When I was studying, one student girl asked the teacher what is so bad with Nazism. She asked what's so bad if other peoples are exterminated? The teacher thought for a while and said that it would be boring without diversity.
Although the girl did not ask any more, I think this answer is not that satisfactory because existence of diversity is not that obviously good.
So what are the modern scholarly points of view criticizing Nazism which could be satisfactory to explain to a layman why Nazism is bad?
Modern scholarly points about Nazism are kind of beside the point, since any one of them extremely depends on ones ethical, moral and philosophical axioms and bases the scholar has, and most of them are quite contrary to each other.
As a couple of random examples:
Communist types criticize Nazism for (1) its nationalist structure - proper communism is international; and (2) its incorporation of oligarchic crony capitalism (they wouldn't care about the "oligarchic crony part" - any 'capitalism' is equally bad).
Certain strains of Christian philosophy criticize it for placing whatever its value system is above the salvation of human soul.
Theoretical libertarians would criticize it for using violence to achieve its ends, in many many forms.
Practical (utilitarian) libertarians would take a similar views but use a completely different set of arguments - basically, arguing from game theoretical point of view that given human nature, such a society would not work as well for everyone.
If you want practical reasons why Nazism is bad, you need to define "bad".
A favorite analogy of mine:
Say you have a bucket, and in that bucket you have tennis balls and baseballs. Definitionally, it is diverse. This is very useful if you want to play baseball and tennis, but if you only want to play either baseball or tennis, the bucket becomes less functional. If, on the other hand, you wish to play golf, the entire bucket is useless.
Diversity, despite the modern feeling, is most certainly not a virtue in itself, and it does not add intrinsic value to a thing and more than, say, its size (a large pile of gold is very valuable, a larger pile of feces, on the other hand, is not). I would actually argue that excessive diversity can be detrimental to a society - I don't know about you, but I am glad that the paranoia of the 1950's is over, as well as the violence of the early unionization movements.
Even if we lay aside questions as to whether humans have intrinsic self-worth (over and above other life forms) (as a warning, I do not make that assumption but rather the opposite), there are still problems present in Nazism. Here are two which come to mind immediately, the first to do with the National Socialist internal policies, and the other to do with external policies:
- First, the choice of who to eliminate was arbitrary (remove people who happened to share a certain ancestry and ideological output) included some who were decidedly beneficial to both the economy and society as a whole (doctors, professionals, musicians, etc).
- Second, the Nazi idea of lebensraum meant the forceful subjugation of surrounding (read: all) nations, by force.
Both of these trends are destructive in the sense that they did active injury to others and thereby undermined the implied social contracts which must necessarily exist for the continued function of society. If lebensraum were to be taken on an individual basis, then I would be well within my rights to go out and start forcing my neighbors out of their homes. If society were to take the opinion that money should be given out arbitrarily without respect for any sense of talent, then that will actively remove creativity as a virtue.
The Destruction of the European Jews
Reviewing the first, 1961 edition of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (London: W H Allen) in 1962 Andreas Dorpalen predicted that it would ‘long remain a basic source of information on this tragic subject’.(1 ) With hindsight, Dorpalen rather underestimated the impact that Hilberg’s thesis would have on future scholarship. The Destruction of the European Jews shaped academic perspectives and popular understandings of what we now call the Holocaust, even though Hilberg avoids the term. It established the contours and the framework of academic discourse, posing questions about the relationship between ideology and structure in the prosecution of the ‘Final Solution’, which still preoccupy historians now. Without Raul Hilberg we may not have witnessed, and certainly not in the same way, debates about when that ‘Final Solution’ was designed, about what the essential conditions for genocide were, about the extent of criminality and complicity within the organised German community, about the responses of the bystanders, or notoriously about the reaction of the Nazis’ Jewish victims. To this day historians of the Holocaust invariably salute The Destruction of the European Jews as a ‘masterly analysis’ and an ‘unsurpassed landmark’, agreeing that amongst Holocaust historians ‘none [is] more influential than’ Hilberg in having set the agenda for Holocaust research.(2 )
Most importantly Hilberg established, through the various editions of his masterpiece, the narrative of the ‘destruction process’ at the heart of the Nazi genocide. Hilberg argues that the Nazi campaign proceeded from legislative discrimination against Jews in Germany after 1933, through aryanisation and liquidation of Jewish businesses and assets from the mid nineteen-thirties and then the physical and temporal ghettoisation of the Jewish populations in Nazi-occupied Europe from 1939, to their murder and annihilation after 1941. Historians may have ritually contested the relationship between these stages of destruction, but the narrative itself remained a matter of historical and historiographical orthodoxy. There would be very little dissent from the idea that each stage was in itself a radicalisation in policy. Equally historians would largely agree that the stages were not clearly demarcated, but bled into one another. Each radicalisation was made possible, and perhaps even caused by, the extension of possibilities revealed in the cruelties that had preceded it.
