"Filling up the darkest places"

Via Ahistoricality, I've come across a rather disturbing story:
A poem which praises the murder of Jews by the Nazis has been included in a book of children’s poetry to be distributed amongst schools in the UK.

The publication, entitled Great Minds, features the work of school children aged 11 to 18 who won a nationwide literary competition.

But one poem has generated outrage amongst Jewish groups, politicians and Holocaust charities for its anti-Semitic content.

The entry by the 14-year-old Gideon Taylor is apparently written from the viewpoint of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

It includes the lines "Jews are here, Jews are there, Jews are almost everywhere, filling up the darkest places, evil looks upon their faces."

Another part reads: "Make them take many paces for being one of the worst races, on their way to a gas chamber, where they will sleep in their manger… I'll be happy Jews have died."
The poem was one of the winners of a writing competition known as Great Minds run through the Young Writers website, with the authors and schools of winning entries awarded cash prizes. The editor defended the selection thusly:
Young Writers editor Steve Twelvetree, who also edited the book, said the poem was included as it illustrated how the writer was able to empathise with the infamous Nazi Fuehrer.

Twelvetree told the Telegraph: "From Gideon's poem and my knowledge of the National Curriculum Key Stage 3 his poem shows a good use of technical writing and he has written his poem from the perspective of Adolf Hitler.”

The editor continued: "Key Stage 3 history requires pupils to show knowledge and understanding of events and places - to show historical interpretation and to explain significance of events, people and places, all of which World War II and the Holocaust is part of.

"The poem clearly states 'I am Adolf Hitler' and it recounts a historical fact, something Young Writers and Forward Press are not willing to censor."
I'm afraid the editor is erecting a bit of a straw man here. No one is asking him to "censor" anything. They are, however, questioning Forward Press's judgment in including such an inflammatory poem in a book of creative writing by children that will be distributed to schools. Publishers make editorial decisions about what is appropriate to include in textbooks all the time and often leave out material that is controversial. (Clearly, the publisher realized that this would cause controversy, as this particular poem was the only piece of writing for which the school was not listed, although the student's name was included.) What made them decide in this particular case that including something that would clearly anger a lot of people?

I'm a bit of two minds on this one and not quite as disapproving as Ahistoricality. On the one hand, I can sort of see the value of an exercise in which a student writes a poem from Hitler's perspective, if perhaps it was a high school junior or senior level or college level class at least. For such young students, however, it might run the risk of having the student empathize a little too much with Hitler's point of view. It could work, however. A far better exercise to try to examine Hitler's motivation would be to require the reading of Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, which looks at various interpretations of Hitler's motivations or how he became so evil, ranging from his truly believing that he was doing good, serving his people, and doing Europe a great favor by ridding it of Jews to a cynical schemer whose anti-Semitism was more opportunistic. (I have a hard time believing the latter, though. Only a true believer would divert troops and resources to keep the trains to Auschwitz running on time and the gas chambers operating, instead of using all those resources to try to stop the advancing Red Army.) The book also examines (and largely debunks) other proposed explanations, such as the claim that Hitler had Jewish ancestry that he was ashamed of (making him, I guess, the ultimate "self-hating Jew") and the "one ball" theory. It provides a fascinating look at what might have been Hitler's motivations and, in doing so, provides an equally fascinating portrait of how historians' and people's views of Hitler's motivations and how they look at Hitler have changed over the decades.

On the other hand, I really can't see including the results of such an exercise in a book of children's poetry to be distributed to schools, and the publisher deserves a lot of the heat it is getting. As Ahistoricality pointed out, the poem included seems to be "doggerel displaying the shallowest genocidal paranoia." However, even so, I do not think the poem should be censored, as at least one of the publisher's critics seems to be arguing that it should, stating: "It's an incitement to racial hatred." In many European countries, including the U.K., "incitements to racial hatred" are illegal, subject to penalties, which implies that the person quoted wants the book censored.

Personally, I consider such censorship of alleged "hate speech" to be misguided. After all, do you want the government deciding what is and is not "hate speech"? That's yet another reason that I'm glad that we have the First Amendment to make such misguided tendencies to censor offensive speech far more difficult.


  1. I agree that historical empathy (not sympathy, mind you) is a crucial tool, even with historical figures as fundamentally destructive and appalling as Hitler. Without seeing the entire poem, it's hard to be sure but it's not clear to me that this poem was a particularly effective exercise (or, for that matter, the result of a classroom exercise at all).

    And we also basically agree on both the matter of editorial judgement (frankly, I think the publishers are using this student to advance their own names; they knew a sharp response was going to come and, though they left the student's location off the poem, they left his perfectly identifiable name and age attached) and the highly problematic nature of hate speech/racial incitement censorship and criminal law.

  2. I think ahistoricality is right to suspect the publishers of fishing for an outcry. This was a contest, which means they deliberately chose that piece as a winner -- it wasn't a question of having agreed to publish all the verses entered, or anything like that. I find it difficult to believe that no better work was entered.


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