A “Curtain of Ignorance”: An Analysis of Holocaust Portrayal in Textbooks from 1943 through 1959

Christopher Witschonke. The Social Studies. Volume 104, Issue 4. 2013.

If you ask her, she cannot tell you her birthday. Her birthplace, a cattle car, as her mother, grandparents, and countless others participated in a forced migration to Siberia. Her first blanket was her grandfather’s overcoat. Lili Gordan is a survivor of the Holocaust. Today she tells the story of her family’s struggles as they lived through this dark period from history. During her testimony she explains that fairy tales did not make up her bedtime stories; instead, her mother shared with her the events of her life that Lili now shares with others. She also explains that she will never add to or leave anything out from her mother’s narrations; this would be both dishonest and dishonorable. In May of 2010, she was having lunch with visitors to the Holocaust Museum Houston and made the observation that when the Cold War began, a “curtain of ignorance fell.” This statement, made personally to the author, provides the lens through which this research project has been conducted. Did Lili’s ‘Curtain of Ignorance’ surrounding the Holocaust fall across textbooks used in classrooms?

Analyzing Textbooks

History textbooks have been critiqued many times over the years (Wade 1993) and have often been derided for a number of factors. Apple (2000) argues that textbooks are wrought with political bias. Loewen (1995) and Alridge (2006) point out that authors have a tendency to create heroes out of all the historical figures whom they discuss. Alridge (2006) also finds that textbooks tend to use a master narrative, fitting all events portrayed within its pages into this overarching story. This removes all complexity and controversy that make up much of historical discussions. Afflerbak and VanSledright (2001) point out that despite all of these concerns, teachers still tend to rely on textbooks as their main resource in the classroom. If they are going to be used despite these concerns, new possibilities of engaging students with textbooks must be explored.

Additional critiques have examined how specific historical content has been discussed by textbooks. These studies that focus on particular content begin to illustrate ways in which tetbooks could become powerful tools in the classroom. The Korean War’s portrayal in the textbooks of the United States, South Korea, Japan, and China were compared (Lin, Zhao, Ogawa, Hoge, and Kim 2009), and it was found that each nation had a different interpretation of key events. Wineburg and Monte-Sano (2008) examined what individuals from history are being discussed in textbooks. It was found that while the diversity of individuals being included in the collective memory as famous Americans is improving, the way in which their stories are distorted remains a concern. Wasburn (1997) examined how the accounts of slavery had transformed between 1900 and 1992 based on the political climate of different historical eras. Nash (2009) found that early American textbooks presented a variety of views on what constituted the behaviors of a good citizen. While exploring Joan of Arc within textbooks, Jennings (1994) found that the way in which she was discussed depended on the state of the world when the passage was written. Epstein (1994) compared the way in which two secondary history textbooks engaged students in the subject of the Civil Rights Movement. It was found that the narrative in one was empowering for the students, whereas the other was disengaging. Alridge (2006) decried the oversimplification of a major civil rights figure, believing that the portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. detracted from his humanity, struggles, and depth of ideals. Sanchez (2007) explored the depiction of Native Americans, finding that while more cultural information has been included in textbooks, a more comprehensive account is still lacking. Teaching students to engage in these types of analyses could increase their historical understanding of the events that they are reading about and the times in which they were written.

