‘Textbook Portrayals of Britain and the Holocaust’

Daniel Adamson, Durham University


The relationship between Britain and the Holocaust – both at the time and retrospectively – was complex, to say the least. It has been a response marked by action, apathy, and ambiguity.[1] In the 1930s, the immigration of persecuted groups was a central issue. Britain both facilitated and obstructed the paths of refugees fleeing from Nazi Europe. During the Second World War, responding directly to the Holocaust was not a prime concern of the British government, despite a knowledge of unfolding atrocities. The relationship between Britain and the Holocaust became subsumed into the wider war effort. Yet from 1945 onwards, despite periods of relative ‘silence’, Holocaust memory has come to form a significant element of British public consciousness. In 1991, the Holocaust became a mandatory topic in the National Curriculum.

In broad terms, my doctoral project explores the ways in which the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust has been depicted in educational settings: in particular, school classrooms and museums. This strand of my research focuses on portrayals of the British response in textbooks designed for use in schools.

Textbooks remain a key vehicle of teaching and learning in schools in the United Kingdom.[2] As a genre of educational research, textbook analysis offers valuable insight into the learning experiences of students and teachers at any given point.

Research strategy

My desire to sample Holocaust representation in school textbooks required due methodological thought. In the interests of creating a focused sample set, I chose to concentrate on English-language publications designed to be used as part of the History curriculum. Given 1991’s watershed moment in Holocaust education, it also appeared logical to place emphasis on textbooks published after this date.

A mixed methodology proved attractive. Quantitative analysis would provide a broad-brush overview of general patterns, whilst qualitative analysis could facilitate a more detailed dive into the specifics of the materials I encountered. The practice of ‘content analysis’, as codified by Krippendorff, would be especially instructive.[3]

Initially, some 43 textbooks were obtained for investigation. These were drawn mostly from the archives of the Institute of Education at University College London. I then performed a triage exercise. Each textbook was analysed to discover whether it contained reference to the Holocaust in general. If so, these publications were further scrutinised for engagement – in any capacity – with the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust. At the end of this process, 23 of the original sample set (53.4%) were left remaining for closer analysis.

In the interests of eliminating unconscious bias, each textbook was assigned an anonymised letter code (from A to W).

Selected quantative findings

Quantitative analysis of the 23 books sampled highlighted some intriguing general patterns. It was noticeable that coverage of the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust occurred most frequently in publications targeted at a younger audience (namely KS3 and GCSE students).

This, in itself, raised certain questions. As outlined at the start of this blog, the British response to the Holocaust is a topic which must be treated with considerable nuance, due to its intricacy. Yet, on the surface, it seemed unlikely that students at KS3 and GCSE level would have the academic capabilities to explore the subject in adequate depth.

Thematic distribution of sub-themes of the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust was also somewhat surprising. There was a weighting towards exploring the British response only within the parameters of the Second World War (1939-1945). Aspects of the Holocaust either side of this time period (such as antisemtism in the 1930s or the concept of post-war Holocaust memory) received relatively little attention. Even the Kindertransport, which has been vaunted at times within the landscape of British Holocaust consciousness, did not receive frequent attention.

Selected qualitative findings

When each of the themes highlighted above was probed in more depth, it revealed a tendency for the British response to be treated in cursory terms, with little meaningful criticality.

Where they did occur, depictions of the milieu of the 1930s, commonly gave the impression that Britain was not truly touched by the experiences afflicting mainland Europe at the time. Textbook P (1998), for example, was exceptional in its use of contemporary extracts from The Times and Jewish Chronicle to illustrate examples of antisemitism that occurred in the United Kingdom.

The British approach to Holocaust refugeeism was, admittedly, treated with more criticality. Textbook Q (1999) described Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax as ‘“mildly anti-Semitic”’, and his successor Anthony Eden was labelled ‘” hopelessly prejudiced against Jews”’. These examples from textbooks provided an important reminder that uncomfortable issues were not necessarily avoided altogether: but the extent to which they were probed was almost always very limited.        

