Teaching and Learning about WWII, Holocaust and Genocide in the Netherlands

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Dr. Ton Zwaan works at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Amsterdam.

By Ton Zwaan

Ton Zwaan, Member of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Amsterdam, gives an insight about the topic of Holocaust Education in the Netherlands.

1. Formal policy

The Dutch educational system does not have a fixed national curriculum in which all the subjects to be taught are summed up in detail. Instead the Ministry of Education relies on a list of ‘main objectives’ that schools are supposed to achieve. For primary schools these objectives were last stated in 2002. What pupils should know and be able to do by the end of primary school (at age 12) is divided into ‘domains’.

With regard to WWII the following domain is relevant: Domain historical events, developments and people – objectives are a.o. that: Pupils know in general about the following important contemporary and historical events, developments, and people in history: The crisis years in the Netherlands and the Second World War, Post-war society in the Netherlands and the development of the welfare state, Contemporary European and worldwide relations, amongst which the development of multicultural societies after 1945, the European Union, and changes in Eastern Europe.

With regard to secondary schools, new core objectives (in Dutch: ‘kerndoelen’) are being discussed at present. Two of these newly proposed objectives are relevant here: Kerndoel 37, Learning area – People and Society

Students learn about ten historical periods so as to be able to place events, developments and people in their times, and must learn to connect main events and developments in the 20th century (including the World Wars and the Holocaust) with modern day developments. Students learn to understand modern day tensions, conflicts and wars in context and learn how these influence individuals and societies (national, European and international), and to understand the meaning of international co-operation.

2. The practice of teaching

Although there is no research to substantiate this claim, it may be safely said that the vast majority (probably more than 90%) of primary and secondary schools will teach about the Second World War and the Holocaust in one way or another. In primary school education history books usually devote just a few paragraphs to the Holocaust within the framework of the German Occupation of the Netherlands and/or the larger framework of the Second World War.

Several institutions provide additional teaching material. For instance, the Dutch National Committee for the 4th and 5th of May provides schools with a booklet (aimed at pupils at age 10/11) on the meaning of war and freedom in the lives of children. The booklet also introduces children to the Dutch tradition of commemorating the Second World War. Two thirds of primary schools order the Anne Frank Journal, which is reissued each year and aims at pupils at age 11/12. In the Journal the story of Anne Frank is connected to the wider history of the Holocaust.

Moreover, many primary schools will visit a historical site related to the War or the Holocaust with pupils of the highest classes. Some of the sites and museums (i.e. The Hollandsche Schouwburg in Amsterdam, Memorial Center Camp Westerbork, Memorial Center Camp Vught, Anne Frank House, several Resistance Museums) have also published educational materials which are sometimes used in schools. Most of them also have websites providing educational materials.

In secondary schools most historical textbooks devote relatively more attention to the War and the Holocaust. In addition to the regular lessons in which these textbooks are used, many teachers will use documentaries and films, invite guest speakers or eye-witnesses, or visit a historical site. A substantial number of primary and secondary schools (about 1000) have adopted a monument dedicated to the War and/or the persecution of the (Dutch) Jews. Prior to the national commemoration day (on May 4th) many schools pay special attention to the relationship between the monument and the school. Apart from history lessons, students may learn about the War and the Holocaust through lessons about Dutch modern literature after 1945, and/or through subjects related to religion.

With regard to higher education, students – depending on the discipline they have chosen – may usually attend different courses. Courses on the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust have been and are offered by most historical faculties at different Dutch universities. In the fall of 2003 a new Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies has been established through a joint effort of the University of Amsterdam and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The main tasks of this Center are academic research and teaching. During its first two years the Center has taught several courses for about 100 students at the BA-level and for about 10 students at the MA-level each year.

3. Some reflections

As will be clear, the vast majority of children growing up at present in the Netherlands is more or less informed about the Second World War and the Holocaust. In most Dutch schoolbooks the persecution of the Gypsies and of homosexuals is usually also mentioned, but not much more than marginally. At the yearly Auschwitz commemoration in Amsterdam Dutch Gypsies are included and there is a monument for persecuted homosexuals - but the numbers persecuted and later killed are small, respectively about a 1000 and about several dozens, while about 75% of Dutch Jews , about 104.000 people, perished. So usually much more attention is given to their persecution.

Most schoolchildren will probably not hear about the NS euthanasia project, nor will they learn much -if anything - about genocidal actions against parts of the Polish, Russian and other Slavic peoples, i.e the Serbs. For the Dutch, and probably for most Dutch history teachers, Eastern Europe and its history in contrast to the situation in Germany, is still 'far away' - although that is gradually changing. A wider view of the increasingly genocidal nature of the NS-regime after 1939 is mostly lacking.

However, it may be expected that the meaning and relevance of these major events of the 20th century will change for future generations. First, as time passes they will recede further and further into the past and become more and more just ‘history’, so to speak. Secondly, for many children stemming from immigrant background in the larger cities the War and the Holocaust are simply not part of the collective memory of their family and nation/culture of origin. Thirdly, in the Dutch educational system the teaching of history has come under more and more pressure over the last decades. Moreover, in the near future schools and teachers will be given more freedom to teach what they feel is important. A consequence might be that the time spent on teaching about the War and the Holocaust will decrease.

These developments may be seen as posing new challenges to the teaching of history. One promising way out may be to try to change the still largely national framework of the teaching of history and develop it in the direction of a more cosmopolitan, internationally oriented, ‘shared’ framework – on a European level, and possibly even on a global level. Another way might be to start working in a more comparative way, for instance by comparing the Holocaust with other more recent genocides and in this way ‘connecting’ the many ‘lessons’ the War and the Holocaust imply, to present day catastrophes and concerns. If one wants to preserve and strengthen the commitment of future generations to the principles of the constitutional state and of democracy, it will always remain important to teach about historical situations in which such principles have been destroyed.

Note: This report is partly based on a more extensive report about "Holocaust Education in the Netherlands" (summer 2005).


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