By Dr. Catherine Chatterley
Founding Director, CISA
Adjunct Professor of History, University of Manitoba

After decades of exposure to the Nazi murder of European Jewry, through education in schools and universities, the production of countless Holocaust histories and memoirs, the wide distribution of Holocaust related films, plays, and television programs, and, the construction of Holocaust memorials and museums, including a prominent federal institution in Washington, we are now facing pressure to include all people who suffered under Hitler into what we know as the Holocaust—the deliberate, systematic, state-sponsored annihilation of Jewish Europe.

How do we explain the apparent paradox of a culture that appears to be suffering from “Jewish Holocaust fatigue,”and yet knows very little about the history of this specific event and the pivotal role played by antisemitism in its conception and execution? To answer the question, we must begin to examine the phenomenon of Holocaust education and its universalizing methods, and try to assess what exactly people have learned about the Holocaust and antisemitism over the last several decades.

Part of the answer can be found in the material used to teach the subject. One of the central texts used by teachers, parents, and professors to educate students about the Holocaust is The Diary of Anne Frank. The book has been celebrated for decades but also criticized for its universalization, and not so subtle elision, of the Jewish experience under Nazism. The Diary was first published in Dutch as Het Achterhuis [The House Behind] in 1947, translated into French and German in 1950, and into English in 1952, with a play staged on Broadway only three years later.1

Instead of discussing the long and detailed controversies over the book and its theatrical applications, I will examine several trenchant critiques of the text that deserve our renewed attention. In 1960, Bruno Bettelheim wrote a psychosocial critique of the Broadway play (1955) and Hollywood film (1959) for Harper’s Magazine, in which he focused his attention not so much on Anne’s text but upon our use of it and our reaction to it. For Bettelheim, the larger culture’s “universal and uncritical response” to The Diary reflected “our wish to forget the gas chambers,” and instead take comfort in the false belief that Jews could retreat “into an extremely private, gentle, sensitive world” despite being surrounded “by a maelstrom apt to engulf one at any moment.”2 Even more offensive was our fetishized treatment of her statement, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart,” to which the story is often reduced, when in fact Anne had written those optimistic words well before the attic had been sold out by a Dutch informant for about a dollar per person, the inhabitants deported to camps, her mother killed, and she and her sister Margot suffered abject death by typhus in Bergen Belsen in April 1945.

This “lesson” about the goodness of people, given the actual history of Anne Frank and her family, is patently false, and Bettelheim believed that it created an equally false sense of optimism, misleading readers to imagine Anne surviving the war. In fact, recent pedagogical studies of The Diary have demonstrated this exact problem. Students have been shown to characterize Anne’s diary as more “hopeful than sad,” as a story of survival, and even a love story. They appear to manifest a deep-seated resistance to the truth of her death in Bergen Belsen, which was described as “ruining” the story for one student in a classroom study.3   Bettelheim also argued that the platitude about human goodness “releases us effectively of the need to cope with the problems Auschwitz presents.”4 Writing in 1960, he did not mention antisemitism specifically, nor did he characterize the specific “problems” Auschwitz presents, but today we know that without antisemitism there would not have been a Birkenau, and yet The Diary allows its readers to disregard this reality entirely. Here, then, is a perfect example of the way students, and the larger culture, are exposed to the Holocaust and yet learn nothing in particular about the problem of antisemitism.

Lawrence Langer makes an important observation about the book in this regard. Instead of providing any actual information about the Holocaust or antisemitism, Langer argues, The Diary “enacts in its very text a designed avoidance of the very experience it is reputed to grant us some exposure to [and] thus her work helps us to transcend what we have not yet encountered, nonetheless leaving behind a film of conviction that we have.”5