However, it was only in textbooks aimed at a post-16 years old audience that supplied to students the specific details of wartime British interaction with the Holocaust. Textbook Q (1999) again provided crucial information relating to the extent of contemporaneous Allied knowledge of the genocide. For instance, the Riegner Telegram of 1942 (an account of the Wannsee Conference), was analysed in depth. But in the case of most other textbooks, it was difficult to imagine how students could have been equipped with little more than a passing understanding of how the Holocaust fitted into the British wartime narrative.

Key takeaways

There is not sufficient space in a short blog and presentation to do justice to the full findings of my research into textbook portrayals of the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust. In broad terms, however, some headline findings might be offered.

  • Coverage occurred relatively frequently, but lacked depth and complexity

The relationship between Britain and the Holocaust was not ignored completely in the textbooks sampled. It would be misleading to perceive an absolute ‘silence’ on the issue. But where it did occur, portrayals of the British response were characterised by a lack of sophistication. The complexities of this tangled historical topic were rarely explored in meaningful terms, and seem unlikely to have provided much enrichment of student understanding.

  • Separation of ‘Britain’ and the ‘Holocaust’ – but British role not necessarily glorified.

Part of the limited extent to which Britain and the Holocaust found representation appears attributable to a sense of detachment between the British and continental European experiences. Despite plenty of historical evidence to the contrary, there was a sense that the Holocaust was not truly part of ‘our’ British story. This said, there were few contrasting attempts to glorify British involvement in either the Holocaust or the Second World War. In general, textbooks were not opposed to the idea with airing more uncomfortable historical issues. Rather than an educational whitewashing, more likely seems to be a sense of benign neglect of the issue in question.

  • Textbook coverage influenced by intended audience

Somewhat intuitively, educational depth was proportional to target audiences. In other words, publications directed at younger age-ranges treated the Holocaust in much simpler terms than those aimed at older students. But – as outlined in Selected quantative findings – this was problematic given the distribution of the sample set. Coverage of the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust occurred most frequently at KS3 and GCSE level: precisely at the stage when students are perhaps least equipped to engage with the topic in adequate depth.

Broader questions raised

I acknowledge that this targeted study of a sample set of textbooks has methodological limitations. It is not intended to be representative of national trends, or to be definitive in its analysis. Yet, the findings of my research prompt wider questions which are of importance for the educational research community as a whole.

Is the Holocaust’s current place on the National Curriculum sufficient for meaningful teaching and learning? Are textbooks still an effective educational tool? And what is Holocaust education actually for, in today’s society?

There are no easy answers…

Daniel Adamson is a PhD student in the History Department of Durham University. He holds an MA in History from the University of Cambridge, an MA in History Education from University College London (UCL), and is also a PGCE-qualified teacher. Daniel’s doctoral research centres on portrayals – in educational settings – of the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust.


[1] For greater detail, consult The Wiener Holocaust Library, ‘British Response’, The Holocaust Explained (2021), accessed at https://www.theholocaustexplained.org/resistance-responses-collaboration/responses/british-response/

[2] This has long been the case – see Woodward, A., David L. Elliott, and K. C. Nagel. Textbooks in School and Society : An Annotated Bibliography and Guide to Research. 1988.

[3] Krippendorff, Klaus. Content Analysis : An Introduction to Its Methodology / Klaus Krippendorff. 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, Calif. ; London: Sage, 2004)

1 comment / Add your comment below

  1. Hi Daniel,

    Let me begin by thanking you for such thought provoking study. The findings especially were well presented and intriguing. Would love to read the findings in their entirety. I always feel that textbooks are drafted because of various filters and perspectives, national, social, cultural and many more. I find the language of ‘othering’ especially problematic in textbooks (worldwide). I have noticed this in Indian textbooks all my life. I noticed it first time overseas when my daughter was studying history in year 7 and year 8 at GSCE. Personally it especially was troublesome the way colonisation of India and freedom struggle was dealt with in textbooks and the way it is taught. As a teacher educator and teacher myself (centuries ago …) the real aspect of teaching history in todays society seems to be lost in the teaching learning process.

    How do we change that? Instead of just briefly skimming upon events in history that have consequence more now that ever before. Isn’t this a missed opportunity to engage students beyond textbook level knowledge ? Would love to hear your suggestions .

    Thank you once again. All the best with you PhD.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *