How do we know what we know?

The Holocaust occupies a near-mythic space in our collective memory, the mass media and public discourse, and is used in the service of diverse political and social agendas.

For young people to be able to navigate this space it is essential that they understand this central event of our time and are able to evaluate critically the diverse claims made about it.

If the Holocaust is nearly everywhere in the public conversation and, it seems, can be made to mean almost anything, then this raises the question: are all opinions, all interpretations, all representations of the past equally valid? If not, how do we distinguish between them? These are important ideas for young people to grapple with. What is the status of knowledge? How do we know what we know? How do we weigh different truth claims?

Memory and forgetting

In the case of genocide, such knowledge is especially precious, and especially fragile. Surveying the countless examples of human atrocity, one might conclude that – until the Holocaust – the story of genocide has been largely a history of forgetting. Mass murder has been perpetrated across the world, at all times, but few such crimes have been incorporated into our national narratives and collective memories, into the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Hitler’s now famed question on the eve of the Holocaust, ‘Who today remembers the Armenians?’ still resonates. For centuries, communities have written out of the historical record their deliberate destruction of other human groups. This selective forgetting of our past has occurred largely because the victims do not survive to tell their stories. Only the perpetrators remain to choose the stories that they tell about themselves.

According to Gregory Stanton, attempts to hide material traces of mass atrocities always accompany such crimes, and constitute for him the final stage of genocide. Certainly the Nazis and their collaborators went to great lengths to destroy the evidence – burning documents; exhuming mass graves and cremating the corpses; blowing up the gas chambers and dismantling the killing centres.

Attempts to hide material traces of mass atrocities always accompany such crimes, and constitute the final stage of genocide.

In this context, the disciplinary question – how do we know what we know? – takes on new meaning. First, we have the huge amount of written evidence that the perpetrators failed to destroy – a surviving copy of the Wannsee Protocol; written orders and directives; reports by the killing squads giving detailed accounts of their mass shootings; and millions of pages of other captured documents. Then there are the confessions of the perpetrators themselves, the reports of eyewitnesses, the archaeological evidence that remains despite the attempts to remove all traces, the blueprints for the construction of the crematoria and the photographs of mass murder. In short, the defeat of the Nazi regime ensured that vast amounts of material did survive.

Furthermore, even while the murders were taking place, many of the victims resorted to history as their means of defiance, determined that the crimes perpetrated against them would not disappear without trace. They risked their lives to document and record their experience of persecution and to show subsequent generations what happened to them. They hid diaries, clandestine photographs, drawings and manuscripts in the ghettos and the camps in the hope that one day these would be discovered.

Common cause

Our students are not able to change what they find in the past, but neither are they altogether powerless. When studying the Holocaust, in the very act of historical enquiry, in struggling to learn and to understand, they make common cause with the people in the past and join with them in an act of resistance against the desecration of memory.

Those who privilege moral lessons perhaps miss the sense in which – in this case at least – the pursuit of historical knowledge is itself an ethical and moral endeavour, given attempts by the perpetrators to destroy the evidence and the risks taken by the victims to document and preserve it.

The documentation of atrocity as a means of defiance is explored in more detail in our lesson ‘Why didn’t the Jews fight back?’.

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“Moving and inspiring. I can't wait to teach the Holocaust next term using these materials and ideas as the basis of my scheme of work....I feel much more comfortable with teaching the Holocaust in a meaningful and respectful yet historical way.”