How much place was given to the voices of the Holocaust survivors in history and how was it presented to the general public ? This question rises many more interrogations about the trials conducted in the after-war period and how the then politically divided Germany reacted to testimonies of survivors and perpetrators. It all comes down to the different treatment of the information brought to light and how the de-Nazification process differed between Eastern and Western Germany.
If Eastern Germany proved to be harsher in sentencing perpetrators and accomplices, it appears that the Western Germany showed some leniency in their interpretation of the law, resulting in delayed pursuits of criminals and lesser sentences. The rationale often presented was that former perpetrators were now well integrated into a new society, that they were much older and weaker or with some farfetched logic that crimes committed without the victim being aware of, were a lesser offense.
What about the testimonies ? Right after the war, they were sometime doubtfully perceived, and many judges questioned their validity. Evidences started to weigh more in the 1960s and 70s as more modern technology allowed survivors to record their stories. Although oral history could be transcribed in writing, it still rose questions of authenticity. Ghost writers have accentuated events or contextualized them in an attempt to make a testimony stronger .
At the same time, a hierarchy between survivors emerged leading to a new state of marginalization. For example, homosexuals, Roma and prisoner functionaries found themselves in the midst of a controversial debate about victimhood and belonging to the “holocaust survivor” category. The terms holocaust and genocide are deeply connected words to the point where debates about memorials rise questions as well.
The later recognition of the testimonies paralleled a need to give a voice to the victims before it is too late. The difficulty of Germany to accept and live with this dark past is progressively fading as a new generation of historians and scholars bring these testimonies to the public. The use of videos and movies contributed to this exposition and benefitted from cultural changes starting in the 1970s. In parallel with a search for a political identity that many Western countries sake ( USA, France…), movies displayed accounts of what victims experienced. Although the American view of early movies such as “ Judgment at Nuremberg” from Stanley Kramer was biased with the choice of the director to represent specific victims, it nevertheless generated many significant movies in the 80s and 90s which tended for a public from a different generation.
How can we explain the different application of the law between Eastern and Western Germany before the reunification ? As we have seen how complicated and gray the classification between accomplices and perpetrators can be, why do you think the lower ranked Nazis received harsher sentences than the commanding officers who signed the orders to kill thousand of people?
Mary Fulbrook, “Discomfort Zones” and “Voices of the Victims” in Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp: 314- 336, 361-377.
Robert Moeller, “How to Judge Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg” German History Vol. 31, Issue 4 (December 2013): 497-522.