“Shocking Levels of Ignorance”

Do millennials really believe the Holocaust was “exaggerated”—or caused by Jews?

A shadow of a person scratching their head is cast over headlines about Holocaust knowledge statistics.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by IanaChyrva/iStock/Getty Images Plus and the Guardian, NBC News, the NYT, and the Washington Post.

Recently, you may have heard that many young Americans are unaware of what happened in the Holocaust, or who was to blame for it. Worse, many believed it was a “myth” or “exaggerated.” “Nearly Two-Thirds of US Young Adults Unaware 6m Jews Killed in the Holocaust,” a headline blared in the Guardian, over a piece that asserted “shocking levels of ignorance about the greatest crime of the 20th century.” NBC News also reported the numbers, writing that the survey “showed that many respondents were unclear about the basic facts of the genocide.”

The study in question came from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. It included people ages 18–39 in all 50 states, and it generated a number of alarming statistics, including that 11 percent of survey respondents “believe the Jews caused the Holocaust.”

If young Americans’ shocking ignorance sounds familiar, that’s because the Claims Conference and other organizations have commissioned similar surveys on Holocaust knowledge for decades—often with explosive results. Just two years ago, the Claims Conference released another survey of Americans that found “Two-Thirds of Millennials Don’t Know What Auschwitz Is,” as a Washington Post headline summarized it. The New York Times reported on the numbers at the time as proof that the “Holocaust is fading from memory.” Lest it appear the group is singling out Americans, the Claims Conference also released surveys with “stunning” results from Canada, France, and Austria.

But a deeper look at the Claims Conference data, which was collected by the firm Schoen Cooperman Research, reveals methodological choices that conflate specific terms (the ability to ID Auschwitz) and figures (that 6 million Jews were murdered) about the Holocaust with general knowledge of it, and knowledge with attitudes or beliefs toward Jews and Judaism. This is not to discount the real issues of anti-Semitism in the United States. But it is an important reminder that the Claims Conference, which seeks restitution for the victims of Nazi persecution and also to “ensure that future generations learn the lessons of the Holocaust,” is doing its job: generating data and headlines that it hopes will support its worthy cause.

The new Claims Conference survey is actually divided into two, with one set of data from a 1,000-person national survey and another set from 50 state-by-state surveys of 200 people each. In both iterations, the pollsters aimed to assess Holocaust knowledge according to three foundational criteria: the ability to recognize the term the Holocaust, name a concentration camp, and state the number of Jews murdered. The results weren’t great—fully 12 percent of national survey respondents had not or did not think they had heard the term Holocaust—but some of the questions weren’t necessarily written to help respondents succeed. Only 44 percent were “familiar with Auschwitz,” according to the executive summary of the data, but that statistic was determined by an open-ended question: “Can you name any concentration camps, death camps, or ghettos you have heard of?” This type of active, as opposed to passive, recall is not necessarily indicative of real knowledge. The Claims Conference also emphasized that 36 percent of respondents “believe” 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust (the correct answer is 6 million), but respondents were actually given a multiple-choice question with seven options—25,000, 100,000, 1 million, 2 million, 6 million, 20 million, and “not sure”—four of which were lowball figures. (Six million was by far the most common answer, at 37 percent, followed by “not sure.”)

“Any one question by itself can be thought of as just trivia,” said Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, which published the results of its own Holocaust knowledge survey this January. (By policy, Pew does not comment on outside surveys, but Cooperman agreed to speak with me about surveying religious knowledge and attitudes more broadly.) “I don’t think there’s any objective standard for how much knowledge someone should have about something,” he told me. “It’s always good to know more, but who’s to say what’s insufficient?” It’s also not difficult to imagine how posing a question a little differently—asking “What is Auschwitz?” for example, and providing multiple-choice answers—might generate a different result.

Even more complicated is when so-called “trivia” questions are used as proxies for questions probing respondents’ attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. In the Claims Conference survey, “the questions measure a set of assumptions and attitudes and knowledge all at once,” said Andrea Orzoff, an associate professor of history at New Mexico State University and a Holocaust scholar who was not involved in the survey. “In some cases, the questions are written in such a way as to highlight, without stating it specifically, some skepticism with official history—with the official record—and making that look like Holocaust denial.” For example, the belief that the numbers of Jews murdered in the Holocaust is under 2 million—or that the history is generally “exaggerated”—can be a form of Holocaust denialism. But whether respondents are actually Holocaust deniers or simply uninformed on some specific details about the Holocaust was not something the Claims Conference survey was equipped to assess.

This complexity is especially clear in the question behind the much-publicized statistic that 11 percent of Gen Z and millennial respondents surveyed nationally believe Jews caused the Holocaust, a disturbing bit of victim-blaming on a grand-historical scale. But the firm asked the question in an open-ended format (“Who or what do you think caused the Holocaust?”) and multiple answers were accepted. The vast majority correctly named Hitler, the Nazis, and Germany as culprits. It is not clear if, or how many, named Jews alone, or whether they actually intended to blame Jews.

