Not facing history

Published: 1995-03-06

In the recent flap over the Holocaust curriculum "Facing History and Ourselves," it was easy enough to demolish the criticisms offered of the program. Christina Jeffrey, Newt Gingrich's nominee for House historian, had, it turned out, recommended that the program be denied a Department of Education grant because it did not present the Nazi "point of view." She was wrong about that—the edition of Facing History that she reviewed contains no less than sixteen quotes from the works of Adolf Hitler, along with citations from the speeches and writings of Heinrich Himmler, Herman Goering, Alfred Rosenberg and other leading Nazis, selections from Nazi Party platforms, Third Reich textbooks and Reichstag deliberations. (Even if the program weren't so thorough on this point, the Holocaust is not exactly an issue on which both "sides" require equal hearing.) Jeffrey revealed her own preconceptions when she argued that "the serious anti-Semitism in our day is on the left" and accused Facing History of displaying an "anti-Christian bias' that made it' appropriate only "for a limited religious audience." The irony is that she was right to criticize Facing History; it was the reasons for criticizing it that she got woefully wrong. Had Jeffrey and her fellow reviewers not been so blinded by their right-wing agenda they might have helped instigate a much-needed critique of Holocaust education.

The thinking behind Facing History needs to be examined more closely because it has become perhaps the most influential model for teaching the Holocaust in the United States and yet is deeply flawed. Facing History, which is made up of both a teacher training program and a suggested curriculum, reaches about 500,000 students per year, mostly in the eighth and ninth grades. Devised by a group of Brookline, Massachusetts, teachers in 1976, it has not only been widely adopted, but widely praised as well. Facing History and its imitators have become the way in which many of our school children learn to think about the Holocaust.

In some respects, that is not a bad thing. Facing History is an ambitious program that avoids the pitfalls of many other curricula by providing students with a history of both anti-Semitism and the Weimar Republic's political and financial weaknesses. It traces the rise of the National Socialists from the 1920s and demonstrates how they relied on terror to build their power base. It analyzes resistance to the Nazis, Allied indifference, the role of the bureaucracy in conducting the genocide and the heroic behavior of the rescuers. It raises the question of hat the German public knew about the campaign against the Jews and asks students to consider what might have been done to stop it. I have met many teachers who say that Facing History has deeply affected them and helped them to make the Holocaust relevant to their students.

So why am I left uneasy? My discomfort has less to do with the way the Holocaust is approached and more with the context into which it is placed. Facing History addresses a broad array of injustices including the Armenian genocide and American racism. It attempts to bring the Holocaust into the orbit of the students' experiences by providing a section at the end of each chapter called "Connections," which includes subjects such as racism and violence in America —though not contemporary anti-Semitism. It presents the Holocaust as an occasion for teaching lessons in moral reasoning and good (American) citizenship; as an object lesson, a generic inoculation against prejudice.

The problem with this approach is that it elides the differences between the Holocaust and all manner of inhumanities and injustices. Though Executive Director Margo Strom and her colleagues are adamant that this is not their intention, it is hard to imagine how a teacher constructing a curriculum based on Facing History could adopt any other mode.

At times, instead of making history relevant, Facing History distorts it. The current edition of the resource book opens with a quote from Marian Wright Edelman warning that the "American dream is collapsing" and that racists and political demagogues often take advantage of economic crises. No teacher using this material can help but draw the historically fallaciaus parallel between Weimar Germany and contemporary America. The 1982 edition, which is the one Jeffrey reviewed, links the Holocaust with Hiroshima. The editors claim that the Holocaust and "a study of potential nuclear holocaust" share certain "basic principles" though teachers are cautioned not to "draw too strong parallels." This cautionary sentence is followed by six pages of readings and suggested activities for kids designed to stress the threat of nuclear war. The final paragraph of the 400-page resource book suggests that students contact Facing History for a list of groups involved in nuclear deterrence in order to "explore their potential for making a difference."

I have no idea what "basic principles" these phenomena share. All instances of mass destruction are not the same. The results may be similarly devastating but that does not mean they stem from the same motivation or are carried out in the same spirit. The 1994 edition of Facing History has wisely eliminated the section on nuclear war but it retains the references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and adds points of comparison such as the My Lai Massacre, meant to suggest that one of the roots of the Holocaust was a psychological tendency to obey orders unthinkingly. But, as the historian Lucy Dawidowicz and others have observed, obedience is not the fundamental element of totalitarian society; terror is.

While positing the Holocaust as unique, Facing History presents mass murders in Cambodia, Laos, Tibet and Rwanda as examples of the same phenomenon. Each of these was a horrific tragedy, but all are different from the Holocaust. This is not a matter of comparative pain-an utterly useless exercise—but of historical distinction. The issue is not who lost more people or a greater proportion of their society, but what was at the root of the genocidal efforts.

To say that the Holocaust is not the same as other more local and less bureaucratized and single-minded examples of mass killing is not to rule out all points of comparison. Ultimately, the only way we learn is through comparison. But the Holocaust remains unique for two primary reasons. It was the only time in recorded history that a state tried to destroy an entire people, regardless of an individual's age, sex, location, profession or belief. And it is the only instance in which the perpetrators conducted this genocide for no ostensible material, territorial or political gain.

