‘Monsters in our midst’: the importance of education in genocide prevention

‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.’ Primo Levi, ‘The Reawakening’, 1995


Quotations can sometimes seem somewhat cliché when reading an article, as if borrowed words seem destined to impart wisdom and seriousness to the reader. When discussing the horrors of the Holocaust, however, I believe they are entirely appropriate. Individually, we cannot seek to imagine the carnage and utter destruction that occurred under the Third Reich, which systematically targeted not only Jews but homosexuals, the disabled, the Roma and many others. Here, borrowed words and stories are vitally important, particularly those of survivors who suffered through the atrocities perpetrated by the German state. They are personal and unique, accounts that reveal the best and worst of humanity.

As a typical student I turned to Wikipedia when writing this article for more information. I was greeted by the following:

‘The Holocaust, also referred to as the Shoah, was a genocide during World War II in which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, aided by its collaborators, systematically murdered some six million European Jews, around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe.’

It is here that my issue lies. What is a number to someone living in 2018? Of course, six million is a huge number, but that’s all it is, a measurement, simply ink on a page. It isn’t someone’s brother or sister, the snatched life of a child, the destruction of a family or, indeed, the shame of a nation.

Numbers anaesthetise, they are impersonal, they wash away the worst of suffering.

I don’t seek to suggest this is purposeful, simply a sad fact that, as more and more survivors and witnesses pass away, so too their stories fade into history.

More work must be done to preserve their memory so that future generations can hear their stories. Numbers and museums aren’t enough to make sure ‘Never Again’ becomes a reality. The National Holocaust Centre in the UK and the Shoah Foundation in the USA are leading the way here with their ‘Forever Project’, recording survivors’ testimony.

There is, however, much work still to be done both in ensuring this testimony is not lost and in challenging hatred and persecution wherever it may raise its head.

In the words of Primo Levi, ‘monsters exist’, they always have done and, unfortunately, they always will. Such is the fact of life that evil is ever-present with us.

What makes these people dangerous, however, are the followers: the people carrying out the orders on behalf of their superiors. In other words the role played by ordinary people like you and me.

Understanding why people follow such monsters is integral to understanding why and how genocides are perpetrated; from the horrors of the Holocaust to Rwanda and even today with the atrocities currently unfolding in Rakhine against the Rohingya.

Our approach to genocide prevention therefore should not be divorced from that of memorialisation, for the two are intrinsically linked. In exposing our young people to survivors’ testimony we educate them in a way a textbook simply cannot, we relate to them the true suffering of those who lived under the Third Reich in a personal, relatable manner, creating a core constituency of those who will challenge racism and bigotry wherever they see it.

Sadly, ‘monsters’ will always be a fact of our society. However, in educating our young people we immunise them against their hateful rhetoric and deprive them of their followers, which are so vital to carrying out such atrocities.

Education is but a small step in our aim to create a world free of genocide, but it is a vital one, for in educating about the past we insure ourselves against the future.


This blog post was written by James Dane, on of Stand UK's Regional Organisers.