History and Education

The historiography of the Holocaust has both reflected and influenced popular views about the event; it also bears a relationship to national, ideological, and generational perceptions. During the two postwar decades only a few comprehensive monographs were produced, indicating that in those years the Holocaust had not touched the cultural nerve that it did subsequently. Western historians often saw it as of secondary importance to the war’s military history; Communist historiography integrated it into its story of resistance to Nazism; Zionist historians mainly saw it as the culmination of a long tradition of antisemitic persecution. Little was said about the particularity of Jewish fate under Nazi rule or the singularity of the Holocaust.

The main interpretive schools of Holocaust historiography that eventually emerged after those years also drew very different lessons from the event. The “intentionalists” propounded a view that stressed the role of Hitler and Nazi ideology in preparing for the Holocaust well before it was launched, and underlined the uniqueness of German antisemitism and the German public’s susceptibility to exterminationist rhetoric. The Holocaust, according to the intentionalists, could only be understood within the context of the peculiarities of German history and the German “mentality.” It is interesting to note that the Sonderweg, or “special path” theory of German history— which, strictly speaking, did not concern the Holocaust—was also predicated on the notion of a unique historical development in Germany that made it susceptible to Nazism. But while the supporters of the Sonderweg interpretation focused on social, political, and economic structures, intentionalism was much more interested in personality and ideology. Nevertheless, both schools assumed that the Stunde Null (zero hour) of 1945 was the point at which German history began to follow a new and “normal,” that is, Western, path. Conversely, the “functionalists” shared with the Sonderweg theory an interest in structures but saw nothing peculiar or anomalous in German history. Indeed, for them the Holocaust was the outcome of unique circumstances, rather than a uniquely German history or mentality. Genocide was thus seen by the functionalists not as the anticipated result of policies and actions taken before its perpetration but as their unintentional byproduct. Hence the stress on a dynamic of “cumulative radicalization” within a “polycratic” system of agencies competing with each other over the favors of a weak but extremist Fuhrer, whose continued rule depended precisely on this power struggle between his underlings. The Holocaust, according to this model, was, in effect, the product of a modern, bureaucratic, industrialized state—placed in an extraordinary set of circumstances, ruled by a racist dictatorship, and embroiled in a vicious, expansionist war. Since the political and administrative structures that characterized Germany have much in common with those of contemporary modern states, the functionalists concluded that it is imperative for other nations to avoid the kind of circumstances that may weaken democracy, lead to war, and thereby produce a recurrence of genocidal urges.

These schools of interpretation are primarily concerned with the perpetrators. Indeed, the historiography of the Holocaust largely reflects the strict separation between killers and victims imposed by the Nazis, despite the recognized fact that the event cannot be fully understood without considering the interaction between both groups, as well as the no less crucial role played by numerous types of bystanders in the vast “gray zone” between collaboration and resistance. The historiography of the victims, for its part, has reconstructed their political, social, and cultural organization; their reactions to Nazi policies, techniques of survival, incidents of complicity, and resistance and rescue attempts; and the effects of the Holocaust on postwar Jewish life and identity. In this context, two debates have been especially painful and acrimonious. The first concerns the role of the Jewish councils (Judenrate), with some scholars stressing their collaboration with the Nazis and others noting that they strove, under the most difficult of circumstances, to “save what could be saved.” The second concentrates on the reactions of Jewish communities outside the Nazi sphere of influence—especially in the United States and Palestine—to news of the Holocaust, and what some commentators view as their failure to do all they could to save European Jewry. A related controversial issue has to do with the political motivation of the Yishuv leadership in bringing masses of survivors to Palestine and with the flaws and errors of their subsequent absorption into Israeli society.

One important lesson for Holocaust historians is to remember that the victims of genocide led a normal existence before they were targeted for destruction and that their lives deserve as much attention as the manner in which they were extinguished. Indeed, we need to ask: What is the intrinsic educational value of teaching the details of the Holocaust? What are the risks involved in focusing on atrocity and inhumanity? Is it possible that an excessive stress on Holocaust education might be detrimental, perhaps even pernicious, for students and the general public, because it creates a perception of Jews as perpetual victims and can all too easily encourage or reinforce a voyeuristic fascination with violence?

