Explore More »

The Responsibility of Knowledge: Developing Holocaust Education for the Third Generation

In a radio address in 1966 the prominent German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, declared his dissatisfaction with the state of Holocaust consciousness. He claimed that ignorance of the barbarity of the Holocaust is “itself a symptom of the continuing potential for its recurrence as far as peoples’ conscious and unconscious is concerned.” (Adorno, Education After Auschwitz). It is for this reason that he envisioned education as the institution which would be most responsible for instilling values in the masses so that they have the agency to oppose barbarism.  Adorno spoke not only of education in childhood, but “then the general enlightenment that provides an intellectual, cultural, and social climate in which a recurrence would no longer be possible.” Almost 40 years later, the Holocaust education is still important, not only to combat another genocide but also to provide a consciousness of human rights necessary in a world where such standards are becoming commonplace.

Holocaust education is in a state of constant evolution. As generations grow up and new ones are born, as distance from the Holocaust increases, it is necessary to reform the methods in which its history is taught. As survivors die and the third generation slowly drifts out of the Holocaust’s shadow, education must be buttressed with an understanding of the applicable lessons and principles that may derive from the Holocaust. For this education to have any meaning, those mechanisms that allowed the Holocaust to take place must be fully understood. History must empower pupils with the understanding of various choices they must make and their ultimate impact on society. 

Holocaust education is not as fixed as it may appear to be to the outsider. The German education system is one of great complexity. The word for education, “Bildung,” is a word that cannot be fully translated into English: a concept or theory of development, of fortifying youth with all the characteristics necessary to succeed in life. Traditionally linked to the concept of emancipation, it is assumed that with knowledge comes great freedom. The responsibility that the Holocaust instills is far greater than simply learning the facts. The current state of immigration has changed the social landscape of Germany, requiring an education that gives students the requisite tools to live in a pluralistic society complicated by a history of discrimination. In this context it is crucial to evaluate both the education about the Holocaust and the taboos that have been created in the evolution of German memory. Ultimately, Holocaust education faces the dual challenge of both embedding the history within the collective memory, while teaching the mechanisms by which such acts were committed. If these problems are to be dealt with, it is obvious that Holocaust education must preclude desensitization as well as find ways to empower youth with the tools of human rights. The dangers and challenges of these ambitious endeavors have to be examined carefully before deciding if Holocaust education is the setting from which to work in regard to human rights. 

Holocaust Education Today

Immediately after the the Second World War,  the Allies imposed a new  educational program on Germany—a program aimed at creating and sustaining a democratic Germany. The post-war “denazification” program presented gruesome pictures and captions to combat the feigned ignorance of the German population. This program, however, only abetted a culture of silence that was not broken in West Germany until the 1960’s. In the East, an emphasis on creating a Socialist government and emphasizing the perception of Communism under siege, pushed the history of the Holocaust to the side. Perhaps this focus on contemporary developments stopped a general conflict from occurring. Finally, a clash broke out in West Germany 1968, when students, frustrated with their relatives’ inability to talk about World War II, formed a large movement. They demanded a dialogue with their parents about what had happened during the War and their participation in the Holocaust. 

Although the '68 movement was large in size, it was only successful within the realm of the private sphere. It simply laid the groundwork for future public discussion. It was not until “Holocaust,” an American TV mini-series, premiered in 1979, that the history of the Holocaust fully entered the public sphere. It was only at that moment, when re-configuring the collective memory and acknowledging this dark time in history, that Holocaust education commenced.  

New exhibits, created to encourage the public education Adorno hoped for, look critically at the memory of the Holocaust. In the exhibit “1945: Consequences of the War and the Politics of Memory,” the third generation is faced with the politics of commemoration and the important role that history plays even today. Though the exhibit was not created for children, as Andrej Goetze points out, many classes still come to visit the exhibit. Goetze finds that the level of knowledge is varied among students of the same age, but what worries Gotze as a museum pedagogue is that students still tend to believe “historic myths, such as Hitler built the Autobahn and that it was his personal genial achievment”. It is this problem, that of simply gaining historical knowledge without the ability to analyze critically, that Andrej Goetze sees as the largest impediment to consciousness. To establish a more critical view of historic events is a major task of today’s Holocaust lessons in his opinion so that children learn to relate information to modern situations in an appropriate manner.

