IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Study finds two thirds of secondary school children do not know what antisemitism means.

26 October 2015

The world's largest national Holocaust study reports that nearly two thirds of secondary school children do not know what antisemitism means.

High school students

Students' understanding of the Holocaust is often based on inaccuracies and myths. UCL Centre for Holocaust Education has released the most detailed and authoritative national portrait ever created of students' knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust, drawing on responses from over 8,000 11-18 year olds to a comprehensive survey and in-depth focus group interviews. Many findings are surprising, some deeply troubling, all will help to shape the future of Holocaust education for years to come.

Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chairman of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation has said about this research:

 "This research offers an unprecedented insight into the depth of understanding of the Holocaust among young people. There is much that is good, but also some very clear and significant challenges if we are to ensure that all our young people truly understand the facts of the Holocaust and are able to reflect on its meanings.

 Early access to this work played a critical role in informing the recommendations of the Prime Minister's Holocaust Commission - and meeting the challenges set out in this report will be at the heart of the work the Foundation is now taking forward to build a proper National Memorial to the Holocaust together with a world-class Learning Centre."

Contrary to the widespread suggestion that there is 'Holocaust fatigue',  the findings show 83% of young people believed it is an important subject to study and - crucially - more than 70% who had studied the Holocaust wanted to learn more. Also contrary to popular belief, Muslim students appear just as positive about studying the Holocaust as other students across the country.

However in spite of the importance students attach to the Holocaust, many of the findings from the research are deeply troubling. While students have some knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust this is often limited and based on inaccuracies and misconceptions; popular myths often appear to go unchallenged in the classroom.

Even after studying the Holocaust in school, only 37% of young people surveyed knew what the term 'antisemitism' means.  Without that understanding, while the majority knew that Jews were primary victims of the Holocaust, most could not explain in any depth why they were murdered. Similarly, while other groups were often listed as victims of the Nazis, few students could explain why they were targeted either, beyond a vague notion of hatred of people who were 'different'.

The Holocaust was generally explained as perpetrated only by Hitler and 'the Nazis'; fewer than 10% suggested that the German people bore any responsibility for the genocide; and very few appeared to know about the role played by collaborating regimes, or the complicity and participation of huge numbers of 'ordinary' people across Europe in the murder of their neighbours.

Where people participated in these crimes, most young people believed that they had no choice. Asked 'If a member of the military or police refused an instruction to kill Jewish people, what do you think would be the most likely to happen to them?' the vast majority of students incorrectly believed that person would be shot. In fact, there is no historical record of this happening. Only 5% of students provided the most appropriate answer, that the soldier or policeman would simply be 'given another duty'.

Paul Salmons, Programme Director of UCL Centre for Holocaust Education commented, 'The consequences of this lack of knowledge for making meaning from the Holocaust are immense - the incorrect belief that people had no choice in carrying out the killings may be comforting, but the historical reality raises far more difficult questions about why and how people could become involved in mass murder. It is essential that young people study the reality rather than the myth if they are to better understand how genocides can happen.'

Myths about Britain's role in the Holocaust also continue to circulate in our secondary classrooms. Asked what happened when the British government knew about the mass murder of the Jews, more than one third believed that Britain declared war on Germany; almost one quarter thought that Britain knew nothing of the killings until the end of the war; while 17.6% thought that the British government drew up 'rescue plans to try and do everything to save the Jewish people'. In fact, the British government never made it a war aim to save the Jews of Europe. Only 6.7% of students appreciated that - while the British government did have knowledge of the killings - its response was limited to a declaration to bring the perpetrators to justice when the war was over.

Professor Stuart Foster, Executive Director of UCL Centre for Holocaust Education said: 'The findings are not a criticism of the pupils or their teachers but a consequence of the misunderstandings and misconceptions surrounding the Holocaust in Britain today. Despite clear government support for learning about the Holocaust, for many schools it still does not constitute a curriculum priority and typically it is reduced to 'learning the lessons' - the dangers of hatred and racism - without detailed study of the history. Little curriculum time for 11-14 year olds is devoted to exploring in more depth why and how the Holocaust happened. Even more worryingly, our examination boards have chosen to reduce the Holocaust to a very small, optional element of some GCSE papers, and it has almost disappeared from the history courses of A level examinations.'

Paul Salmons also commented: 'As a society, we remember without knowing, we draw lessons without understanding and we miss many of the most profound meanings that could emerge from studying the Holocaust because we avoid its most difficult questions. In a world of ongoing crimes against humanity it is vital that young people have the knowledge and understanding of how such events can occur.  Improved teaching and learning about the Holocaust can help students to think critically and independently about these vital questions.'


  • Photo by Olivia Hemingway, 2014