I was born in 1947 just two years after the end of ww2 and went to high school during the sixties. I can't recall more than a passing reference to the extermination of 6,000,000 Jews. How can this be? I remember in junior high school drawing a swastika on my notebook thinking it was cool. Nazis to me meant nothing more than the other side we were fighting against. I grew up in Pennsylvania, was it different elsewhere in the country? It wasn't until I was grown and saw documentaries and read books about it did I learn about the atrocities that happened in Nazi Germany.

  • 6
    It wasn't history, back then. It is now, since a lot of years have passed. Unless your school taught contemporary history, which I guess wasn't the case, then it just was out of the scope.
    – o0'.
    Jul 19, 2015 at 19:47
  • 3
    In Germany, the Holocaust wasn't taught in schools at the same time either, but probably for different reasons. The people wanted to get over the war, many people in government and education were still the same people that had served under Hitler. It wasn't until the 1960s that several soldiers (SS) who served in Auschwitz, around 20 men, were charged for murder and sentenced to jail.
    – jjack
    Jul 19, 2015 at 20:01
  • 12
    This question generalizes a personal experience to a trend and implies an agenda. Parts of my (Pennsylvania) High School Class visited Bergen-Belsen, and we certainly studied the Holocaust. Before we answer "why X happened?" we need to establish that "X happened".
    – MCW
    Jul 19, 2015 at 21:56
  • 2
    @MarkC.Wallace: I had the same experience, born 1957, and more to the point, there appears to be an answer, see my post below.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 19, 2015 at 22:50
  • 8
    There's likely a perfectly mundane explanation. Every history class I've been in has taught history in chronological order; the pre-college-level classes uniformly ran out of class time before reaching the end of the time period they were supposed to cover.
    – Mark
    Jul 21, 2015 at 0:13

5 Answers 5


Both question and answer /comments appear very Americo-centric. I was born in 1949, just 2 years after the OP, and I cannot remember not knowing about the second world war and the atrocities. We did not study the war at school, but as someone said, it was not "history" - it was our parent's and older siblings lived experience. Whilst the word "Holocaust" was not coined until much later, I grew up with expressions like "looks like something out of Belsen" for someone very thin, and British cinemas showing newsreels of the death camps. Perhaps for Britain, being part of Europe, and for a time under very real threat of invasion and incorporation into the Nazi Reich, not to mention the Blitz, still scarring the landscape in my childhood, it was a more intimate memory - total war, involving every member of the community. I suspect this was not the case for Americans, except those who actually fought in it - who, indeed, probably wanted to forget it. Certainly for my British generation it was less history than still news - albeit yesterday's.

  • 1
    Apologies: I downvoted your answer before I realised that the OP had edited her question after you'd answered it. I couldn't remove my downvote without your post being edited, so made a minor edit. Feel free to revert!
    – Shimon bM
    Jan 26, 2017 at 21:59
  • @ShimonbM No problem! Thanks for going to the trouble to reverse your down vote!
    – TheHonRose
    Jan 27, 2017 at 3:22

There appears to be an explanation in the book Generations by (the late) William Strauss and Neil Howe. It has to do with kinds of people, specifically generations, that became teachers immediately after World War II.

The older of these two was the so-called World War II generation. This generation provided the soldiers that beat the Nazis, but having lived the horrors of war, they didn't want to talk about it, least of all to their children. The younger of the two generations was born just before World War II, and was carefully protected from knowledge of "it," (that is, the war) when they were children. That generation was called the Silent generation.

It was only the Baby Boom generation, born (mostly) after the war, that was concerned with "causes and consequences" of the war. This was a very "loud," idealistic generation that "raised consciousness" in all aspects of American society, including civil rights. This generation became schoolteachers in the 1970s, (not 1960s), which is why the Holocaust became a hot topic at the time. It was a generation far enough removed from the war not to be directly affected, and therefore able to examine it objectively, yet close enough to feel a proximity to it.

  • This answer is similar to my uneducated guess: "too fresh in memory". I would also think that some of the teachers of the early post-WWII era may also have sympathized with the nazi agenda, due to its widespread appeal to some. These people would later find out the consequences of the political climate they supported, directly, or indirectly, so it would be an uncomfortable topic to many.
    – Jarmund
    Jul 20, 2015 at 18:48

Having been a compulsive reader of my (USA) school history texts, I can tell you that up until at least the 70's, very few went that far forward. My grade school texts (which were quite old) didn't really go past Reconstruction. This was probably plenty, because I never once had a teacher who managed to make it all the way through the text anyway. I don't believe I ever even had a school history course cover World War I events, let alone II.

As to why they ended there, that's arguably a good thing. Many people (even quite a few on this site) will argue that any event for which the majority of the active participants are still alive is not yet "history", but rather a recent event. Technically you could argue that anything for which any participant is still alive is not fully history. Its not really possible (or at least easy) to take a proper dispassionate historical view of events when you have first-hand knowledge of them at hand. Certainly if you throw in all the extra passions involved with parents in a school environment, it would be next to impossible to pull off properly.

In the 1950's and '60's, I think its inarguable that the events of the late 40's were still very much current.

Popular media of the time certainly picked up the slack though. WWII movies were a major genre back then, as were novels, histories (both popular and academic), and TV and radio works. This included works on the Holocaust, such as this mini-series from 1978. This list of Holocaust-themed films includes 11 US films from 1946 to 1967.

  • 4
    I particularly remember a TV movie I saw in the 70's about a holocaust denier (yes, we had them back then), who got outed on national radio when an ex-Nazi called in live to complain that not only did he personally participate, but he was proud of it and insisted the guy quit lying to cover up Nazi accomplishments. Dramatized obviously, but it makes the point that denialisim is much harder when everybody has first-hand accounts around to speak against you.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 20, 2015 at 2:19

I understand in Germany the children were not taught about WWII during the 1950's, which led to many who do not believe the Holocaust ever happened. I went to parochial schools during the 1960's and we were taught of WWII in history, although it was not called the Holocaust. But it was not until 4th grade that we were taught more of the darker side of history and it was considered modern US history. And took US History in high school in the early 70's and learned of Dachau and Auschwitz. We did not learn of all of the particular concentration camps but knew there were many of them. But then again we did have Hogan's Heroes on Tv during the 60's, so although it was comedic relief it made it a bit easier to have talks about the war.

  • With Germany you obviously mean West Germany. In the GDR the crimes of the Nazis were very high on the curriculum.
    – fdb
    Jul 25, 2017 at 18:41

I also recall that the internment of American citizens was either barely touched on or simply ignored in HS history courses a few decades ago as was, for example, the Tulsa massacre in 1921. To be the devil's advocate: HS history tended to ignore unpleasant things. Columbus was treated as a great man also.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.