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Volokh Conspiracy

New Survey on Public Ignorance About the Holocaust

The poll shows extensive ignorance among millenials and Generation Z, and is consistent with many previous studies showing widespread ignorance about politics and history. But one of its findings may be less bad than it looks.


Yad Vashem archives.


A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Conference on Material Jewish Claims Against Germany has attracted widespread  attention, because it finds extensive ignorance about the Holocaust among millennials and members of "Generation Z." Here is an excerpt from the Claims Conference's summary of its findings:

Gideon Taylor, President of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), today announced the release of the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, the first-ever 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge among Millennials and Gen Z. The surprising state-by-state results highlight a worrying lack of basic Holocaust knowledge….

Nationally, there is a clear lack of awareness of key historical facts; 63 percent of all national survey respondents do not know that six million Jews were murdered and 36 percent thought that "two million or fewer Jews" were killed during the Holocaust. Additionally, although there were more than 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, 48 percent of national survey respondents cannot name a single one…

56 percent of U.S. Millennial and Gen Z were unable to identify Auschwitz-Birkenau, and there was virtually no awareness of concentration camps and ghettos overall. Only six percent of respondents are familiar with the infamous Dachau camp, while awareness of Bergen-Belsen (three percent), Buchenwald (one percent) and Treblinka (one percent) is virtually nonexistent…..

When asked how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust, 63 percent of Millennials and Gen Z did not know six million Jews were murdered. The states with the lowest scores for this question are Arkansas with 69 percent, followed by Delaware with 68 percent, Arizona with 67 percent, Mississippi and Tennessee with 66 percent, and Hawaii, Iowa, Vermont, and West Virginia with 65 percent.

When broken down further, 36 percent of Millennials and Gen Z thought that two million or fewer Jews were murdered. Arkansas ranks as the state with the lowest awareness of this widely known data point, with 37 percent believing two million or fewer were murdered, followed by 36 percent in Georgia, Indiana and Ohio; 35 percent in Minnesota; and 34 percent in Arizona, Iowa, Kentucky and New Hampshire….

In perhaps one of the most disturbing revelations of this survey, 11 percent of U.S. Millennial and Gen Z respondents believe Jews caused the Holocaust.

The findings were more disturbing in New York where an astounding 19 percent of respondents felt Jews caused the Holocaust; followed by 16 percent in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Montana and 15 percent in Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Nevada and New Mexico.

These results are consistent with previous studies finding widespread public ignorance about the Holocaust, particularly among younger survey respondents. Such ignorance is unfortunate, and commentators are right to worry about its potential implications.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that public ignorance about the Holocaust is part of a much broader pattern of widespread ignorance about history, science, politics, and even the basic structure of government. In a world where a majority of Americans cannot name the three branches of government, don't know when the Civil War happened, and support mandatory labeling of food containing DNA, it isn't surprising that many do not know how many Jews died in the Holocaust and cannot name a single ghetto or concentration camp.

Ignorance about the Holocaust is not a unique phenomenon driven by anti-Semitism or by some desire on the part of educators to cover up the truth about this specific event. It is one of many manifestations of a more general problem of public ignorance. Indeed, I suspect that more systematic analysis would find that public ignorance about the Holocaust is actually less severe than that about many other historical events. For example, it is likely that many more Americans know what the Holocaust was than have heard of Mao  Zedong's Great Leap Forward, the  largest mass murder in the entire history of the world, with a death toll several times greater than the Holocaust.

The point here is not to suggest that ignorance about the Holocaust is unimportant, or that the Great Leap Forward and other similar communist atrocities were necessarily worse than the Holocaust. Any comparison of the latter type cannot focus solely on numbers alone; and in any event, there is no doubt that the Holocaust was a massive atrocity of world-historical scale that only a few other events can even begin to be compared to. I lost several relatives in the Holocaust myself, and have no desire to somehow downgrade its importance.

Rather, the point is that ignorance about the Holocaust is part of a broader pattern. Any solution to the problem probably cannot focus on the Holocaust alone, but must consider the broader issue of historical and political ignorance, as well. For reasons elaborated in my book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, increasing public knowledge of politics and history is likely to prove a much tougher challenge than some imagine it to be. In the meantime, public ignorance about the Holocaust, communist mass murders, and other historical events makes it more likely that we will fail to learn the lessons of these tragic events, and thus be at greater risk of repeating them.

While many of the findings of the Claims Conference survey are indeed troubling (even if unsurprising), one has been overblown: the result that 11 percent of millennial and Gen Z respondents believe that Jews "caused" the Holocaust. The Conference calls this"one of its most disturbing revelations." But in fact, it is a poorly worded question. The full wording asks respondents to say "Who or what do you think caused the Holocaust?" It also allows them to give multiple answers. For example, 72% said "Hitler," 62% said "Germany" and 13% indicated "World War I." Thus, it is likely that many of those who listed "the Jews" also indicated other causes.

In addition, the word "caused" has multiple meanings. In some situations, it indicates moral responsibility for the event in question. In others, it might merely indicate that X "caused" Y in the purely empirical sense that Y could not have happened without it, even if X doesn't bear any moral responsibility. This understanding of "caused" is likely in play for those respondents who indicated World War I as a cause (since an event is not a moral agent that can be assigned moral blame).

Similarly, one can say that Jews "caused" the Holocaust in a non-blameworthy sense of that term. For example, the mere existence of Jews as a distinct ethnic and religious group in Europe was a causal prerequisite to the Holocaust (and other anti-Semitic persecutions). In the same way, the relative success of Jews in some economic and cultural endeavors sparked envy and hatred that might have contributed to anti-Semitism, even though it is wrong to assign moral blame to the Jews for that state of affairs.

It is likely that some of those who said the Jews "caused" the Holocaust really do buy into anti-Semitic tropes to the effect that the Jews were morally blameworthy for their own persecution. But we should not assume that all or even the majority of respondents who referenced the Jews necessarily had that idea in mind. The designers of the survey should have done a better job of wording this question.

At the same time, there are plenty of disturbing findings in the survey even if we discount this particular question. And better-designed questions do sometimes find large numbers of respondents endorsing anti-Semitic tropes. For example, a 2009 study found that some 25% of Americans believed that "the Jews" deserved at least "a moderate" amount of "blame" for the 2008 financial crisis (note the use of the  morally loaded word "blame" rather than "cause").

The relatively "good" news is that public ignorance about the Holocaust is not a special case, and that one of the most disturbing findings in the Claims Conference survey may be the result of poor question wording. The bad news is that this is just the tip of a much larger iceberg of dangerous public ignorance about politics and history.