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Teaching History and Teaching Ethics:

by Avril Alba

Engaging History

Jacki French’s children’s novel Hitler’s Daughter is in large part an exploration of the complex ethical issues that emanate from a consideration of the Holocaust of European Jewry1. Through the prism of a children’s storytelling game, the question “What if Hitler had a daughter?” creates a compelling framework for an examination of the topics of individual responsibility, moral decision making and ethical action.

As the novel progresses, the central protagonist-Mark-becomes increasingly perplexed by the ethical dilemmas that Hitler’s Daughter might have faced and begins to recognize his own struggles with similar issues of right and wrong. In his despair, he turns to the adults in his life for help. Alarmingly, they provide little guidance as evidenced by the following excerpt—a conversation between Mark and his teacher, Mr. MacDonald.

“Mr. MacDonald…”
“Yes, Mark?”
“The things Hitler did, or Pol Pot … all that genocide stuff. I mean could they have ever thought they were right?”
Mr. MacDonald looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “Sometimes people think they are doing the right thing even when it is bad. But with Hitler and Pol Pot… I just don’t know. Maybe they did think what they were doing was good.”
“But how can we know we’re doing the right thing?” cried Mark2.

As evidenced by this quote (and French’s novel), a study of the Holocaust provides an extraordinary vehicle to explore the complex ethical issues that Mark’s deceptively simple question raises. 

Perhaps a more sophisticated version of Mark’s question might be: “What were the ideologies and beliefs that the perpetrators (and also bystanders) of the Holocaust held that enabled them to ‘do the wrong thing’? Here it is important to remember that the perpetrators of the Nazi genocide were not only those who pulled the triggers or administered the gas. Perpetrators also included the thousands of bureaucrats and laborers who wrote lists, compiled train schedules, drove trains and delivered their ‘cargo’—all playing a vital role in the eventual implementation of the ‘Final Solution’.

Yet while the Holocaust places the human capacity to ‘do wrong’ in sharp relief, it is also replete with many examples of the equally human capacity to ‘do right’. The stories of those who have become known as the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, and the stories of the moral, spiritual and physical resistance of victims of the Holocaust (both Survivors and those who did not survive) all provide exceptional case studies for ethical and moral decision making in extreme circumstances.

Understood from this perspective, it is evident that a study of the Holocaust contains a rich repository of case studies for an exploration of ethical decision making. And while the Holocaust is most certainly not the only historical event that lends itself to ethical consideration, it is increasingly understood as a touchstone and turning point in the history of the West largely because of this very capacity.  Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, in a recent article in the European Journal of Social History argue that knowledge of the Holocaust has contributed to the emergence of ‘cosmopolitan memory’ primarily because its subject matter contains an inherent capacity to transcend national boundaries and touch upon universal issues of ‘right and wrong’. They write, “It is precisely the abstract nature of ‘good and evil’ that symbolizes the Holocaust, which contributes to the extra territorial quality of cosmopolitan memory3." 

In other words, it is both the historical experience of the Holocaust and the way that experience has come to be remembered and understood that make it an ideal vehicle for historical and ethical exploration. This article explores the potential and problematics of approaching teaching the Holocaust from a historical and ethical perspective through an examination of the Sydney Jewish Museum’s newest education program, Developing an Ethical Framework.

Developing an Ethical Framework

Funded by the Telstra Foundation, the Sydney Jewish Museum’s (SJM) newest education program, Developing an Ethical Framework, is a comprehensive Holocaust education program that endeavours to expand the moral and ethical frameworks of gifted and talented students4. Utilizing Holocaust history as its context, the program aims to heighten advanced ethical thinking and moral decision making among gifted students by presenting ethical dilemmas through a story response approach. The program seeks to harness this powerful aspect of Holocaust history in order to deepen gifted and talented students’ understanding of both the complexity and the imperative of moral and ethical action—historically and in the present.

