A Republican State Board of Education member who believes socialism poses great dangers at home and abroad has put his stamp on how students in Colorado will learn about the Holocaust.
For the past year and a half, Steve Durham has pushed for the state’s academic standards to associate the Holocaust and other genocides with socialism. Durham managed to omit the word Nazi from an early version of the Standards in favor of the party’s full name, National Socialist German Workers Party.
Durham agreed to include the word Nazi after members of the Jewish community lobbied the State Board of Education—as long as the full name with the word Socialist stuck.
“People don’t know and have no right to know that this party was and is a socialist party,” Durham said at a board meeting in August. “This has largely eluded the American people and even a number of history teachers. I am against dumbing down the standards.”
Historians say that Durham is wrong about the Holocaust and about the roots of the genocide. The notion that Nazis are socialists is “a lie,” said David Ciarlo, a history professor at the University of Colorado who studies German politics. “That’s completely wrong.”
Nonetheless, Durham has exerted outsized influence on the genocide-related standards intended to guide education throughout Colorado. A key section, written largely by Durham, overrides recommendations from a committee of teachers and experts. For example, the approved standards drop references to the Rwandan genocide and add detailed references to the Chinese Communist Party.
The written standards “absolutely suggest to teachers that they should make a connection between genocide and socialism,” said John Gallup, a history teacher at Jefferson County Public Schools who recently returned from Auschwitz on a fellowship to teach genocide and did so verified standards upon request from Chalkbeat.
Durham’s influence, despite his misleading historical claims about the Holocaust, raises questions about the State Board of Education’s ability to properly arbitrate conflicts over history teaching as its members tackle a contentious update of broader social studies standards — and at a time when those struggles erupt nationwide. And in a state where teachers have limited access to Holocaust-specific curriculum or training programs, some see the attention paid to socialism as an annoying distraction.
“It feels very anti-Semitic, frankly,” said Democratic Rep. Dafna Michaelson-Jenet, a co-supporter of legislation mandating Holocaust education nationwide. She sees the latest standards as an attempt to score political points rather than teaching about the murder of Jews and other minority groups. “You erase the violence that happened by making it something it wasn’t.”
The meaning and memory of the Holocaust has become another battleground in the struggle over what students should learn about history, race and gender. A Texas school administrator urged teachers to weigh books about the Holocaust with “opposing views.” A Tennessee school board voted to remove the acclaimed graphic novel Mouse from its curriculum because it depicts “unnecessary profanity and nudity and violence and suicide.”
The Holocaust also remains a powerful symbol of evil that can be used – or abused – in political disputes. Opponents of vaccination regulations have donned yellow star badges similar to those the Nazis forced Jews to wear. At a rally last year, Republican US Representative and conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene linked the Nazis and what is now the Democratic Party, calling them both “National Socialist parties.”
But teaching the Holocaust should not be divisive in Colorado.
A state law passed in 2020 with broad bipartisan support required high school students to learn about the Holocaust and other genocides before graduating from high school. (Many schools have already included the Holocaust in history and literature classes, but it was not a requirement.)
Following the legislation, a committee of experts and teachers made recommendations for what students should learn. When the State Board of Education received it in spring 2021, Republicans raised a variety of objections, many of which stemmed from current policy concerns — a topic of discussions that would take place next year. The Democrats outnumber the Republicans on the board.
Republicans, for example, dismissed references to mass violence and said the Standards should then also refer to recent violent protests in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle following the killing of George Floyd.
Durham saw something else wrong with the recommendations. While they mentioned the genocide in Cambodia, they remained silent about the crimes of the Soviet Union and communist China. He suggested adding those events, saying the standards should name the governments — like the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — that carried out genocides.
CEO Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat, was largely silent on the content of these talks and later declined an interview request. She and fellow Democrat Rebecca McClellan eventually voted with Republicans to accept Durham’s proposal, with McClellan praising its inclusion of Uyghur oppression.
chalk stroke is a nonprofit news site about educational changes in public schools.