Hilberg’s essential thesis is that the ‘Final Solution’ was a bureaucratic process – and that it was the bureaucracy of the Nazi state that drove forward, with ever more lethal radicalism, the policies inflicted on Europe’s Jews. The Holocaust was therefore, according to Hilberg, a systematically implemented programme that proceeded ‘step-by-step … to the annihilation of 5 million victims’.(p. 46) The ‘destruction process’ was perfected by a variety of agencies in the expanding boundaries of the Reich between 1933 and 1939, a model which was then applied and further perfected throughout occupied Europe after war began. The essential unity of purpose, as well as the competition between the agencies of the expanded German state, drove Nazi antisemitism to fulfil its ultimately genocidal potential. As Hilberg’s thesis is largely unchanged here in the third edition – although it is even further expanded with new empirical and historiographical detail – this review will attempt to consider how the path-finding The Destruction of the European Jews can be read in the light of the insights of contemporary Holocaust historiography.
Despite being primarily concerned with the perpetration and perpetrators of genocide, Hilberg’s original thesis was perhaps most controversial when dealing with the Jewish victims. In the preface to the first edition Hilberg had declared that his book was not about the Jews, but this did not prevent him offering a controversial interpretation of Jewish behaviour, an interpretation that remains unchanged in the third edition. Hilberg’s double-pronged analysis rests on the observation that in the main Jews displayed an ingrained passivity in their response to Nazism and that the Jewish leadership, in the shape of the Judenräte (Jewish Councils), was an essential part of the German bureaucracy of destruction contributing to the efficacy of the ‘Final Solution’.
It would be wrong to argue that Hilberg takes no account of the fundamental ambiguity of Jewish leadership who ‘both saved and destroyed its people’.(p. 216) The social and cultural capacities of the Judenräte, who throughout Nazi-occupied Europe provided what might be described as social and cultural services for the concentrated victims, are acknowledged. But much greater emphasis is given to the Jewish Councils perceived role in the German bureaucracy and therefore the ‘destruction process’ itself. Thus the problems with Hilberg’s account of the Jewish Councils, which were identified at length by Isaiah Trunk as long as thirty years ago, remain.(3 ) In his effort to discern the ‘destruction process’ as a singular monolithic attack on the Jews, Hilberg continues to generalise about the Judenräte, despite their being established in different ways, at different times, for different purposes and having locally determined relationships with their wider Jewish populations. The social and cultural diversity of that populace also remains unexplored by Hilberg, whose insistence that leadership is simply located within the German-imposed administrative elites fails to bring to life the ‘complexity, variety and ambiguity’ of the Jewish ghettos as communities.(4 ) Hilberg ignores what has been described as the cultural miracle of the ghettos in which richly diverse cultural, political and religious activities were pursued.(5 ) The argument that this is not a book about the Jews does not really justify this disdain for consideration of the Holocaust as Jewish rather than German history.
As I have said, Hilberg’s generalisations about Jewish leadership stem from his desire to see the entirety and singularity of the ‘Final Solution’: something which also points us to a potential problem with his interpretation of the Holocaust as German history. The Jewish Councils were co-opted as part of a general bureaucracy of concentration and murder – used to provide Jewish labour, to pacify the victim populations and then to administrate their transfer to killing centres. The local diversity of approaches to this central task are ultimately seen as irrelevant in comparison with their net contribution to the ‘destruction process’ as a whole. Their other activities, while acknowledged, are not seen as historically significant by Hilberg because they have little impact on the destructive ends of Nazi policy. Similarly, armed Jewish resistance (most famously in the Warsaw ghetto) is dealt with perfunctorily, precisely because it did nothing to alter the fate of Poland’s Jews. Again this is an interpretation and a narrative that is justified by the view that all Holocaust history must flow through the filter of the ‘Final Solution’.