The Holocaust is another subject from textbooks that has been reviewed several times. Marcus (1961) conducted one of the earliest studies along this line. In it he illustrated how within textbooks, “there is a paucity of forthright material on what Hitler did to millions of minority-group members in Germany and the lands he conquered” (Marcus 1961, 24). He concluded that a majority of books examined did not present a basic overview of how the Nazis victimized and murdered, “vast numbers of innocent people” (Marcus 1961, 37). Korman (1970) conducted a later study in which it was concluded that textbooks were written in a “tradition that prepared no one for the catastrophe, a tradition that still prevents us from attempting to assess and understand what happened” (Korman 1970, 183). This critique also pointed out that textbook representation of the Holocaust tends to focus on the perpetrators and create faceless, generic victims while leaving out specific events and details in favor of general stories of death camps (Korman 1970). When Friedlander (1973) explored the subject, it was concluded that if it was left, “to the historians and their textbooks, ignorance and distortions will not only hide but bury,” the Holocaust (Friedlander 1973, 8). Pate’s (1979) study continued to show “inadequate treatment given to the Holocaust in textbooks” (Pate 1979, 19). It was also pointed out that, “to continue to ignore, or gloss over, this painful period of history is not only unwise, it is dangerous” (Pate 1979, 20). Heckler (1994) found while writing a dissertation that there was a large variation in the way textbooks discussed the Holocaust, that the presentation of the Holocaust was scattered and not presented in a single continuous narrative, and that authors wrote in an impersonal and controversy-avoiding manner, draining all life and power from the presentation of the topic. Katner’s (1998) study was modeled after Pate’s early work. In reviewing textbooks used for college survey courses in history and social sciences, Katner concluded that an average college student could complete their course of study without ever having studied or seriously discussing the Holocaust. By 2009 Lindquist was making the argument that textbooks now, “provide substantial coverage of the Holocaust” (Lindquist 2009, 303). However, it was also pointed out that this coverage was full of concerns when it came to both factual and inferential accuracy. With these numerous studies already concluded, could students engage in a study that would reveal anything new?

Using Historiography for Textbook Analysis

A trait common among these studies is their focus on a single time period. It is within this aspect of these studies that possibility lies. In each of them, the researcher was examining the textbook’s discussion of the Holocaust and commenting on the strengths and weaknesses found within. In a few of the studies, including Lindquist (2009), there was commentary of how the current set of books being examined seemed to be including a higher quality of content coverage, but that this coverage was still found to be lacking. There was no examination conducted over a longer period of time. This is in contrast to studies such as Jennings (1994), Wasburn (1997), and Sanchez (2007), which took a more historic view of the content within textbooks. Each of these studies examined a specific historical event or people over a number of years, and not just a single snapshot. Wasburn (1997) argued this was necessary because studies that do not take a longer view of a subject’s representation fall prey to biases and pressures similar to those which they hope to expose. Therefore, this current study sought to understand the ways in which the Holocaust has been portrayed in textbooks over the course of two decades and to understand both how and why these representations changed.

This longitudinal view of textbook studies can be labeled as historiography (Loewen 2010). Historiography essentially means the study of history. It is not learning the who, what, where, when of a particular historical event, but the studying of how that event has been portrayed over time. An individual gains a greater understanding of both the content and the times in which it was written through historiography. Loewen (2010) gives the example of John Brown. Depending on the decade in which a student went to school, they would have read that John Brown was a lunatic, a hero, a terrorist, or a martyr. He was executed in 1861 for leading an attack on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to begin a slave rebellion. Since that time he has undertaken no actions that would cause him to be relabeled within history textbooks; rather, the country’s outlook on race relations has undergone a transformation. As issues surrounding civil rights and equal treatment have been discussed and affected the country’s attitudes, John Brown has undergone this evolution (Loewen 2010). Therefore, a student reading about John Brown learns as much about the country’s attitudes toward racial issues as they do John Brown. So using this lens, a textbook critique should ask how a particular event in history has changed over time and why has that change taken place. Having students engage in these questions can lead to powerful historical thinking, knowledge, and critical questioning.

The Historic Context

In 1945, as World War II was coming to an end, mistrust between allies began to grow. The Soviet Union, led by Joseph Stalin, sought to establish control over territories Russia had lost during the settlement of World War I and install Communist regimes in Eastern European nations, creating a protective border of friendly nations. The United States and Britain viewed this as an expansionist stance and wanted a return to 1939 European borders (Brune and Burns 2006). As postwar posturing led to a broadening of the chasm between allies, Winston Churchill delivered a speech. On March 5, 1946, in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill declared that, “from Stettin in the Baltic to Triest in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent” (Brune and Burns 2006, 116). Then on March 12, 1947, President Harry Truman also delivered a speech. In his address to Congress, Truman described a struggle between the free world and the forces of Communism. In explaining the “Domino Theory” Truman claimed that if the nation of Greece became a Communist nation, Turkey would soon follow. With these two nations joining the side of Communism, the rest of the Middle East would soon succumb to the same fate. Giving economic and military aid to prevent the spread of Communism became known as the Truman Doctrine (Brune and Burns 2006).

