There are two articles this year reporting surveys of Americans’ knowledge of the Holocaust. The first is in the Guardian (click on screenshot below), the second is a Pew survey (click on second screenshot). Both give the same results: compared to what you might think, and certainly to readers here, most Americans don’t know all that much about the Holocaust.
Now you might think that the results aren’t that bad, and, as the Pew survey notes, Jews like me tend to know more about the Holocaust than non-Jews, but I still find it amazing, since it’s hard to live in the West without knowing these basic facts.
The Guardian survey involved 1000 nationwide interviews and 200 interviews in each state, all involving young adults (18-39), totaling 11,000 respondents. The Pew Survey involved 10,971 respondents who were part of the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel; respondents were of various ages and were asked four questions about the Holocaust. Both show roughly the same thing, though the Pew survey also broke down the data by age, education, degree of “warmness” towards the Jews, political affiliation and so on. I’ll be brief.
A summary of the Guardian study:
Almost two-thirds of young American adults do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and more than one in 10 believe Jews caused the Holocaust, a new survey has found, revealing shocking levels of ignorance about the greatest crime of the 20th century.
According to the study of millennial and Gen Z adults aged between 18 and 39, almost half (48%) could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto established during the second world war.
Almost a quarter of respondents (23%) said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, or had been exaggerated, or they weren’t sure. One in eight (12%) said they had definitely not heard, or didn’t think they had heard, about the Holocaust.
Now the “six million” figure is an iconic number, though perhaps fewer people realize that actually the “Holocaust” refers only to the genocide of Jews. The Nazis actually killed far more civilians that that; here are estimates from the U.S. Holocaust Museum:
This figure is 19 million, with Jews, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, and Jehovah’s Witnesses being those dispatched in the camps. It’s salutary to remember that the Nazis killed not just Jews, but many civilians on their home ground, as well as Roma, homosexuals, and the disabled. Soviet and Polish civilians suffered horribly, many shot on the spot.
At any rate, the fact that the 6 million figure for the Holocaust proper wasn’t known by nearly everyone was a source of anguish to Gideon Taylor, the president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germans.
The facts that more than 10% of people thought the Jews caused the Holocaust, and 23% thought the Holocaust was a myth or exaggerated, are more disturbing to me, as is the idea that half the respondents couldn’t name a single concentration camp. Who hasn’t heard of Auschwitz? And don’t people know about the Warsaw Ghetto? These are people who should have learned this in history class, for the minimal age of respondents was 18.
The highest scoring states were Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, and the lowest scorers were Florida, Mississippi and Arkansas. Make of that what you will.
So be it. Here’s the Pew survey.
Pew asked their sample of almost 11,000 people four questions. They’re given in this table along with the proportion of adults and teens who answered each question correctly (and you better know the answers!). Older people did better, as you might expect.
Again we see that most people, but not an overwhelming majority, know that the Holocaust happened between 1930 and 1950, and what a ghetto was. Less than half, however, knew that the number of Jews killed was 6 million as opposed to the three alternative answers of less than a million, three million or more than 12 million. 43% knew that Hitler became chancellor through an election (it was in 1932, and forced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor).
66% of Americans knew that the Holocaust refers to the killing of Jews rather than general killings, which is a decent figure. Of the four questions above, 24% of Americans got 3 of them right and 24% got all four right, while 18% got none right and the other 34% one or two right. There was no appreciable difference between Democrats and Republicans in their degree of knowledge about the Holocaust.
I’ll add one more table showing that there’s a big effect on level of education on knowledge about the Holocaust, as you might expect. But I didn’t expect such a big difference between people with “some college” and those who were college graduates:
My take: Yes, I found the level of ignorance fairly surprising, though of course remember that this is the nation that elected Trump as President. I wasn’t so much distressed by ignorance about ghettos and camp names as by the 23% of Americans who thought the Holocaust was a myth or exaggerated, or didn’t know for sure. That’s nearly one out of four people, and I think bespeaks a degree of anti-Semitism more pervasive in America than most people realize.
But if you want to see real ignorance of history, ask Americans about the genocide of the Armenians, which likely involved well more than a million deaths, or the killings during the partition of India (200,000 to 2,000,000; estimates vary widely). The horrors of history need to be studied by everyone, for they tell us what the “average” person are capable of when worked up by religious or political fervor.