To say that the past is no more and the future is not yet is a convenient truism often meant to encourage us to make the most of the immediate present. And yet this schematic division of time conceals the fluidity of the boundaries between past, present and future. In many ways the past is here and will endure into the future for better or worse. As I write these lines, the New York Times (Nov. 29, 2022) writes about the friendly meeting between a former American president and a famous Holocaust denier, and, coincidentally, also publishes an interview with Tom Stoppard, the renowned playwright, focusing to a great extent on his Jewish heritage. Asked about antisemitism, which many would hope to see relegated to the past, but is stubbornly reemerging in different guises, Stoppard replied: “My own feeling is that marginal social attitudes never go away. They’re something like a latent virus that becomes activated under certain conditions.” And added: “The solution is to develop a society in which these issues barely arise because the society is fair. In many issues, I think, God, if only we could start education again from the bottom up. Just now begin with the next generation of 5-year-olds and teach them the philosophy of life.” Education, in other words, is one of the most important and most effective ways to deal with antisemitism, with Holocaust-denial and with so many other manifestations of extremism. While Stoppard obviously meant this in a very comprehensive and avowedly utopian way, the explicit study of the Holocaust in schools is as vital as ever.


The case for this has been made in many recent studies, including in a book published under the aegis of the IBE, As the Witnesses Fall Silent: 21st Century Holocaust Education in Curiculum, Policy and Practice (edited by Z. Gross and E.D. Stevick; Springer 2015). Books by Eli Wiesel or Primo Levi, among others, are widely used in curricula across the world, and chapters on World War II in history textbooks often include long and detailed discussions of the Holocaust. If, however, we were to delve into the vast IBE collection of historical textbooks, we would discover, perhaps with some measure of perplexity, that it took quite a few decades before the Holocaust became a proper topic of debate and historical analysis in schools. We have surveyed here all the French, Belgian, Italian, British, American and Canadian textbooks available in the IBE digital collection. (This could well be used as a starting point for forays into other curricula – of the Soviet Union, of the two Germanies during the Cold War etc., which are likely to reveal many other interesting aspects.)

The scarcity of references to the Holocaust in American and European history textbooks during the first two decades after the war is partly explainable by the fact that the enormity of the events – and of the crimes – that had taken place could not be immediately grasped with sufficient clarity. And still, one may be surprised at this omission (with some interesting exceptions – see below), given that the discovery of many concentration camps in the late stages of the war in Europe was widely publicized by the Allies who had liberated those camps. And yet you find history book after history book that has nothing to say about the Holocaust. Just deafening silence. It’s also possible, and we admit that this is a matter of speculation, that a certain moral attitude might have dictated that this was too difficult a topic to tackle in elementary, middle and high schools. Be that as it may, here are a few examples of historical surveys and textbooks that have nothing to say about the concentration camps:


  • A History of Britain and Europe, by A.M. MacKenzie; The Grant Educational, Glasgow and London, 1951. (A massive history of Europe, including two chapters on World War II, and no mention of the atrocities committed in the concentration camps.)
  • History: USA, by J. Allen and J.L. Betts; American Book Company, New York, 1967. Again, nothing!
  • A History of Britain, Book IV: 1815-1958, by E.H. Carter and R.A.F. Mears, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1960. Not a word.
  • The Land of the Free: A History of the United States, by J.W. Caughey, J.H. Franklin and E.R. May; Benziger, New York, 1969. (The authors of this comprehensive history of the United States didn’t find it necessary to mention the American contribution to the liberation of the German concentration camps, while devoting several pages, 589-591, to the development and use of the atomic bomb, for instance.)


The list goes on… Let’s turn, however, to textbooks published between 1946 and 1967 that do mention or discuss the Holocaust, in some cases with amazing brevity, in others at length. What do they emphasize? How do they approach the topic?


World History

A textbook published in 1946 should not be expected to deal at great length with events that had just taken place and were still very much the subject of ongoing inquiries. Still, the merely fleeting mention of the ravages of the Holocaust is rather arresting. Indeed, the Holocaust is barely alluded to towards the end of the chapter devoted to World War II in this long survey of World History designed for secondary schools (p. 539): “The cost in life, at the lowest estimate, must have been at least twice that of the First World War; perhaps no greater number of soldiers were killed in battle, but the civilian death list from famine, disease, and slaughter by air raids and in concentration camps exceeded even the military losses.”

World History, by A.E.R. Boak, P. Slosson and H.R. Anderson; Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1946.

The History of Our World (teacher’s edition)

More surprising, no doubt, is that a revised edition of this survey, published some two decades later scarcely elaborates in greater detail on this momentous aspect of World War II. No more than one sentence is devoted to it (pp. 734-735): “They [i.e. important Nazi leaders] were charged for having been responsible for the horrors committed in German prison camps where thousands of innocent civilians had been mass-murdered.” The estimate conveyed by “thousands” obviously doesn’t capture the scale of the tragedy.

The History of Our World (teacher’s edition), by A.E.R. Boak, P. Slosson, H.R. Anderson and H. Bartlett; Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1967.

