Florida's Holocaust problem

Students cannot remember what they have not been taught

Why learn about the Holocaust?  To see the past is to see possibilities.  Everything that happened must have been possible.  Learning about the Holocaust is learning about the darkest of possibilities.  The better we understand it, the more capable we are of preventing similar catastrophes.  

According to 1994 Florida legislation, the German attempt to remove Jews from the planet was "a watershed event in the history of humanity."  This is true, and a good start.  The Florida law mandates Holocaust instruction that enables students to draw universal lessons.  The history of the Holocaust is "to be taught in a manner that leads to an investigation of human behavior, an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping, and an examination of what it means to be a responsible and respectful person, for the purposes of encouraging tolerance of diversity in a pluralistic society and for nurturing and protecting democratic values and institutions." 

According to Florida law, the Holocaust was "the systematic planned annihilation of European Jews and other groups by Nazi Germany."  I would dissent from the "and other groups," but not because German policies did not target them.  We should remember the three million Soviet prisoners of war who were starved to death, and the hundreds of thousands of Belarusians, Poles, and Roma who were murdered.  The Germans did plan to kill tens of millions of Slavs.  No history of Nazi Germany is complete without the mass murder of people deemed to be handicapped, nor the persecution of socialists, homosexuals and religious dissenters.  Nevertheless, the Holocaust is a category specific to the Jews, because of the specific exterminatory intention, because that intention was largely realized, and because the number of Jewish victims was simply higher than that of any other group.  We cannot understand the history of the Holocaust of the Jews without understanding the fate of other groups.  Here the legislators were no doubt acting in good faith, and theirs is not a harmful imprecision.

An important word in the Florida law is "systematic."  For nearly six million Jews to be killed in less than four years, something systematic had to be taking place.  Historians of the Holocaust can and should debate interpretations, but very few would disagree with this term.  It is obvious that nothing systematic can happen without systems.  So the Florida definition of the Holocaust raises the question of what the systems were, and how they worked. 

Nothing systematic arises exclusively from individual intentions or individual actions.  Nor can we simply imagine that millions of people were shot and gassed simply because orders were followed.  Human nature, and human history, are more complicated than that.  The truth is somewhere between individual accounts of individual motives and the written record of institutional demands.  An "investigation of human behavior," as demanded by the Florida law, requires a sense of how politics and people work together, a sense of systems. 

It might help to mention a few systems that were involved in the Holocaust.

1.  A legal system of emergency.  Hitler governed from the beginning on the basis of a state of exception, which meant that basic laws were suspended.  The concentration camps were zones where law did not apply.  SS men, who became leading perpetrators, were the guards at concentration camps.  The entire East, where the Holocaust took place, was treated as a lawless zone.

2.  A psychological system of exclusion.  In Germany, Jews lost civil and political rights, and in the process were marked as outsiders.  Long before wearing a star became mandatory, the loss of voting rights and professional status made it clear that Jews were to be avoided and exploited.  For many Jews, this was a moment of particular sadness, not blotted out by the more horrible events to come.

3.  An economic system of expropriation.  By extracting property from Jews in occupied countries, Germans created a social dynamic whereby members of other groups became morally involved in the disappearance of Jews when they seized land, apartments, and other goods.

4.  An international system of extractive colonialism.  In the 1930s, the world was still one of empire, and Hitler could take examples from Britain and the United States.  The Holocaust took place on lands that Germany conquered in an imperial war.  In eastern Europe, Germans were told that they were fighting a war for the survival of the race. 

5.  An emotional system of struggle.  Hitler taught that will and not thought was the answer to everything, and that strong emotions were more important than facts.  Races were superior because they convinced themselves that they were and took bloody action.  Inferior races were there to be destroyed.  Jews had to be eliminated because, Hitler thought, they polluted German minds with ideas that might sap the German will to kill the weaker.

6.  A discursive system of antisemitism.  Hitler and the Nazis provided a narrative by which Jews were in control of the world, and Jews were to blame for all German misfortunes.  As those misfortunes accumulated during the war, Jews were indeed blamed.  Jews were at the center of a conspiracy theory.

7.  A social system of racism.  Citizens of Germany and then inhabitants of occupied lands were classified in a racial hierarchy and treated accordingly.  Paramilitaries, the SA and the SS, were defined as bearers of racial virtues.  These were the men who demonstrated that mass killing was possible.

8. A pedagogical system of censorship. The state banned publications, but also counted on citizens to make ignorance of what was deemed “anti-German” into a public celebration. German students and others then helped to organize book burnings.

All of these, and a number of other systems as well, had to be in place before the systematic mass killing of the Holocaust could take place.  My point is not that individual action did not matter: they certainly did.  Without Hitler, there would have been no Holocaust.  Yet from a certain point, we cannot understand what is happening by reference only to attitudes, even those of the most powerful.

We cannot be satisfied with an explanation that only mentions institutions and orders.  When I was learning German, my textbook had a political cartoon with a German saying "It wasn't me!  It was Adolf Hitler!"  We can all see what he meant, and what is wrong with his claim.  When killers say that they were just following orders, that does not end the discussion.  Why were the orders what they were?  And why did it seem natural to follow them?  And how do people become capable of doing things that are contrary to their own descriptions of themselves?  Likewise, we cannot be satisfied with peoples' own accounts of their inner states.  In spring 1945, when the Allies arrived, not so many Germans would have said that they were antisemites.  But such an avowal of the absence of personal prejudice cannot be the end of the discussion about the ashes of millions of murdered Jews.  It is barely the beginning.

