The multifaceted discourses of studies on the Holocaust

We see similar recurring themes in this week’s reading to previous discussions around the ways we understand memory, narratives, reconciliation, and the legitimacy of comparisons. What becomes increasingly clear is that the resulting historical and social analyses of the Holocaust continue to be contentious emphasizing the places where historians and states have failed in response to the mass violence in Nazi Germany.

We can see the ways in which the denazification questionnaire failed to adequately address systemic causes of violence and underlying anti-Semitism. Sollors emphasizes how the American and allied forces that were engaging in the denazification process post-war themselves held anti-Semitic views. This calls into question the purpose of the denazification process when those who were engaging in these bureaucratic processes themselves held similar beliefs. Was the purpose to actively undermine the ideals and propaganda of the Nazi party or was it to facilitate the return to a “normal” post-war reality. Without addressing the underlying issues that facilitated the rise of Hitler or implementing strong measures to undermine anti-Semitism in Germany, what purpose did these denazification questionnaires pose? Did American and allied anti-Semitism undermine efforts to effectively address systemic the different manifestations of oppression that the Nazi party utilized? We see two different American projects in the post-war era, that of Japan and German, with starkly different reactions to the violence perpetrated by each. Why is this the case? American racism? American anti-Semitism? How do we better understand the disparate responses?

Shifting slighting outside of the denazification process and the immediate post-war atmosphere in Germany, we situate the Rothberg article. This article was interesting as it juxtaposes different historical controversies resulting from WWII, specifically Historikerstreit, and more contemporary analysis of Holocaust comparisons, dubbed Historikerstreit 2.0. Comparisons of the Holocaust draw significant amount of attention, both good and bad, and Rothberg outlines the ways in which the left and right have garnered outrage for these actions. What is interesting in the Rothberg article is that the ways in which the right utilized historical comparison was to minimize responsibility and the violence of Germany and German people. Now they have shifted to gatekeeping discussions and comparisons of the Holocaust. In Historikerstreit 2.0 we see the ways in which the left is utilizing Holocaust comparisons to emphasize contemporary violence against other marginalized communities. It is not to minimize but to underscore that similarity of violence which has been seen and to note the potential for devastating consequences. The question becomes, what purpose to comparisons serve and what are the intentions behind them. What also needs to be highlighted within these discussions is that there are peoples and deaths behind these comparisons, and sensitivity and nuanced is required around these specific instances of comparison.

Another important aspect of the Rothberg article is the vehemence and immediate outrage that followed Mbembe. Analyzing whether anti-Blackness facilitated this reaction would be an interesting and important analysis to undertake.

Overall, these articles indicate that there is need for further study and nuance when analyzing the post-war and contemporary discussions around Holocaust memory, understanding, and comparisons.

True Reconciliation

I always find it difficult to comment on past societal sins, more specifically how they should be dealt with moving forward. This is the case for many reasons. In the readings this week we explored several articles and a podcast concerning the effects and legacy of Nazism and its reconciliation. In the Podcast “Coming to terms with the Holocaust”, Prof. Mary Fulbrook discusses the legacy of Nazism and how it was dealt with after the war. At one point she delves into how lenient West Germany was with its treatment of former Nazis. She says that of the 200,000 to 1 million people who were involved in the death camps only 140,000 were investigated. Of those only around 6700 were taken to court, and then of those only 160 found guilty! This is obviously an insanely small number, and at first glance seems like a very unfair result, and you would not be wrong. It seems most of the country wanted to denounce this part of their past without the action to back that up. However, as we explored the other articles, we see the stories of Jews (Like Hugo Spiegel) returning to the towns that once kicked them out and taking back their lives. They do this over time by forcing people to come to terms with this and not hiding or backing down from what was done to them. They are the ones who show people that they are just like them and didn’t deserve what happened or how they were treated. So, on one side we have advocates of a top down judicial, punishment and retribution method. Then on the other we have community, historians, teachers, and other society groups who have worked together to rid themselves of these prejudices and attempt to bridge these gaps and fix these wrongs.

So, which is better? It seems nowadays that this is a very important question. As many of our western societies grapple with these questions and our own dark and embarrassing periods this is an important topic. On the one hand people should be punished for what they have done. However, when it is something as pervasive as Nazi Germany how is it possible to categorize levels of complicity within a society like that? It is impossible. There are some cases that will be black and white, however most will end up in a gray area. The problem with this method is it does not truly unify people and just ends up consuming and destroying more and more lives. This distanced and apathetic view of retribution does nothing for anyone. It does not replace family members, it does not heal, it does not give closure. Community and relationships do. It’s hard but it works, and even though Germany still struggles, no one can deny it has come a long way from where it was.

