Why children should know the worst;Reviews;Books

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Tom Deveson on a disturbing but vital history resource.

Clive Lawton has thought very carefully about his book, The Story of the Holocaust, (Watts pound;10.99) and he wants to make others think as well. A former headteacher who has also been a magistrate and vice-chair of the Anne Frank Educational Trust, he is refreshingly undidactic. "I want the book to be factual," he says, "which is not the same as dispassionate. I don't want to point a facile moral lesson. I want readers to make up their own minds."

Only recently have adults thought it right to let children know about the worst of which humanity is capable. Some have argued that such depravity should be concealed until they can begin to form independent ethical or historical judgments.

But swastikas and SS flashes are already out there, on television or chalked on walls, and Lawton believes children need to know their meaning rather than be the powerless victims of unmediated imagery.

He has scrupulously chosen pictures that are as important as his words in telling the worst of stories. A blurred photograph of a couple standing outside a shop could be anywhere in the Western world sometime between 1890 and 1930. A closer look reveals a smashed window. An examination of the text reveals that this was in Britain at the time of Hitler's first putsch. Anti-Semitism was not confined to Germany, and Lawton provides a brief survey of the roots of Nazism in European history.

Lawton draws on a range of illustrative material that will need careful handling but which is fundamental to his narrative. Here are scurrilous caricatures of Jews from a 1936 schoolbook, with smiling blond Aryan boys and girls bullying their sullen "alien" contemporaries. The possibility of mass killing is foreshadowed in a playground game.

Lawton is careful in his choice of terminology. "German" is used in contexts when the authority of the state is referred to or when the norm is that of a national army. "Nazi" is used to denote the effective application of racist - and finally murderous - ideology. He makes it clear that other groups - gypsies, blacks and Slavs - were considered racially inferior, and that concentration camps contained journalists, trade unionists and homosexuals who were as "purely" German as their oppressors.

The ultimate crime of mechanised scientific destruction is presented with succinct dignity. There is a paragraph from an eyewitness, a terrible picture of piled-up bodies and a straightforward statement of how Auschwitz and Buchenwald operated. The bitter ironies of liberation, when some prisoners were killed by the kindness of improved nutrition, are not overlooked. A two-page spread of significant dates between 1918 and 1946 will be most useful to adults as well as children.

Lawton does not end his book with the Final Solution. He shows evidence of genocide in our own times and, pointedly, he ends with neither despair nor glib optimism, but with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights opposite a haunting image of children behind barbed wire.

This book can only do good, by making children think as well as feel and, above all, by making them ask disturbing but necessary questions.

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