Monday, December 21, 2009

Humanize the perpetrators too

During the eleven years I taught a Holocaust unit to my 8th grade language arts classes, I often discovered that I was a student myself. Preparing for various lessons, I would delve into research, videos, and literature, finding more information to pass on to my students. I often felt that the more background information students had on the Holocaust, the more they would appreciate our various readings. Soon, this developed into a research project, as well. During those early years, I would nod my head in agreement as the students talked about the "evil" perpetrators and the inhumanity of the German people.

It wasn’t until much later in my teaching career that I realized I needed to present the perpetrators and citizens of Germany in a different way. It almost seemed that the students were seeing Hitler and many of the high-ranking Nazis as evil characters synonymous with the type of villains seen in movies. It became apparent that perhaps the students needed to know that many of these men had families and lead very normal lives.

Images of Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Hedydrich with their children humanized these individuals, thus putting into perspective that even an ordinary man is capable of committing horrific acts. We would discuss how, in many cases, these were family men simply looking to advance their positions in their careers, as incomprehensible as that may seem.

Left: Heinrich Himmler with daughter Gudrun
Right: Reinhard Heydrich with daughter Silke

Furthermore, students always seemed quick to condemn all Germans for their actions. Again, as time passed, I realized that the students needed to recognize that the majority of German people were not perpetrators, but rather bystanders…that it wasn’t so much the action of the German citizens, but rather the lack of action that should serve as the lesson. In addition, I felt that students needed to remember that while we are quick to judge Germany’s past, we have our own dark chapters in United States history that we to need to recognize (slavery, discrimination, etc.). This often became great opportunity to discuss the similarities between the Nuremberg Laws and the Jim Crow laws.

Teaching about the Holocaust can be a very daunting task. It seems that each year, I gained a new insight on how to present a topic. Now, as I hold the position of library media specialist, I discover that I am presented with a whole new list of challenges on how to present lessons of the Holocaust; however it is a challenge I am ready to tackle.

Resources on Perpetrators and Bystanders (available in the MCHE Resource Center):
The Good Old Days by Ernst Klee
Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning
Death Dealer by Rudolf Hoess
Into That Darkness by Gitta Sereny
Bystanders by Victoria Barnett
Perpetrators Victims Bystanders by Raul Hilberg
Shoah (DVD) by Claude Lanzmann


  1. I think that it takes a good teacher to keep learning. Thank you for sharing.

  2. What a great point. I think most historical fiction focuses on the perpetrated, but there was one book I read recently about someone from a German family who was not Jewish. It really made me look at things differently because I could see a bystander's perspective. I think things like literature where you can get to 'know' the character or photos like this where you see a different side make things feel much less clear-cut good or evil.

  3. With respect, your comments demonstrate the problem with teachers today - a significant lack of historical perspective. While there were certainly dark periods in American history, nothing compares to the industrialized systematic destruction of the Jews and others during the Holocaust. Comparing slavery, as horrible as that was, with the Holocaust is comparing apples to oranges. And to teach that to young people, is to do nothing less than mislead them

  4. Jon,

    I think we need a little clarification here. Tracy is talking about a very relevant comparison between the Jim Crow Laws and the early Nazi laws from 1933-1939 - not slavery and the Final Solution. If you actually look at the lesson plan she is referencing it warns about apples and oranges and not taking the comparison beyond the laws. As you so rightly point out, American slavery has nothing to do with the Holocaust.

  5. It is also worth noting that the slave trade was also 'systematic', and would too have been 'industrialised', had the industry been available. An interesting comparison to get students thinking about personal and national responsibility - a complex and tricky issue for 8th graders!