Developing an Ethical Framework is multifaceted in its content, structure and methodological approach. As a program that can be adapted to meet the outcomes of the NSW History, English and Studies in Religion syllabi, its content holds relevance across a broad cross section the NSW curriculum. In terms of its structure, the use of both the classroom and Museum settings provides diverse and stimulating learning environments for students that again meet the outcomes of the NSW history syllabus—particularly in Stage 4 and 5 Investigating and Constructing History topics. Finally, with regard to methodological approach, the program’s deliberate utilization of a historical framework as a gateway into contemporary issues and concerns supports key values found throughout the NSW history syllabus such as commitment to informed and active citizenship—commitment to a just society, an appreciation of the study of history, empathetic understanding and commitment to lifelong learning5

Structurally, the program is comprised of three parts: a pre visit (classroom) section, a museum visit (which includes survivor testimony) and a post visit (classroom) section. Each of these sections is then further divided according to the following four categories:

  1. Key concepts (defining and understanding morals, ethics, justice, empathy)
  2. Holocaust history
  3. Categories of participant involvement in the Holocaust (Perpetrator, Bystander, Resistor, Victim) as a framework for presenting ethical dilemmas
  4. Case Studies/Testimonials (including Survivor testimony)

The program is designed in this manner in order to gauge students’ prior knowledge of this historical period, challenge these preconceptions and then build knowledge while actively tracing shifts in student thinking throughout the learning process. Teacher and student evaluation is built into all sections of the program and a variety of pedagogical techniques are employed in order to achieve this goal such as the use of an ongoing ‘Learning Journal’ and ‘Mind Mapping’ exercises.

The underlying premise of Developing an Ethical Framework is that historical study can serve as a gateway to an exploration of universal ethical and moral questions. The following two examples illustrate this connection between the historical and conceptual that encapsulates the dialectical approach of the program.

The first activity is an introductory exercise from the ‘Key Concepts’ section of the program. Students are asked to reflect on the following questions:

Key Concepts Introductory Exercise Stages 4 & 5

a) What is morality? How would you describe a moral person? Where does a person’s morality come from? What are ethics?  What is the difference between moral and ethical behaviour? In what types of situations could you be unethical but morally correct? 

b) What constitutes bravery? Do you think being brave is a conscious choice or can it be an instinctive response? What attitudes or beliefs may account for someone’s bravery or cowardice?

c) What can bring about a change in our behaviour towards others? How would you define a person’s ‘conscience’? Where does our ‘conscience’ come from? How can our ‘conscience’ affect our behaviour?

d) What is your understanding of good and evil?  What characteristics would you attribute to an ‘evil’ person? Are there different levels of evil? Devise a continuum scale for ‘evil behaviour’.  Can you devise a similar one for ‘good behaviour’? From your own knowledge do you think anyone can ‘be’ evil? i.e. How would you describe the human capacity for evil? Consider the quote below. How does Maimonides conceptualise this problem?

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance

Freewill is bestowed on every human being. If one desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wishes to turn toward the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so. And thus it is written in the Torah, “Behold, the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil (Gen 3:22)

e) An ability to feel empathy for others is regarded as being one of the most important factors in determining why one person would stand up for another who is being discriminated against. 

Discuss with your peers, or reflect in your journal on the following question: How can we develop empathy in others, and ourselves, to the plight of those who are facing discrimination and prejudice?

The second activity is from the, “Categories of Participant Involvement in the Holocaust”, section. Students are asked to examine the following excerpts:

The Perpetrator

Irena Steinfeld argues that:

The Nazi state practised a reversal of ethics and values in which murder became an ideal. Large segments of German society continued to cling to old moral precepts, however, even if they did not object to the murders. Why so many people with moral codes became executioners remains an open question to this day…the motivations behind the actions of the perpetrators were complex. In addition to pursuing “the ideal” other factors to think about include obedience to authority, opportunism, peer pressure, careerism, sadism and economic gain6.

This ’marrying’ of murder and morality in Nazi ideology is illustrated in the extracts provided.

Perpetrator Core Activity Stages 3, 4 & 5

Read the following extract for an understanding of Himmler as a ‘perpetrator’ and respond to the questions that follow.

Himmler’s Speech

SS Chief Heinrich Himmler gave the following speech in October 1943 before senior SS officers in Posen. In his speech, Himmler claimed that one could both conduct mass killings and remain a decent human being. By the time he gave this speech, the majority of Europe’s Jews had already been murdered.