These two speeches mark a very public break between former allies. No longer was the Soviet Union a friend in the fight against Germany and the forces of Fascism; instead, it was now an aggressor that had to be contained. This Cold War was the major motivation behind many domestic and foreign policies of the United States for the next forty years. In this fight against the Soviet Union and its allies, Germany was transformed from a nation that must be stopped to one that had to be rebuilt. As the nation split into two separate countries, the border between them became a front line in this new battle. So as Germany transformed from enemy to ally, was the narrative of the Holocaust also changed in textbooks? Did, as Lili believed, a ‘Curtain of Ignorance’ fall along with Churchill’s Iron Curtain? This is the historical context in which thisstudy was conducted.

Table 1. Percentage of the Historically Appropriate Timeframe Devoted to Discussing the Holocaust.
    Highest Percentage World History United States High School Middle School
  Overall for a Single Book Textbooks History Textbooks Textbooks Textbooks
1940s N = 19 1.111% 9.955% 1.981% .479% 1.241% .626%
1950s N = 21 .335% 2.36% .755% .167% .517% .135%

Data Collection

To conduct this study, forty textbooks were examined. Each of them was intended for students studying United States History, World History, or European History in grades six through twelve. These forty textbooks were selected because of their inclusion on the Texas Education Agency list of adopted materials from 1943 through 1959. Because Texas is one of the largest adoption states in the country, a publishing company will spend millions preparing their books to meet its educational guidelines. For smaller states, the company will make modifications and adjustments rather than begin the process again (Robelen 2010). It can be argued, therefore, that this sampling represents much of what school children in the United States were reading during these years. A bibliography of all the textbooks examined can be found at the end of this piece.

Some may feel that the selection of 1943 is too close to events for any information to be found in textbooks. Consider, however, the example of the 2002 Texas State Textbook Selection Committee. In the summer of 2002, educators were beginning the process of reviewing textbooks for adoption. It had been approximately nine months since the horrific events of September 11, 2001, yet textbooks being reviewed for inclusion in the eighth-grade social studies classroom already contained sections dealing with this very topic. Information can be gathered, processed, and published at a more rapid pace in 2002 than during World War II, but textbooks published in 1943 already contained large portions of text about the war. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that in 1943, ten years after the establishment of Hitler’s regime in Germany, there would be an ample amount of information known about Nazi racial policies toward Jewish citizens. Not only would information be known, but enough time would have elapsed for its publication in textbooks.

If one wanted to argue that much of what was happening in Germany was unknown and so it is not likely to find mentions of Jewish persecution in textbooks of this time period, there is a large amount of evidence to the contrary. On April 28, 1938, the front page of the San Fransico Chronicle carried the banner “Nazis to Grab Jews’ Riches” (“The Holocaust: A Remembrance” [THAR] 2010, 3). Later that year, in November, the Dallas Morning News proclaimed “Hysterical Nazis Wreck Thousands of Jewish Shops, Burn Synagogues in Wild Orgy of Looting and Terror” (THAR 2010, 4). Also in November, the Houston Post exclaimed “Nazi Germany Threatens to Exterminate Jews” (THAR 2010, 6). This illustrates that five years prior to the publishing of textbooks included in this study, the United States public was aware of what was happening to those considered unacceptable in German society.

