Lessons from the Holocaust

Lessons from the Holocaust

Tavaana’s Lessons from the Holocaust course, taught by Mohammad Reza Nikfar, is designed to promote understanding of the Holocaust and, by extension, the threat of persecution and genocide more broadly. The course will introduce participants to the history of ideological violence, racism, persecution and genocide.  Students will examine the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Nazi Germany. As opposed to a purely historical approach, students examine these issues using a political philosophy framework. In response to the systemic denial of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, especially in Iran, the largely ignored history of Jews in Iran, and the ongoing persecution of the Baha’is, this course will explore the roots and causes of the Holocaust and the modern history of persecution and genocides globally.

Lesson 1: The Importance of Learning about the Holocaust

The first lesson will discuss the importance of learning about and discussing the Holocaust, highlighting the need for sensitivity in Holocaust-related discourse. After a brief overview of what the term “Holocaust” encompasses, the course will explore the different aspects of the Holocaust and how it is researched and discussed. The course will also examine how the Holocaust has been addressed in Iran and internationally. As genocides like the Holocaust continue to be perpetrated and the risk of genocide is present in many conflict zones, it is essential to think and learn about their mechanisms. Unique among these atrocities in terms of size, scope, and the manner in which it was carried out, the Holocaust is a unique and essential case to study. The Holocaust was a highly planned and organized genocide; studying it reveals the danger which lies in divorcing bureaucratic and technological rationality with morality and self-criticism. The deep emotional and intellectual impact of the Holocaust has profoundly influenced contemporary art and philosophy, and thus is necessary to study in order to understand modern intellectual and cultural movements.

Lesson 2: Intolerance Toward the “Other” throughout History

The Holocaust serves as a reminder of the consequences of intolerance towards the “other.” This lesson will discuss the meaning of tolerance. For many, tolerance is considered a virtue and a norm which seems obvious and necessary for peaceful coexistence. But has this always been the case? This lesson will begin by discussing the earliest human societies. Have they been always in conflict with each other? How was the distinction between “us and them” formed and fixed? What was the role of religion in this distinction? What types of distinctions existed throughout history? The lesson will focus on how the distinction between “us and them” turns into a distinction between good and evil. Although the pretexts and mechanisms of this differentiation have changed in the modern era, they reflect longstanding historical trends.

Lesson 3: The Modern Era and Conflict with the “Other”

In the ancient world, where populations believed in pantheons of good and evil deities and ancestral spirits, military expeditions were portrayed as expeditions of gods and souls. Rulers referenced spirits and deities to support and legitimize their claim to power. These belief systems were also used to differentiate societies and justify violence against rival groups.  In the modern era, nationality and race are the primary factors in forming distinctions between groups of people, with communities attributing their own exceptionalism to these factors in the same way past communities considered themselves to have special relationships with the divine. This lesson will discuss the concept of the nation and nationalism, focusing on Italy and Germany as examples. How did the concept of nationhood emerge? How did it shape our world? Is the world divided between nations? The lesson will also examine how the modern conception of race was formed.

Lesson 4: Fascism and the Third Reich

How do we define fascism, Nazism, and the Third Reich? This lesson will examine how German and Italian nationalism emerged and how they transformed into militant nationalism. The lesson will explore the emergence of fascism after the First World War, studying a piece written by Mussolini in this regard. It will then discuss Nazism as a form of German fascism. Is it correct to distinguish, for example, between Italian fascism and German fascism? Is there one fundamental fascist movement with various forms in different countries? At their core, how are fascism and Nazism explained? The lesson, while not exploring fascism in detail, will highlight basic theories and discuss disagreements between these theories.

Lesson 5: The Background of the Holocaust

This lesson will begin by explaining the roots of anti-Semitism in Europe and Germany. It will then discuss how the Nazis gradually moved toward the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” a plan to annihilate the Jewish people, after gaining power. By analyzing the dynamics of discrimination, students will explore the mechanisms that cause the animosity of one hypothetical family, the Muellers, toward their neighbors, the Rosenbachs, to lead to a deadly confrontation. After joining the Nazi Party, the Muellers watch as the Gestapo evict and deport their neighbors to an unknown place. Like the Muellers, most German collaborators were ordinary people: cultured, polite, and far from sadistic. Many, however, turned out to be either murderers or accomplices to murderers. How did this happen?

Lesson 6: The Mechanisms of the Holocaust

This lesson will focus why the Holocaust remains an uniquely tragic event in global history. Even in the midst of a world war, the totalitarian Nazi regime invested immense logistical and human resources in the gathering and killing of innocent people. Students will explore the calculus behind Nazi Germany’s policy of genocide. Why did it happen? How did it happen? The lesson will also examine the organization of the death camps and identify elements which reflect German management, precision, and craftsmanship. In doing so, it will demonstrate how unrestrained bureaucratic and technological forces, even as symbols of modernity, can result in one of the most terrible disasters in human history.

Lesson 7: Lessons and Debates: Part 1

In this lesson, we will examine some of the most contentious debates that surround the history of the Holocaust. To become familiar with different theories related to the interpretation of the Holocaust, students will explore the work of two sociologists: Norbert Elias and Zygmunt Bauman. Norbert Elias was a German sociologist who took an optimistic view of modernity and human development. Before the rise of the Nazis, he predicted that violence in human societies would decrease. He explains the Holocaust as being caused by social and cultural disease in Germany. Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish-British sociologist, considers the problem to be rooted in modernity and believes that modernity actually laid the groundwork for Nazism. This lesson will also examine the concept of tolerance, as well as “tolerant” and “authoritarian” personalities, discussing the argument that authoritarianism in German culture and education played an important role in the Holocaust.

Lesson 8: Lessons and Debates: Part 2

The last lesson will discuss the issue of Holocaust denial, particularly propaganda created by the Iranian government during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In this lesson, students will use what they have learned to examine and discuss aspects of Holocaust denial.