(Photo taken by author on May 26th, 2019, at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany. The memorial opened on May 10th, 2005 and was designed by the architect Peter Eisenman. The exhibit features a field of 2,710 concrete “stelae” (upright stone columns), which rest on an uneven surface that covers 19,023 square meters. The memorial is located in central Berlin on Cora-Berliner-Straβe and the website for the memorial can be found here.)
By Kyle Scripko
On the night of January 28th, 2020, only a day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest held its fourth installment of their Revisionist History conversation series, “Revising the Holocaust,” in the Driscoll Auditorium at Villanova University. At the beginning of this lecture, Jason Steinhauer, the Director for the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest and mediator of the discussion, stated that, although the Revisionist History events seek to challenge historical topics, “we vigorously reject any effort to deny a well-documented history of that campaign of systematic mass murder.” The panel collectively embraced the idea that “revisionism” must avoid Holocaust denial and that “any honest intellectual discussion of the evolving scholarship on the Holocaust must start by acknowledging the basic historical fact of the Holocaust.”
(Screenshot by author, from the Villanova University video of the Revising the Holocaust Panel. This image shows the panelists, including: Dr. Paul Steege (far left), Associate Professor of History and Faculty Director of the Lepage Center at Villanova University; Dr. Devin Pendas (second from the left), Professor of History and the current Director of Graduate Studies in the Boston College Department of History; Dr. Jennifer Rich (second from the right), Associate Professor of Sociology at Rowan University and the Executive Director of the Rowan Center for the Study of Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights; and Jason Steinhauer (far right), Director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest).
Steinhauer then introduced the first panelist, Dr. Jennifer Rich, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Rowan University. Dr. Rich focuses on Holocaust and genocide education and she is the Executive Director of the Rowan Center for the Study of Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights. The next panelist introduced was Dr. Devin Pendas of Boston College. Dr. Pendas is a Professor of History and the current Director of Graduate Studies in the Boston College Department of History. His research focus is on the criminal trials and the Denazification process of post-WWII Germany and Holocaust historiography. The last panelist introduced was Dr. Paul Steege, an Associate Professor of History and Faculty Director of the Lepage Center at Villanova University. Dr. Steege is a historian of everyday life and Berlin with a particular focus on violence and the ways it was integrated into the lives of ordinary people during the twentieth century.
The first half of the discussion focused on the historiographical debates of the Holocaust. Pendas began the discussion with what he called the “two strands of Holocaust historiography.” He stated that through much of the post-war era, the historiography of the Holocaust was largely broken into a “history of Jews” and a “history of the perpetrators.” Pendas claimed that, for a while, these two types of histories were “relatively agenda-driven” and often pinned against one another. It was not until the early 2000s, with the work Saul Friedländer, that the history of the Holocaust gained the perspective of “integrated histories of the Holocaust.” As Pendas asserted, “these were not separate events” but “were aspects of the same story.” He also brought up situating the Holocaust within the broader studies of genocide, which itself has sparked controversy among historians, as debates continue today about the differences and similarities between the Holocaust and other genocides.
Rich then joined the conversation with her view of how the Holocaust fits within the broader discussion of genocide. She asserted that the Holocaust cannot be situated in a binary of one or the other, asserting that “the Holocaust is both one of many and unique in its own way.” She then went on to discuss the difference between learning “from” the Holocaust and learning “about” the Holocaust, a point that served as a theme for other discussions later that night. The former is about learning and attaching “nebulous lessons” from the Holocaust to everyday life, while the latter is about the facts of the Holocaust. Both methodologies have their values and pitfalls, but Rich emphasized that the general term “human rights encompasses all of it,” and gives people “a broader umbrella in which to think about these things.”
Steege joined the discussion with his perspective on how the debates within scholarly circles manifest themselves within public discussion and interest. He specifically referred to the “Goldhagen controversy” that took place following the publishing of Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. This book was a response to Christopher Browning’s book, Ordinary Men. The two Historians used many of the same primary sources but came to very different conclusions. Browning believes that the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 should be humanized and that historians should observe the pressures of a group setting when asking how ordinary men became mass killers. Meanwhile, Goldhagen argues that, due to the nature of German society and antisemitism, a vast majority of ordinary Germans were prepared and willing to kill Jews. A public debate filmed by C-Span at the Holocaust Research Institute in 1996 highlights the controversy starring these two historians and the question of what to call the perpetrators.