The United States of America: A History for Young Citizens

This history book – dedicated explicitly to “young citizens” entitled to acquire a clear and nuanced understanding of the history of their nation –allots only two sentences to the Holocaust. Unlike other similar surveys, however, this one at least marks the scope of Hitler’s genocidal actions with greater precision (p. 515): “As the victorious armies rolled over Europe, the world began to learn another horrible truth about Hitler. At his direction, we now know, more than 6,000,000 Jews had been put to death in concentration camps in central and eastern Europe.” The moment of discovery (“…the world began to learn…”) is a notable detail, as the nature and scale of Hitler’s crimes against Jewish people (and other groups, not mentioned in this book) remained relatively opaque to many until the last stages of the war in Europe. It is equally significant that the authors add parenthetically “we now know”; the process of discovery, which started in the mid 1940s lasted several years of careful study and reevaluation before the approximate number of victims became reliable and common knowledge.

The United States of America: A History for Young Citizens, by R.C. Brown, A.C. Helgeson and G.H. Lobdell Jr.; Silver Burdett Company, Morristown etc., 1963.

Britain in the Modern World: The Twentieth Century

This American textbook embraces an original approach to the early study of geography by opening up to the students a world that is both fascinatingly new and reassuringly familiar. It explores cultures – from various populations in the Philippines to the Native Americans and from North African cultures to China – not in a conventional and dry manner, but by looking at the lives of children in those cultures and countries and by considering the links between their play and favorite toys, on the one hand, and local geographical features, climate and institutions, on the other. The assumption there is that this introductory method will genuinely pick the interest of very young students and stimulate their study of geography – cultural and not only.

Britain in the Modern World: The Twentieth Century, by E.N. Nash and A.M. Newth, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1967.

History (Second Series)

As with other comparable historical surveys, this British textbook devotes but one sentence to the horrors of the death camps (283): “Concentration camps, where Nazis had imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Jews and political opponents had to be cleared and help given to those who had survived starvation and torture.” The last words of this sentence point with some clarity to the extraordinary hardship endured by the prisoners, but noteworthy is also the vagueness entailed by “ hundreds of thousands”; this book was published four short years after the end of the war, and a firm grasp of the events and of their actual significance was still elusive.

History (Second Series), Book Five: Road to Modern Europe, 1789-1945, edited by C.B. Firth, Ginn, London, 1949.

Cours abrégé d’histoire universelle à l’usage des écoles moyennes; deuxième année: temps modernes, époque contemporaine

The brief but repeated reference (p. 227 and p. 232) to the concentration camps is meant in this world history (published in Belgium three years after the war) to describe the brutality of the German army and leaders as the consequence of their abandonment of the Christian principles and faith, and their blind and vain reliance on science, which cannot provide by itself a moral compass. Given the emphasis on Christian values in the Belgian middle schools where this textbook was expected to be used, it’s probably not entirely surprising that the crimes committed in the concentration camps are not evaluated as a moral failure in general, but as a catastrophic case of straying from the path of the Christian doctrine. Incidentally, there is no specific mention of the Jewish victims who suffered and died in those camps.

Cours abrégé d’histoire universelle à l’usage des écoles moyennes; deuxième année: temps modernes, époque contemporaine; by C.J. Mathieu, revised by J. Herment; Ad. Wesmael-Charlier, Namur, 1948. (p. 227)
Cours abrégé d’histoire universelle à l’usage des écoles moyennes; deuxième année: temps modernes, époque contemporaine; by C.J. Mathieu, revised by J. Herment; Ad. Wesmael-Charlier, Namur, 1948. (p. 232)

Dal Fascismo alla Resistenza: Profilo storico e documenti

This anthology is explicitly addressed mainly to high school students and gathers a considerable number of testimonia by participants in key events of World War II in Italy and beyond. The author encourages his readers to reconsider the birth and evolution of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in light of these testimonia and to reflect on the subtle and on the overt threats posed by ideological extremism.

Dal Fascismo alla Resistenza: Profilo storico e documenti, by A. Saitta; La Nuova Italia, Florence, 1961.

The Italian people are still grappling today with Italy’s fascist past and that painful topic was certainly very much on the minds of A. Saitta’s fellow Italians when he published this impressive and often moving anthology in 1961. In Chapter IV (“Death in the Shadow of the Fascist Symbol and of the Swastika”) he devotes no less than eight sections (5-12, pp. 166-179) to the concentration camps.

Dal Fascismo alla Resistenza: Profilo storico e documenti, by A. Saitta; La Nuova Italia, Florence, 1961.

Objective data about the emergence and growth of the network of German concentration camps are accompanied by poignant memories about death marches to some of the camps, about the Nazis’ disciplined and methodical effort to dehumanize and eventually to exterminate Jewish (and other) prisoners, about the prisoners’ struggle to survive in Dachau, Mauthausen or Birkenau, and about the heroism of the prisoners who attempted to organize acts of resistance against the guards.

Dal Fascismo alla Resistenza: Profilo storico e documenti, by A. Saitta; La Nuova Italia, Florence, 1961.
Dal Fascismo alla Resistenza: Profilo storico e documenti, by A. Saitta; La Nuova Italia, Florence, 1961.

The author’s choice to speak through these many autoptic accounts lends credibility to his view that we have to come to grips with the past, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, and that also eliminates the risk of perceiving his plea as unduly emotional or ideologically biased. In the end, for Saitta, it’s all about pondering what we stand to lose when we abandon our fundamental moral principles and strip others abusively of the autonomy and dignity that are part and parcel of their very humanity.

Dal Fascismo alla Resistenza: Profilo storico e documenti, by A. Saitta; La Nuova Italia, Florence, 1961.