Survey Finds Gaps in Americans’ Holocaust Knowledge

German troops reach Vienna, Austria, on March 24, 1938. (AP Photo)

(CN) – A poll released Wednesday shows that while most Americans have a general knowledge of the Holocaust, fewer than half of those surveyed knew how many Jews were murdered and how Adolf Hitler came to power.

The Pew Research Center compiled the results of its survey of 10,971 respondents in anticipation of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on Jan. 27. The results indicate important trends in how and why the average U.S. citizen has a deficit of knowledge on the Holocaust as a whole and in finer historical detail.

For example, when asked to describe the Holocaust in their own words, 84% of respondents mentioned a general attempt at the annihilation of the Jewish people or related topics like concentration camps, Hitler and the Nazis. Seven in 10 respondents knew the Holocaust occurred between 1930 and 1950, and nearly two-thirds knew that Nazi-created ghettos were parts of a city or town where Jews were forced to live.

However, the survey results get greyer when respondents were faced with more detailed questions on the Holocaust and its causes.

Only 43% of respondents knew that Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic political process. Forty-five percent knew that about 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Nearly 30% of those surveyed said they did not know how many Jews died during the Holocaust, while one in 10 overestimated the death toll and 15% said that 3 million or fewer Jews were killed.

Researchers noted the data suggests, though does not directly state, relatively few people out of those surveyed expressed strongly negative feelings toward Jews.

The survey also showed that out of 1,800 teens surveyed, the majority of them know less about the Holocaust in detail than their elders do.

Lisa Costello, who teaches courses on writing, gender and the Holocaust at Georgia Southern University, chalked the gaps in teenagers’ Holocaust knowledge up to exposure, saying those deficits “often come from a lack of education on the topic.”

Speaking to the lack of knowledge on how Hitler came to power in Germany, Costello pointed to the phenomena of occlusion, which she described as why “people can remember generalities but not specifics.”

According to Costello, it is possible that people may not be fully cognizant that Hitler came to power democratically because of the fact that his actions were so atrocious.

“The laws his government passed and the actions they took toward the Final Solution after being elected are so violent and horrific, that it might be ‘easier’ for some people to believe his power came from a violent takeover though it did not,” she said.

This seems to jibe with Pew’s findings from its “feeling thermometer,” which found that nine in 10 non-Jewish respondents who underestimate the Holocaust’s death toll express neutral or warm feelings toward Jews, whereas only about 10% gave Jews a cold rating.

Researchers pointed out that respondents who got more questions right also tended to express warmer feelings toward Jews, suggesting that those who pursue more knowledge on the subject have a more positive view of Jews writ large.

Pew’s survey suggests that the gaps in Holocaust knowledge could also have something to do with the religious leanings of the respondents.

Jews, atheists and agnostics got the most questions right in the survey, with about 90% of respondents from all three groups knowing that the Holocaust happened between 1930 and 1950 and just under 90% of each group knowing that ghettos were parts of a town or city where Jews were forced to live.

On the contrary, mainline Protestants, evangelical Protestants, Mormons, Catholics and Americans who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” correctly answered about half of the survey’s questions, while members of the historically black Protestant tradition averaged about one in four correct answers.

Overall, Jews themselves had the most intimate knowledge of the Holocaust’s death toll, according to the survey. Nearly 90% of Jews knew 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust compared to 64% of agnostics and 63% of atheists.

However, 76% of atheists and seven in 10 agnostics knew Hitler became chancellor through a democratic political process compared with just 57% of Jews, indicating that detailed Holocaust knowledge does not perfectly break down along religious factions.

Pew’s survey was conducted from Feb. 4 through Feb. 19 of 2019, and its margin of error is plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.

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