As an A Level History student, a prospective university History student and an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust, I am fascinated by the role that the Holocaust plays in our popular understanding of history and humanity as a whole. While Nazi Germany is a period of history which, unsurprising given its infamy, frequents GCSE and A Level syllabuses more than any other, within the constraints of a classroom, it is almost impossible to develop more than a factual and numerical understanding of such a complex and rich period of history. Last year, I was lucky enough to take part in a course run by the Holocaust Educational Trust, which, amongst other things, gave me the opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor’s testimony and visit the Nazi-run concentration and death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland. The promotion of a greater understanding of the Holocaust, specifically on a social level, has since become incredibly important to me. Below, I have explored the three main reasons why I believe the study of the Holocaust is still essential today.
Firstly, when studying History, the pursuit of ‘truth’ must always be a high priority. Traditionally, Holocaust syllabuses present a picture of the Holocaust which, although historically accurate, leads to warped interpretations. The Holocaust was predominantly a social phenomenon and social history, unlike economic history, requires more than a numerical analysis. The statistic of 6 million is merely a number on a page and does nothing to explain the horror of the Holocaust. It was a human tragedy and human stories are required to make sense of it. It is not until we can better understand the human context of the Holocaust, the motivations of the perpetrators and the backstories of the victims, that we can come closer to a true understanding of the event which even today casts a shadow over our society.
Secondly, and in my opinion, most importantly, it is our human duty to memorialise the victims of the Holocaust in such a way that pays tribute to their lives. To do so, we must relegate facts and numbers to a lesser importance. We must aim to understand the pre-war Jewish population as a culture, in terms of their traditions and their ideals. It was Hitler’s desire to eradicate Judaism as a race, religion and culture. We must deprive him of such a vision by elevating the victims of the Holocaust from numbers on a page.
Thirdly, it is not until we can fully understand the darkest parts of human nature, embrace the human context of the Holocaust, that we can begin to understand more fully humanity and its motivations. The Holocaust is often viewed in a political context, as the manifestation of an evil dictator’s autocratic rule. We vilify Hitler as the ‘brainwasher’ or the ‘puppeteer’, the man who assimilated his personal prejudices into his nation’s psyche. In reality, he did not brainwash the German people but rather use their own prejudices, fears and ambitions to drive them to persecution. It was rational thought which justified their irrational behaviour, their own interests which motivated their action and consequently we must study their ambitions just as fully as we study those of Hitler himself. To accept some level of responsibility on the part of humanity is to accept that such events may not be as far in our past as we would like to believe. It is my hope that this will enable us to be better on our guard against similar events occurring in the future.
For these reasons, it is my belief that the study of the Holocaust should play as central a role in our pursuit of cultural and social understanding as it does in the world of academia. I sincerely hope that organisations such as the Holocaust Educational Trust continue to promote an ethos of greater understanding surrounding the Holocaust, especially as it fades further into the realms of history and there are no longer any living survivors to bring it into the present.
Charka (Deputy Head Girl)
Railway entrance / Auschwitz Railway entrance, 1945
CREDIT akg-images / Universal Images Group