The Holocaust and Society (PHL3046)

StaffDr Nigel Pleasants - Lecturer
Credit Value15
Academic Year2018/9
ECTS Value7.5
NQF Level6
Duration of Module Term 1: 11 weeks;

Module aims

This is an interdisciplinary course, and not as such a history of the Holocaust. It combines historical and social scientific inquiry with philosophical reflection on the nature and significance of the Holocaust and (possibly) kindred events, processes and institutions. You will draw on theories, methodologies and concepts from sociology, social psychology, historical explanation and moral philosophy. Issues to be explored include: questions on what kind of event the Holocaust was, what kind of knowledge and understanding it affords, and its relationship to other events and practices of a putatively similar kind; different approaches to explaining the causes, conditions and essential features of the Holocaust; the nature of evil and the moral character of perpetrators and other participants; the relationship between the Holocaust and modernity; reflection on human nature, civilisation, social organisation and social progress; questions on perpetrator motivation and action, moral responsibility and blame.

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Think philosophically on the nature, origins and causes of the Holocaust.
  • 2. Reflect critically on the significance and import of the Holocaust for wider conceptions of the social organisation and ethical life of modern societies
  • 3. Examine critically and assess some of the leading philosophical, social scientific and interpretative attempts to account for socially organised evil- and wrong-doing in modern societies.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 4. Bring philosophical analysis to the evaluation of a range of social scientific and historical explanations and theories of the Holocaust and to identify and reflect on the puzzling and disturbing issues that they generate.
  • 5. Reflect critically on the core social scientific and historical disciplines as explanatory and interpretive endeavours and assess their success and limitations in making sense of the Holocaust and other kindred events, processes and institutions.

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 6. Critically reflect on, and examine, taken-for-granted moral and cultural beliefs and values
  • 7. Analyse and communicate, clearly and directly, a range of philosophical, theoretical, explanatory, epistemological, ontological, and normative issues arising from study of the Holocaust, genocide and other kindred events, processes and institutions.]
  • 8. Work independently, within a limited time frame, and without access to external sources, to complete a specified task

Syllabus plan

Whilst the module’s precise content may vary from year to year, it is envisaged that the syllabus will cover some or all of the following topics:


Introduction & orientation: Why study the Holocaust? 
Uniqueness and comprehensibility: Was the Holocaust a unique event? 
Dialectic of Enlightenment and the Modernity thesis: was the Holocaust an essentially modern phenomenon? 
 The nature of evil: Radical or Banal? 
Social psychology: situationist explanation and the fundamental attributional error 
Explaining direct perpetrators' actions and motivations: Browning's situationist explanation 
Explaining direct perpetrators' actions and motivations: Goldhagen's cognitive explanation 
Rescue and resistance: supererogation, ordinary goodness and the social conditions of altruism. 
Normalisation of the Holocaust? Comparison & analogy with other genocides and putative cases of social wrong- and evil-doing 
 Knowledge, ignorance and responsibility 
Judgement and understanding: compatible or incompatible?

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities16.511 x 1.5 hour weekly lectures
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities55 x fortnightly 1 hour smaller group seminars
Scheduled Learning and Teaching activities1.5Revision session
Guided independent study47Assigned readings associated with each lecture
Guided independent study 40Preparation for essay
Guided independent study 40Preparation for exam

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Peer marking and assessment exercise to show students practically good and bad practice and operative practical marking criteriaSeminar based exercise; 1-7In Class

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay501,800 words1-7Written Feedback
Examination501.5 hours1-8Mark plus feedback on request

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay Essay (1,800 words)1-7August/September reassessment period
ExaminationExamination (1.5 hours)1-8August/September reassessment period

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

H. Arendt (1965) Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil 
Z. Bauman (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust 
C. Browning (1992) Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland 
E. Garrard & G. Scarre (eds) (2003) Moral philosophy and the Holocaust 
D. Goldhagen (1997) Hitler's willing executioners: ordinary Germans and the Holocaust 
R. Hilberg (1961; 1985) The destruction of the European Jews 
D. Jones (1999) Moral responsibility in the Holocaust: A study in the ethics of character 
B. Schlink (1998) The Reader 
A. Vetlesen (2005) Evil and Human Agency: Understanding Collective Evildoing

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Key words search

Holocaust, society, philosophical reflection, scientific inquiry