The controversial link between the Holocaust and contemporary issues became clear during the Kosovo crisis: Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, compared the situation in former Yugoslavia to “Auschwitz”, and justified NATO’s intervention. Fischer  brought the Holocaust back into the political dialogue. For the first time the Holocaust was openly spoken about in relative terms, creating space within the public sphere to debate the political aspects of this memory and the related moral taboos. Claudia Lohrenscheit, the director of Human Rights education at the German Institute of Human Rights, sees this as essential. She notes that Holocaust education ultimately has two goals. To some, they appear to conflict. First, the goal of Holocaust education is to instruct the public “never to forget.” Second, the education is necessary to “develop competencies so that it never happens again.” Thus, Holocaust education, she believes, can be a tool for teaching democracy. As for the status quo, however, she laments that currently Holocaust education only “imbues a sense of history, while human rights education gives the power to act.” These two should not be mutually exclusive. One might well connect the two if placed in the proper context. 

Conceptual Problems: Holocaust and Human Rights Education

The connection between the Holocaust and human rights may seem quite easy for adults to understand: the Holocaust was caused by ignorance and discrimination, the fuel for basically all human rights violations. In terms of teaching however, the case may not be stated so easily. Assuming that Holocaust education may serve as a platform to demonstrate the necessity for individual decision-making and thus “teaching democracy”, one has to be careful as to where to make the connections. “A concentration camp is not the right place for teaching democracy in my eyes”, the curator of the former concentration camp of Ravensbrück, Matthias Heyl, states, since choices were very limited for both victims and perpetrators. He would rather teach the importance of individual decision-making in sites where they might have a positive influence, in order to encourage students to engage in democracy. 

The danger of counterproductive effects is inherent in each connection that is set inappropriately made, a fact that demands special sensitivity by educators. Simplified comparisons bear the risk of communicating the wrong message. For example, Matthias Heyl sometimes hears, “Back then it was the Jews, now it is the refugees,” – a statement made with the intention of raising awareness among pupils concerning current problems of discrimination. “But by telling immigrants that they are the Jews of today,” he remarks, “you basically tell them Auschwitz is their future.” Confronting students with such visions of the future strains them, especially during a time when Germany is struggling to accept itself as an immigration country. 

Elke Gryglewski, at the Wannsee Conference Center recognized the same pedagogical mistake. Her experience shows another danger: when teachers compare the situation of immigrants today with that of the Jews under the Nürnberg laws, students often react in a very dismissive way. “They feel as if they are responsible and that learning about history carries a huge bag of morals and doctrine.” Gryglewski feels that “every human being with the slightest sense of morality will understand what conclusions to draw from an event such as the Holocaust”. It is extremely difficult for teachers to teach the Holocaust without implanting feelings of guilt, while still making them aware of actual problems such as xenophobia and racism. This said, Gryglewsky doubts whether integrating Holocaust and human rights education is a fruitful idea at all. 

Matthias Heyl shares certain sentiments, but rather sees the problem in the current simplification of the Holocaust.“45 minutes of class time is not much to get into detail, so a very complex topic such as the Holocaust is easily simplified instead of being condensed” he observes. These simplified lessons, which are being taught over and over again at school, lead to the “Oh no, not again”-effect. “Several pupils feel they know everything about the Holocaust when they come here and are fed up with the topic.” Elke Gryglewski finds that in fact they hardly know anything when someone poses two or three simple questions. 

The linkage of Holocaust education and human rights education may lead to a form of escapism. “Human rights violations happen everywhere, except for Germany,” Viola B. Georgi mocks the German attitude provocatively. By relating the Holocaust with current cases of human rights violations too quickly the focus may shift from the German responsibility to other countries and nations, the researcher fears. Escapism is also reflected by the “German feeling of having a victim history”, Heyl explains. Still today there has not been any project in a German school  dealing with the perpetrators´ point of view, even though children are extremely interested in the motivation of perpetrators. Dealing with these issues is crucial to understand the mechanisms behind the genocide that are so hard to grasp for the third generation. It seems there is a narrow path between imbuing the child with the facts of history, self-consciousness, and the ability to be critical of one’s milieu without creating a feeling of guilt and defensiveness. 

Another problem arising with integrating the Holocaust and human rights issues such as discrimination and racism appears when taking a closer look at the phenomenon of anti-Semitism. Is anti-Semitism unique, or is it simply a form of racism? Paul Johnson, the author of “The History of the Jews” writes in June 2005’s “Commentary,”“If anti-Semitism is a variety of racism, it is a most peculiar variety, with many unique characteristics. In my view as a historian, it is so peculiar that it deserves to be placed in a quite different category.” 