In a devastating critique by Cynthia Ozick, The Diary is described as “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced . . . infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.”6 Like Bettelheim and Langer, Ozick denies the value of this text as a Holocaust document. To make her point, she proceeds to reconstruct the actual fate of the Frank girls, based upon the testimony of Belsen survivors, including Anne’s schoolmate Hannah Goslar: “[Margot] fell dead to the ground from the wooden slab on which she lay, eaten by lice, and Anne, heartbroken and skeletal, naked under a bit of rag, died a day or two later.”7

Equally important to Ozick’s graphic truth-telling is her revelation of the very real dejudaization of the book, revealed by the publication in 1995 of additional diary material removed by Anne Frank’s father Otto, subsequent publishers, and translators.8 Comparing editions now reveals that Otto Frank removed Anne’s numerous references to Judaism, including those describing Yom Kippur. Additionally, the Zionism of Anne’s sister Margot as well as the Hebrew the family sung at Hanukkah were deleted from the Hackett Broadway script approved by Frank. Additions that distort Anne’s story were invented by producer Lillian Hellman, who inserted lines like “we’re not the only people that’ve had to suffer . . . There’ve always been people that’ve had to . . . sometimes one race . . . sometimes another.”9  

Even worse, Otto Frank allowed the translator of the German edition, Anneliese Schütz, to either remove or revise Anne’s passages about Germans. For example, in her list of house rules, Anne writes, “‘Use of Language: It is necessary to speak softly at all times. Only the language of civilized people may be spoken, thus no German.’ The German translation reads: “Alle Kultursprachen . . . aber leise!’—‘all civilized languages . . . but softly!’”10 Schütz justified her methods of distortion and exculpation as necessary because a book “for sale in Germany . . . cannot abuse the Germans.”11 Ozick tells us that a German drama critic admitted that the theatrical version of The Diary allowed Germans to see “our own fate—the tragedy of human existence per se.”12 And so, as Alvin Rosenfeld observes, “Anne Frank has become a ready-to-hand formula for easy forgiveness,”13 and of all things, Ozick argues, a “vehicle of German communal identification.”14 

One is reminded of Theodor Adorno’s discussion of a German woman who left the play in 1959 saying, “Yes, but really, at least that girl ought to have been allowed to live.”15 The fact that Adorno characterizes this remark as a “first step toward insight,” for which he appears to be grateful, illustrates the pervasive antisemitism in postwar German society and the ongoing complicity of Germans in these crimes as late as 14 years after the war. It would not be until 1991 that Germans would have the opportunity to discover the original content of Anne’s diary.

Cynthia Ozick describes Otto Frank in what are thought to be stereotypically German Jewish terms: secular, assimilated, and bourgeois, but also accommodating, even deferential in relation to gentiles and especially toward Germans. She interprets his primary role in distorting The Diary of Anne Frank as the result of his “social need to please his environment and not to offend it.”16 It has always been, and remains today, safer for Jews to avoid confronting gentiles about their antisemitism, and this reality, Ozick argues, is what led him to “speak of goodness rather than destruction,” and to allow The Diary to be “accommodated to expressions like ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ diluting and befogging specific historical events and their motives.”17

Furthermore, the memorial he chose to honour his daughter was the Anne Frank Foundation18 and International Youth Center, both located in Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Ozick argues that this memorial, dedicated to the humanistic goal of bringing young people across the globe into contact with one another, “nevertheless washed away into do-gooder abstraction the explicit urge to rage that had devoured his daughter.”19 

Here, she is referring to Anne’s diary entry from 3 May 1944: “There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill.”20 Obviously, our choice to ignore these words and fetishize their very opposite, and then to present our choice as the epitome of Anne Frank and her experience, says more about the problematic needs of post-Holocaust Western culture than anything else. One can see how truly deceitful this cultural fetish is when the lines immediately following Anne’s comments about human goodness read: “I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions.”21 Our misuse of her words is actually perverse, as suggested by Griselda Pollock, in that we make the victim herself provide bystanders (and even perpetrators) “with comfort in our distress at encountering her suffering.”22

The primary approach of Holocaust education has been to universalize (and, in some cases, to Christianize) the experience of Jewish suffering in an attempt to make the subject matter accessible and meaningful to non-Jews. This was perceived as necessary after the war due to the antisemitic nature of postwar Western culture. There was a general hope that non-Jews would somehow imbibe that antisemitism was wrong from reading these stories and eventually from a curriculum that focused on the general evils of discrimination and racism and that promoted a doctrine of universal human rights.

