As survivors, ex-servicemen and politicians prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of the British liberation of Bergen-Belsen on 15thApril new research by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education revealed that few secondary pupils had ever heard of the camp. 

The study also showed that huge numbers of secondary pupils did not understand why Britain went to war with Nazi Germany in 1939.

The survey of 8,000 11-18 year olds found that 84% of pupils did not associate Bergen-Belsen with the Nazi genocide, even after they had studied the Holocaust.  The name Bergen-Belsen, once synonymous both with the horrors of Nazi brutality and with British relief efforts to save the dying, is slipping out of the consciousness of young people across England.

When the soldiers of the British 11thArmoured Division entered the camp they were confronted by suffering on a hitherto unimaginable scale, and the humanitarian crisis of some 60,000 starving and seriously ill prisoners. Thousands of corpses lay unburied. Film and photographs of these atrocities were later shown in cinemas and printed in newspapers, searing into the imagination of the British public for generations.

The images of troops entering Belsen promoted the national myth that Britain was fighting to ‘save the Jews’ that has proved more lasting than the memory of the camp itself.

More than 50% of the pupils when asked ‘What happened when the British government knew about the mass murder of the Jews?’ wrongly believed that Britain ‘declared war on Germany’ or ‘thought up rescue plans and tried to do everything that they could to save the Jews’.  

The survey showed that over 25% of pupils believed that the British government knew nothing about the Holocaust until the end of the war. Less than 7% of pupils surveyed understood that the British government had detailed and accurate knowledge about the ongoing Nazi mass murder of the Jews and did nothing but state that the perpetrators would be brought to justice after the war.

Stuart Foster, Executive Director, “Britain’s story during the Holocaust is complex, and there is much about its record that is understandably celebrated, such as the rescue of children in the Kindertransport and the enormous relief efforts of British men and women who entered the camps with the advancing Allied armies. But it appears that difficult questions such as why saving the Jews of Europe never became a war aim are rarely confronted and the simplistic picture of ‘Britain as liberator’ is rarely challenged or reflected upon in the classroom.”

Paul Salmons, Programme Director, Centre for Holocaust Education said: “These findings uncover widespread misconceptions about how Britain responded to the Holocaust. But more than this, they also reveal a fundamental lack of understanding about why this country went to war with Nazi Germany in 1939, which certainly had nothing to do with rescuing Jews from persecution and murder.”


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