8 Holocaust education and remembrance in Australia

Holocaust education and remembrance in Australia: Moving from family and community remembrance to human rights education

Suzanne D. Rutland and Suzanne Hampel


The twentieth century has been recognized as a century of genocide. From the tragedy of the Armenians during World War I into the twenty-first century, millions of people, men, women, and children, have been murdered in the name of racial, religious, or tribal purity. This included the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, constituting two thirds of European Jewry. Since the 1980s, approaches have been implemented so that the human tragedy of the Holocaust can be used for education against racism and human rights abuses. As a result, this particularistic tragedy has taken on a more universal connotation, representing the ultimate evil (Gross and Stevick, 2015; Gross, 2018). In recent years, the Australian government has become part of this global trend, with Holocaust education being introduced into school curricula and government support for other key developments.

The Holocaust, universal messages, and human rights

The concepts of universal human rights were a product of the French Revolution and modernization but the need for a clear definition of human rights only emerged after the Holocaust and in response to decolonization. In 1948 the United Nations issued its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which set the benchmark for the definition of the key elements relating to human rights. Subsequently, the United Nations has held various conventions dealing with human rights, which have led to further fine tuning and concepuialization. Currently, human rights are seen to incorporate the areas of civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; and humanitarian rights (Burridge et al., 2014).

In the early post-war era, approaches to Holocaust education focused on the particularistic nature of the Holocaust, with survivors strongly opposing any comparisons - for them, the Holocaust was "unique”. Gradually, especially since 1980, attitudes began to change, including among the survivor generation and their descendants. This change was fostered with the opening of Holocaust museums in the 1990s (including the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington and The House of the Wannsee Conference, Berlin) and the ongoing instances of genocide. These events provided the basis for the significant changes that occurred in the late 1990s (Alba, 2015). As well, a number of scholars began to explore the role Holocaust education could play in combatting racism and bigotry, reinforcing this issue (Short, 1997; Carrington and Short, 1997; Brown and Davies, 1998; Hector, 2000; Supple, 1998).

In 1998, the prime minister of Sweden convened a special commission to create an international force, marking the beginnings of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). In January 2000, the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust was held, with 45 countries in attendance, representing historians, politicians, and heads of state. The Forum issued the Stockholm Declaration, which states:

With humanity still scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils. Together we must uphold the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it. We must strengthen the moral commitment of our peoples, and the political commitment of our governments, to ensure that future generations can understand the causes of the Holocaust and reflect upon its consequences.


With these developments, the issue of the universal messages of the Holocaust and human rights education has become the focus of a number of key scholars writing in the field of Holocaust education. The introduction of 27 January, the date when Auschwitz was liberated, as the International Holocaust Memorial Day has also increased awareness of Holocaust education as a universal tool against racism and bigotry (Burtonwood, 2002).

Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, who provided the inspiration for the founding of the IHRA as well as the International Holocaust Memorial Day, has remained deeply involved with promoting the universal messages of the Holocaust. He wrote about these messages in his seminal and controversial book. Rethinking the Holocaust (2001). Until the 1980s, Bauer had stressed the uniqueness of the Holocaust, taking a particularistic approach and opposing comparison of other events of mass destruction with the Holocaust. He rethought these positions in the 1990s as he witnessed the genocides in Serbia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. He argued that once something happens in human history it can be repeated, and that the Holocaust should be recognized as the "paradigm” of genocide. Through Bauer’s advocacy, there has been a move from using the word "Holocaust” as a particularistic concept to using the word "genocide,” which is a universal concept (Gross, 2018).

This has led to a significant expansion of the literature on this issue, reinforced by the problems of ongoing genocides, globalization, post-liberalism, and the passing of the Holocaust survivor generation. As Gross and Stevick (2015) argued in their book, As the Witnesses Fall Silent, with the passing of the survivor generation, developing a broader approach to Holocaust education is imperative. In a subsequent article Gross (2018) has argued that "the universal lessons of the Holocaust, as the example of ultimate evil through the consequences of racism, can be an important part of teaching global citizenship and human rights. This guarantees the future and meaning of Holocaust education” (Gross, 2018, 6). In this study. Gross outlines in detail the various stages of Holocaust historiography and educational approaches, as they moved from the particular to the universal.

Similarly, in his book Lessons of the Holocaust, Michael R. Marrus (2015) stresses that there is value in the work of Holocaust historians, as it "not only deepens understanding of a great watershed in the history of our times but also enlarges our knowledge of the human condition” (162). He argues that studying history is akin to traveling back in time, but the hope is that one can return enriched by the experience. The Holocaust reveals a new level of man's inhumanity to man and, for this reason, it has become the symbol of ultimate evil and “a major reference point for our time, constantly kept in view for one’s judgment about the state of the world” (169). It is against this international background that the Australian experience will be examined.

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