Today, Holocaust education forms the basis for a new type of civic education. Increasingly, young people are learning about war and genocide in a comparative framework and the new civic values of peaceful reconciliation and human rights. In countries like Canada and the United States this curriculum presents an opportunity to celebrate ourselves in the form of the American Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and our Allied role in liberating Europe from Hitler. This is precisely the conclusion presented in the permanent exhibit of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and it is the basis for the conception of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights

There is no doubt that Holocaust education has had a positive influence on Western society. It has helped to create our contemporary concern with fighting racism and promoting human rights and has helped generate our current interest in the historical and contemporary problems of genocide and war crimes. The problem, however, is that Holocaust education has not produced a corresponding concern about, or awareness of, antisemitism. Rather, what we have produced in contemporary Western culture is a general conviction, to use Langer’s term, that we have learned the “lessons of the Holocaust” when in fact few people outside the academic field know anything in particular about the Nazi Final Solution, its systematic destruction of Jewish Europe, and the nature and history of the antisemitism responsible for this catastrophe, which continues to evolve and is now in fact a global phenomenon.  

Given this problematic reality, one wonders if Cynthia Ozick is correct when she suggests at the end of her critique of The Diary of Anne Frank that it may have been better for Anne’s diary to have been lost, and thereby “saved from a world that made of it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.”23

1 As of 2001, the book had been translated into fifty-five languages and sold over twenty million copies.
2 Bruno Bettelheim, “The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank,” Harper’s Magazine (November 1960), 45-50: 45.
3 See Karen Spector and Stephanie Jones, “Constructing Anne Frank: Critical Literacy and the Holocaust in Eighth-Grade English,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 51:1 (September 2007): 36-48.
4 Bettelheim, 47.
5 Lawrence Langer, “Anne Frank Revisited,” in Using and Abusing the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 16-29: 20-21.
6 Cynthia Ozick, “Who Owns Anne Frank,” in Quarrel & Quandary (New York: Vintage, 2000), 74-102: 77.
7 Ibid., 79.
8 This is in addition to Otto Frank’s removal of material that embarrassed the family, including Anne’s discussion of the Frank marriage, and material that would have been outside the bounds of decency in the 1950s, such as her discussion of contraceptives, female genitalia, and lesbianism.
9 Ozick, 95.
10 Ibid., 90.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid., 98.
13 Alvin Rosenfeld, “Popularization and Memory: The Case of Anne Frank,” in Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World, edited by Peter Hayes (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 243-278: 271.
14 Ozick, 98-99.
15 Theodor Adorno, “What Does Coming to Terms with the Past Mean?” in Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective, edited by Geoffrey Hartman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 114-129: 127.
16 Ozick, 85.
17 Ibid., 86.
18 Today the Anne Frank Foundation fights discrimination against minorities in Europe, with a specific focus on protecting the rights of Turks and immigrants.
19 Ozick, 86.
20 Ibid., 85.
21 Martha Ravits, “To Work in the World: Anne Frank and American Literary History,” Women’s Studies (1997), 1-30: 16.
22 Griselda Pollock, “Stilled Life: Traumatic Knowing, Political Violence, and the Dying of Anne Frank,” Mortality 12 (May 2007), 124-141: 139.
23 Ozick, 102.

A larger version of this essay was presented at Yale University in 2009.

