Author Ben Reichman

Holocaust Education and Fascist Grooming


Students in the American public education system are more likely to read Elie Wiesel than they are to read Frederick Douglass. Students are more likely to know the names Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen than they are the Ludlow Massacre or the Battles of Blair Mountain or the Overpass. In classrooms across America, year after year for generations, schoolchildren memorize the names, dates, and places of the Nazi holocaust1: Mengele, the Röhm Purge, Maus, and Night—some with dull indifference, some with deeply felt outrage, and some with perverse, even admiring fascination for the Nazi ideologies of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and world domination. But regardless of its result, year after year, the ongoing ideological “production” of the “Holocaust Industry” grinds on unabated throughout the crumbling American public education system. As the fight against white supremacy continues up to this very hour, and as the mask of anti-Semitism falls away in public American life under the Trump administration, the public education system churns away, myopic, hermetically sealed, immune to context, question, or self-analysis. To question the production of the Holocaust Industry is to risk branding as an anti-Semite, or a race traitor in the case of Jews themselves. It is a given fact of public education in the United States that you will learn about the Holocaust. But what exactly is the information that students are being taught on this subject? Is it accurate? What is the purpose for the focus it assumes in American “Social Studies” and world history classes?

My intention is to analyze the pedestal upon which Holocaust education is kept in the American public education system. I do this from the perspective of a Jewish person fully aware of the reality of anti-Semitism. But I also do this from the perspective of a leftist educator who has been hamstrung in his attempts to challenge the supremacy of Holocaust education over education about the historical and ongoing oppression of black and brown people, disabled people, and lgbtq and gender non-conforming people. Ironically, any true scholar of the Nazi holocaust will know that the oppression of these marginalized groups is inseparable from an honest history of the Nazi holocaust itself. But this is a prime example of the problematic nearsighted/farsighted way that this subject is most often taught in the American public education system, which obsessively focuses on the victimization and hagiography of Jews at the expense of any sort of meaningful historical context—context that would necessarily implicate American racism in the historical story.2

Although I will discuss the Nazi holocaust, this is an argument about historiography. The prevailing understanding of history in any period is determined by the foreign policy interests of the ruling class, which gets filtered to the public through the news media and entertainment, as well as public education. The story of the Holocaust gets told in the American public education system in a particular way, to serve the ongoing geopolitical relationship between the United States and Israel. To tell the story in any other way—whether from the perspective of historical materialism, or the shifting terrain of white supremacy—would complicate this relationship. After discussing the historiography of the Holocaust, I will analyze its effects. What is the effect of this particular historiographic story on the American public education student? My conclusion is that the modern historiography of the Holocaust, exacerbated by the increasingly neoliberal structures of educational institutions themselves, could very well push young Americans towards fascism. As students trudge glumly to schools bearing the names of Confederate generals and Civil Rights martyrs alike, they are all unknowingly absorbing a fascist “hidden curriculum.”

What Gets Taught

It is a peculiar aspect of the neoliberal high-stakes standardized testing–obsessed American public education system that its treatment of any subject is at once hopelessly broad, unspecific, and textureless, while simultaneously mired in an endless barrage of particulars; a mind-numbing parade of decontextualized facts and dates for students to binge and purge just as quickly. This is true of how the Holocaust gets taught in schools, but it is equally true of any subject, from the holocaust of Native Americans to American slavery. The grim details of these events are, of course, surreal and horrifying: in my personal study, I routinely encounter facts about the Nazi holocaust that simply beggar belief (for example, Primo Levi’s account that the ashes of Jews were used as material instead of gravel for paths in concentration camps,3 or eyewitness accounts that men in concentration camps experienced lactation as they starved4). It is impossible to dispute that. But what do students actually learn about the Holocaust in schools?

It is impossible to describe Holocaust education in the United States without mentioning the name of Elie Wiesel. A survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wiesel’s Night, published in English in 1960, “has a special status as a touchstone for countless readers, for whom it was likely their first encounter with Holocaust literature.”5 Wiesel has been described as “the most important Jew in America,”6 and Night has been an unshakeable pillar of the American public education system and “core literature” lists for about 30 years.7 Even the threat that the book might be placed on an “opt-out” list is met with protest.8 It goes without saying that in the world of Holocaust education, and the American public education system in general, Wiesel is almost unavoidable. But the implications of Wiesel’s work on Holocaust historiography are dubious, and the political implications of Wiesel’s own life are problematic.