A strongly worded expression of concern by the Israeli historian Yehuda Elkana, himself a child survivor, shows what might be at stake. In 1988 Elkana published a short and controversial article in the Israeli daily Ha-aretz, entitled “In Praise of Forgetting.” Writing in reaction to reported acts of brutality by Israeli troops against Palestinian civilians, Elkana insisted on the links between such incidents and the policy of exposing children repeatedly to images of the Holocaust. He asked: “What did we expect these children to do with this experience? We chanted thoughtlessly, heartlessly, without explanation—‘Remember!’ To what end? What was a child supposed to do with these memories? . . . ‘Remember’ could be interpreted as a call for perpetual and blind hatred.” Hence Elkana’s belief that “any lesson or view about life whose origin is the Holocaust is disastrous.” According to Elkana, “The very existence of democracy is threatened when the memory of the victims of the past takes an active part in the democratic process. . . . Democracy is about cultivating the present and the future; cultivation of the ‘remembered’ and addiction to the past undermine the foundations of democracy.” He therefore urged Israelis to put an end to the constant preoccupation with “symbols, ceremonies, and lessons of the Holocaust. We must eradicate the dominion of the historical ‘remembered’ over our lives.”

One need not agree wholeheartedly with Elkana to grasp the deeply disquieting significance of his observations. It could also be noted that overexposure in schools and media representations to the Holocaust and a preoccupation with more immediate concerns about survival may have rather unforeseen consequences; thus, ironically, one sees today far fewer youngsters in lectures on the Holocaust in Israel than in Germany. What should be clear, however, is that teaching the Holocaust does not necessarily make for better politics, more tolerance, or deeper humanism and compassion; it can also create hatred, frustration, anger, and aggression. As Elkana quite rightly noted, this is not merely a matter of employing the Holocaust to justify the occupation or expulsion of another people; it is just as much about the danger that children and youths might be brutalized by excessive exposure to scenes and tales of atrocity, that a numbing of the senses would be accompanied by seething rage, that moral outrage would motivate misdirected action, and that the vicarious experience of the camps would unleash a yearning for vengeance. Teaching inhumanity, in other words, even with the declared intention of preventing its recurrence, may imbue young minds with images of barbarism that will seek aggressive and violent expression.

There is yet another side to all this. Those who teach the Holocaust are often seen as moral guides for the young. There is, however, a bitter irony in this assertion. For one of the most depressing and troubling lessons of the Holocaust is that the German intelligentsia and academic elite played a major role in the electoral successes of the Nazi party and in the establishment of a rule of terror, violence, and finally mass murder. The legal profession was deeply complicit in passing and enforcing racial legislation that facilitated the Holocaust. The medical profession organized and legitimized the murder of the mentally and physically handicapped, the horrifying medical “experiments” in the concentration camps, the selections at the killing centers. The leaders of the notorious Einsatzgruppen, the murder squads of the SS, as well as many of the most active and extreme members of the Reich Main Security Office—charged with organizing the Final Solution—were holders of doctorates from Germany’s most prestigious universities. The Third Reich’s school system was filled with Nazi teachers who taught eugenics, racism, and antisemitism to millions of children. Anthropologists, geographers, historians, biologists, as well as professors of literature, writers, journalists, artists, filmmakers, radio announcers, actors, and so forth were all involved in this venture of transforming Germany into a genocidal society. The issue is not whether all Germans ultimately acquired an “exterminationist” mentality (which cannot be proven in any case), nor deciding how many of these professionals, intellectuals, academics, and media people actually believed in Nazi ideology and how many were merely looking out for their own interests by supporting Hitler. The question is, rather, how do we as educators and scholars confront the fact that education and knowledge have been shown, in the Germany of 1933—45, to be anything but morally elevating, indeed, were easily transformed into ready tools in the service of evil? How do we come to terms with the realization that it is often people like us who are the first to join the ranks of those whom we now describe as the scourges of humanity?

Having said this, I do not believe that ignorance about the past is a solution. And, once we study and teach an historical event, we cannot help but try and derive lessons from it. To be sure, we should beware of being contaminated by the evil we study and should be even more sensitive to its effects on our audience. But the Holocaust was a crucial event in the history of this century and leaving it out or relegating it to a marginal status would create a vast void in the center of Western civilization whose effect would be to distort our understanding of the world we live in. Indeed, it is ignorance that has made it possible to use the Holocaust as a legitimation for indefensible policies and pernicious ideologies, to promote prejudice, xenophobia, and intolerance. Precisely because of its extremity, the Holocaust has been used all too often as the testing ground for theories on human nature, politics, and representation. While it has been the site of a great deal of morbid fascination, in other contexts it has been wholly sanitized of its horrors and held up as nothing more than an interesting interpretive issue. If there is a pedagogical lesson here, it is that the Holocaust should be taught as any other major historical event, but with full awareness both of its potentially disturbing impact on students and of its capacity to undermine the intellectual and cultural traditions that constitute the moral basis of those who teach it. As long as we keep this in mind, and transmit these worries and fears to our audience, perhaps we will be able to say that we have learned some lessons from the Holocaust.

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