Finally, one might question the amount of information available after the close of World War II. Was the Holocaust lost in the posturing between nations as the Cold War began? Evidence again points to the contrary. As the war concluded, the public was exposed to the terrible reality of the concentration camps. In the closing days of the war, Stars and Stripes had a two-page spread discussing “Horror, Starvation, Death in German Concentration Camps Revealed by Allies’ Advance” (THAR 2010, 11-2). Those attending a show at the movie theater in May of 1945 were likely to see either a Universal Newsreel or Paramount News clip prior to their feature show. Both of these outlets contained stories and pictures of the German atrocities (Shandler 1999). There was also the April 15, 1945, radio broadcast of the liberation of Buchenwald by CBS war correspondent Edward R. Murrow, which provided the public with a trusted voice bearing witness to what had been happening (Shandler 1999). There was even a dramatic episode of This Is Your Life featuring several Auschwitz survivors broadcast on national television in 1953 (Shandler 1999). With all of this information available, it is certainly reasonable to expect that textbooks would have some information about what had been happening within Nazi Germany by at least 1943. It is also reasonable to assume that as more information became available, the information in the textbooks would also grow in breadth and depth. Therefore, examining textbooks from the year 1943 through 1959 is a good way in which to test whether or not Lili’s ‘Curtain of Ignorance’ fell across America’s classrooms.

The First Evaluation

For each textbook, the pages discussing World War II, or a closer look at the country of Germany, were copied and assigned a random letter for identification purposes. As the textbooks were collected, one additional textbook was added to the sample. It was a later edition of a textbook found on the adoption list. Its pages were given two random identifying letters and added to the sample twice. This was done so that a consistency in the rating of the textbooks could be ensured. At the end of the data analysis, the score of this book was checked. When the first analysis was complete and it was found that the book had been given two different scores, the data was reanalyzed for all the samples. This second rating of the books gave an equal score to both samples of the book, and several other adjustments were made to the rest of the textbooks. The process created a more refined and consistent use of the first rating instrument.

To begin the evaluation process, the number of lines used to discuss the topic of the Holocaust was counted, similar to previous studies (Katner 1998; Pate 1979). First, the number of pages dedicated to the topics of prewar Germany, World War II, and the denazification of Germany were counted for each textbook. Then an average number of lines per page of each textbook were calculated. Next, the number of lines relating to the Holocaust was counted. If a textbook used a picture in its discussion of the Holocaust, an equivalent number of lines for that picture were added to the textbook’s total. Finally, using the number of pages, lines per page, and lines devoted to the Holocaust, the percentage of the historically appropriate time frame devoted to discussing the Holocaust was calculated. The percentage for each decade was further broken down according to world history textbooks, United States history textbooks, high school textbooks, and middle school textbooks. The results are presented in Table 1.

Looking at textbooks from both decades, the first clear conclusion is that a world history textbook will give more space to the topic of the Holocaust than one written for a United States history classroom. In both decades the percentage of historically appropriate timeframe devoted to the subject for the world history books was greater than four times that of the United States history books. In addition, a book being used in a high school classroom will have more space devoted to the discussion of these issues than one in a middle school classroom. In the 1940s there is nearly twice as much space devoted to the Holocaust in the high school books compared to those for middle school classrooms. In the decade of the 1950s, the discrepancy grows to nearly four times the amount of space. However, given the nature of the topic, spending more time on the Holocaust in a high school world history classroom than in a United States history seventh-grade classroom can be justified. When comparing the decades rather than categories within the decades, it become apparent that Lili was justified in saying a ‘Curtain of Ignorance’ had fallen.

In the 1940s, the percentage of historically appropriate timeframe devoted to discussing the Holocaust, 1.111 percent, was more than three times as great as the percentage in the 1950s, .335 percent. This discrepancy was evident in all the subcategories as well. In world history, United States history, high school, and middle school, the books from the decade of the 1940s were devoting nearly twice as much space to the Holocaust as were the books from the 1950s. In addition, in the 1940s there was a book that devoted 9.955 percent of its historically appropriate timeframe discussing the Holocaust. In addition to the book with the highest percentage in the 1940s, there were four other books to go over the 1 percent mark. In contrast, the highest percentage for a book from the 1950s was 2.36 percent. This discrepancy is further highlighted because this book was the only one to devote more than 1 percent of the historically appropriate timeframe to discussing the Holocaust.

