The Holo­caust and the West Ger­man His­to­ri­ans: His­tor­i­cal Inter­pre­ta­tion and Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Memory

Nico­las Berg, Joel Golb trans. and ed.

  • Review
By – August 25, 2015

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.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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