Holocaust studies as we know and engage it with today, as Michael Rothberg points out, is rooted in a relatively recent set of ideas – as early as the 1990s and early 2000s. Yet what is even more recent, in my mind at least, are meaningful discussions about the nuances and practicalities of daily life in post-war Germany. What does one do in the wake of the Holocaust? How do people, and how do nations, come to terms with those events?
Werner Sollors documents one way in which the American military and bureaucratic machine attempted to deal with what they dubbed the task of ‘denazification’ – through the use of the fragebogen. But as Sollors notes, these widely distributed surveys were woefully unfit for the task at hand.
This is perhaps not surprising given that, as Mary Fulbrook argues, even those who were implicated in war crimes were often not charged, or were charged very leniently. Fulbrook raises an interesting standard around the notion of culpability, noting that there simply is no one size fits all way to address the task of denazification. The legal system as it existed well into the 1970s and 80s, and the American fragebogen, are both stark examples of the failures of the Allies in the post-war period.
I think Helmut Walser Smith touches on a nuance in which the aforementioned authors were lacking – the hard and yet often most meaningful instances of this labour of forgiveness and reconciliation were done by local actors in their own communities. The Nazi Party rose from the wounded Germany pride (to be sure, this was coupled with virulent antisemitism and xenophobia, which is not to be minimized), a pride that had been wounded by the actions of outsiders. It makes sense that in order to rebuild those human connections, that difficult and extraordinarily necessary work was best done in communities, for the same reasons Rothberg gives for those initial conversations about the legacy of the Holocaust were had internally. However, Rothberg also makes the important point that, particularly as the political compass of the Western voter shift right, that there is also a way to engage in those conversations cross-border.