Combatting Misconceptions: The Blind Spots of Genocide EducationDecember 4, 2017
BY: LIZ KEIPER
Hitler did not wake up one morning and decide to exterminate Jews.
There is still an astounding amount of Anti-Semitism in our world today.
There have been many genocides worldwide both before and since the Holocaust.
There are genocides going on right now as you read this article.
I would hope that you as a teacher are more than aware of and knowledgeable about all of these statements. However, our students, even if they have studied the Holocaust before reaching our classrooms, probably are not.
In my experience, genocide education in America generally boils down to Holocaust education, which generally boils down to making students very aware of atrocities committed against Jews during WWII. My students come into my class knowing about the existence of concentration camps. Gas chambers. Ovens. Human experiments. Hangings. Ghettos. The “Master Race.” Gold stars. The striped pajamas.
However, they are also desensitized to the tragedy because their knowledge of this time period was never scaffolded in a broader scope. Every year when I tell students that we are going to be reading the Holocaust memoir Night, they sigh and say, “We’ve learned about the Holocaust before. And it’s sad, but it happened a long time ago. It’s not like it’s ever going to happen again. Can’t we just move on?”
My dear, dear teacher friends: we are doing our students a massive disservice if this is the estimation of modern genocides with which they leave our classrooms.
Genocide education has become one of my passions, and in exploring this topic, I have found several areas in which we as teachers need to do a better job of scaffolding thematic understanding for our students. Here are five misunderstandings that we must actively work to dispel, or better yet, prevent from taking root in the first place.
1. For some random reason, Hitler decided to hate the Jews. I wonder why all of Germany just went anti-Jewish for a few years and then everything went back to being normal. Huh, weird.
If you do not teach students about the long history of Jewish persecution throughout time, they will certainly come away from Holocaust education with this perception. We must teach students that genocide does not occur out of the blue, and there certainly was quite a long precursor for Jews in Europe.
I have found a video produced by the United States Holocaust Museum to be very helpful in educating students about this fact. I then follow up the video by showing them pieces of art which dehumanize and demonize Jews which were all created well before the Holocaust.
For more pre-Holocaust anti-Semitic art, click the link below.
Understanding the centuries-long, deep-seated mistrust and hatred of Jews by people all over Europe is essential for understanding how Hitler’s ideas of Aryanism were so attractive to Germans (and, to be honest, many other Europeans and even Americans) and why there wasn’t more resistance to plans for Jewish extermination.
2. It’s sad that Hitler convinced Nazis to hate Jews, but no one really hates Jews today. I mean, I don’t hate Jews, my friends don’t hate Jews… Anti-Semitism is pretty much a thing of the past. Why keep bringing it up?
This is also a legitimate conclusion for a high schooler to draw if they, as previously stated, don’t actively hate Jews nor associate with those who do. Also, high schoolers have little sense of the progression of time; to them, the 1940s may as well be as far in the past as the Ancient Sumerians.
However, if this idea is left unchecked, it tends to make students feel like Holocaust education is irrelevant. We cannot teach about history without showing students how it connects to their lives now.
Every year that I’ve taught Night, I have given my students a current event to read, annotate, and respond to regarding Anti-Semitism. Sadly, all I have to do is type “Anti-Semitism News” into a Google search, and without fail, I find a plethora of Anti-Semitic acts of concern on a global level.
Several years ago, we discussed demonstrations taking place across Germany in which Jewish emblems were burned, “Death to the Jews” was chanted, and the hashtag #riphitler was trending on social media.
The year after that, we discussed the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in France. What got much less press attention than the incident at the journalism headquarters was a simultaneous hostage situation at a Kosher grocery store on the southeast side of Paris. Out of the hundreds or perhaps thousands of places to procure food in the vicinity, it would be quite naïve to not recognize the Anti-Semitic choice of hostage location.
This year, I will be discussing the Charlottesville demonstrations which took place over the summer. Though the Neo-Nazis and KKK members who participated also targeted racial and other religious minorities, they screamed Anti-Semitic sentiments as well such as, “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil.” In fact, as this Huffington Post article aptly points out, Anti-Semitic acts are now on the rise in our country and have decidedly skyrocketed after the Charlottesville demonstrations.
Hmm, kids, still think that Anti-Semitism is a thing of the past? That this “old” story couldn’t possibly affect you now??
