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Challenging Dutch Holocaust Education: Towards a Curriculum Based on Moral Choices and Empathetic Capacity

In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action Fellows, Senior Fellows, board members and lecturers who participated in Humanity in Action's educational programs from 1997 to 2010.  A version of "Challenging Dutch Holocaust Education: Towards a Curriculum Based on Moral Choices and Empathetic Capacity" was published in Ethics and Education, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2008, 57-74.


The primary task of education should be to prevent another Auschwitz. - Theodor Adorno


What enables people to make moral choices and take actions that reflect respect for the right of all people to live in freedom? Education offers society a way to protect itself against moral indifference. In particular, secondary school education is an essential agent for socialization and values formation. During adolescence students learn to make critical moral choices, to analyze the role of morality in the development of their nation’s history, and to enjoy the rights and challenges of democratic citizenship. Like the Dutch Holocaust survivor and educator Frieda Menco, we believe that empathy plays a key role in teaching students to think critically about ethical issues and develop respect for freedom and equality for all people.

This paper analyzes how the Holocaust is taught in fourth–sixth grade Dutch college preparatory secondary school history classes.We explore whether the Holocaust is used to engender a commitment to the principles of freedom and equality in secondary school students.

Dutch Pedagogical Goals

The Dutch educational system is characterized by a strong commitment to promoting “active democratic citizen- ship” and liberal democratic values of tolerance for human difference in a “multi-cultural society.” The edu- cational objectives outlined in the General Attainment Targets 1998-2003 call for consideration of moral choices in history curricula, where students are taught to “Recognize and deal with one’s own standards and val- ues and those of other people.” Revisions of history curricula are also in accordance with objectives set out by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science:“Obtain insight into the way their own lives relate to historically related social phenomena and processes, taking due account of the nature of these phenomena and processes” and “The development of an understanding of active citizenship in a democratic state and in the in- ternational community.” While impressive, student achievement rarely reflects these objectives.

Pedagogical Freedom for History Teachers: A Threat to Holocaust Education?

A fundamental value of the Dutch history curriculum is the freedom for teachers to determine both their methodology and class content. In the words of C. Fuykschot, the head of the Department of Special Educational Projects at the Ministry of Education, “Schools are 100% free to choose their method.” This freedom allows teachers to adopt creative approaches to their subject matter, but in the context of Holocaust education such freedom can also have negative consequences.

The state prescribes broad historical subjects to be addressed, including World War Two history, and lets teachers decide how to approach the themes. The preamble to the main educational targets states that: “Students should be able to mention certain consequences of the German occupation during the Second World War and the process of Nazification and the persecution of the Jews.” Students are also expected to be able to recognize different reactions of the Dutch population to German occupation.“They have to be able to explain different meanings of the remembrance of the Second World War and the image of Germany in Dutch society.” The statement that students should be able to recognize the different reactions of the Dutch population to the German occupation is of great importance. It acknowledges, after decades of ambivalence in Dutch schools and Dutch society generally, that students need to understand the moral choices made by the Dutch population. Students are expected to learn about the distinctive roles of victims, bystanders, and perpetrators in the history of the Holocaust.

There is no nationally mandated Holocaust curriculum, though some organizations, such as the Anne Frank Foundation, distribute their own Holocaust education materials to secondary schools throughout the country. Teachers told us that there was no mechanism to ensure that students learn about the Holocaust in a comprehensive manner. Professor Mijnhardt, currently on the board of the De Rooy Commitee, did not share that concern: “Prescribing to teach the most renowned facts and the most horrific ones I would regard as a serious offence towards any teacher,” he said. Mijnhardt thinks that the absence of a state pedagogy is a “great privilege” and that Dutch history teaching is, and should be based on “trust”. The danger, however, is that teachers may teach about the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis but ignore the role of Dutch collaborators and bystanders.