This shouldn’t be confused with simply forgetting. I find it’s easier to forget when you can cut something or someone out of your life. However when you’re forced to deal with someone and come to terms with how you have wronged them or they have wronged you, there is a chance for true reconciliation.

Postwar Hurdles to Confronting Germany’s Past

Something that really stood out for me in the Sollors reading was the assertion that the Fragebogen originated in the ideas of the Frankfurt School. I found this rather peculiar, because my interpretation of the Frankfurt School is that it views human behaviour as being influenced mainly by societal and cultural forces more so than by an individual’s free will. So it seemed quite odd to me that a simple questionnaire could have the power to determine one’s fate in post-war Germany, because the answers given on the form did not necessarily paint an accurate picture of someone’s past, let alone the circumstances under which they may have been forced to make such a decision. I found the passage from the book The Steeper Cliff to be highly relevant to this point, stating “there were no blank spaces for fears, no dotted lines for the detailing of agonies and inner misfortunes.” It is almost like the creators of the Fragebogen forgot about the coercive power wielded by the authoritarian Nazi regime and the psychological trauma experienced by so many Germans, knowing that they could face the wrath of the state if they dared step out of line.

            It was also thought-provoking to read, in Smith’s article, about the efforts of German Jews to commemorate Holocaust victims upon returning to their hometowns after the war. In my opinion, their struggles to gain the approval of locals reflects a pervasive unwillingness to confront the past and even a preference to distort history. I think this stems from a sense of guilt among many Germans for not doing anything to prevent the persecution of Jews or for serving as an accomplice to the atrocities. Some of history’s wounds will never be healed. But the simple act of establishing tangible and permanent tributes to targets of politically and racially motivated violence can hopefully serve as a grave reminder not to repeat the mistakes of the past, hence the motto “never forget.”     

Nazism and the importance of remembrance

By: Conrad Yiridoe

Smith’s article provides multiple interesting points regarding the preservation of a historical event, in this case being the Holocaust. As, well, it provides an intriguing look at what some motivations that may have been present, for Germans to remember and acknowledge the historical events and the toll they took, in such a public way. The author notes for example that “In my investigations, I rarely read of local activists—those school teachers, archivists, and retirees—who mention being inspired by the miniseries (though some invoke the trials).” Rather, there were factors, often times based out of a local grassroots effort (rather than national governmental) level that provided the motivation to ensure that the harsh lessons of the war, were not forgotten.

The role that Jewish survivors played is that much more impressive given that Smith notes that “ there were not many Jews like the Spiegels who came back to make their homes in the very towns where locals had jeered and howled with approval when the Nazis destroyed and desecrated synagogues.” In fact, “it was precisely when returning Jews gathered the courage to complain about the state of the cemetery in their home town, or to ask why there was no plaque or sign stating what had occurred during Kristallnacht, that something began to move among local people”. This appears to suggest that the impetus seems to have been on Jewish survivors and their families, rather than the Germans (whom in many cases were the perpetrators during that era) to get something done. Over time however, it is described that multiple towns across the country organised “visitor weeks” to invite Jewish people from around the world, which I feel was an important act in order to establish a sense of closure and proper appreciation for what had occurred.

In conclusion, there are some words from the Smith article which perhaps provide a roadmap for achieving some sort of reconciliation and understanding with these difficult topics. Here, Smith says “There are many lessons—local, national, and transnational—that we could learn from this German-Jewish story: the importance of community work, the necessity of reaching across divides, and the crucial role that local schoolteachers, archivists, retirees, hobby historians, and preservationists may well play in the great transformations of a nation’s memory.” One could see this roadmap could be applied not only just to the historical event which inspired this article, but also many other historical events of the past which inspire high emotion and grievance, in order to set a path towards mutual understanding and acceptance.

Track Two Politics

Nowadays, diplomacy is usually done between states, with all the trappings of sovereignty on grand display. Sometimes, though, those states – big as they are – find themselves incapable of threading the needle of negotiation. Perhaps they’re too large, not seen as a valid representative for one of the aggrieved parties; perhaps they are, on the other hand, seen as being too much of a representative for one of the parties, and thus incapable of being adequately objective in the reconciliation problem.