A key facet of Wiesel’s writing is that the Holocaust cannot be understood. Night “cries out not to be touched, interpreted, synthesized.”9 Wiesel himself wrote that the Holocaust “ ‘leads into darkness,’ ‘negates all answers,’ ‘lies outside, if not beyond, history,’ ‘defies both knowledge and description,’ ‘cannot be explained nor visualized,’ is ‘never to be comprehended or transmitted,’ marks ‘a destruction of history,’… ‘a mutation on a cosmic scale.’ ” Wiesel even goes as far as to call Auschwitz “that majestic event, that mystery of mysteries.”10 This attitude reverberates throughout Night, in which—as many middle and high school students can tonelessly recite—literal and metaphorical silence functions as a recurring and paradigmatic motif.

This emphasis on the Holocaust as unspeakable and incomprehensible serves a complex but ultimately cynical function. It is indeed impossible to fully comprehend the oppression experienced by another person. But it is irresponsible to insist on the “majestic” unknowability of the Holocaust while countless other traumas of American history are perfunctorily relegated to mere paragraphs in textbooks. This insistence on the Holocaust’s uniqueness lends an aura to the event which stubbornly refuses analysis and context. The Holocaust may not be compared or connected any other event in history, even when the comparison or connection is instructive and true. Three examples are instructive: Wiesel chastised Shimon Peres, the ninth President and twice-serving Prime Minister of Israel, when Peres called the bombing of Hiroshima a “holocaust.” Ken Livingstone was slammed by the press during his 2000 campaign for mayor of London for stating that “global capitalism has claimed as many victims as World War II.” Similarly, Fidel Castro opened a three-day Summit of Poor Countries in 2000 by arguing that:

The images we see of mothers and children in whole regions of Africa under the lash of drought and other catastrophes remind us of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany…. We lack a Nuremberg to judge the economic order imposed upon us, where every three years more men, women and children die of hunger and preventable diseases than died in the Second World War.

In response, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman countered that “Poverty is serious, it’s painful and maybe deadly, but it’s not the Holocaust and it’s not concentration camps.”11

All this obfuscation causes the Holocaust to be rendered unapproachable, unknowable, incomparable, and utterly unique. One result of this is something like the Marxist concept of commodity fetishism12: the Holocaust is somehow obvious, yet magical; imbued with significance, yet disconnected from whatever “labor” produced its historiography. Like Marx’s fetishized commodities, the Holocaust Industry produces a Holocaust which does not exist within the bounds of human control or intellect, but exists independently of us mere humans who are in equal measure alienated from it and entranced with it on a symbolic, fetishistic level. Students, of course, do not arrive in their classrooms as blank slates. By the time they encounter Night in 7th or 8th grade, they have already unknowingly absorbed many of these cultural messages from a variety of sources. But what they learn in their public education careers merely confirms what they have already subconsciously understood: Jews were the great, doleful Victims of history, their experience is unassailable, and most importantly, Israel is beyond reproach.

It is no coincidence that Elie Wiesel was chosen as the official “spokesman” for the Jewish people and the experience of the Holocaust. Wiesel was an unrepentant Zionist. While pushing the narrative of the ever-suffering, ever-innocent Jews, Wiesel unapologetically defended Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and celebrated the United States’s relationship with Israel.13 The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC—whose presence on the Washington Mall, Finkelstein notes, “is particularly incongruous in the absence of a museum commemorating crimes in the course of American history”14—was originally planned to honor the Nazis’ Communist, Romani, gay, and disabled victims as well as Jews, but Wiesel insisted that the museum honor Jews alone.15 This fanatical insistence on the primacy of Jewish victimhood is not difficult to deconstruct in light of the war crimes visited by the Israeli state upon the Palestinian people, and the implication of the United States in those crimes.

What is the significance of these revelations for the American public education student? For one thing, these students emerge from their public educational careers with an extremely limited understanding of history and politics. The Holocaust ceases to be a “rational subject of inquiry,”16 and exists in a vacuum of its own reality. But the Nazi holocaust did not occur in a vacuum. As Finkelstein notes, the original New York Times review of Mein Kampf praised Hitler as an “extraordinary man” for his “destruction of communism.”17 The relationship between the United States and Nazi Germany was by turns friendly and ambiguous. But American public school students would be shocked to learn that many of the core tenets of Nazi race science would not exist without American models.