By Dr. Catherine Chatterley
Founding Director, CISA
Adjunct Professor of History, University of Manitoba

Holocaust history and the history of Nazi Germany are two of the most solidly established and thoroughly documented fields in our study of the human past. Among the reasons for this reality are: 1) the enormous evidentiary record provided by the Germans themselves, which includes 12 years of fastidious documentation as well as an elaborate photographic and film record, and 2) the legal and testimonial record based upon the experiential witnessing of Nazism’s Jewish victims and survivors. Here there is the public witnessing of the postwar period and also an internal process in the form of Jewish Historical Commissions in Europe from 1943-1949 and the reams of Yizkor Books produced after the war.   

The consensus among historians of the Holocaust and of historians of Nazi Germany is that antisemitism was a central fixation for Adolf Hitler and that his obsession with “the Jews” determined Nazi anti-Jewish policy from 1933-1945. Hitler’s antisemitism is clearly documented in writing from his Letter to Herr Gemlich (September 16, 1919), throughout his autobiography Mein Kampf, in his electoral campaigns, his speeches, in Nazi propaganda and legislation, to the final words of his Last Will and Testament (April 29, 1945).

Through the work of historians, we now know that Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies evolved over time, with changing circumstances and new possibilities given those changes. Looking at the history of the period one sees the policy evolving in Germany from 1933-1939 from one of social and economic death (Marion Kaplan clearly illustrates this process in her book Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany) to expropriation (better known as Aryanization) and forced emigration. The idea was to make life so impossible for Jews in Germany—who constituted less than 1% of the population—that they would leave. All of these policies were legal in Germany under the Nuremberg Laws, which were first passed on September 15, 1935, and then supplemented by numerous anti-Jewish decrees until the end of the war. Almost half of German Jewry had left the country by Kristallnacht, the pogrom of November 9/10, 1938, which convinced the remaining Jews that there was no future for them in Germany. 

As Hitler occupied other European countries, beginning in the fall of 1939, he came to control millions of Jews. The regime began to plan for the removal of these Jews, first to the far reaches of the eastern end of the Reich, then to the French island of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, where they would be forced to live under a German mandate. That plan was finally discarded when the Germans failed to cow the British into submission in September 1940. The Nazis forced the large Jewish populations of Eastern Europe into over 1,100 ghettos and sealed them from the outside world. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Jews were murdered en masse by mobile killing units of the Einsatzgruppen, who followed the German army into Eastern Poland and the USSR.

That fall, probably in October, the decision was made to annihilate the Jews of Europe. We have no written order from Hitler (as we do with the so-called Euthanasia program signed in October 1939 and backdated to September 1939). Historians believe Hitler gave an oral order to begin the complete destruction of Europe’s Jews, which can be followed through subsequent correspondence between Goering, Heydrich, and Himmler. Again, we know from Sir Ian Kershaw, the leading historian of Hitler, that “Hitler’s personalized form of rule invited radical initiatives from below and offered such initiatives backing, so long as they were in line with his broadly defined goals.”

(Kershaw, Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris, p. 530)

Think of a CEO providing ten managers with a demand to find the best, most efficient, least expensive, strategy to achieve his increased profit margins for the next year. “Working toward the Führer” is how it is understood.

The coordination of this continental strategy to annihilate an estimated 11 million European Jews was announced and discussed among the Nazi administrative leadership at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. Prior to this, approximately one million Jews had been murdered. 

After experimenting on Jews with a number of killing methods—including mass shootings and gas vans—the Germans settled on an industrialized assembly line process and built six killing centers in Poland for the specific purpose of exterminating the Jews of Europe. The three Operation Reinhard death camps were named for Reinhard Heydrich, head functionary of the Nazi Final Solution and host of the Wannsee Conference. Belzec began killing operations in March 1942; Sobibor in May 1942; and, Treblinka in July 1942 (with mass deportations out of the Warsaw Ghetto). Over two million Jews were murdered in these camps by November 1943. Birkenau was designated a killing facility in the spring of 1942, and this site at Auschwitz would facilitate the murder of one million Jews. On July 19, 1942, Himmler had ordered that the Final Solution to the Jewish Question be completed by December 31, 1942 in the region of the General Government. This order explains the “eleven-month wave of murder,” between mid-March 1942 and mid-February 1943, during which 80% of the Jewish Holocaust victims were killed.