Johnson calls anti-Semitism an intellectual disease. Perhaps it is true that anti-Semitism is separate; Lohrenscheit points out that anti-Semitism is over two-thousand years old and is a result of the creation of Christianity and the rise of capitalism. Conversely racism is a rather new phenomenon which originated during Colonialism. Though Lohrenscheit makes this distinction, she makes an important point – from the educational standpoint these sentiments grow from a larger form of discrimination.  Thus, the mechanisms behind them are the same. Yet it is important to recognize that these are different ideologies, which must be communicated to the students in order to avoid simplified comparisons.  

However comparisons in general are seen as an important step to understanding the Holocaust among the third generation, states Georgi. “The uniqueness of the Holocaust can only be preserved by comparing it.” As survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders are passing away and new challenges such as immigration have to be faced by German society, new ways of dealing with the Holocaust past have to be found.

Pragmatic Obstacles to Implementation of Education

In addition to conceptual obstacles surrounding Holocaust education, pragmatic issues also need to be considered. There are several ways of accessing the tools necessary for solid pedagogical methodology, however many Holocaust and human rights experts claim there is not enough of either topic in the classroom or in the textbooks. The real problem that emerges is the inconsistency of Holocaust education for teachers and students. This can be seen in the divisive structure of German education, the absence of a standardized or specific Holocaust education requirement, regional differences in the understanding of German history, and the absence of educational training for teachers to teach Holocaust education. Even beyond these obstacles of inconsistency, there are cultural divisions within the classrooms that prompt more uneasiness surrounding the implications of the Holocaust and its impact on the understanding of current national attitudes for both minority and majority students. 

While there are several programs dedicated to student Holocaust education, teachers face distinct obstacles in the classroom concerning this specific topic.  Many teachers are not trained or equipped to deal with the subjects. Holocaust education is not a required field of study for prospective teachers, nor can teachers simply rely on a set curriculum or textbooks. Claudia Lohrensheit lamented: “ I researched the textbooks, and I have not found enough.”  If the Holocaust is not explicitly presented in regular German schoolbooks, teachers have many supplementary resources they can use, but a large percentage of educators do not use the resources provided to them through these organizations. Yet Lohrensheit points to certain indicators that signify that teachers are in fact interested in topics of discrimination and human rights. For instance, over 30 percent of German school teachers are members of Amnesty International. Thus, one might conclude that while the tools and literature are there, there is still a disconnect between these programs developed to help teachers and the implementation of their methodology in the classroom.

An explanation for this disconnect is quite possibly linked to the structural inconsistency in the German educational system. In Germany there is no specific requirement in the curriculum demanding a “standardized” Holocaust education. While the majority of   educators do cover the topic, the education is often left solely up to the responsibility of the teacher. Gymnasium students spend more time covering the Holocaust in the classroom, because they are in school longer, while the Hauptschule and Realschule have less time. The Department of Interior of Berlin published a statistic claiming that only four percent of those who committed rightist crimes went to Gymnasium (high school), while sixty percent were in Hauptschule. It is due to a deeper social structure that leaves more students from Hauptschule unemployed, less educated, and ultimately more susceptible to less progressive propaganda. Germany separates students not only on this basis of “ability”. With this division of schools, it would be hard to regulate any sort of standard Holocaust education even if one did exist. Furthermore it teaches children that one can only learn in homogeneous groups. This fosters a rift between the eastern and western states in German Holocaust education.        

Many experts in this field address the difference between the way Holocaust education is implemented in the East and West. Andrej Goetze noted different preconditions because the teachers and students might relate to the current Federal Republic differently. Many East Germans feel like three-time victims: first because of World War II; second, as the victims of the GDR; and third, as victims of German reunification. The idea that the Nazis were only in Western Germany is a prevalent theme in Holocaust education in the East, along with the emphasis on the political victims in the war. In contrast, West Germans learned less about the political victims and more about the Jewish victims, causing a hypersensitivity and sacredness about the Holocaust.  Many teachers in East Germany will still often refer to the “Jewish Problem” in their classrooms because of their lack of exposure to more politically correct terms that Western German educators use. Heyl claims that this allows for a more confrontational teaching style on the Holocaust than one might find in the West. 

One specific obstacle is the absence of Jews and Jewish culture in German education. One solution after the Holocaust to prevent and diminish discrimination against the Jewish people was, “To know a Jew”. However currently in Germany there are around 100,000 “active” Jews out of a population of 82,000,000. Many German students might not ever encounter a Jewish person in their lifetime, therefore more focus in education about Jewish people is put on the role of the victim in the Holocaust and not as a living vital community in present and in past times. 