What Isn’t Taught

The simplistic narrative which students learn about the Holocaust does not allow the entanglement of American racism into the story. But the United States served as a model for the white supremacist goals of the Nazi Party on every level. As Whitman notes, John C. Calhoun, the seventh Vice President of the United States and an ardent defender of slavery, was the subject of a “laudatory Nazi biography in 1935,” and the Nazis appreciated his explanation that race slavery is “the best guarantee to equality among the whites. It produce[s] an unvarying level among them. It not only [does] not excite, but [does] not even admit of inequalities, by which one white man could domineer over another.”18 The Nazi scapegoating of the Jews, a subject frequently taught in American public schools, is never delivered with this context. Furthermore, the Nazis’ anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws were closely modeled on the Jim Crow laws of the American South, and the Nazis fervently debated and paid respect to American models of eugenics, miscegenation.19 The Nazis and Hitler specifically praised American immigration law in Mein Kampf,20 and the imperialistic “conquest” of indigenous people. Nazi historian Albrecht Wirth in his 1934 Völkisch World History that the “Founding” of the United States was a historic turning point in “the Aryan struggle for world domination.”21 With all this in mind, Whitman movingly insists that:

Nazism was not simply a nightmarish parenthesis in history that bore no relationship to what came before and after; nor was it a completely unexampled racist horror. The Nazis were not simply demons who erupted out of some dark underworld to shatter what was good and just within the Western tradition…. There were traditions of Western government within which they worked.22

This is the ultimate rejoinder to the “commodity fetishism” of the Holocaust Industry, which refuses to admit the possibility of context, antecedent, or succession. But it is impossible to fully understand the history of the Nazi Party’s formation and the development of its racial ideology without acknowledging the role that American “race science” played in that formation and development. Students learn a palatable, sanitized Holocaust, one divorced from a true historiography which inevitably implicates the historian telling the tale. The same rejoinder can be offered to American public education’s obsession with the Civil Rights Movement. Similar to the fetishistic character of the Holocaust, disconnected from context, the same grift has been pulled on the history of the struggle for Black liberation in the United States. In the public education system, we will find the same compulsory erasure of the Black Panthers, the bombing of the anarcho-primitivist move commune, not to mention Black intellectual history and the history of slave rebellions that stretches back to the seventeenth century and the eventual enslavement of Africans kidnapped to American soil. That history must be disavowed to discourage students from asking uncomfortable questions about American society.

What Gets Learned

This survey of what does and does not get taught about the Nazi holocaust in American public schools leaves us with the question: what do students learn? Before answering this question, it is necessary to acknowledge that American public schools are an ideological battlefield upon which privatization and neoliberalism wage war upon the working class, and students and teachers alike have taken up arms in this fight with greater and greater frequency in what some have labeled a “strike wave” among teachers.23 For the past two years, states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and the city of Los Angeles, teachers and students went on strike to protest the conditions resulting from neoliberal austerity and privatization, and the Chicago teachers’ strike recently concluded in November 2019. In this context, we must see all curriculum as a prong of neoliberalism which seeks to discipline students’ minds just as state administrators seek to discipline working teachers and teacher unions. It is hard to overestimate the affect that neoliberalism has had in intentionally weakening public education. In the affecting words of Christopher Hooks, “That’s what politics is—the way we distribute pain. It’s not a sport or a fraternity or a game. It’s how we determine who gets medication and who dies young, who learns in a class of twenty kids and who learns in a class of thirty, whose school has a counselor that’s trained to look for signs of sexual abuse and who doesn’t.”24

In this “educational” environment, it is not surprising that the history/Social Studies curriculum gets scrubbed. The American public education has always been an organ of state capitalism and the employing class, beating the working class down into zombified submission and feeding them a diet of insubstantial, inorganic McHistory. But whose “history” gets taught and from whose perspective? What heroes are there in American history textbooks from which students can derive inspiration? The “Founding Fathers”? Can we reasonably expect or want students to empathize with slave-owning aristocrats? Or with the sanctified heroes of the Civil Rights movement, their placid images emblazoned on cereal boxes and postage stamps and robbed of their radical promise? In the sanitized American textbook version of history, is it any surprise that students tune out and fail to find in its pages a meaningful reflection of anything remotely relevant to their lives? What meaningful conflict is to be found in this “drama,” as capitalism inexorably marches across the stage and the supporting cast(e) is shuffled on and off without fanfare? In this dull drama, there are no ruptures, no revolts, no “Events”25—only a stultifying tapestry of inevitable and enervating conclusions.

There is a moral panic playing out throughout the news media and social media concerning the “radicalization” of white men who join the ranks of the “alt right,” the “intellectual dark web,” “incels,” and hard-right fascism.26 The Democratic Party has undoubtedly taken great pleasure in heaping undue blame onto the “alienated” white working class and blaming them for the election of President Trump,27 but the fact remains that alienated white people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the potential to be mobilized by fascism. This purported radicalization often takes place online, and because the internet is an omnipresent fact of life for children, it follows that public school students are at risk. The history of class warfare and the struggle for socialism in the United States offer no shortage of heroes and martyrs for white students to idolize. The genuinely felt alienation of these students could be productively directed against the capitalist system, but instead, without a narrative of class struggle to engage with, white students find themselves confronted with the seduction of fascism.