When looking at books that devoted 0 percent of the historically appropriate timeframe to discussing the Holocaust, there were three of nineteen, or approximately 16 percent in the 1940s. By comparison there were 7 of 21, or 33 percent that devoted no time to discussing the Holocaust. This is further emphasized by considering pictures. Three of the books from the 1940s featured a picture when discussing the persecution of the Jews in Germany. None of the books from the 1950s had a single picture, but the book History of a Free People (Bragdon 1956) did feature a half page picture featuring a scene from the movie Three Little Pigs. This picture was used to demonstrate “the spirit of the depression, and the new hope that was beginning to rise” (Bragdon 1956, 592). This book also featured four total lines of text devoted to the discussion of the Holocaust. Another startling contrast comes from the 1946 and 1952 edition of the book World History: The Struggle for Civilization published by Ginn and Company. In the 1946 edition the section headings on pages 680-81 are: The Nazi Revolution, Persecution of the Jews, and Making a Totalitarian State (Smith, Muzzey, and Lloyd 1946, 680-81). In the 1952 edition, the section headings on page 606 are: The Nazi Revolution and Making a Totalitarian State (Smith, Muzzey, and Lloyd 1952, 606).

A Second Analysis

In 1946 Winston Churchill made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech (Brune and Burnes 2006), marking a change in how the United States viewed Germany. Germany, which had been an enemy to defeat, was now an ally in the stand against the advances of communism and the Soviet Union. It was Lili’s assertion that this transition caused her ‘Curtain of Ignorance’ to fall. Looking at the amount of time spent discussing the Holocaust in textbooks, it appears that her belief may be correct. The amount of space devoted to the topic dropped dramatically when contrasting the two decades. The opposite should have been expected. As scholars learned ever more about the atrocities committed by the German society, there should have been a steady increase in the amount of information found in the textbooks. However, looking only at the amount of time spent discussing a topic is not enough. Another factor to consider is the way in which the topic is presented. Therefore, a second analysis was conducted on all the textbooks.

In previous studies, the authors asked a variety of questions of each textbook (Heckler 1994; Katner 1998; Lindquist 2009; Pate 1987). The books were analyzed by, among other things, looking for pictures, coverage of the Nuremberg Trials, usage of the terms genocide, and whether the experience of Jews from a variety of countries were discussed. Using these earlier studies and Korman’s (1970) critique that textbooks did not discuss specific events related to the Holocaust, a series of twenty questions were developed. They were as follows:

  1. How was pre-Nazi life for Jewish citizens of Germany discussed?
  2. How was Nazi racial ideology described?
  3. What was said about the book Mein Kampf?
  4. Who were the perpetrators of the Holocaust?
  5. What was said about the Nuremberg Laws?
  6. How were the Jewish Ghettos discussed?
  7. What successive stages of victimization were discussed?
  8. What was said about those victims who were not Jewish?
  9. What of the world’s reaction during the persecution was discussed?
  10. Was the Evian Conference mentioned and explained?
  11. Was a variety of Holocaust experiences described?
  12. Was the Wannsee Conference mentioned and explained?
  13. What was discussed when it came to the Final Solution?
  14. Were various forms of Resistance mentioned and discussed?
  15. Was there a personalization of the Holocaust?
  16. Were ‘Rescuers’ mentioned and discussed?
  17. What was said about the Nuremberg Trials?
  18. Was there a discussion of the postwar survivors?
  19. Was the significance of the Holocaust discussed?
  20. Were there suggested further readings about the Holocaust given?

