by Justin Cohen
Just thirty-seven percent of British schoolchildren know what the term anti-Semitism means even after studying the Holocaust, according to a major study published today.
More than 9,000 11-18 year olds were surveyed by UCL Centre for Holocaust Education to create the most authoritative portrait ever created of students’ knowledge and understanding of the Shoah.
The report’s authors say Muslim students appear just as positive about studying the Holocaust as other students across the country. But While 83 percent of all students believe it is important to study the Nazi era and 70 percent who had already studied the period were keen to learn more, a statement said many other findings are “deeply troubling”, with understanding “often limited and based on inaccuracies and misconceptions”.
The Shoah was generally explained as perpetrated only by Hitler and the Nazis. Less than 10 percent suggested that the German people bore any responsibility for the genocide and very few appeared to know about the role played by collaborating regimes, or the complicity and participation of huge numbers of ‘ordinary’ people across Europe.
Where people participated in these crimes, most young people believed that they had no choice. The vast majority of students incorrectly believed that a member of the military or Police who refused an instruction to kill a Jew would be shot, while only five percent gave the most appropriate answer that they would be ‘given another duty.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Every young person should learn about the Holocaust and the lessons it teaches us today, which is why it is a compulsory part of the history curriculum at key stage three.
The new curriculum gives schools greater freedom to decide how to teach and we trust teachers to introduce this subject in the most appropriate way for their pupils.
“The government also supports wider initiatives, such as the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project, which have a vital role to play in increasing understanding of the Holocaust amongst young people and ensuring these lessons are passed on to future generations.”
Paul Salmons, Programme Director of UCL Centre for Holocaust Education, said: “The consequences of this lack of knowledge for making meaning from the Holocaust are immense – the incorrect belief that people had no choice in carrying out the killings may be comforting, but the historical reality raises far more difficult questions about why and how people could become involved in mass murder. It is essential that young people study the reality rather than the myth if they are to better understand how genocides can happen.”
The analysis also says “myths” about Britain’s role in the Holocaust also continue to circulate in secondary classrooms.
Almost one quarter thought that Britain knew nothing of the killings until the end of the war. While 17 percent said the UK drew up rescue plans when it discovered the truth while war raged, just seven percent were aware the government’s response was limited to a declaration to bring the perpetrators to justice when war was over.
Professor Stuart Foster, Executive Director of UCL Centre for Holocaust Education said: ‘The findings are not a criticism of the pupils or their teachers but a consequence of the misunderstandings and misconceptions surrounding the Holocaust in Britain today.
Despite clear government support for learning about the Holocaust, for many schools it still does not constitute a curriculum priority and typically it is reduced to ‘learning the lessons’ – the dangers of hatred and racism – without detailed study of the history.
“Little curriculum time for 11-14 year olds is devoted to exploring in more depth why and how the Holocaust happened. Even more worryingly, our examination boards have chosen to reduce the Holocaust to a very small, optional element of some GCSE papers, and it has almost disappeared from the history courses of A level examinations.”
Sir Peter Bazelgette, chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, said early access to findings helped inform the recommendations of David Cameron’s Holocaust Commission for a new memorial and national learning centre.
He added: “This research offers an unprecedented insight into the depth of understanding of the Holocaust among young people. There is much that is good, but also some very clear and significant challenges if we are to ensure that all our young people truly understand the facts of the Holocaust and are able to reflect on its meanings.”
The UCL Centre is funded by the Pears Foundation in partnership with the Department for Education. Trevor Pears said: “The report is truly world class and will make an important contribution to holocaust education, both in knowledge and practise.” Its launch on Monday night was dedicated to the memory of David Cesarani.