And why shouldn’t they feel its pull? In the grand, bland, self-satisfied pageantry of the American history textbook, the Holocaust is the only “Event,” the one great disruption, a black spot on the otherwise sanitized and spotless merry-go-round of Western civilization. In a historiography scrubbed of conflict, washed clean of anger, Hitler emerges as history’s one angry man. Not only are they unable to recognize fascism and genocide in any context but Auschwitz, these students are pushed to subconsciously sympathize with and idolize its architect. Because of the way history is taught in public schools, Hitler is the only truly identifiable character in the “story.” Sure, he’s an antagonist, but he winds up seeming to kids like something of an anti-hero. He is someone everyone is mad at. He’s pissed off, dispassionate, willing to unleash unthinkable amounts of death and reduce Europe to a smoking hole in the ground. No one else students learn about in history class is angry. Why would a kid get excited about the Boston Tea Party? Or the reasonable, civil Lincoln-Douglas debates? In the parlance of today’s teens, Hitler “didn’t give a fuck,” and that’s cool and attractive to teenagers, especially when the rest of the history and culture they learn about in school is so hopelessly sanded down. No sharp edges, no conflict, except for this one. Some students will react by becoming resentful about the fact that no other genocides or massacres are given the same spotlight. But some will become fascinated with Hitler, this singular villain, and the textbooks’ singular focus on him only makes him seem more charismatic.28 In this way, the historiography promulgated by the American public education system primes students to be perversely attracted to fascist leaders.

  1. As with Finkelstein, I differentiate the actual historical event (“the Nazi holocaust”) from its ideological representation (“the Holocaust”). Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, Second Edition [London: 2003], p. 3.↩︎

  2. See James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: 2018), discussed further below.↩︎

  3. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (New York: 2017), p. 110.↩︎

  4. Jared Diamond, “Father’s Milk: From goats to people, males can be mammary mammals, too,” Discover, February 1, 1995.↩︎

  5. Ruth Franklin, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford: 2011), p. 69.↩︎

  6. Mary Rourke, “His Faith in Peace Endures,” Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2002.↩︎

  7. See Abby Jackson, “English teachers have been assigning Elie Wiesel’s memoir of the Holocaust for 30 years—here’s why,” Business Insider, July 7, 2017; Millie Davis, “Why We Teach Books Like Night,” National Council of Teachers of English, July 6, 2016.↩︎

  8. Sadie Trombetta, “New ‘Opt-Out’ Policy Could Put ‘Night’ By Elie Wiesel At Risk Of Not Being Taught To Students—CORRECTION,” Bustle, January 17, 2018.↩︎

  9. Emphasis mine, Robert McAfee Brown, Elie Wiesel, Messenger to All Humanity (Notre Dame: 1983), p. 51.↩︎

  10. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry, pps. 45, 56.↩︎

  11. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry, p. 46.↩︎

  12. For more on commodity fetishism, see Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: 1990), p. 163.↩︎

  13. Alexander Cockburn, “Truth and Fiction in Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’,” Counterpunch, July 1, 2016.↩︎

  14. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry, p. 72.↩︎

  15. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry, p. 75.↩︎

  16. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry, p. 150.↩︎

  17. James W. Gerard, “Hitler As He Explains Himself,” The New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1933.↩︎

  18. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model, p. XII.↩︎

  19. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model, pp. 33–34.↩︎

  20. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model, pps. 9, 12.↩︎

  21. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model, p. 27.↩︎

  22. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model, p. 15.↩︎

  23. Emily Comer, “The Myths and Realities of the Education Strike Wave,” Jacobin (April 2019).↩︎

  24. Christopher Hooks, “Stakes is High,” Medium, October 17, 2016.↩︎

  25. “Event” in the Deleuzian sense. See James Williams, Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition: A Critical Introduction and Guide (Edinburgh: 2003).↩︎

  26. See Abi Wilkinson, “We need to talk about the online radicalization of young, white men,” Breitbart, November 15, 2016, and Mike Davis, “The Great God Trump and the White Working Class,” Jacobin, February 2017.↩︎

  27. Tony McKenna, “Here be monsters: Trump’s ‘white working class,’Al Jazeera, January 17, 2018.↩︎

  28. Thanks to Stephen Cheng for this insight (personal communication, September 2, 2019).↩︎