Stewards of Truth: Holocaust Denial in the Classroom

Spring, 2015

Source: Ohio Social Studies Review, Spring 2015, Volume 52, Issue 1 


If teachers are to teach the Holocaust appropriately and empower students to become reasoned, compassionate, and critical citizens in the 21 st century, they must include Holocaust denial in lessons and units covering that topic. This inclusion is an important but often overlooked component of broad-based Holocaust education units. In this article, I provide teachers with the reasoning behind and importance of including Holocaust denial in their lessons and provide a framework for teaching the Holocaust. This could assist teachers with delivering a more responsible Holocaust unit and better prepare students for the unique characteristics of 21 st -century research.

Pedagogical Plan of Action

Teachers must take a direct and well-thought-out approach when presenting a topic like the Holocaust to their students. A sound, four-point approach to present Holocaust denial within the context of the Holocaust itself gives students the skills necessary to navigate the challenging waters of Holocaust research in the 21 st century. According to Banks (2003), “An important aim of citizenship education should be to help students develop global identifications and a deep understanding of the need to take action as citizens of the global community” (p. 3).


The first important concept is that teachers provide students with a clear understanding of the Holocaust. Pentlin and Shapiro (1999) suggest that, “Teachers who teach the history of the Holocaust must, first of all, be adequately educated in the history of the Holocaust, the history of anti-Semitism and hate, with adequate time allotted for teaching this complex history” (p. 4). A foundation of the realities associated with the Holocaust is not only an educator’s responsibility but gives the teacher a stronger platform from which to answer the questions that quality instruction inspires.


Secondly, it is important to present the facts of the Holocaust using a variety of sources and styles. Nonfiction books, young-adult novels, photographs, eyewitness accounts, diaries, films, and radio broadcasts used together can provide a fuller picture of the Holocaust than can be derived from one source. I suggest teaching the Holocaust as a themed unit across multiple subject areas. Where this is not possible, the inclusion of these sources would be considered “best practice.” The use of primary sources is highly encouraged in any Holocaust unit, because “primary sources, in contrast, bring history to life” (Zemelman, 2005, p. 180).


As a third requirement, teachers need to address Holocaust denial formally and without ambiguity. Teachers should present the phenomenon as wrong and historically inaccurate while helping students realize that Holocaust denial is racist and hateful. Holocaust denial “should be clearly presented as anti-Semitism and hate, not as part of the Holocaust” (Pentlin & Shapiro 1999, p. 6). Taking a strong stance will resonate with the students and have lasting impact.


Finally, and most cautiously, teachers cannot, under any circumstances, present Holocaust denial as a “debate” between two sides. Denial does not deserve fairness or equal time, because it does not present history accurately. When Pentlin and Shapiro (1999) state, “Of course, we are concerned about the deniers. But, like dragons in children’s nightmares, they go away when you put on the lights and defy them” (p. 7). They remind us all that we must take a steadfast stand against the deniers to help others see the light and defy them. While it is fully acceptable to debate issues within the Holocaust, using questions like, What were Hitler’s motivations?, Why did common Polish citizens help the Nazis?, or Why was press coverage in the United States so tepid?, it is not acceptable to debate whether the Holocaust actually occurred.


It is essential for teachers to embody the sensitive and compassionate attributes that the students in our schools deserve. Teachers need to have the confidence to include Holocaust denial into their Holocaust education units and, more broadly, must be willing to fight racism and discrimination wherever it manifests itself in the classroom and school.

Updated: Aug. 20, 2015