Schoen Cooperman Research could not immediately answer how many respondents blamed Jews alone. But a representative of the firm, Arielle Confino, said that drawing conclusions about people’s attitudes from this data was warranted. “From my point of view, knowledge and attitudes and misperceptions, particularly about something like the Holocaust, are just intertwined,” she told me. Confino pointed to the large numbers (49 percent in the national Claims Conference survey) of young Americans who have seen Holocaust denial or distortion on social media and other platforms: “It really all goes hand in hand, where you take someone who really does not know really much or anything at all about the Holocaust, you have that person being inundated with disinformation about Jews or about the Holocaust online, and then lo and behold they hold anti-Semitic tendencies.” (The Claims Conference survey did not find that many American millennials and or Gen Zers are “inundated” with disinformation about Jews or the Holocaust; about 10 percent said they had seen such material “often.”)

Asked about the survey, the Claims Conference offered less certainty about the relationship between beliefs and knowledge. “The survey is just data points,” said Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, and any conclusions drawn from the data are secondary. “There might be questions [where] one could draw implications” about attitudes, he said, but he emphasized the organization’s interest in knowledge gaps, which he hopes will inform the school districts and teachers responsible for carrying on Holocaust survivors’ memories.

Schneider nevertheless defended the foundational questions. On the Auschwitz statistic, for example, he told me: “Auschwitz is synonymous with evil. And to not know what Auschwitz is an indication that you really don’t have a sense of what the Holocaust was or what happened during the Holocaust.” He added, “If you don’t know what happened or what Auschwitz is and why it’s important, then obviously you’re not in a position to have learned the lessons of the Holocaust.” But still in doubt is whether the survey actually showed that 56 percent of millennials and Gen Zers “don’t know what happened or what Auschwitz is” or if they just couldn’t come up with anything when a pollster asked them to name a concentration camp.

Whether or not the assumptions in the Claims Conference survey are fair, and how to tell, is at the core of a decadeslong debate over Holocaust knowledge surveys, which are notoriously difficult to design. In 1994, Roper Starch Worldwide, which conducted a poll for the American Jewish Committee, admitted that its widely publicized Holocaust denial question was “flawed.” Initially, it appeared that 1 in 5, or 22 percent, of Americans thought it was possible the Holocaust never happened. But pollsters later determined that the question—“Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?”—was confusing and biased the sample. In a subsequent Gallup poll, when asked to explain their views on the Holocaust in their own words, “only about 4 percent [of Americans] have real doubts about the Holocaust; the others are just insecure about their historical knowledge or won’t believe anything they have not experienced themselves,” according to an Associated Press report at the time. More recently, the Anti-Defamation League was criticized for a 2014 worldwide study that asked respondents to rate 11 statements—“People hate Jews because of the way they behave, for example”—as “probably true” or “probably false.” If respondents said “probably true” to six or more of the statements, they were considered to harbor anti-Semitic views, a line that many experts said could not adequately represent real beliefs.

To address this problem, Cooperman, the Pew researcher, pointed to a question in the center’s own study designed to test whether ignorance about specific figures and locations from the Holocaust indicates anti-Jewish sentiment. The Pew center used a “feeling thermometer,” which asked respondents to rate the warmth of their feelings to a given group on a scale of 0 to 100. While people who knew more about the Holocaust had slightly warmer feelings toward Jews, Pew determined that of the 15 percent of total respondents who underestimated the Holocaust’s death toll, about 9 in 10 expressed “warm” or “neutral” feelings about Jews. Only 1 in 10 of that 15 percent expressed “cold” feelings.

While public opinion data makes headlines and can offer important insight, Cooperman stressed that its applicability on such thorny issues as attitudes toward people of other races, ethnicities, or religious affiliations is limited. “The most important measure of anti-Semitism is not public opinion,” he said. Rather, Cooperman pointed to the importance of tracking the changes in the number of hate crimes against Jews over time—and society’s response to them. Last year saw the highest rate of anti-Semitic crime since the ADL began tracking these numbers in 1979, with 2,107 hates crimes against Jewish people reported in the U.S.

Perhaps it’s because of that environment that the Claims Conference numbers got so much attention. But Holocaust education—the purported emphasis of this survey—remains a widespread cultural value in the United States. In fact, in addition to statistics indicative of ignorance and anti-Semitism, the Claims Conference’s own survey data from 2018 and 2020 has shown that the majority of Americans consistently express the desire for more Holocaust education, a commitment to educating future generations, and the belief that it happened.

Continued Holocaust education alone won’t solve systemic racism and violence. But if Holocaust scholars like Orzoff have their way, the future of Holocaust education won’t only teach Americans the real number of Jews who were killed or the names of the most famous concentration camps. It will also focus on explaining the process by which Germany went from a democratic state to a genocidal one in the span of roughly a decade, and that Hitler’s rise to power was a symptom of decay, not its origin. The choices of everyday Germans become more central in this telling, so that students can see themselves in the story.

“The process really matters,” Orzoff said. “The process should be at the heart of the way we teach political violence.” And, perhaps, reflected in our public opinion research.