‘I want to mention here, in complete frankness, a particularly difficult chapter. Among us it should be mentioned once, quite openly but in public we will never talk about it…I am referring to the evacuation of the Jews to the extermination of the Jewish people. This is one of the things that is easily said: “The Jewish people are going to be exterminated,” that’s what every party member says, “Sure it’s in our program, elimination of the Jews, extermination –it’ll be done.” And then they all came along, the 80 million worthy Germans, and each one has his one decent Jew. Of course, the others are swine, but this one, he is a first rate Jew. Of all those who talk like that, no one has seen it happen, no one has had to go through with it. Most of you men know what it is like to see 100 corpses side-by-side, or 500 or 1000. To have stood fast through this and - except for cases of human weakness - to have stayed decent, that has made us hard. This is an unwritten and never to be written page of glory in our history, for we know how difficult it would be for us to if today-under the bombing raids and the hardships and deprivations of war –if we were still to have the Jews in every city as secret saboteurs, agitators and inciters. If the Jews were still lodged in the body of the German nation, we would probably by now have reached the stage of 1916-17.

The riches which they, (the Jews), owned we have taken from them. I have given strict orders, which Obergruppenführer Pohl has carried out, that this wealth should naturally be delivered to the Reich. We have taken nothing. Individuals who have transgressed are being punished in accordance with an order, which I gave in the beginning, and which threatened that anyone who takes just a single mark is a condemned man. A number of SS men- not many- have (sic) transgressed against the order and they will be condemned to death mercilessly. We had the moral right; we had the duty towards our people to annihilate this people, which wanted to annihilate us. But we have no right to take a single fur, a single watch, a single mark, a single cigarette or anything whatsoever. We don’t want in the end, just because we have exterminated a germ, to be infected by that germ and die from it. I will not stand by while a slight infection forms. Whenever such an infected spot appears, we will burn it out. But on the whole, we can say that we have fulfilled this heavy task with love for our people, and we have not been damaged in the innermost of our being, our soul, our character7.


1. How does Himmler justify the ‘right’ of these actions? What ‘moral stance’ or ‘moral argument’ does Himmler take? 

2. How do you respond to Himmler’s speech and his justifications?

3. Imagine this is Himmler’s speech as first speaker on the affirmative side in a debate on the “difficult chapter” of “the extermination of the Jews”.

As an opposing speaker how would you rebut his arguments?

4. How does Himmler’s definition of morality differ from the definitions you developed in the ‘Key Concepts’ section of the program? Do you agree with Steinfelt’s assessment of ‘why’ such a reversal of ethics could take place? What other factors may have been at play?

5. Research any organisations, treaties, laws, agreements or other universal actions that have been created or put into place in an attempt to ensure that human beings are treated humanely. 

For example, see The Geneva Convention, United Nations’ Human Rights and Children’s Rights declarations, mission statements for organisations such as Amnesty International, The Red Cross etc.

  • What ideas do they have in common about human rights?
  • Why do you think such organisations and agreements are needed?
  • How do you think these treaties and other such agreements can be enforced?
  • What do you think is a just punishment for perpetrators and those people who break these agreements?

These two examples illustrate how the historical and the conceptual are brought together to create a powerful and contemporary approach to historical inquiry. Students are challenged to connect the abstract definitions they formulated in the key concepts section with historical examples in which similar ethical considerations are placed into sharp relief. Concurrently, while engaged in these historical considerations students are also exposed to contemporary concerns-as they are encouraged to think about the connections and points of departure between the past and the present.

Problems and Possibilities

Programs such as Developing an Ethical Framework are rightly criticized for a variety of reasons and it is important to examine these critiques in order to delineate and contend with both the problematics and potentialities inherent in teaching history through alternate educational frameworks. Chief among such criticisms is the contention that the universalizing aspect of the pedagogy detracts from the particularity of the subject matter-particularly poignant is the fear that ‘Holocaust’ becomes simply a worst case scenario form of ‘racism’-thus losing the particular nature of the Nazi war against European Jewry. A second and related concern is that due to the emphasis on universal concerns, the historical material is not properly explored and understood by the student—therefore leaving the student with a limited and possibly skewed understanding of Holocaust history8.

