The XX Factor

Was Hitler a Bully? Teaching the Holocaust to Kids

Is it a bad idea to compare Hilter to a bully? 

Should I allow my 5-year-old daughter to embrace the world of Disney, or break Prince Charming’s spell by pointing out that royalty got awesome castles by exploiting poor serfs? Answers to questions like this define a parent’s outlook on what childhood should be like. Despite my exposure to critical gender studies, I generally encourage my daughter to get her politically incorrect princess on. So, imagine my dismay at discovering that her kindergarten class planned to commemorate Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) by discussing a person called “Bully Hitler.”

To be fair, the teachers did their best when comparing the worst criminal in history to a playground tormentor. By combining Chrysanthemum, a story about a young girl bullied because of her unusual name, with the forest-animal tale Terrible Things: An Allegory About the Holocaust, no traumatic detail was ever uttered. Nobody mentioned concentration camps filled with emaciated prisoners and flesh incinerating ovens. And that’s a good thing, because 5- and 6-year-olds just can’t grasp the complexity of the Holocaust.

Young children do, however, understand bullying. And since bullying is dangerous and pervasive, kindergartners should be taught how to identify and properly respond to its troubling manifestations. As with “stranger danger” training, promoting safety requires piercing the innocence bubble with some knowledge of potential peril. Indeed, to advocate for a “pure childhood” is to recommend a dangerous naiveté.

So, why not depict Hitler as the ultimate bully? After all, he deliberately used power to harm and intimidate others who were weaker and different. Why not go further and depict the tragedy of the Holocaust as a widespread willingness to follow a bully’s lead? Much of early childhood education is based on simplifications. Why not offer up nuggets of partial truth that can foster outrage at bullying and willingness to help their victims?     

Equating Hitler with bullies comes at a steep moral price. It drastically raises the severity of the types of actions bullies do: teasing, taunting, and, at times, beating people up. It also risks equating systematic extermination with a bully’s cruel behavior. Hitler wasn’t cruel. That term doesn’t go far enough—he was evil. 

Two recent news stories illustrate why it is a serious problem to reference Hitler in a cavalier fashion. In West Virginia, John Raese, a candidate for U.S. Senate, just “equated a county smoking ban with Hitler forcing Jews to wear the Star of David at a recent Republican event.” In Illinois, Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky expressed dismay with President Barack Obama by saying he is on “‘a similar path’ as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.” Such Orwellian newspeak is commonplace in today’s bitter political climate. Have moderate views on gun control? Prepare yourself for Hitler comparisons.

When anything can be equated with Hitler, he doesn’t seem so bad. Overstretching the term disrespects everyone affected by Nazi terror. It also magnifies less severe offenses, giving them an undeserved taint. Morality is hard enough to assess with careful language.    

Fortunately, children this young are not bound by a moral duty to come to grips with a troubling past. Instead, they are entitled to as much innocence as is feasible. My advice: If kindergartners accidentally stumble upon Holocaust material, go for damage control. Let their obligations expand as they get older.