Educators have to be very careful when teaching a multicultural classroom about the history of the Holocaust and its relevance to German society today in order not to alienate the descendants of its victims and perpetrators. Viola Georgi, created a study about minorities’ historical knowledge and association with the Holocaust. From this study she created a model with four different types of minority reactions. The first type were those who strongly identify with the victims and who critically observe and evaluate the event and how it relates to their own future. The second type were those who, after having seen the concentration camps and learning the history of the Holocaust, felt closer to German culture. Often times this type even went so far as to accept “historical myths” often carried on by the older generations who do not want to confront the responsibility of the Holocaust. The third type in this model are the minorities that reject the history of the Holocaust and of Germany and are more concerned with their own background and the histories of their native land. Finally the fourth type consists of those who feel alienated because of  their neutral background and their undefined role in society. This type is often referred to as the post national ethnic perspective, in which they do not see the Holocaust as German Nazis killing Jews, communists, homosexuals, or Poles, but as humanity killing humanity. Most of these model identities come out of relating and comparing the history of the Holocaust to the current German society. Her study shows that despite problems with teaching the Holocaust in diverse classrooms, various opportunities arise for minority students to connect to German history.

Praxis in Developing Holocaust Education for the Future

The various methods that have been developed for Holocaust education have been widely researched and applied throughout the world. However, in Germany Holocaust education remains inconsistent. There are several methods which have been applied at certain sites or that have been developed outside of Germany that may ease the burden on teachers as well as help avoid conceptual problems. 

The collage method, developed by the Wannsee Conference Center is the first solution to a problem Viola Georgi points out. She asserts that children do not enter the classroom with a tabula rasa, instead children come to the classroom with histories and biases of their own. They gain knowledge from their families and also the media, an important and powerful source. Teaching must be adjusted for each  class, yet it is often difficult to determine the needs of the individual class. The Wannsee Conference uses a collage of historic events and asks students to pick one that has meaning for them and to share its significance. Students will automatically draw parallels to either their personal history or the present. Though this is often a problem for the public, students do not have the social consciousness about the taboos of society. This method not only helps teachers to understand individual backgrounds, but also sensitizes the teacher to notions of guilt. It also allows them to collect information about previous exposure as well as address historical myth. 

The collage method is not a teaching tool. Rather, it is a diagnostic tool for teachers, one that is particularly helpful for teachers of multi-cultural classrooms. Students are enthusiastic about sharing their own stories, and the collage method gives them an outlet to do so. One approach that may follow the collage method is called personalization which offers the students an opportunity to learn about the life and decisions of someone of their age or sex. Jan Krebs, director of the Anne Frank Zentrum, claims that the center is successful because “people know Anne Frank’s face.” The center tells the story of one person and by revealing her life demonstrates that individual choices or lack thereof, can indeed make a difference.  The method allows students to follow the story of one person, and limits the perspective of the war. The personalization method is one way of involving children within the story of the Holocaust, and often triggers their interest the larger context. It often becomes the impetus for questions about what their role would be and forces questions about their own decisions. 

The method favored in the US, called “Facing History and Ourselves,” was developed in Boston as a method of personalization to use in the classroom. Researcher Dr. Viola Georgi states that “as US programs usually do, ‘Facing history’ concentrates on the individual, by allowing people to make their very own experiences with history”. This approach has now also been adapted within Germany by the Fritz Baur Institute, called “Konfrontationen”. The method focuses first on the individual and then on the larger context. It emphasizes the idea of choice among the individual and is an important form of empowerment. The question “who is responsible?” is extra sensitive and allows students to then evaluate the choices that individuals make. In “Konfrontationen,” small scripts are handed out to students who create a role for this character. This is clearly important for the German version: as students take a new identity, it helps to avoid feelings of guilt that may lead to escapism. 

The “Konfrontationen” approach is extremely important to create a direct link to the present, but often, to avoid escapism, it does not focus on the true identities of students and does not expose their own biases. Claudia Lohrenscheit favors a method developed in the United States known as Anti-Bias education. This method was adopted by South Africa to “re-educate” after the system of Apartheid (as developed through the book “Shifting Paradigms” – Early Resource Learning Unit). The deconstruction of identity not only makes children aware of their own identities but the gray area in between. Taking the model from South Africa, which has created curriculum to come to terms with a society inhabited by both victims and perpetrators, the curriculum of anti-bias education is designed to make children aware of how they think. It is an important tool because it utilizes methods from Facing History, like role playing, but also clearly involves the participant. It allows students to share their own backgrounds and makes them aware of discrimination in today’s society. 

