Reconsidering the way we present the Holocaust

At Oxford University Press, we are always thinking of ways to improve the way we deliver different topics. We want to offer the best resources that we can – and we feel it’s important to revisit each topic to ensure we’ve taken current thinking, the latest interpretations and up-to-date research into account. When OUP decided to create Fourth Editions of the KS3 History series we went through this process at length.

When working on new resources, we tap into experts in a variety of fields, wherever possible, and take on board their comments and observations with an open mind. It’s important for us that we get things ‘right’.

In September 2019 I began writing the initial manuscript for the final book in the  KS3 History series; Technology, War and Independence. Chapters 4 and 5, which mainly focus on the build-up to the Second World War and the war itself, feature events surrounding life in Nazi Germany and events leading to the ‘Final Solution’. We decided to take expert advice on these topics from the Holocaust Educational Trust because we felt, in previous editions, that we hadn’t done enough to deepen understanding of the Holocaust through covering the historical context of the Holocaust, its scope and scale and why and how it happened. Indeed, having informed ourselves on current recommendations for teaching and learning about the Holocaust from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, we knew we had to delve deeper into the following areas:

  • the historical conditions and key stages in the process of this genocide
  • the reasons why people participated or became complicit in the Holocaust
  • how Jews responded to persecution and mass murder
  • why and how some people resisted these crimes

Over a long and incredibly fruitful consultation process with the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), we revised the way we presented the Holocaust. A few examples of the changes are as follows:

  • It was felt that, certainly in previous editions, the story is mostly shown from the perspective of the Nazi perpetrators, with those that they persecuted, such as Jews, Roma and Sinti people, disabled people and so on, portrayed only as victims. In particular, it was suggested that it would be helpful for students to have more context about Jewish people in Germany at this time – for example, making clear that they formed a minority of the population and were fully integrated into German society, with many being secular in practice. We wanted to make sure students could see that the vast majority of Jews in Germany at this time saw themselves as German citizens. Just like any other people, they would have felt their identity was made up of all sorts of things – their families, careers, interests, leisure pursuits, and much more. We wanted to establish this to show just how strange and horrible this turn of events was – that, when the Nazis gained power, Jews were simply defined by the fact they were Jews. The fourth edition now includes this level of detail.
  • In the fourth edition, we unpick why Jewish people were treated this way in great detail and over a larger timescale. We address what prompted the hatred they faced, both in Germany and other parts of Europe. This gives more context to Hitler’s hatred and targeting of Jewish people. We didn’t want students to think that Hitler ‘invented’ the hatred of Jews, rather that he exploited antisemitic feelings that were already present in Europe and had been around for a long time.
  • It was clear that we needed to use more sources which recorded the experiences of those who were persecuted. In the fourth edition, for example, we use a thoroughly absorbing interpretation from Hilma Geffen that records an experience she had at school. The description of this seemingly small, everyday event shows how the new Nazi regime would have affected a young person in their everyday life. This fits in with our aim to move away from perpetrator sources that don’t allow the student to identify with German Jews.
  • We were determined to make more of the ways Jews resisted what was happening to them  – and this meant not only highlighting the more violent attempts at resistance. So yes, we made sure we mentioned resistance in the ghettos and rebellions in death camps, but we also wanted to mention other types of resistance – for example, the existence of secret Jewish schools, theatres and places of worship.
  • We also thought hard about our use of images and sources – and revised them appropriately. Guided by both the HET and recommendations from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), we removed  the more graphic or shocking  sources that had been used in previous editions. We questioned the educational purpose of these sources. Not only could some of them be very painful for some students to look at or read, but some of the most well-known perpetrator sources from this time, showing dead bodies, simply  dehumanises those who were killed. These sources fail to really develop understanding – they usually just shock and upset the reader. We decided that a better alternative would be a source from the perspective of someone who was persecuted, such as the testimony of a survivor. That is not to say that these sorts of images should never be seen – but we questioned their inclusion in the fourth edition. Instead, we felt the decision to use these images was down to individual teachers who felt it was appropriate for their class group.

To conclude, many textbook publishers have worked hard to recognise the changing pedagogies in Holocaust teaching in recent years – and at OUP we are adjusting our approach and continue to learn about this vital area. We are committed to learning, improving, and ensuring the Oxford materials you use in your classroom share more voices, experiences, histories and insights, and we’re always happy to receive feedback on our publishing including our coverage of the Holocaust. Please do get in touch directly with OUP on [email protected] or send us a DM on twitter @OUPSecondary.

Aaron Wilkes

Aaron Wilkes is one of the leading history authors in school publishing as well as being a History teacher at St James Academy, Dudley. Aaron is the author of the KS3 History 4th Edition series as well as part of our Oxford AQA GCSE History  and Edexcel GCSE History team.