The Holocaust, as presented in the 1994 Florida law, is a kind of aperture into the worst of history, an opening that can then allow us to see ourselves, to see what we are capable of, and what we must not do.  To learn those lessons, it is not just enough to declare that the Holocaust happened, and rest on the righteousness of that declaration.  One must enter into the history and allow oneself to be altered.  That is no easy task, as I know from my own teaching, as well as from experience of training teachers who are trying to implement laws like Florida's.  But the goal of "encouraging tolerance of diversity in a pluralistic society and for nurturing and protecting democratic values and institutions" is worth the effort.

How disappointing, then, to watch Florida overturn the logic of its own Holocaust education in a recent school board ruling that ostensibly has to do with Critical Race Theory.  This spring, the Florida board of education has allowed itself to get caught up in a moral panic caused by the belief that a minority has somehow taken control of the country's educational system.  Six states have passed memory laws that seem designed to protect white students from the knowledge of historical events that might cause them to experience guilt and shame.  In Florida, a state where the Holocaust is taught, these circumstances alone should have generated caution.  Moral panics are a bad time to make decisions about the future of education.  They bring us uncomfortably close to conspiracy theories, and tempt us to believe that strong emotions are more important than facts.

The substance of the new Florida measure is disturbing.  Teachers are now specifically required to tell students that racism "is merely the product of prejudice," and are specifically forbidden from teaching that "racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems."  This pedagogical line would seem to make it impossible to teach basic elements of U.S. history, such as redlining, segregation, voter suppression, the racial cleansing of neighborhoods and counties, not to mention slavery itself.  Without reference to law and society, such events cannot be explained, and so must vanish from history.  Reducing them to "incidents" caused by personal prejudice is what I mean by vanishing.  Just not denying that slavery existed is not the same thing is understanding its nature and consequences.  If racism is reduced to personal prejudice, then white people have a free pass to eternal innocence.  We express our regret, defend our personal innocence, and move on. 

Is antisemitism merely a matter of personal prejudice?  Of course not.  Do systems only function in other countries, and are we a special place where self-praise banishes systemic evil?  Of course not.  The United States is not Nazi Germany.  No one country in one era is exactly like another country in another era.  But we do not learn from history because it repeats.  We learn from history because it demonstrates possibilities.  One way that we see possibilities is by thinking in terms of systems.  One does not have to agree with every article written in the decades-old framework of Critical Race Theory to take that general point, since it is one that historians treat as common sense.  It is the same point that was made by Florida in the 1994 legislation that established Holocaust education. 

Antisemitism has to work its way into systems before it leads to catastrophe.  The same is true of racism.  When we see how systems develop in other times and places, we can learn how to recognize and prevent similar ones.  That starts with recognizing that we too are flawed, and only better than others insofar as we learn from them.

That is why the recent Florida measure is a moral catastrophe.  In a cheap and frankly horrifying rhetorical move, the Florida school board now juxtaposes Holocaust denial with Critical Race Theory: "theories that distort historical events and are inconsistent with State Board approved standards include the denial or minimization of the Holocaust, and the teaching of Critical Race Theory."  It is shocking to compare proponents of Critical Race Theory with deniers of the Holocaust.  Such a statement both trivializes the Holocaust and slanders scholars.  More subtly, it prevents us from noting that a central point of Critical Race Theory -- that we need to attend to the systems that arise between avowed intentions and the letter of the law -- is actually necessary for Holocaust education.

The new Florida directive leverages a hollow righteousness about Holocaust education against the need for any sort of self-examination.  According to the 1994 Florida law, teaching the Holocaust is meant to further "an examination of what it means to be a responsible and respectful person, for the purposes of encouraging tolerance of diversity in a pluralistic society and for nurturing and protecting democratic values and institutions."  But this is impossible if history stops at our shores.  The recent Florida measure transforms the acknowledgement of the existence of the Holocaust into a guarantee of American innocence.  So long as we do not deny the Holocaust, we are permitted to believe whatever we want about ourselves.

Legislating American innocence is not learning but unlearning from the Holocaust.  The moral reversal of Holocaust education is accompanied by practical problems it generates in teaching.  Florida now bans the teaching of the history of systemic racism in the United States.  And so the experiences of African American soldiers who saw German camps must presumably be censored.  It is very hard to explain American refugee policy in the 1930s without some reference to systems.  And so it would now seem less likely that Florida students will be taught why so very few Jews were allowed into the United States between 1933 and 1945.  The examples can be multiplied.  Jim Crow was systemic racism.  It cannot be reduced to individual intentions, and it went beyond the letter of the law.  It was a system.  As such, it was seen and admired by other racists, including Nazis.  That is part of the history of the Holocaust. 

We are supposed to remember. How are students to remember what they cannot be taught?  As we censor American history, we look away from the world history from which we might learn.  As we congratulate ourselves for being exceptional, we follow the typical path towards tyranny.