The second half of the panel discussion focused on public memory and teaching the Holocaust. The medium of film as an educational tool for teaching the Holocaust came into the conversation and Rich talked about her work with the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Rich claimed that this movie is the number one movie watched in American classrooms for Holocaust education. However, this is simply because it is PG-13 and short enough to be shown in the average American classroom. Rich emphasized that, as a tool of Holocaust education, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is “almost completely ahistorical” as most of the events that happened in this film could have never happened during the Holocaust. Rich went on to say that the only “silver lining” of this movie is that it gets students interested in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, she fears that through watching the movie, students will feel “cleansed” and then “done” with learning about the Holocaust.
At this point, Pendas chimed in with his take on the risks of teaching and learning “from” the Holocaust. He felt that using “universalizing fables” of the Holocaust are problematic as they do little more than tell a moral tale for students to just “be nice” with a “backdrop of the Holocaust.” Rich came back into the conversation with another problem that comes out of teaching the Holocaust: teachers asking their students “how many people here think you would be a rescuer?” She affirmed that this is problematic as every kid in the class would raise their hand at the question. These types of questions fail to look at the gray areas of the Holocaust, such as the decisions people made to rescue or denounce their neighbors. Rich also countered Pendas’ point about the “be nice” lesson of the Holocaust and clarified that lessons about nationalism, racism, and xenophobia can still be learned “from” the Holocaust.
Steege came back into the conversation with the grounding statement that one of the most important things to consider with the Holocaust is the realization that “this, in fact, is possible.” He claimed that we have this assumption that we can identify with the victims of the Holocaust and therefore give ourselves the moral high ground. Steege brought up the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as an appropriate example. The museum gives each visitor an identity card of someone who was a victim of the Holocaust and, although it is a humanizing experience, Steege suggested that the museum should give out identity cards without the guest knowing whether the person was a victim or a perpetrator. He said that this idea is a “provocative” one, but that it would “underscore the ways in which the lines between complicity and resistance are blurred,” and that this would help visitors “delve into these gray areas as opposed to acting as if they were absolute moral certainties.”
Steinhauer shifted the conversation to the confrontational questions people bring to the sites of the Holocaust and how this necessitates an educational challenge to combat denial and calls forth a need for effective teaching strategies. Steege spoke of the recent reports of students who were going to camps and asking questions linked to denial, as well as his first time visiting Auschwitz and the surreal feeling of hearing the phrase “Taxi? Taxi to Auschwitz? Taxi?” He said that this really gets at the “question of obligation” and how at one end people go to the camps to learn while others feel this sense of obligation to “check the box” on their European tour. “The lessons [at the camps] don’t go without saying,” said Steege. “And I think that’s precisely where historians and educators come in.” Rich suggested that one way to teach the Holocaust is by taking new scholarship and marrying it with effective pedagogic strategies. She argued that teachers should be using new integrated technologies, such as Instagram and YouTube, to teach about the Holocaust; as teachers, “we have an obligation for meeting our students where they are.”
This timely discussion of “Revising the Holocaust” was well informed and may have left the audience questioning some of their previous assumptions of what “revising” the Holocaust actually looks like. As Pendas asserted, the term “revisionist” has been “poached” by Holocaust deniers in order to downplay and lie about the facts of the Holocaust. Discussions similar to the ones held by the Lepage Center have potential for reclaiming the practice of revisionist history. The panel did not stray away from the facts of the Holocaust, in fact, they embraced the idea that there are still more facts to be discovered about the Holocaust. Before opening up the floor for questions from the audience, Steinhauer concluded the talk with a statement that not only gets at the constant pursuit of new information about the Holocaust, but also the difficult nature of revisionist history itself: “There is a whole universe of documents that we still have not fully explored… the documents and the artifacts are tremendous educational opportunities, but they also have pitfalls and challenges.”
Unfortunately, the last two Revisionist History events, “Revising Women’s Suffrage” and “Revising the Planet,” were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, you can still find the video for the panel discussion of “Revising the Holocaust,” as well as the previous three Revisionist History events here.
 Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 2017), 184-185.
 Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 399-400.