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Monday, 9 March 2009

So how old were you when you knew what Auschwitz was?

The Mail has missed a trick in its story this morning about teen awareness of Auschwitz. The paper's feigned indignation that 23% of children 11 to 16 year old don't know what Auschwitz was is deeply worrying - but not for the reasons the Mail cites.

At 11 and 12 I suppose I was vaguely aware that the Nazis had done something wicked to the Jews, and even by 16 I think I was only conscious that 6m Jews had been killed in the Concentration Camps in a non-specific way; it was much later that I became aware that there was a difference between the Concentration Camps and the six extermination camps, that Auschwitz was both, and that Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno and Majdanek as well as Auschwitz II were all located in Poland.

So that 77% of 11 to 16s know what Auschwitz was is either actually quite disturbing or a triumph for Labour's political interference in the history curriculum. Take your pick. What the hell are we doing teaching 11 year olds about mass extermination? Do their teachers take them through each stage from the unloading of the cattle trucks to the selection to the undressing to the gas chamber and the cremators? And how the heck can they understand the context?

When 53% of pupils leave school without 5 decent GCSEs, I find the Auschwitz statistic quite horrifying. Almost as horrifying as the distortion and mis-teaching of the Slave Trade; when I throw into conversation these days that over the centuries of the transatlantic Slave Trade, the Europeans hardly enslaved anyone at all I'm met with incredulity. But it's true. See this post.


Blue Eyes said...

Most "history" teaching revolves around 1939-1945. It is no wonder that many Brits now have no sense of perspective or that other ways of doing things are possible and even desirable.

I was lucky enough to be taught medieval history for GCSE.

hatfield girl said...

It's context that matters. To understand fascism it's necessary to teach that fascist societies turn on some of their own members. The complex events that lead to this are not easily explained in the context of history-teaching in English schools. At least this was true when our 12 year old was taught about this period of history. She was taught the same years in both Italy and England. In Italy she had an admirable history text book, beautifully presented and full of data, photographs, arguments taken from divers schools of thought and interpretation. In England she was given a few photocopied sheets of paper and the teacher's dictated notes plus discussion in class with children who, quite literally, had never seen continental Europe. Her point that it was the turning on neighbours, colleagues, friends, school mates that was so terrible was brushed aside. They're Jews, that's why they are being persecuted, she was told. The worst of what had been done was being hidden by a reinforcing of the notion of the otherness of whom it was done to.

She spent some time looking at the photographs of the families being rounded up; she cut them out of her Italian history book and pasted them into her English class 'research' to show they were the same as us. She didn't get a very good mark. But she knows you don't have to be Jewish to be a target for being taken to camps like those. Fascism needs an internal enemy to reinforce itself.

We do need to know about the death camps, and we need a better narrative to understand all the truth about why they were there.

DBC Reed said...

How old were you when you realised the Rudolph Hess flight over here and the last night of the Blitz were both on 10th May 1941?

Bill Quango MP said...

I went to the premier of that dreadful movie Pearl Harbour in Hawii. A great premier. The film was shown on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Quite a good idea.Lots of extra coverage as the launch was in backwater Hawii instead of L.A. or New York.

Outside, reporters for the networks asked American teens "Who attacked who at Pearl Harbour."

My favourite was "I think it was the Chinese 1974"

Anonymous said...

I have to ask why we fetishise the Holocaust to the exclusion of all other historical events.

The Belgian occupation of the Congo was at least as brutal as the Jewish Holocaust and lasted far longer. The Turkish genocide against Armenians was as bad as the Jewish Holocaust. More to the point, the Holocaust is rather tangential to Britain's experience - no Briton participated in the killings and, in fact, we sacrificed massive amounts of blood, treasure and power in order to stop the Nazi regime, fighting on alone against Germany and Italy for a year and rejecting some very generous peace overtures.

Why, therefore, should we be beating our breasts and wailing because British children are not au fait with the minutiae of the Holocaust? We are not Germans - our hands are not stained with the blood the Holocaust. We are not Americans - we do not feel the shame that accrues from standing by and letting Nazism destroy nation after nation until forced to fight. We are not Soviets - we did not get in bed with the Nazis only to be backstabbed. We are British - we fought when there was no need for us to fight and we fought on when others expected us to surrender.

From Britain's perspective, our response to the Holocaust is something that should evoke pride rather than shame. British children don't know what Auschwitz is? Too bad. I'm sure many of them don't know what the Blitz or the Somme or Waterloo was and that most of them could not tell you the significance of the pink bits on a pre-1939 map and these things all concern me a lot more than their failure to memorise the names of German death camps in Poland.

(Disclaimer: obviously, my only reason for saying any of this is that I'm a closet Nazi and probably a paedophile too.)