actions brought about social and cultural liberties as they emancipated the younger German generation from the old anti-democratic behaviour of their parents and grandparents in the light of the economic boom. Only then did Adorno’s message hit fertile soil; thereafter it led to a wealth of instructional theories and approaches which continues to inspire to this day (Meseth 2001; Wagensommer 2009, pp. 23ff). Years later, teaching about National Socialism and the Holocaust is an obligatory part of German school curricula and is governed by the 16 federal states.

(Boschiki, 2010)


Objectives of Holocaust Education

One of the most important turning points in Holocaust education is the occurrence of the Eichmann trial in 1961.  The Eichmann trial encouraged discussion about the Holocaust in both Germany and Israel.  With the result of the Eichmann trial, “the education sector started to develop courses with the following objectives (Schatzker, 1982):”

  1.  Information: The learning process should provide the factual background of the Holocaust.

  2.  Education: The learning process should contain educational- moral values to provide pupils with the cognitive instruments needed to expose and to recognize the emotional factors that legitimized the radical tendencies that took over Germany.

  3.  Social: The learning process should lead the student to recognize the dangers that exist in dictatorial regimes.

  4.  National: The learning process should create emotional identification of the younger generation with Holocaust survivors in order to reinforce Jewish identity.

The four objectives had a common basis—the will and the need to commemorate the Holocaust and its utilization to reinforce Jewish identity for posterity. 

(Shami, 2004)

Knowledge in Israel v. Germany

   Research has shown that the general level of knowledge of the Nazi period and the Holocaust amongst students is worryingly low—although the period is covered as part of several general subjects and represented in secondary education with no small number of teaching hours. For example, in the course of a 9th grade school project, students were interviewed before and after a teaching block on National Socialism and an associated project week. Analysis of the data gathered before the teaching block, which therefore reflected the students’ general level of knowledge and awareness of the topic, showed that most of them tended towards ‘‘Hitlerism’’, i.e. saw Hitler more or less as the sole person responsible for National Socialism. Somewhat worryingly, this attitude appeared not to have changed after 11 full weeks of teaching on the subject.

   A further observation was the general level of ignorance regarding Judaism. Jews were seen as ‘‘victims’’ and ‘‘those who were gassed’’, and identified as ‘‘foreigners’’. Most students appeared to be unaware that ‘‘being a Jew’’ had no bearing on an individual’s nationality, but indicated their belonging to a religion. It would appear that even at the beginning of the new century the recommendation had still not been followed that Jews should not only be portrayed as victims. Just as with the students Brendler (1997) interviewed, any attempts to instill emotional content had evidently failed with this group of adolescents.

   In a study conducted by Shmuel Shamai, Eran Yardeni, and Benjamin Klages, they hoped to uncover, " what is the Israeli students' level of knowledge about Nazism and the Holocaust, and on the other, what is their attitude toward German youth. What is the German students' level of knowledge about Nazism and the Holocaust, and their attitude toward Israeli students (Shamai, 2004)."  In the tables included below, one can see correlations and biases between what each group of students believes to be true and their respective sides in the Holocaust.




The findings were that German adolescents (high school students) knowledge regarding the events leading to the rise of the Nazi party was greater than that of the Israeli adolescents. However, the knowledge of Israelis was greater regarding the Holocaust. A positive correlation was found between the knowledge levels and their attitudes toward the other groups (German/Israeli) and toward resistance to the possible rise of a dictatorial regime. The findings point to the fact that multicultural education, which combines attitudinal, cognitive, and instrumental goals, can succeed in promoting nonracist views.

Multicultural education is defined as "education, usually formal, in which two or more cultures are involved" (Ekstrand, 1997, p. 345)

For example, in the Israeli Educational Encyclopedia, published in 1959, there is no mention of teaching of the Holocaust (Fargo, 1984), an omission that exposes the confusion and the embarrassment of the Israeli education system.

It took at least those 16 years from the end of WWII until the Eichmann trial, before the Holocaust began to become part of the public discourse in Israel.  (Shamai, 2004)



The German education system tried to find a golden mean between opposing tendencies: the necessity for learning from the past as against the unease involved in this learning process. The "German version" of the Eichmann trial was the anti-Semitic wave of 1959-1960. After this phase (Stern, 1996) an academic debate took place in Germany about the factors that influenced the rise of the Nazi state. As a result, reform was carried out in the German education system and texts about the Holocaust were added to the list of German schoolbooks.

A review of German history textbooks (Calvert, 1984) shows that the documentation of anti-Semitism, Jewish persecution, and the Holocaust has improved since the 1960s. However, there are still weak areas. Schatzker (1982), mentioned the problems that could arise from the attempt to teach the emotional aspects of the Holocaust together with its rational aspects. It can be assumed that the emotional aspects would depict Germans as demonic creatures and not as human beings (Schatzker, 1982) who were manipulated and debased by their leadership. In Israel the role of each figure in this play is obvious: the German as the aggressor and the Jew as the victim.