Using the suggestions for Holocaust education found on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website (http://www.ushmm.org/education/foreducators) and those found at the Yad Vashem website (http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/education/educational_materials/index.asp), an answer rubric for each of these questions was developed. On any given question a textbook could achieve a maximum score of three. For example, when discussing Mein Kampf, if there was no mention of the book, the textbook was given a score of 0. If it was mentioned that the book was written by Adolf Hitler, a score of 1 was assigned. For a score of 2, the textbook needed to discuss some of the ideals Hitler wrote about in this book, such as his thoughts on race or his plans to establish a German empire. If the textbook discussed all aspects of this book and mentioned its influence throughout Germany, then a score of 3 was given. Based on this rubric analysis an individual textbook could achieve a maximum score of 60. Each book also had one point added to its rubric score for any pictures, maps, or specifically named camp found within its pages.

The books were put through this rubric twice. Whenever there was a conflicting score on the separate analyses, the book was reviewed a third time. The non-adopted book was again placed in the sample twice to check for a consistency of scoring. The results of this rubric analysis are found here in table 2.

Table 2. Average Score on Holocaust Rubric
    Highest Score by a World History United States High School Middle School
  Overall Single Textbook Textbooks History Textbooks Textbooks Textbooks
1940s N = 19 6.421 25 11.625 2.636 7.733 1.5
1950s N = 21 3.905 15 10.6 1.813 6.545 1

When taking out the points given to books for pictures, maps, and specifically named camps, the highest score given to a single book was 22. This is a very low score out of a possible 60, but several factors must be taken into account. Much of the Holocaust was still being defined in the 1940s, and therefore it is unrealistic to expect the scores to rise much higher than this. However, it is interesting to note that this score was given to a book from the 1940s and the highest score given to a book from the 1950s was 15. Comparing the scores for the textbooks across the decades, this trend continues in each category. The largest drop from one decade to the next was seen in the overall scores, as it dropped by more than 2.5 points. None of the other categories had a drop larger than 1.5 points. While none of these drops are large with a maximum score of 60+, the fact that the scores dropped at all is very significant.

Consider that many of the books written in the 1940s were written prior to the Nuremberg Trials. Every one of these books would have received a score of 0 when answering the question “What was said about the Nuremberg Trials?” The books written in the 1950s were written after the trials had taken place and should be able to earn at least a single point by mentioning that these trials had taken place. However, only three of the books from the 1950s mentioned that these war crime trials had taken place, in contrast to the five that mentioned them, including two that discussed them in depth, from the 1940s.

A Timeline Consideration

When it is considered that Winston Churchill gave his famous speech in 1946, it is also informative to examine the scores of the books around that same year. In 1945 there was one book published that the state of Texas adopted for classroom use. The book represents the high water mark for both decades as its content analysis rubric score was a 25. In 1946 there were three books adopted for classroom use, and their scores were 10, 12, and 12. Then again in 1947, three books were adopted. However, this time the scores achieved were 7, 4, and 16. The following year in 1948, the four adopted books achieved scores of 2, 9, 1, and 0. Finally, in 1949, the three adopted books were scored as a 1, 6, and 1. Looking at the overall content analysis rubric scores, it is apparent that there is a steady decline in the Holocaust content presented following the year 1946.

In addition, there are other striking examples of how the Holocaust content was presented following the year 1946. In A History of Our Country published by Ginn and Company in 1949, the only mention of any content related to the Holocaust is the Nuremberg Trials. Unfortunately, this discussion takes place in six lines of text and mentions that eleven “top Nazis … were hanged and others received life or long-term prison sentences” (Muzzey 1949, 598). The book makes no mention of the crimes committed by these individuals that brought them to trial. This same book mentions that the nation of Israel came into existence in 1948, but does not make any reference as to why so many Jewish settlers chose to move into the area following World War II. However, the book does contain a picture of Anrei Gromyko of the Soviet Union vetoing a United Nations resolution. In the caption for this picture the students are asked to consider, “How many times has Russia used [veto power]? How many times has any other nation used it?” (Muzzey 1949, 609). In just a few years the Soviet Union has gone from being an ally against Germany to being an enemy in the Cold War, and the new political rhetoric is mirrored in the day’s textbooks.