One cannot possibly explain the Holocaust of 1933-1945, which historian Christopher Browning defines as “the total historical experience of the Nazi persecution of the Jews culminating in the Final Solution," without accounting for the specific targeting of Jews. (Browning, Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies) In a recent lecture in Florence, Professor Browning, stated that the genocide and colonialist frameworks that are sometimes employed today to try to explain the Holocaust fail to account for the specific targeting of European Jewry. 


While Nazi Germany was no doubt imperialist, colonialist, racist, and genocidal within Europe, why would we look to examples of European colonialism outside Europe to understand the Nazi desire to annihilate the Jews of Europe and not to the history of the millennial phenomenon of antisemitism?  The continuum of European thought and feeling about Jews is not colonial but antisemitic, as Raul Hilberg made clear in his study, The Destruction of the European Jews:

“Since the fourth century after Christ there have been three anti-Jewish policies: conversion, expulsion, and annihilation. The second appeared as an alternative to the first, and the third emerged as an alternative to the second . . . The Nazi destruction process did not come out of a void . . . the missionaries of Christianity had said in effect: You have no right to live among us as Jews [conversion]. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us [expulsion]. The Nazis at last decreed: You have no right to live [annihilation].” (Hilberg, 1985, pp. 6-8)

If a solution is deemed final, as was Die Endlösung der Judenfrage (The Final Solution to the Jewish Question), then it is logical to understand that other solutions to the same so-called “problem” must have been attempted. There is a historical continuity here and it is to the history of antisemitism that we look for such understanding.

As for the murderers, we know from historical research that they were under pressure to conform, concerned for their own welfare and careers, sometimes under the influence of alcohol (provided by their superiors), and so on. The degree to which each individual murderer hated Jews is difficult to assess; however, it is reasonable to assume that their views would reflect the general sentiments of the German people at the time. Studies of German public opinion during the Nazi period reveal that by 1936 “the belief that Jews were another race was widespread.” (Kaplan, 1999, 46.) 

It is also reasonable to assume that most Germans believed the propaganda—directed at them ad nauseam—that Jews were engaged in a conspiracy against Germany and that they were behind the communism the Germans were intent on destroying. There were also the traditional forms of anti-Jewish animus (Christian and economic) that would have been at work in men of this age, who had been raised in Weimar Germany or more likely in the Kaiserreich (German empire). The fear of, and contempt for, the Ostjuden (Jews of Eastern Europe) was centuries old in Germany and that would also have been present in these individuals. In the end, though, regardless of their own personal motivations these men did exactly as they were ordered—they murdered the Jews they were told to murder—and that returns us to the antisemitic ideology at the heart of the regime, which determined the war of annihilation perpetrated by these individuals against the Jews of Europe.  

Christopher Browning’s study of the murder of the 1500 Jews of Józefów by German Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) reveals precisely this fact:  

“Crushing conformity and blind, unthinking acceptance of the political norms of the time on the one hand, careerism on the other—these emerge as the factors that at least some of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were able to discuss twenty-five years later. What remained virtually unexamined by the interrogators and unmentioned by the policemen was the role of antisemitism. Did they not speak of it because antisemitism had not been a motivating factor? Or were they unwilling and unable to confront this issue even after twenty-five years, because it had been all too important, all too pervasive? One is tempted to wonder if the silence speaks louder than words, but in the end—the silence is still silence, and the question remains unanswered.  

Was the incident at Józefów typical? Certainly not. I know of no other case in which a commander so openly invited and sanctioned the nonparticipation of his men in a killing action. But in the end the most important fact is not that the experience of Reserve Police Battalion 101 is untypical, but rather that Trapp’s extraordinary offer did not matter. Like any other unit, Reserve Police Battalion 101 killed the Jews they had been told to kill.” (Browning, Path to Genocide, p. 183)