Teaching students about Adolph Hitler, the Nazis, World War II, and the Holocaust can be a delicate and awkward subject. History is framed within facts, dates, locations, and individuals, but data only captures so much of the “story”. Also, giving students a sense of the “why” can be a multifaceted issue that stretches beyond history into psychology, religion, sociology, and ethics. Here are few thoughts on whether Hitler is over-emphasized and the Holocaust is under-emphasized in schools.
BAD IS BAD
It isn’t difficult to establish a boundary with Adolph Hitler in terms of his actions being “right” or “wrong”. Despite our increasingly relativistic societal views, most people can put Hitler in the “wrong” or “bad” category. In addition, we can put the Holocaust in the “bad” column since killing people is typically agreed-upon as bad. The challenge comes when we start to ask the “why” question. What makes a person want to exterminate another race? What was going on in Germany at the time and did people have a problem with Hitler’s actions? Where have we had similar situations in history and what lingers today that, if unchecked, could potentially grow into a similar situation? These questions are hard to answer. In the case of Hitler, it may be wise to spend time reviewing him so that students can ponder what has to happen in the world so that history does not repeat itself.
WHAT ABOUT US?
An even more difficult subject is paralleling history with our own modern society. For example, I put the word “pride” on the board for my college students and I ask them if it is a good or bad word. Most aren’t sure, or they give me the “it depends” answer. Is it OK to take pride in our family? Probably. What about our “heritage”? Probably. What if we think our family is “better” than another family? Now we may start to have a problem. When it comes to studying history, we need to find that spot in the middle, between us where we are today and where Hitler was in World War II. Our society is filled with little bits of prejudice and elitism. The challenge for the educator is finding that breakpoint and identifying where we go from internal pride to mass genocide. Studying the Holocaust is crucial for understanding the evil that mankind can commit, but studying the person behind the evil makes it personal and hopefully gives students a sense of why this type of horror happened.