Whatever the reasons, sometimes the state is no longer the proper actor to resolve a dispute. And in those cases, states can take a step back, leaving a void to be filled by civilian actors: academics, community leaders, religious figures, or other popular leaders. That’s Track Two diplomacy – actors that don’t have the same responsibilities as the national government can hold discussions in a less regulated environment, advancing points and floating ideas that might be politically unpalatable for a government, but that must be said in order to properly resolve the issue. A bridge is built on a more individual level, and only then opened to the public.

Helmut Smith makes, in a way, this point when he discusses the post-Holocaustic reconciliation, and the massive role played by Jewish returnees in creating the room for these discussions to even happen. “It takes a village to create a nation’s memory,” he titles his Zocalo essay; without the low-level reconciliations between Jews returning to their ancestral villages and those villages’ attempts to make amends, it is difficult to imagine the Holocaust miniseries – which a number of historians of Germany indeed cite as a turning point – getting the oxygen needed for the beginnings of reconciliation.

The role of civilian experiences in national politics is echoed in Werner Sollors’ examination of ‘the Fragebogen’, a deeply invasive standardized questionnaire used by the Allied occupiers to identify and deplatform as many Nazi-aligned Germans as possible. Because the questionnaire was ubiquitous, a necessary step in securing any kind of employment or public office, it became a cultural touchstone in postwar Germany: effectively everybody was subjected to this systematized probe at one point or another, and so it formed the basis for a kind of cultural pushback against American occupation – especially given a sense of injustice, that they were being forced through this humiliation while ‘the real Nazis’ escaped punishment.

In both cases, there is a cultural shift built against the state directive; and the changes sparked by these societal ruminations ended up having great repercussions at higher levels. National politics builds off the local.

The Struggles of Denazification and Coming to terms with the Past

Lucas Lang

This week’s readings were about struggle. In the aftermath of the second world war, the fall of Nazi Germany resulted in struggles both with those within and affected by the party and its actions. For Jewish communities, it became a struggle to rebuild. Regrouping with family and loved ones and grieving the dead was only part of their difficulties. Returning to their homes was often problematic as their neighbors, often struggling themselves, sought to ignore or forget the Jews suffering. It would take years for some communities to recognize the losses endured by the Jewish communities, and early on, only if matched with their own losses. The German people also struggled in the aftermath of the war. They had to come to terms with their own dead and losses as well as their own participation in events. Perhaps one way to explain the German struggle to accept their parts in the murder of Jews and other groups, they first had to resolve their own suffering. It is hard to comprehend other’s suffering when suffering ourselves. The Allies had their own struggles, though of a different nature, as they tried to determine who the guilty, innocent, and the victims were and how to punish the collaborators. There is much debate over how effective their efforts were and whether they ought to have persecuted more of the Nazi’s. Whether that would have solved modern issues or only provoked the German people can only be speculated. Many of their same struggles to determine who is the victim, who is guilty, and how to prosecute them reflect current events and remains modern issues.

Re-imagining life in the wake of Nazism

Michaela Bax-Leaney

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.

Reflection is a Two-Fold Process

Jake Rooke

It is intricately difficult to come to terms with one’s own past faults and mistakes. This process of reflection must have been enormous for those involved in the Nazi’s Third Reich, for those that implicitly supported it, for those that turned a blind eye, and finally, for those that were victims of Nazism. Reflecting on trauma is a two-fold process for either a victim of Nazism or a perpetrator. First, there is a need for personal self-reflection for individuals explicitly, implicitly or tacitly involved. These individuals must reflect on their past, however their accounts of events are through the eyes of a perpetrator, and will be largely misdirected and/or downplayed. Thus, there is a need for a second process. The second processs is based on the input of reflections from those that were victims of Nazism. These victim statements and the accounts they give are valued detail to what victims experienced at the hands of those that explicitly, implicitly or tacitly supported Nazism. These victim statements and reflections also hold perpetrators accountable for their actions and their own self-reflections. Moreover, these reflections give critical credibility to the process of historiography, and how we remember the events surrounding Nazism, its perpetrator’s actions, and it’s victims torment.

 In Helmut Walser Smith’s article (2021) it took victims of Nazism, and in particular Jewish individuals that returned to Germany, to create the environment for a genuine level of reflection. This can be compared to the Fragebogen questionnaires (Sollars 2018), that was imposed by Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces German Country Unit (GCU) to tackle the ‘denazification problem’. Although this questionnaire had many tangible benefits tackling issues surrounding denazification in the short-term, it was a largely American bureaucratic process. This is demonstrated by Military Governor Lucius D. Clays, that states ‘perhaps never before in world history has such a mass undertaking to purge society been undertaken’ (Sollars 2018: 140), other observers state that this was ‘revolution by decree’.

