The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas may “perpetuate a number of dangerous inaccuracies and fallacies” when used in teaching young people about the Holocaust, an academic report has said.
According to research by the Centre for Holocaust Education at University College London, more than a third of teachers in England use the bestselling book and film adaptation in lessons on the Nazi genocide.
A study, to be published shortly, builds on research conducted five years ago among secondary school pupils which found that the story by John Boyne regularly elicited misplaced sympathy for Nazis.
According to the new survey, 35% of teachers used The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in lessons. However, its use occupies a “somewhat contested position as a potential educational resource”, the centre’s report says. Drama and English teachers were more likely to use it than history teachers.
Boyne’s book is about a friendship between the son of an Auschwitz commandant and a Jewish boy incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camp. Published in 2006, it has sold more than 11m copies worldwide. A film version was made in 2008.
The centre’s report said: “While most young people who took part in the study recognised the narrative as a work of fiction and many were able to identify and critique its most glaring implausibilities and historical inaccuracies, they nonetheless overwhelmingly characterised it as ‘realistic’ and/or ‘truthful’.”
It added that many students, after studying the story, reached conclusions that “contributed significantly to one of the most powerful and problematic misconceptions of this history, that ‘ordinary Germans’ held little responsibility and were by and large ‘brainwashed’ or otherwise entirely ignorant of the unfolding atrocities”.
Among comments from teachers gathered during the research were, “students come to us and literally think the Holocaust IS The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas”; “They come with … ideas that nobody knew about the Holocaust, that people were completely in the dark about it”; and “They feel sorry for the German guard”.
Stuart Foster, the centre’s executive director, said he had no criticism of Boyne for his work of fiction, but using the novel in lessons about a historical event could be problematic. “In an era of fake news and conspiracy theories, it’s very worrying that young people harbour myths and misconceptions about the Holocaust.”
Boyne, who has previously defended his work from similar criticism, told the Guardian: “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is deliberately sub-titled ‘A Fable’, a work of fiction with a moral at the centre. From the start, I hoped it would inspire young people to begin their own study of the Holocaust, which in my case began at the age of 15 and continued in the decades that followed.
“As a novelist, I believe that fiction can play a valuable role in introducing difficult subjects to young readers, but it is the job of the teacher to impress upon their students that there is legitimate space between imagination and reality. By relating to my central characters, however, by caring about them and wanting no harm to come to them, the young reader can learn empathy and kindness.
“While no work of fiction is flawless, I remain extremely proud of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and grateful to the millions of readers who have embraced it over the last 16 years.”