Teacher | Student
Originally produced in: France
Also available in: en

Curricular level

History (8th grade: 14-15 years old): “II – world wars and totalitarian regimes (1914-1945) – Topic 3 “The Second World War: a war of annihilation (1939-1945)”, « Programmes du collège. Programmes de l’enseignement d’histoire-géographie-éducation civique », Bulletin officiel de l’Éducation nationale spécial n° 6 du 28 août 2008, p. 42. France


When soldiers of Allies army freed Europe, they discovered the scale of atrocities committed by the occupants, but, it took several weeks to understand the realities of the Nazi concentration camp system and the specificity of the Genocide that suffered the Jewish populations in Europe. “The sites liberation and the liberation of people should be distinguished. Indeed, many times, as the back of the front line, the SS commander decided the prior evacuation of camps with all their inmates…” (François Bédarida, « le phénomène concentrationnaire » in Bédarida François, Gervereau Laurent, La déportation. Le système concentrationnaire nazi, Paris, Musée d’histoire contemporaine/ BDIC, 1995).

In the East, Soviets « freed » killing center (Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka) which had been destroyed by the SS in 1943. In July 1944, Soviet armies passed through Treblinka and Sobibor without knowing that hundreds of thousands of Jews were gassed and burned. When Soviet soldiers got in the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau on the 27th of January 1945, they only found 7 000 survivors because on the 18th and 19th of January, the SS evacuated the camp with 58 000 prisoners who suffered the hardships of the “walks of death”. However, testimonials and the study of facilities confided to an inquiry commission allowed the awareness of what really happened at Auschwitz (« 1945: Libération des camps et découverte de l’univers concentrationnaire; crime contre l’humanité et génocide » Mémoire vivante n° 43, octobre 2004).

In the West, American troops entered the Natzweiler-Struthof camp (Alsace) where inmates were evacuated. In spring 1945, the allied troops advanced rapidly. The evacuations of prisoners by the SS happened in appalling conditions. In April and May 1945, discoveries kept going…and, gave liberators nightmare visions: “It’s wrong to say that we didn’t know about Nazi concentration camps’ horrors before their liberation…But there is a difference between knowing and seeing… Now we cannot look away any longer. The abomination is under our eyes with all its nauseating details. Doors of Hell are open. ”

Allies, that were sure to win against the Nazi Germany, decided to spread by the press, screened news and the radio, images of mass graves and evidence of survivors. But, the specific fate of Jewish wasn’t taken into account. When the extermination is evoked, it was associated with “Nazi crimes” as well as the economic European looting and the “deportation of workers” in Germany.


  • The Nazism imposed on Germany and on the occupied Europe a system of terror based on the suppression of freedoms and racism.
  • The main phases of the Second World War.

Conceptual Objectives

  • To understand the function of concentration and extermination camps in the assassination of opponents and the destruction of human groups (mentally ill, Jews, Gypsies, Slavs).
  • To know that the Second World War was a war of annihilation during which was perpetrated crimes against humanity in Europe (deportations, bondage and torture, genocide of Jews and Gypsies).
  • To know the geopolitical context of the liberation of Nazi camps in en European scale.
  • To understand how Allies did to spread news on the liberation of Nazi camps and on crimes against Humanity that were perpetrated.

Methodological Objectives and Skills

  • To know how to read and analyze a map.
  • To understand and identify autobiographical texts.
  • To describe and analyze photographs.
  • To set and characterize an event in its chronological context.
  • To compare and link iconographic and textual documents and to elaborate a synthesis.
  • To use ICT’s with critical spirit.

Suggestion of Activities

After having studied the geopolitical context of Europe and the world in 1944-1945, the students will:

  • Describe and analyze the map of the concentration Nazi system.
  • Read extracts of autobiographical texts on the liberation of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
  • Describe and analyze photographs showing crimes perpetrated by the SS in concentration camps freed by Americans.

The teacher will:

  • Explain the context in which the Allies decided to massively spread in the press and the cinema pictures took during the liberation of Nazi camps.
  • Explain the shock when people received photographic images and film of the camp liberations.

Suggestion of Evaluation

The teacher would make sure that his students:

  • Know how to identify, read or describe different documents of the corpus.
  • Know how to set different documents in their historical and geographical context.
  • Master the vocabulary and specific notions of the lesson.
  • Can write a few lines of synthesis referring precisely to studied documents.

Additional and Interdisciplinary Tasks

NB: the literary, plastic or film choices are the responsibility of each teacher that is the only person that can evaluate the maturity of his students.

Literature and History of Arts:

Read excerpts of witnesses who lived through the liberation of camps:

  • An extract of Primo Levi, Si c’est un homme, translated from Italian by Martine Schruoffeneger, Julliard, 1987
  • Robert Antelme, L’espèce humaine, Gallimard, 1957

Textes et Documents pour la Classe (TDC) : « Ars et littérature de la Shoah », n° 968, Scéren-CRDP, janvier 2009. This rich file suggests educational tracks for different works, as Maus by Art Spiegelman, Shoah by Claude Lanzmann, photographs, and excerpts of literary texts.

The Shoah memorial website suggests numerous documentary and educational resources: http://www.memorialdelashoah.org

There is also a file on “The Art and the Shoah” with the analyze of an oil on canvas, le petit camp à Buchenwald, made by memory in 1945 by Boris Taslitzky after his liberation, with the help of illegal drawings made inside the camp. This work could be link with the Cent onze dessins faits à Buchenwald, French association Buchenwald-Dora, Editions Hautefeuille, 1989.