The Fragebogen can be compared to the efforts of Holocaust survivor, Hugo Spiegel, and many like him. Spiegel returned to Germany after the war and fought for recognition of crimes against Jews, however, it took until 1970 to build a memorial to both the Jews who lay in the Warendorf cemetery and those ‘who died in the years 1933 to 1945’ (Smith 2021). As Jews began returning in the 1970s, they complained that their local cemetery had no plaque or sign about Kristallnacht. “This was often the moment that the work of commemoration began” (Smith 2021). This created a two-fold process of reflection, for the general German public, but also from the Jewish victims of Nazism. In turn, the German people began a national conservation of reflection, creating national memorials and institutions to fight anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. It is clear that it took more than self-reflection for the German people was needed in order to understand what had happened during Third Reich’s reign. As Smith (2021) concludes, “the work of memory was not a German effort alone” but needed victim statements as well.

Nazism’s Lessons and Legacies

By: Andreea Gustin

Following a period in history as cruel and as heinous as the holocaust, it is impossible to move forward without acknowledging the past. This week’s sources centered on the lessons and the legacies of Nazism. I think often times, when taught about the holocaust or the events of WWII, the question of what happened next is often left unanswered. As a history student, once this period in history has been covered, we close the book and we move on to the next. However, this week shows the reality of the impacts of these events. For many, the pain does not stop just because the holocaust did. They are not able to close the book on this chapter because for them, it is a pain and a trauma that will follow them for the rest of their story. Smith’s essay, “It Takes A Village to Create a Nation’s Memory”, gave us a glimpse into how it felt for Jews to face the difficult past upon returning back to Germany as we saw with Hugo Spiegel. Personally, this was the source that stood out for me this week. I wish that we got to learn more about how Germany moved forward as a nation however, I think through the individual story of Hugo Spiegel, we got to see how ordinary citizens coped and came to terms with the horrors that occurred in order to move forward with their lives while still fighting for the remembrance and the acknowledgment of the terrors committed. Ultimately, this source demonstrated how Germany could not face it’s past alone. The Jews returning home was critical to Germans confronting the wrong-doings and working alongside the Jews in their community to commemorate the past. 

Memory and the Importance of Collaboration

Written by Emma Bronsema

Overtime, memory culture changes, as does the way we look at and understand certain historical events. Discussions and research surrounding the holocaust were based on the political and intellectual context of the time. Memories and stories were not immediately following, and in the same way, right after the war, in comparison to decades following. Some reasons are due to the desire to maintain hidden following the war. Other reasons include interests and focus being placed on different aspects of the war. In relation to the commemoration of the jewish experience and the use of plaques and monuments, they were not popular until the 1980s.

Stories are told, memories shared, and memorials are created successfully through collaboration between the two groups and a receptive audience. A minority group may rally for something, but until their voice is heard by the majority and people are genuinely willing to work together, whatever it is they are asking for will not be given.

This is especially prevalent in regards to the holocaust memorials in small German towns. While members of the returning Jewish community were pushing for a monument or plaque to commemorate the Jewish lives lost and their experience during the Second World War, it was not until they gathered together and got their voices heard by the rest of the community. They had to get their community interested and invested in order to get their wishes granted. At the same time, without the return of the Jewish communities, their voices would have been lost and experiences unheard by the residents still there.

By working together, not only are their memories able to be kept alive, but the collective population is able to learn about other people’s experiences. Furthermore, they, and historians and researchers, can attempt to understand how people can become marginalized, as well as become involved in a system of collective violence. This includes figuring out how to deal with it, and grapple with the limits of our collective and individual knowledge and understanding.

References used:

Helmut Walser Smith, “It Takes a Village to Create a Nation’s Memory” Zocalo Public Sphere https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2021/01/11/post-war-germany-jewishreturn-memory-national-reckoning/ideas/essay/ 

Mary Fulbrook, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice podcast https://soundcloud.com/historyhit/coming-to-terms-with-the 

Michael Rothberg, “Comparing Comparison: From the “Historikerstreit to the Mbembe Affair” Geschichte der Gegenwart September 23, 2020 https://geschichtedergegenwart.ch/comparing-comparisons-from-the-historikerstreitto-the-mbembe-affair/

W. Sollors, “Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Later’: The Denazification Questionnaire as Cultural Text.” German Life & Letters. Vol 71, Issue 2 (2018): 139-153.