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The myth of 'never again'

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In an article for The International Herald Tribune, Kofi Annan explores how learning about the Holocaust can teach young people across the world to oppose racism and promote tolerance in their own societies.  

Many countries in Europe and North America now require all high-school pupils to learn about the Holocaust. Why? Because of its historical importance, of course, but also because, in our increasingly diverse and globalised world, educators and policy-makers believe Holocaust education is a vital mechanism for teaching students to value democracy and human rights, and encouraging them to oppose racism and promote tolerance in their own societies.

That was certainly my assumption in 2005 when, as secretary general of the United Nations, I urged the General Assembly to pass a resolution on Holocaust Remembrance, which included a call for “measures to mobilise civil society for Holocaust remembrance and education, in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide.”

Indeed it might seem almost self-evident that Holocaust education would have that purpose, and that effect. Yet it is surprisingly hard to find education programmes that have clearly succeeded in linking the history of the Holocaust with the prevention of ethnic conflict and genocide in today’s world.

Of course, prevention is always difficult to prove. But the least one can say is that the cry of “never again,” raised by so many in the years after 1945, has rung increasingly hollow with the passing decades. The Holocaust remains unique in its combination of sophisticated technical and organisational means with the most ruthlessly vicious of ends, but instances of genocide and large-scale, merciless brutality have continued to multiply — from Cambodia to the Congo, from Bosnia to Rwanda, from Sri Lanka to Sudan.

Few countries at present, even among those that require their teachers to teach the Holocaust, give them any specific training or guidance on how to do so. And few teachers in any country have the knowledge or skills to teach the Holocaust in a way that would enable today’s adolescents, who often represent within a single classroom a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, to relate it to the tensions they encounter in their own lives. More and better teacher training is surely needed.

But do we know what the content of that training should be?

If our goal in teaching students about the Holocaust is to make them think harder about civic responsibility, human rights and the dangers of racism, then presumably we need to connect the Holocaust with other instances of genocide, and with ethnic conflicts or tensions in our own time and place. That would enable students not only to learn about the Holocaust, but also to learn important lessons from it.

The time has surely come to ask some hard questions about “traditional” Holocaust education, and perhaps to rethink some of the assumptions on which it has been based. Are programmes focusing on the Nazi system and ideology, and particularly on the horrendous experience of their millions of victims, an effective response to, or prophylactic against, the challenges we face today?

It is easy to identify with the victims. But if we want to prevent future genocides, is it not equally important to understand the psychology of the perpetrators and bystanders — to comprehend what it is that leads large numbers of people, often “normal” and decent in the company of their own family and friends, to suppress their natural human empathy with people belonging to other groups and to join in, or stand by and witness, their systematic extermination? Do we not need to focus more on the social and psychological factors that lead to these acts of brutality and indifference, so that we know the warning signs to look out for in ourselves and our societies?

Do current education programmes do enough to reveal the dangers inherent in racial or religious stereotypes and prejudices, and to inoculate students against them? Does the teaching of the history of the Holocaust at classroom level sufficiently link it to the root causes of contemporary racism or ethnic conflict? And shouldn’t the Holocaust be studied not only in Europe, North America and Israel but throughout the world, alongside other tragic instances of human barbarism?

Such questions will be at the heart of a conference this month at the Salzburg Global Seminar, in Austria, on “The Global Prevention of Genocide: Learning from the Holocaust.” Organisers hope this will lead to an annual programme for teachers from around the world.

This is certainly not a problem with a “one size fits all” solution. Teaching the Holocaust to a class in Ukraine is obviously different from teaching it in Israel, and indeed is likely to vary widely even between different districts of a European city. But insights and examples can surely be shared with advantage, and it seems fitting that Austria — which provided both victims and perpetrators of Nazi atrocities in abundance — should be hosting such a programme.

Kofi A. Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, is honorary president of the advisory board for the Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention Programme at the Salzburg Global Seminar.

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