It is also noteworthy that by the 1950s there were no longer any pictures accompanying a discussion of the Holocaust in the textbooks. In the 1946 edition of The Making of Today’s World, published by Allyn and Bacon, there is a picture of German soldiers holding a banner in front of a Jewish owners business while “passing out handbills attacking the Jews” (Hughes 1946, 618). This striking image shows several people stopping, taking, and reading this handout as well. The 1947 edition of The World’s History, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company, has a picture of a burned out and destroyed storefront. The caption points out that this is, “A Jewish-owned store after a visit from the Storm Troopers” (Lane, Goldman, and Hunt 1947, 699). The picture even features a crowd walking by examining the storefront and several prominent smiles in the crowd. Neither of the 1950s editions of these same books contained a single picture that could directly be tied to the Holocaust.

It would not be fair to expect the books written before the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials to contain finer points and details about the Holocaust, because much of the world learned this information during the trials. However, in contrast to this notion is the book Modern Europe, published by Henry Holt and Company in 1945. In it the camps at “Elsen, Buchenwald, and Dachau” were all specifically named (Thomas and Hamm 1945, 839). It also discussed in fine detail how the Germans created laws in which an individual was defined as a Jew. The laws “defined Jews as those of seventy-five per cent Jewish blood or those of fifty per cent Jewish blood who practiced the Jewish religion or were married to Jews” (Thomas and Hamm 1945, 487). This same book had a mention of the international conference at Evian, France, and how the world was unwilling to take large numbers of Jewish refugees because of the economic crisis facing many countries. None of this information appeared in any of the books published after the trials, yet it was obviously a known quantity even before the trials took place.

A final example comes from Modern America published by Mifflin Company in 1950 and 1954. In both editions, the book Mein Kampf was referred to as being a “curious book which detailed [Hitler’s] beliefs and made clear what he planned for Germany when in power” (Canfield and Wilder 1950, 691). Gone were the discussions of racial ideology and wide acceptance of the work by the German people discussed in textbooks published during the 1940s. By reducing the status of Hitler’s book it becomes easier for other textbooks, such as The Story of Our Country published by Allyn and Bacon in 1954, to claim that there were many Germans who were “shocked at his cruel treatment of Germany’s Jewish population” (West 1954, 563). There is also Our Free Nation, published in 1954 by The Macmillan Company, which discusses how “all boys and girls were taught the principles of the Nazi party and were required to swear loyalty to them” (McGuire and Portwood 1954, 652) without ever mentioning what those principles involved. As Germany was becoming an ally, the guilt of the Holocaust was shifting from all of German society to the Nazis, Adolf Hitler, and his curious book.


Looking at the results from the line count analysis and the content rubric analysis, it is apparent that the Holocaust discussion in textbooks was in fact affected by the Cold War. Prior to the Cold War textbooks were more willing to discuss different events and aspects of the Holocaust. Although the terminology to describe this horrific event had yet to be developed, the scope and depth could be felt in The Story of Modern Europe, published in 1945 by Houghton Mifflin Company, which stated, “How many Jews were murdered by the Storm Troopers of the Nazi Party we shall probably never know” (Riker 1945, 342). Then during the 1950s, when the number of victims and many other facets of the Holocaust had come to light, textbooks were no longer willing to discuss what took place. Authors do not discuss events and individuals in an objective vacuum but in a biased atmosphere. As it became necessary to prop up Germany as a defender of freedom against the advance of communism, the spotlight shown on German society’s persecution of its Jewish population was dimmed. Therefore, it appears that Lili’s ‘Curtain of Ignorance’ did fall on the textbooks and the classrooms in which they were read.

The results from this study also indicate that the examination of textbooks from the other decades of the Cold War is warranted. As the years progressed did discussion of the Holocaust also progress? How much and in what ways did it progress? Could the shooting down of the U2 spy plane affect Holocaust discussion in the textbooks? Could the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War? Did the fall of the Berlin Wall also mean the lifting of Lili’s curtain? In addition, what effect did popular cultural events such as the premiere of the television series The Holocaust (2008) or the film Schindler’s List (1993) have on what was discussed in the textbooks? The true power in these questions, however, lies with the students. If teachers were to have students make these inquiries of textbooks, much of the concerns expressed by previous textbook analyses could be addressed.

