On January 6 the world watched as domestic terrorists stormed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC. The pictures seared into our memories of this day are replete with symbols of hatred, racism, and extremism: The Confederate battle flag, the white power hand gesture, and the gallows erected near the Capitol reflecting pool.
What many may not have noticed within this sea of white supremacy was the prominence of anti-Semitic images: the black sweatshirt reading “Camp Auschwitz, Work Brings Freedom,” and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: 6MWE = “6 million wasn’t enough” above Italian fascist symbols. Those who wore these shirts invoked the Holocaust, not to deny it, but to promote the continuation of its aims and ideology.
Sixteen years ago, the UN officially declared January 27 an annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of victims of the Holocaust. By the time Soviet troops arrived at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, the SS forcibly had marched almost 60,000 starved and exhausted prisoners from the Auschwitz camp system westward into Germany; more than 15,000 would die on such death marches. At this camp, the Nazis exterminated 1.1 million people, 90% of whom were Jewish.
Among those Jewish prisoners liberated at Auschwitz, however, was a 25-year-old Italian chemist by the name of Primo Levi. Two years later, Levi would publish his account of his 11 months at Auschwitz under the title If This is a Man (later translated into English as Survival in Auschwitz). Levi’s account of Auschwitz focused not only on the day-to-day existence of the camp and the interactions amongst the prisoners he encountered there, but also dissected, in clinical and dispassionate fashion, what Levi termed “the demolition of man,” the process whereby the inmates at Auschwitz were completely dehumanized.
The existence of Auschwitz serves as a reminder of just what humans are capable of. When we teach about Auschwitz, we must remember that the camp stands as a symbol of the failure of humanity to stand up to unchecked hatred, bigotry, and tyranny, as a symbol of the challenge that confronts good people when faced with the absolute worst of human behavior. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reminds us: “The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.”
In recent years, this noticeable rise in hate speech, antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia has provided renewed momentum to legislative efforts to “fix” the problem, and by the end of last year, 16 states mandated some form of Holocaust and genocide education. Even so, state boards of education rarely provide the additional resources necessary to gain specialized training on the topic. Thus, the memory of the Holocaust is actually subverted and trivialized, used by politicians to avoid doing the hard work of fixing a broken educational system. Indeed, as Alvin Rosenfeld argued in “The End of the Holocaust:” “the very success of the Holocaust’s wide dissemination in the public sphere can work to undermine its gravity and render it a more familiar thing. . . . Made increasingly familiar through repetition, it becomes normalized.”
As educators, we know that the fix to rampant and willful ignorance, baseless hatred, and vile behavior is not so simple. We need a massive investment in basic internet and information literacy to save our democracy. Our belief in democracy rests on humans’ ability to reason, to separate fact from fiction, myth, and conspiracy theories. Equipping people with these basic tools is a starting point. We absolutely need to teach our students about Auschwitz and about gas chambers, but we also must teach them to distinguish between historical facts and the twisted lies of conspiratorial fiction and propaganda.
Teaching the Holocaust, alone, is not the solution to confronting antisemitism, racism, bigotry, and hatred. Teaching the Holocaust, alone, out of context, will not save our democracy. We need a systematic framework that teaches students the responsibilities of citizenship, the basics of human rights, and addresses massive income disparities and wealth gaps that plague public education in this country.
Teachers need to be trained how to teach difficult topics, how to engage in difficult conversations, and not to avoid what feels uncomfortable. If teachers teach the Holocaust, they need to be able to explain how easily a democracy can be subverted, how easy it is for ordinary people to turn their heads and look away, and how a system of discrimination can evolve into a policy of extermination.
The pervasiveness of the symbols of the Holocaust – swastikas, facile comparisons to concentration camps and Nazism across the political spectrum – indicate that the lessons of the Holocaust have not been learned. Indeed, they have become completely trivialized. This at a time when Nazis are literally marching in torch-light parades, carrying out pogroms in synagogues, and attempting to take over Congress.
Holocaust denial and distortion is not new, but for a long time it was fostered by a relatively small number of lunatic conspiracy theorists. The growth of the right-wing internet and social media means that a prominent space now exists, purposefully built and shared, where antisemitism, racism, and white supremacy can feed off one another.
The crowd that attacked the Capitol on 6 January not only proudly demonstrated their white supremacist beliefs but also indicated their readiness to put beliefs into action. They seek to use violence and hatred to create a world that matches their goal: destruction of those who believe in the equality of humans.
Holocaust education, by itself, will not be enough. Let us resolve to teach our young people how to determine the difference between historical fact and fiction. Let us equip our students with the tools to recognize hate speech, conspiracy theories, and dubious web resources. Let us hold big tech companies accountable for profiting off organized hate and discrimination, while hiding behind claims to “free speech” only when it is convenient. Let us hold them responsible for funding basic internet and information literacy. Maybe then we can help people understand why taking over Congress in an Auschwitz shirt is indicative of deep and real threats to our democracy.