As the world pauses to remember the Holocaust, it is important to at what children around the world are learning about the horrific events of 70 years ago and their aftermath.
A recent research project between the Georg Eckert Institute and UNESCO attempted to map the status of the Holocaust in secondary school-level history and social studies curricula and textbooks around the world. The resulting report can help us to better understand the ways in which information and learning about the past is treated in societies as geographically and historically remote as Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Namibia, Spain and the United States.
Big disparities in curricula
The research involved thorough and carefully co-ordinated research which scrutinised 272 currently valid curricula from 139 countries and territories in more than ten different languages, and 89 textbooks published in 26 countries since 2000. Great care was taken to ensure that conceptualisations and narratives of the Holocaust were documented and compared adequately in spite of the variety of languages into which its history has been translated.
The curricula analysis revealed considerable disparities around the world, which have been visualised in various maps. Even the very names of the event differ, ranging from “Shoah”, “Holocaust”, “genocide”, “massacre”, or “extermination” to the “concentration camp” or “final solution”.
In total, 57 curricula clearly stipulate the Holocaust with a direct reference to words such as “Holocaust” or “Shoah”, while 28 do not. The countries which make no reference to the Holocaust in their curricula – shaded in yellow on the maps – include Egypt, Palestine, New Zealand, Iraq and Thailand.
The curricula of eight countries address the Holocaust only partially – where it is mentioned to achieve a learning aim that is not specifically related to the Holocaust. In Mexico, for example, the Holocaust is mentioned as one among other aspects of human rights education. A further 46 countries, such as Algeria and Japan, provide only the context in which the Holocaust may be taught and thus refer only to World War II or to National Socialism.
The findings of our textbook study reveal that representations of the Holocaust adhered to broadly shared patterns. For example, most textbooks focus on the years of intense killing from 1942 to 1944 or the years of World War II. They name the geographical spaces in which the Holocaust took place in general terms as “Europe” or “Germany”, while neglecting the general government, occupied territories, or satellite and collaborating states.
Images in these books are more likely to depict the perpetrators than victims or bystanders – and the conspicuousness of Adolf Hitler suggests that he was largely responsible for the event. At the same time, there are radical differences in the ways in which the Holocaust is narrated and the didactic methods applied to it when teaching, especially in explanations of its causes and effects.
Comparisons with local examples
Most strikingly, Chinese textbooks borrow the language and imagery of the Holocaust and apply them to the Nanjing massacres of 1937 by the Japanese army. Japanese textbooks likewise adopt the language of the Holocaust in presentations of the devastation of cities by atomic bombs at the end of World War II.
Historians thus “tragedise” their own pasts by conspicuously re-contextualising vocabulary customarily used to describe the Holocaust, including “terrible massacres”, “killings”, “mass murders”, “atrocities” and “extermination”. These have been adopted, for example, in Rwandan textbooks to describe the genocide of 1994.
The Holocaust is also domesticated, or conceptualised in new idiosyncratic or local ways. For example, Chinese textbooks do not employ the terms “Holocaust” or “Shoah”, but rather “genocide” (datusha) and “kinds of crimes” (zhongzhong zuixing). The Chinese textbooks render the event understandable for local readers in a language which is familiar to them, yet which does not convey the historical specificity traditionally ascribed to the Holocaust by western scholars and teachers.
There is no international standard for talking about the Holocaust. Teaching about it is proof of the divergence of overlapping narratives, dominated by local circumstances in which children learn about it. That said, similarities occur between specific textbooks or between regions, nations and continents without adhering to a singular pattern.
More systematic approach
The recommendations, published at the end of our report, acknowledge these local idiosyncrasies while calling for greater historical accuracy and more systematic comparisons of genocides. As the maps show, few countries already include the Holocaust in their history teaching while others refer only indirectly to the event or to its historical context.
In Africa, further inclusion of the Holocaust in curricula would constitute a step towards greater awareness of European history. Likewise, comparisons between genocides both here and there would raise awareness of African history in Europe. Yet it remains to be seen whether lessons of the past will, in practice, entrench humanitarian and human values around the world.