The reductio ad absurdum of Facing History's fast-and-loose comparative approach comes in the section on American racism. Discussing the way African Americans have responded to centuries of prejudice and discrimination, it singles out Louis Farrakhan for "speaking directly to the pain and pride" felt by many black Americans. Other than a fleeting acknowledgment that "parts" of Farrakhan's message "stereotype and demean other groups," however, there is no mention of the fact that Farrakhan's modus operandi of speaking to African American pain is to engage in traditional anti-Semitism. Farrakhan, who has spoken of Hitler as a "great man," achieves his rhetorical ends by scapegoating Jews. To find him cited as a reasonable response to racism in a curriculum on moral education and the Holocaust can at best be described as bizarre. One can only assume that Facing History's authors so wanted their curriculum to be used by as wide an audience as possible that they fell prey to the same tendency they are anxious to eradicate: rationalizing evil.

Facing History wants study of the Holocaust to lead students to examine their own lives. That is a commendable effort, particularly on the high school level. A visit to the Holocaust Museum or time spent immersed in a curriculum on the Holocaust should make a student both knowledgeable and different. And, as someone who teaches about the Holocaust, it would be disingenuous for me not to acknowledge that some of the objectives I have for my courses are quite similar to Facing History's: making my students more sensitive to ethnic and religious hatred, cognizant that "little" prejudices can easily be transformed into far more serious ones and inclined to speak out about injustice when they confront it. But students must draw their own comparisons. I teach the particulars. I let the students apply them to their own universe. They never fail to do so.

Watching Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary Shoah in my Holocaust history class, the students did not learn only about the Holocaust. As they listened to contemporary Poles decry the fate of the Jews and then, using imagery from the New Testament, seamlessly slip into explanations of why this was really the Jews' fault, the student sitting next to me groaned, "Blaming the victim. Again." My students recognized both the particular and universal component of what they had seen. For me, the most moving responses came from the Christian students in the class who spoke about the challenge of reconciling what they consider to be a religion of love with the history of contempt which they now recognized as intrinsic to it. I did not have to spell this out. They did so on their own.

Moreover, there are ways to draw the connection between anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance without resorting to specious arguments. One need only look at the Nazis' theories of racial hierarchy. While the intention to annihilate Jews and Judaism was at the heart of Nazi ideology, Jews were not the sole objects of hatred. Gypsies and blacks were among those relegated to the category of detestable Untermenschen. When Jesse Owens won his medals at the 1936 Olympics, German "medical authorities" suggested that the only way Americans had managed to win was by bringing black athletes whose muscular qualities made them closer to animals in their racial makeup than to whites. Though Nazi racial policy toward the Gypsies was ambivalent—some Gypsies were imprisoned under horrendous conditions, some annihilated at Auschwitz, and others left unmolested—it is an integral part of the story of the Holocaust. German homosexuals were imprisoned because they failed to "serve the reproductive process" and to ensure the "continued existence of the Volk." The disabled and the mentally ill were the first ones into the gas chambers. They were the guinea pigs and, but for the protests of some Germans, more of them might have been killed.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum represents the most significant proof I know of that it is possible to make the Holocaust relevant without relativizing. This is one of the reasons for its incredible success. I've heard a number of stories about the reactions of some of the 3.5 million people who have visited the museum since it opened in 1993. There was the group of black children, who after seeing the bench in the children's exhibit marked "For Jews Only" remarked, "Oh, just like drinking fountains in the South." The educator guiding them through the exhibit said, "Yes, but not exactly." By the time they reached the end, the children knew how it was the same and how it was different. Kids will generally make the connections. Teachers must help them make the distinctions.

When a non-Jewish mother who was accompanying her young son through the exhibit reached the part of the exhibit devoted to Christian rescuers, she turned to him and said, "If we had been there this is what our family would have done." Her optimistic certitude aside, in that small interchange her child learned something about the responsibility of the bystander and, even more significantly, about his mother's expectations for herself and for him.

Teachers of the Holocaust and writers of curricula on the topic must be scrupulously careful of imparting the message that at1 its heart the Holocaust is just one in a long string of inhumanities and that every ethnic slur has in it the seeds of a Holocaust. There are-important distinctions to be made, and Facing History and Ourselves, in its ambitious attempt to engage in moral education by teaching about the Holocaust, at times obscures more than it reveals. Had Professor Jeffrey and her cohorts seriously studied this text instead of behaving like the Three Stooges of academic evaluation they might have been able to offer constructive criticism of a valiant but often misguided effort.

DEBORAH E. LIPSTADT teaches modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. She is the author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

Copyright © New Republic Mar 6, 1995

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Title: Not facing history
Summary: The Holocaust curriculum known as "Facing History and Ourselves" is examined, and the need to reevaluate it as a tool for teaching the Holocaust is addressed. In some instances, "Facing History" distorts true historical fact instead of making it relevant.
Source: The New Republic
Date: Mar 6, 1995
Regular Price: $1.00
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Document Size: Medium (3 to 7 pages)
Document ID: ZZ19980113050039551
Subject(s): Nazi era; Jews; Education; Curricula; Atrocities
Citation Information: ISSN: 0028-6583; Vol. 212 No. 10; p. 26
Author(s): Deborah E Lipstadt
Document Type: Article

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Author(s): Deborah E Lipstadt
Title: Not facing history
Sources: The New Republic, Mar 6, 1995, Vol. 212 No. 10; p. 26
Published: 1995-03-06
First posted on CODOH: June 29, 1996, 7 p.m.
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