Yet Matthias Heyl worries that German educators and students shy away from any form of education that makes them think too critically about their own history. Children are not confronted with their own past – the German past, that is, the history of the perpetrators. Germans have appropriated a history of the victim, or more fairly, of trying to understand the Holocaust through empathy. Instead he advocates showing complicity in the Holocaust, the mechanisms by which ordinary people committed such atrocities. Heyl’s method demonstrates an important parallel with the anti-bias approach. 

“Shifting Paradigms” uses a flower diagram to pull out forms of identity, ultimately to make a child conscious of the differences that create bias. Heyl uses venn diagrams to show the different players and the complexity of acting within the Holocaust. Concentric circles show that as a bystander one might play many roles – slowly breaking down the rigid construction of victim and perpetrator. It is a method which teaches children that their identity, their feelings, and their actions, cannot be easily assigned to a single domain; children aren’t merely white or black, Jewish or Christian, young or old.  Nor were people victims or perpetrators. Even bystanders have been broken down into different categories. In these exercises Jan Krebs points out, pupils learn something about the “process of discrimination,” a key part that was missing in education. 

Heyl demonstrates that this multiplicity of educational approaches makes it hard for regular teachers effectively to teach the Holocaust or responsibly to link it with human rights. Through evaluating choices and identity, and through finding the gray areas in between what seem to be opposing constructs, the connection between the past and the present can be made very organically. For if it isn’t, the words of Primo Levy will become a self-fulfilled prophesy, that is “the Holocaust happened so it can happen again.” Perhaps an amalgamation of these teaching methods would be the most powerful program, but Viola Georgi sees another way. She argues, that students will profit most if they are not taught about the Holocaust with only one focus. Instead, the Holocaust and human rights should be part of all lessons. If these different methods are all used and deal with the  problems of simplification, guilt, and historical myth, Holocaust education can become a tool for empowerment. Human Rights will become a discipline that students will feel obligated to uphold and Holocaust education will proliferate throughout generations.

Holocaust Education as a Base for a Democratic Future

While it is clear that the memory of the Holocaust is important in public dialogue, the connection between the past and the future is not explicitly made. Therefore an awareness of the Holocaust is being perpetuated to support educational initiatives. In May 2005 the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened. Situated in the heart of Berlin  between the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and the United States Embassy, it provides visibility to this monument and access for visitors and German citizens. It serves an important symbolic purpose, says Professor Sibylle Quack, the former director of the organization that built the monument. Even though the monument and the information center do not directly link current human rights and the Holocaust, its constant presence, between government institutions, tourist attractions, and residential spaces promotes “remembering the past for the future,” she explains. 

To promote the benefits of ongoing Holocaust education, the third generation requires a new form of education with a more explicit link. In general, as Germany evolves – as it reunites the East and West and absorbs new immigrant populations—it is important that Germany acknowledges its history and the role of democracy. Democracy demands citizenship of its subjects. Participation and knowledge are essential. Holocaust education and human rights education play an important role in teaching citizenship and the uses of democracy. Thus, the question of integrating these two domains is not only pertinent to ending discrimination but the political future of Germany.




Friday, June 25, 200511:00  

Andrej Goetze, museum pedagogue at the „Deutsches Historisches Museum“

Friday, June 25, 2005

Dr. Claudia Lohrenscheit, director of human rights education at the German Institute of Human Rights

Saturday, June 26, 2005

Jan Krebs, head of the Anne Frank Zentrum Berlin e.V.

Monday, June 28, 2005

Prof. Dr. Sibylle Quack, founding director of the Memorial to the Mudered Jews of Europe

Tuesday, June 29, 2005

Dr. Matthias Heyl, director of pedagogical service at the memorial site of the former concentration camp Ravensbrück

Tuesday, June 19, 2005

Dr. Viola B. Georgi, researcher

Wednesday, June 30th, 10:00

Elke Gryglewski, researcher at the „Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz“


Theodor Adorno: Education After Auschwitz


Paul Johnson: „The Anti-Semitic Disease“ in: The Commentary Magazine, June 2005, Vol. 119 Issue 6 

Ido Abram, Matthias Heyl: „Thema Holocaust. Ein Buch für die Schule“, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1996

Web Sources



Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Germany Germany 2005


Related Media

Browse all content