Dutch History Textbooks: A Problematic Resource for Holocaust Educators

The freedom given to teachers to determine the methodology and emphasis of Holocaust curriculum also applies to the writing of textbooks. While the textbooks superficially meet the government targets, in reality they fail to equip students with factual and conceptual objectives. In fact, many Dutch textbooks address the Holocaust only in passing, and offer contradictory historical facts. Holocaust history is a prerequisite for substantive educational programming about moral choices and civic responsibilities, and is valuable in its own right. But Dutch students fail to demonstrate even basic knowledge. A recent article in the NRC Handelsblad criticized Dutch ignorance of Holocaust history: “Holland does not have Holocaust education, but stresses in education the occupation of the Netherlands. Therefore the Holocaust loses attention... But we in the Netherlands do need that attention. The youth know what the occupation is but do not know what Jews are and their history.”

Although the textbooks mention basic information about concentration camps in Poland there is little effort to explain the Holocaust as a broadly European phenomenon and avoid moral questions almost entirely. The Pharos textbook claims that “ The Holocaust... was mainly the work of the terror organization SS (Schutzstaffeln),” which not only oversimplifies the Holocaust but also obscures the bystander issue and ignores questions about the extent of active support for the Nazis in both Germany and the Netherlands. Since Dutch textbooks provide little information about Jewish history and culture, it is difficult for students to develop empathy toward them and appreciate the magnitude of their destruction and its ramifications for European and Dutch history and culture.

That only one textbook, Sprekend Verleden, touches upon this very difficult issue of moral choices indicates that the Dutch ambivalence about the role of ordinary Dutchmen in collaborating with and accommodating the Nazi persecution is still a problem. Historian Chris van der Heijden says that in the past, “Nobody really wanted to show the real picture, because then we would know, that a great many (Dutch) people had butter on their heads [were deliberately ignoring their role in the war].” All of our interviewees stated that since the 1980s there has been a vast shift in public opinion, and a willingness to confront the less savory aspects of Dutch behavior during World War 2. But most noted that the ambivalence lingers. Kaen Polak said,“Twenty years ago the Holocaust was hardly mentioned at all. Maybe just for three sentences. Now there’s an improvement, but it’s very limited. There are 300 words now...”

According to Dr. Elise Storck, from the Interfaculty Center for Teacher Training at the University of Leiden (ICLON), the government has taken steps to remedy the situation and commissioned and distributed new educational curricula on the Holocaust for teachers. In response to a general lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, the government organized conferences specifically geared toward educators that were open to educators around the country who were asked how to implement an effective Holocaust education curriculum. The result was a highly successful handbook with sample lessons. Since 1988, however, no such initiative has been undertaken again and the materials from the handbook have not been integrated into textbooks, where they would reach a larger audience.

According to Polak, the Netherlands lacks “a proper Holocaust education curriculum for secondary schools.” The lack of a textbook that addresses the Holocaust adequately makes the task of Holocaust education for teachers extremely difficult. “What we need in Holland is a guideline for teachers”, said Polak. The government- produced handbook from 1988 needs updating, in order to include essays that examine the role of moral choices in the actions of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders.

Polak observed that even teacher training institutes pay minimal and often inadequate attention to Holo- caust education. Teachers who are ignorant of the subject pass their ignorance on to the students. Polak said, “It’s not central in the teaching at the colleges. It depends on the teachers who trained them. It’s not compulsory.” This comment highlights the recurring problem in Dutch Holocaust education: the refusal to enforce official requirements on teachers leads to poor Holocaust education.

Government Objectives vs. Classroom Reality

Currently, history curricula guidelines proposed by the government set out to cover too much ground. Time devoted to the study of history is limited and it is extremely difficult to teach students the diversity of subjects that a secondary school graduate is expected to master. In an attempt to cover the entire curriculum, little time remains to be devoted to the Holocaust: “Teachers have to work very hard to make time for the Holocaust,” Theo van Praag, coordinator International Relations at the Hoogeschool of Rotterdam, said. Evelien van den Boom, a history teacher at the Keizer Karel College in Amstelveen, lamented that teachers must teach students twentieth century world history in only one and a half hours a week, a virtually impossible task. Consequently, she can only spend one lesson on the Holocaust.