3. The world has learned its lesson since the Holocaust. I mean, “never again,” right? I haven’t heard of anything this horrific happening since then.
The Holocaust was certainly horrible, and, because of my two points mentioned above, I believe that it should certainly be taught in depth to students. However, if they never learn about other genocides than the Holocaust, learning about the Holocaust also loses meaning because they believe their teachers to be harping on this time period for no reason. If it has really “never” happened “again,” then why IS it imperative that we learn about it?
This year, in conjunction with my Holocaust literature unit, I also taught excerpts from the memoir First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, recently made into a Netflix movie produced by Angelina Jolie, which is about the Cambodian genocide. My students have been astounded to find that though the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide took place on opposite sides of the globe in different time periods and under different political and economic climates, there are far more similarities between the two stories than they would have imagined.
Making these connections begins to enable them to think about more than just the facts of the Holocaust itself but rather about genocides in general, the tensions which cause them to occur, why they are carried out, and how they begin.
4. I’m a teenager. I’m basically capable of thinking only in the here and now. If something isn’t happening now in my life, I don’t see how it affects me. Even the Cambodian genocide took place before I was born. Maybe the world has learned its lesson since then.
I wrote my previous blog post about another element of my Modern Genocides unit this year which was to follow the developing story of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the ethnic cleansing that is currently taking place there. I also created a video of my project for a professor friend to show to her collegiate English Education students.
This has given my students a front row seat to a crisis that is unfolding before their eyes. They are excited to see how this will end, or when it will end. Because it is happening now in their world, they see how it affects them. And, this adds another layer to thinking about the tensions which factor into genocides everywhere.
5. Well, those Nazis and Khmer Rouge soldiers were monsters. I mean, just look at the awful things they did! They must have been deranged to do all that. I’m not a Nazi, an agrarian Communist supporter, nor a monster… so, I’m good. My friends, loved ones, and I would clearly never do something like this. Again, this doesn’t affect me.
I do believe that it is important to expose students to the atrocities of genocide. However, if we demonize and dehumanize the perpetrators of the genocide, we run the risk of giving students the impression that they are somehow immune to stooping to those acts—that they would never do something like that, and that “those” evil people who have must be completely “other” than themselves.
The most sobering fact of studying genocides is that the genocides were largely carried out by average people like you and me. Coming to terms with that fact is essential for students to understand that no society, and in fact no person, is immune to it. This heightens the feeling in students that they need to be aware of the warning signs of a genocide because you never know, it could happen here. Now. With me and those I love.
I will be teaching a lesson on examining “Faces of Perpetrators” in which I will start by showing a case study of a Nazi soldier produced by Yad Vashem, the international leader in Holocaust research and education located in Israel. I will follow this with an interview by a former Khmer Rouge soldier who was a guard at the infamous S-21 prison in Cambodia, the beginning of a documentary called As We Forgive which centers around the reconciliation stories of individuals after the Rwandan genocide, and I will conclude with an excerpt from The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom of when Corrie comes face to face with a former guard at the very concentration camp where she was mistreated.
I do not want to make the mistake of minimizing the atrocities that these people committed, nor do I want to paint them as inhuman monsters. I want to show my students that everyone has experiences which shape how they think and act, and that these perpetrators are no different. They are, in fact, not so very different than any of us. Therefore, I will ask my students two questions regarding each of these sources:
- What horrible actions did this person commit during the genocide in their country?
- According to their story, WHY did this person do those things?
A little empathy can go a long, long way.
At this point, I must ask you to ponder: what is more important for your students to take away from a unit on the Holocaust or modern genocides—knowing trivia facts about the genocide, such as how many people were killed, the methods used to kill them, facts about the time period, etc., or understanding the root causes and warning signs of any genocide and how to prevent it?
I would submit that it is the latter.
How should we expect our students to recognize dehumanization, hate crimes, propaganda, demonization of undesired groups, manipulation by powerful figures, fear mongering, or social fracturing if we don’t teach about the causes of them?
To get beyond the mere facts and figures and get to the heart of the matter, we must take our students both broader and deeper.
Preventing the next genocide might just depend upon it.
Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.
WVCTE is wondering…
- How do you engage your students in genocide education or literature?
- What other “blind spots” do you currently see in our framework for genocide education, and how do you overcome those with your students?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!