Likewise, criticisms that such programs do not do justice to the ethical dimensions of the study are also to be found. In her recent book on Holocaust education, Simone A. Schweber notes that such programs often assume (falsely) that the moral content of Holocaust education will be self evident to the students, therefore inviting trivialization and lack of understanding as to the radical dimensions of the historical period.9 As Howard Gardner points out, “Attaining historical mastery of the Holocaust is not equivalent to understanding its moral dimensions" 10. These are well-founded fears that must be addressed both with regard to program development and implementation. Yet it is important, when recognizing the valid nature of these criticisms and remaining vigilant with regard to the issues they raise at all times, they do not belie the enormous educational potential inherent in integrated approaches to the teaching of history and ethics. 

The first of the criticisms outlined above—that in exploring the universal relevance of Holocaust history, one loses its historical specificity-has the inevitable effect of setting the particular experience of the Holocaust against its universal relevance11. Alternately, understanding the Holocaust as a particular event with universal significance forms a dynamic framework through which the complex historical, ethical and philosophical questions that emanate from a serious study of the Holocaust can be addressed. The responsibility for teaching the subject matter in all its specificity and with as great a historical accuracy as possible is not, and should not, be abrogated. Rather, it is the conceptual relevance of the historical study that is expanded-allowing the heuristic potentiality inherent in the subject matter to be effectively harnessed.

Fears pertaining to the accuracy and adequacy of historical content are similarly valid yet also have the effect of enforcing an ‘all or nothing’ approach to the teaching of history. As Donald Shwartz points out in an article also included in this journal, the responsibility of teaching complex historical events such as the Holocaust places an enormous strain upon educational institutions, curriculum developers and teachers. Again, the imperative to convey substantive and accurate historical information cannot be relinquished. Yet, in large part, historical events such as the Holocaust continue to challenge and inspire historical reflection and debate due to their historical complexity. Indeed, it is this very complexity that both allows for and encourages the employment of a range of pedagogical approaches to further expand historical understanding. As such, any educational approach will be found wanting if viewed in isolation. For example, students of Holocaust history will certainly benefit from an understanding of the long history of European anti-Semitism as well as a consideration of the role of 19th century nationalism in the implementation of the Nazi (and other) genocides. Yet these important factors will inevitably be emphasized or not, according to the demands of the educational project at hand.

Thus, the choice of what and how much historical material to cover cannot be divorced from the related question of the purpose of historical inquiry. In other words, what we teach is inevitably mediated by why we teach it. Particularly in an area such as Holocaust history, for which scholarship continues to grow at an exponential rate, choice of materials is both the unenviable yet unavoidable responsibility of those institutions and individuals who choose to teach it. Guides such as the one included in this journal as to quality institutions and resources within Australia therefore become an invaluable tool for instructors in this field. Developing an Ethical Framework is one pathway into the study of this momentous historical event. Aspects of historical investigation not touched upon by this program can and should be explored where opportunities allow for it.

The second of the criticisms outlined above levies the similar charge that in abstracting universal moral and ethical criteria from a study of the Holocaust one also runs the risk of creating false contemporary parallels from the point of view of ethical rather than historical considerations. Yet, as Shweber points out, even the most vociferous opponents to such approaches utilize abstracting moral criteria in their choice of materials and their structuring of classroom discussion12. It is evident, therefore, that in addressing ethics education through the prism of Holocaust history the real question is not whether but how.

Approaches such as Developing an Ethical Framework do privilege a particular perspective. They do so with the clear understanding that the goal of harnessing history to examine ethical questions should not be to facilitate facile equivalence between past events and present situations. Rather, such an approach to teaching history can and should provide an indispensable tool for students to critically assess the past with a view to gaining insight into the present. As Mary Gallant and Harriet Hartman write in a recent article in The Journal for Holocaust Education:

Arguably, in no other area of the curriculum are students able to confront the past to speak out more effectively against … unreason and inhumanity than when engaged in an in-depth study of the Holocaust. Holocaust education not only brings us to a remembrance of the Holocaust as an event in history; it teaches us to go beyond mere historical description, so as to construct activism in which we attempt to repair the past so as to heal the future.13

Answering Mark’s question, “How do we know that we’re doing the right thing?” is no easy task. Every serious teacher resonates with Mr. MacDonald’s dilemma and knows that ethical values and moral choices influence all spheres of educational endeavour. In making explicit the challenges involved in teaching history and teaching ethics, Developing an Ethical Framework can provide teachers who wish to openly and honestly confront these issues a valuable and effective method of doing so.

© Dr Avril Alba 2005. This Paper was delivered to History Teachers Association April 2005

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