In this landmark book, historian Nicolas Berg addresses the work of German historians in the first three decades after Germany’s defeat in World War II, examining how they perceived — and particularly failed to perceive — the Holocaust and how they interpreted and misinterpreted that historical phenomenon while hiding behind the mantle of historical objectivity.
The rejection and criticism Jewish European historians drew from their German colleagues had a great deal to do with strategies of denial of responsibility emblematic of the German historians’ inability to contemplate their own complex ideological and intellectual origins and perspective. Perhaps because the Nazi past was so hideous and the complicity of most sectors of German society — including the academy — so profound, historians took refuge in forgetting, in silence, and in excluding the victims’ voices. Though not averse to remembering the Nazi era, their memories of it were excessively influenced by participants in that history — observers, Nazi party members, bureaucratic planners, even genocidal killers — and were also “self-directed” at and Germany’s and their personal suffering, rather than “other-directed” to the suffering of the victims. When German historians began to write about the period in the 1950s and ‘60s, they universally rejected the possibility of collective German responsibility and the assumption that Germany was indeed composed of a community of perpetrators. They tried to avert their “gaze” from Hitler’s horrific legacy, refusing to problematize their own memory of what Germans knew about the atrocities, mass killings, and death camps. Instead, they presented their scholarship as objective, scientific, and dispassionate, thus allowing their memory to merge into their scholarship. At the same time, they maintained an aggressive indifference to the experiences of victims and rejected the work of Jewish scholars like Joseph Wulf, Poliakov, Gerald Reitlinger, and Raul Hilberg. For the most part Jews were absent from postwar West German discourse on Nazism and the Holocaust because German historians had other memories and therefore another historiographic perspective.
A highly original work of historiography, The Holocaust and the West German Historians will be of interest to historians of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany and to anyone interested in the historian’s craft and the relationship between history and memory. Without the work of historians there is no social, political, and cultural memory, but as Berg skillfully demonstrates, historians are often guided or blinded by their own biases, particularly when they support a narrative of innocence or powerlessness in the face of radical evil.