History Blog

Comparing the Holocaust and other genocides
By Andy Lawrence
20 May
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance met last week in London. IHRA is an intergovernmental body whose purpose is to get political and social leaders’ support for Holocaust education, remembrance and research both nationally and internationally.

The UK is currently chairing the body (@ihra_news), under the leadership of Sir Andrew Burns (@ihrachair) who not only invited delegates from more than 30 members states but also such luminaries as Professor Yehuda Bauer and renowned Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott.

One of IHRA’s working groups looks at the question of 'the Holocaust and other genocides'. Many educators, both within IHRA and elsewhere, have been thinking about the need to relate the teaching of the Holocaust to that of other genocides such as Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. Issues surrounding the teaching of the Holocaust and other genocides have revolved around such questions as: Does studying about Rwanda necessarily weaken knowledge and understanding about the Holocaust? If school students study more than one genocide are comparisons simply superficial? Will the result of such comparative study be a meaningless or even dangerous 'hierarchy of suffering'?

IHRA’s Education Working Group produced a most useful paper on the Holocaust and Other Genocide that provides a rationale and framework for the teaching of such content. Nevertheless, how can this conceptual thinking fit into everyday classroom practice where time is short and knowledge may be lacking (even on the part of the teacher)?

The assumption is, of course, that pupils have a good grounding through a study of the Holocaust and that the foundations of an enquiry led approach have been laid – the use of the excellent materials provided by the IoE’s Centre for Holocaust Education usually does the job! With that training under their belts students are equipped to actually strengthen their understanding of the Holocaust via a comparative study.

Students at my school have benefitted from meeting survivors from both the Holocaust and Rwanda. As mentioned above, the aim is not to create a 'hierarchy of suffering' but rather to analyse similarities and differences, to establish patterns and links that are subjected to scrutiny and further investigation. Meaningful questions such as how the experience of a survivor who came to Britain on the Kindertransport relate to that of a survivor who lived in Kigali in 1994 not only draw out similarities and differences but ask students to examine complexities as well.

The motivation of perpetrators is always a question that students feel inclined to investigate. A study of texts such as Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men and Jean Hatzfeld’s A Time For Machetes allows pupils to go beyond the simplistic 'they were all monsters' stereotype and engage in a more sophisticated investigation. A comparison between the two genocides again encourages a more detailed analysis that will lead to further questions and test hypotheses.

Other questions that students have such as 'were they brainwashed?' could lead to the study of publications such as Der Sturmer in Nazi Germany and Kangura in Rwanda. Enquiries based on such material again takes students into territory that they may not have been in before, allowing them to create links and sophisticated analyses of similarity and difference. Likewise, an investigation of 'rescuers' allows students to create multi-dimensional pictures of the individual people involved as real human beings with flaws the same as the rest of us.

A study of the Holocaust in isolation may tempt some students to dismiss issues as an historical aberration: 'That was terrible…but it was a one-off'. Relating the Holocaust to other genocides reveals that that isn’t the case, that 'Never Again' was a hollow call and that continued and sustained scrutiny is required as the issues are still very much alive.

So, this brief overview, makes the case for a comparative approach that not only broadens students’ knowledge of the Holocaust and other genocides but encourages them to obtain a deeper understanding of both and asks them to deploy historical skills that will have wider benefits.

One further benefit from looking at other genocides and relating them to the Holocaust may come in the form of a reaction to what the students have seen. In my final post I would like to relate one such student-led project that I think is remarkable.
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