The De Rooy Committee has attempted to address the overly ambitious history curricula by proposing to focus history lessons on developing a common set of historical references among students, and limiting the number of topics to be covered. The committee advocated for a need to teach students “genocide (especially of the Jews) as the consequence of discrimination and racism” and “German occupation in the Netherlands.” However, the Committee merely reaffirmed these broad requirements without suggesting how to teach them more effectively or providing resources for doing so.

In general, professors and other educators that we spoke to confirmed Storck’s statement that the Holocaust is rarely addressed in depth because of time constraints. They also confirmed the disturbing reality that if the Holocaust were to be treated in a comprehensive way it would be impossible to address other subjects adequately. According to Polak, basic Holocaust education requires time:“I would say that if you want to teach it sensitively you need 4-6 lessons, ideally 12 but that’s not realistic.”

The moral and ethical issues involved, the challenge of cultivating empathy, and the knowledge necessary to address the subject with depth and sensitivity all require a substantial devotion of time, far more than the typical Dutch student is exposed to today.

Particularism vs. Universalism

One of the difficulties inherent in Holocaust education, particularly when taught within a moral and civic framework that emphasizes democratic values, is the tension between its particular and universal character and implications. Professor of Intercultural and Holocaust Education Ido Abram expressed concern that the Holocaust is often taught from such a universalistic perspective that its particular character is lost. He explained, for example, that students will learn about the Holocaust without learning much about Judaism and the Jewish people and understanding how they were integrated into European society. Consequently, students view the Holocaust as just another human tragedy without understanding the historical conditions that made it possible– such as the effects of anti-Semitism on European attitudes towards the Jews.

Abram criticized the Anne Frank Stichting for exemplifying this attitude. He questioned the moral and intellectual integrity of its rush to universalize. “I have an argument with the Anne Frank Stichting. I am not satisfied with the content. [Of the Anne Frank House exhibit and of their educational curricula generally and the magazine that is mailed to Dutch elementary schools.] All the Jewish elements of the girl have disappeared in the exhibition. They are only interested in what is generally human in her, not what is Jewish in her... The way they speak about the Second World War there is no mentioning of Jews. It is Judenrein.” This, he stressed, has an enormous effect on Dutch educational programs on the Holocaust because thousands of Dutch students visit the Anne Frank House annually and hundreds of schools use educational curricula from the Anne Frank Stichting.

We recognize that by teaching about the Holocaust from a universalistic perspective certain issues such as racism and inequality may initially resonate more strongly with students. Nevertheless, we adamantly believe that the challenge of effective Holocaust education is to teach students to empathize across divisions of ethnicity and religion, and not to obfuscate these very real differences. This does indeed make the educational challenge greater, but ultimately it yields a far more transformative and meaningful experience for the student. Karen Polak explained that the attitude of the Anne Frank Stichting on this matter is both pragmatic and principled, and that our stance, and that of Abram’s, was too idealistic and unresponsive to the present Dutch reality. Polak is probably partially right, but we believe that education is an inherently progressive enterprise that is meant to inspire change and to push the intellectual and moral capacities of individuals and societies beyond their present point.

The important thing is the possibility of identification. It is so difficult to understand. They can only identify with stories that help them imagine 'how would I have been, what would I have done'?– Frieda Menco

Cultivating Empathy

Having learned basic Holocaust history students should have the opportunity to discuss the possible motives people would have for making certain moral choices, good and bad. Karen Polak explained that until recently Holocaust education was focused on teaching students about the moral choices made by resisters to Nazi oppression. Students rarely learned about how and why perpetrators made their moral choices. Ido Abram said, “You have to understand the perpetrators. There is no serious attempt to understand people like Hitler and Himmler.” For students to understand the Holocaust they must not dehumanize the perpetrators but recognize their humanity. This lesson is just as fundamental as empathizing with the victims because students need to learn that the capacity for evil rests within everyone. Elisa Storck wanted her students not to perceive Hitler, for example, as a monster but as a very real human. She said that she wanted students to ask, “What were the motives, how did it work that people were cooperating, were bystanders, just let it happen...” and to realize that, “they could do that too.” This notion, that the Dutch people, consisting of eleven million autonomous individuals during World War 2 that all made moral choices during the war has still failed to take root in Holocaust education curriculum.

