General Eisenhower said something important upon the discovery and the liberation of the Ohrdruf Nazi death camp. “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he was fighting for. Now, at least he will know what he is fighting against.”
April 12 marked the annual observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a day in which the world remembers what happened in Hitler’s Germany, and promises that it will never allow such an evil to occur again. However, more than 70 years later, that may be coming less and less true. Americans of the same age as those soldiers, and Americans more generally, are becoming historically uninformed. They are forgetting the evils to which Eisenhower was referring.
What We Are Losing
A recent study shows that 41% of Americans and 66% of Millennials do not know what Auschwitz was. 45% of all Americans were unable to identify one concentration camp or ghetto. 31% of Americans and 41% believe that the number of Jewish victims totaled less than 2 million. The actual number is around six million. (The full results of the survey can be viewed here.)
World War II and the Holocaust are absolutely necessary to understand the world in which we live today. The Holocaust is the reason why foreign policy is more concerned with human rights then it was pre-Hitler. The war inspired creation of more multinational institutions, such as the United Nations, and the predecessors to what would become the European Union. The prewar years teach us the dangers of appeasement, while the postwar years brought us the Cold War. The postwar era marked the rise of the United States as an economic and military superpower.
World War II also contributed to the rise of Israel. It is historically inaccurate to say that Israel was founded because of the Holocaust. That plan was actually set forth after the conclusion of the previous world war. However, the Holocaust certainly brought a fresh urgency to the idea.
Why We Forget
The lack of knowledge about one of the most defining historical events of not just the last century, but all of world history, is simply alarming. High school US history classes have a tough job: they have to condense hundreds of years of history into a short time span. However, the greatest act of evil of human history cannot be overlooked. If teachers need more time in their schedules, the histories of late 19th and early 20th century labor unions and their leaders might need to take a back seat.
This is particularly sad considering how wars are taught in history classes nowadays. Many students and teachers view the study of commanders and battles as boring, or allege that these studies glorify war. So instead, the history of war is focused on the “why” of war, and the social impacts of the war. The “how” of war receives relatively little or no attention at all in most history classes. Students are not being able to tell a complete story of the war without those key parts.
These social aspects of wars are not unimportant. However, it’s beyond me how one could argue that using this approach to the historical education of war is best. It is worrisome that students are unable to explain the Holocaust in such a way that grasps basic facts. The way in which Nazi Germany treated those who were considered enemies of the state–which would certainly included the Jews murdered in the Holocaust–is among the most notable and important historical facts about the European Theater.
Fixing A Broken System
The results of the survey show a problem with historical education. The study of the Holocaust is important because, despite all the scientific and political progress of civilization over thousands of years, human nature does not change. Humanity’s ability to do evil never diminishes, and freedom is the exception–not the rule–throughout world history.
This is a structural and content problem that needs to be reformed. We cannot simply fix it with increased budgets.