Alarming Lack of Holocaust Knowledge Among Young Americans Revealed in New Survey

Yad Vashem archives. (Yad Vashem.)

A new Economist/YouGov survey has gotten a lot of media attention because of its finding that 1 in 5 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 believe the Holocaust is a “myth.” This is indeed a troubling result. But it’s somewhat less bad than it looks. Ambiguities in the survey question make it seem worse than might actually be the case. In addition, much of the ignorance here may be just one facet of widespread general public ignorance about politics and history, rather than an indicator of neo-Nazism or anti-Semitism. That latter point is simultaneously comforting and troubling.

The question in the survey asks responds whether they “strongly agree,” “tend to agree,” “tend to disagree,” “strongly disagree,” or “neither agree nor disagree” with the statement that “the Holocaust is a myth.” In the sample as a whole, only 7% picked “strongly agree” (2%) or “tend to agree” (5%). But among young people (age 18-29), the figure was 20% (8% “strongly agree” and 12% “tend to agree”). This is the figure that has understandably caused consternation.

Some of that outrage is justified. The Holocaust is one of the worst events in all of human history and one of the best documented. There is no even remotely plausible reason to consider it a myth. Such claims are in the same boat as those of people who think the Earth is flat, or that the Moon landings were faked.

At the same time, the survey is result is somewhat less awful than it might seem. There are two ambiguities in the question wording that likely have the effect of making things seem worse than the underlying reality. First, a majority of those who endorse the statement picked “tend to agree” rather than “strongly agree.” The phrase “tend to agree” is ambiguous enough to include everything from having a slight tendency towards agreement to having a very strong one. Even the former is problematic, when it comes to a statement like this one. But it’s much less bad than the latter.

A second relevant ambiguity is that the question doesn’t distinguish between people who know what the term “Holocaust” refers to and those who don’t. The latter may seem implausible. Who doesn’t know what “Holocaust” means. But much evidence shows widespread public ignorance of basic facts of history, science, politics, and even the basic structure of government. A majority of Americans can’t name the three branches of government, don’t know when the Civil War happened, and support mandatory labeling of food containing DNA (the latter probably because they don’t understand what DNA). And most surveys of political and historical knowledge find that it is inversely correlated with age; that is, younger people tend to know less than older ones. The latter phenomenon isn’t confined to the present generation of young people. Survey researchers found the same thing with previous generations when they were young.

A person who doesn’t know what the term “Holocaust” refers to might say they “tend to a agree” it’s a myth precisely because of that ignorance. If it was a real thing, they might reason, I would know about it!

In one sense, being ignorant about the meaning of “Holocaust” is even worse than knowing what it refers to, but still thinking it a myth. The person who believes the former may be even more ignorant than one who believes the latter. But someone who simply doesn’t know the meaning of the word is far less likely to be an anti-Semite, a neo-Nazi or some other type of committed Holocaust denier. She is likely just unfamiliar with history and politics, generally.

Some people who believe the Holocaust is a myth really are anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, or adherents of other horrible ideologies. But many are probably just ignorant without being malicious.

It is also important to emphasize that ignorance about the Holocaust is a facet of more general widespread public ignorance of history, politics, and economics. What I said about a previous survey finding widespread ignorance about the Holocaust is relevant here, as well:

In some respects, therefore, surveys showing that large numbers of people are ignorant about the Holocaust are less troubling than they might seem to be. They aren’t necessarily an indication of either widespread anti-Semitism or unusually severe ignorance about the Holocaust relative to other major historical events.

In another way, the fact that such ignorance is not unique to the Holocaust actually makes the situation even more concerning. Political and historical ignorance can and does cause harm across a wide range of issues, not just those related to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and related questions.

And if the problem is a general one, that makes it harder to solve than if it were limited to knowledge of the Holocaust. I go over the strengths and weaknesses of various possible strategies to mitigate political ignorance in this recent article.