Of all the educational objectives of Holocaust education we think the ability and willingness to empathize with others is most valuable. Empathy allows individuals to find the universal within the particular, to respect that which makes people different but to recognize their common humanity. According to Abram, it is, “ The ability to place the Holocaust inside their world rather than to keep it outside.” The capacity to empathize is an important component of sound moral decision making. Through empathy we extend our sphere of moral responsibility outwards, towards society at large. The relationship between the capacity for empathy and just action is a direct one. Although not all people need to empathize with others to assist them in times of suffering, empathy creates an impetus to action, an urgency that is critical in times of great moral stress. Rescuers during the Holocaust often explain their actions simply: that they recognized their common humanity with the Jews or another oppressed people, and that this basic empathy spurred them to action. As students learn to think critically about moral issues and to debate their relative value, they need to be able to grasp the human implications of seemingly abstract moral choices.


In response to the challenges faced by  Dutch Holocaust education, we suggest that the Holocaust be integrated into the curriculum of the new course developed for 16 year olds (the Dutch fourth grade) that addresses civics. This will address the rights and duties for citizens in Dutch society, political rights in a parliamentary democracy, social rights of the welfare state, and cultural law that addresses the rights and responsibilities of living in a multicultural society. We believe that teaching all Dutch students about the Holocaust in the context of a course on civics would be an ideal way to ensure that every Dutch student experiences a sound Holocaust education. We recommend the Facing History and Ourselves program, based in the United States and with a European office in Switzerland because its content and philosophy are so similar to both our educational objectives and those of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.

The introduction to the Facing History curriculum states that, “By studying the historical development of the Holocaust and other examples of collective violence students make the essential connection be- tween history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives.” Facing History integrates the study of human behavior with the study of the history of the Holocaust and teaches students to consider and develop their capacity for moral agency and to be aware of the consequences of their actions. The curriculum is informed by cognitive and moral development theory and practice and emphasizes the importance of analyzing differing perspectives, competing truths, and one’s own motivations and those of others. In its attention to moral choices and empathy, the way it links past and present and makes history relevant to students, and its commitment to nurturing respect for democratic principles and for the rights of minorities it would be appropriate for the new course proposed by the De Rooy Committee. The Facing History and Our- selves program has been used successfully in Scandinavia and in several European countries and is adaptable for the Netherlands.

Holocaust education and education in ethics and civics is not only a project for the schools. It is the mandate of a democratic society that celebrates its commitment to freedom and tolerance to actively nurture these values throughout its culture.

•     •     • 

About the Authors

Jacob Boersema is currently a PhD student in Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam, writing about the position of white South Africans in post-apartheid SouthAfrica. He has a masters degrees in History from the University of Amsterdam and in Human Geography from Utrecht University.

Noam Schimmel is currently pursuing a PhD at the London School of Economics in political communication, examining discourse around the right to healthcare in the United States and Obama's healthcare plan. In 2008, Noam held an internship at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda with the Ofice of the Prosecutor. His articles have appeared in many academic journals.


Boersema, Jacob and Noam Schimmel. "Challenging Dutch Holocaust Education: Towards a Curriculum Based on Moral Choices and Empathetic Capacity." In Reflections on the Holocaustedited by Julia Zarankin, 55-67. New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011.



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EVELIEN VAN DEN BOOM, history teacher at Keizer Karel College, Amstelveen.

ROLF WIERENGA, student at Willem Lodewijk Gymnasium, Groningen.

C. A. FUYKSCHOT, head of the department Thema's & Aspecten, Department of Education, Culture and Science.

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