Student as Historian

In this light, this research represents a different approach to using history textbooks in the classroom. Rather than read them for historical information, students can use them to become historians themselves. Students can generate rubrics to analyze the portrayal of the events contained within the books. This act of creating an evaluation tool will cause them to use multiple sources and examine several perspectives in an effort to make one that is comprehensive as possible. When applying their rubric to current and past textbooks, students will have to add even more depth to their historical considerations. They will need to question if there are differences across the decades, do these differences mark significant attitude shifts toward the subject they are studying, and what may have caused this attitude shift? Students can gain a greater understanding of the current world in which they live and how their own attitudes are formed by asking these questions.

A teacher seeking to conduct this type of inquiry with students could quickly become overwhelmed by content, space, and cost considerations. To begin what can be a complicated process they could choose one or two topics to explore. These could include content already mentioned or things such as the Boston Tea Party, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, or many others. Using Web resources such http://worldcat.org, a search engine that can track down most any book in a library’s collection, a teacher can begin looking for older editions of textbooks. By making an interlibrary loan request at a local library and using a scanner, a database of topics and representations can be developed and collected. Attempting to locate and obtain class sets of books would prove to be both cost and space prohibitive to any interested educator. In addition, seeking to keep a class set of textbooks that are rotated out thanks to a new adoption would prove to be a near impossible task. By taking advantage of these other options, a teacher can begin to explore this new textbook utilization with their students.

To begin working with textbooks in this more critical fashion, an educator could have students generate a KWL chart centered on whatever topic of study they chose. Having pairs of students then discuss their charts would form the beginnings of the evaluation rubrics. On the basis of what they already know and what they want to learn, students will be able to create questions about the content which they believe the textbook should be able to answer to varying degrees. These pairs of students can then meet with other pairs to further refine their expectations of what will be found within the texts. As groups grow larger, eventually the teacher will lead a full class discussion to finalize the categories found on the evaluation rubric.

Groups of students could then be assigned categories to research. This would allow them to develop a 1, 2, or 3 rating for how well a textbook covers these different aspects of the assigned topic. Next, the groups make a presentation to the rest of the class, giving all the students a greater understanding of the evaluation tool. Now the groups should be reformed so that each new group would include at least one student who helped develop the 1, 2, and 3 ratings for each category.

These groups would have individual members evaluate the same textbook and then come together to discuss and compare their ratings. This would allow all of them to better use the evaluation tool and apply it to a multitude of textbooks. With their understanding firmly in place, groups of textbooks could then be evaluated and results compared across years and editions. The final step would be to have students research social and political factors that might be a contributing cause to the disparity of presentation found during the evaluation phase.

This represents the true impact of Lili’s ‘Curtain of Ignorance.’ As numerous previous studies have illustrated, textbooks are problematic when they represent the only resource used in a classroom. There have also been several studies conducted, which illustrate how much of Holocaust discussion is void of complexity and rife with generalizations and inaccuracies. However, this study illustrates that these concerns and problems with textbooks can be used to a teacher’s advantage. If students were to undertake this study, they would be learning about the Holocaust, the Cold War, and possibly many other considerations to take into account during the decades following World War II. By learning such lessons students would begin the process of thinking both historically and critically. They could learn to question the glut of media messages that bombard them on a daily basis. They will not simply be passive receptacles of the local news report. They will instead ask what the reporter is not telling them and ask why footage may have ended up on the cutting room floor. When presidential candidates speak with glittering generalities, they will not fill in the blanks with their own hopes; they will instead demand more from the candidates. Through an examination of Lili’s ‘Curtain of Ignorance’ students can become critical thinkers and consumers of information. In this manner other veils can be lifted from history textbooks.