However it could be argued that in continuing to regard and represent the ‘Final Solution’ as a single (if not necessarily unified) process, Hilberg is out of step with the historiography that has emerged since the beginning of the 1990s. Written by a generation of German historians, this historiography, based largely on archival sources uncovered in the former Soviet Union, suggests the priority of local determinants in the emergence of mass murder as systematic policy throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, especially in the East. Such an emphasis on the local points to the sheer complexity of the Holocaust and its irreducibility to singular explanatory notions such as Hilberg’s bureaucratic ‘machinery of destruction’. The idea that there were identifiable stages in a step-by-step process, which was essentially similar throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, becomes less tenable. Instead of being determined by a policy filtered through central decision makers – either as the result of a maniacal ideological fixity or the ceaseless dynamic of a self-propelling bureaucracy – this new historiography points to the local utilitarianism of the ‘Final Solution’ as a policy.
Dieter Pohl has for example demonstrated that the impetus for the emergence of a mass murder policy in the General Government came not from central decision-making but from the logistical problems of occupation. Similarly Thomas Sandkühler’s investigation of the genesis of genocide in Galicia has argued that murder was a product of local policies of occupation and subjugation: the result of road-building programmes and food shortages, with Jews murdered as ‘useless eaters’, using the logic of the euthanasia programme. Other regional patterns of radicalisation have been discerned by Christian Gerlach in Byelorussia, Christoph Dieckmann in Lithuania and Sybille Steinbacher in Upper Silesia.(6 )
The collective impact of this new historiography has been to break down the idea of the singular narrative of the ‘Final Solution’ first established by Hilberg. As such his arguments that link all of the extermination facilities in occupied Poland – when they appear to have been designed and operated as part of at least three discrete murder operations – appear outdated. This is not to say that Hilberg refuses to acknowledge local variations in genocidal policy, either in terms of its prosecution, or the way in which it was rationalised by the perpetrators. He specifically designates the murder of Jews in the Reich-incorporated Wharteland as a local and self-contained process instigated by Artur Greiser and local officials.(7 ) Equally Hilberg’s analysis of genocide in Serbia recognises, in a way that the work of Christopher Browning and Walter Manoschek complements and fleshes out, the participation of the army in murdering Jews there and the crucial role that the threat to German security posed by partisan actions in the region played in the emergence of a genocidal reprisal policy.(8 )
But none of these individual narratives is allowed to stand alone in Hilberg’s all-encompassing approach. All are apparently linked by a monolithic sense of the ‘Final Solution’ implicitly controlled by Himmler’s ‘fanatic[al] functional centralisation’ and reducible to the prescribed and even deterministic ‘destruction process’.(p. 216) But this centralisation runs alongside an account of bureaucracy that is decentralised and encompasses the entire organised community: a bureaucracy that is, according to Hilberg, driven as much from the bottom up as it is from the top down.
It is therefore only at first glance that The Destruction of the European Jews appears out of step with the more recent historiography, which emphasises that the ‘Final Solution’ was made up of fragments. For example, although Hilberg sees the ‘Final Solution’ as a single process, he refuses to give a singular narrative account of its development as a policy. As he did in the second (1985) edition, Hilberg sidesteps the ever-growing mountain of historiography concerned to locate a decision amongst the Nazi leadership to proceed with a programme of genocide, to launch the ‘Final Solution’ as we now understand it. Indeed this question, which appears so fundamental to some historians, warrants only a single comment buried in a footnote for Hilberg: ‘chronology and circumstances point to a Hitler decision before the summer ended’.(p. 419, n.31) (9 ) The lack of priority that Hilberg ascribes to the central decision-makers reflects his belief that it is much more important to locate when the German bureaucracy as a whole – the organised community – came to a collective sense (rather than a decision) that a genocidal ‘Final Solution’ to their individual ‘Jewish Questions’ was necessary. So,
Hilberg’s ‘destruction process’ then, is not monolithic. He acknowledges that only those at the centre had a full knowledge or realisation of the destruction process (as he himself has discerned it), but this is not the same as arguing that such a policy emerged from the centre. His descriptions of Heydrich’s pivotal role in the attempted centralisation of Jewish policy after the summer of 1941 may attempt to locate the meaning of the ‘Final Solution’ for Nazi decision-makers, and the innate competitiveness of the Nazi system, but they do not imply that such events are all important. There do remain some awkward generalisations within Hilberg’s narrative – for example his refusal to discuss Aktion Reinhard and the murder of the Jews in the General Government as a separate bureaucratic and administrative mass murder, seeing it only as an exercise in expropriation. Yet, as a whole, Hilberg’s conception of the destruction process does allow for localised innovation and radicalism as well as centralisation. Occupied Poland, Hilberg argues, was ‘an area of experimentation [where] the machinery of destruction … outdid the bureaucracy in Berlin’.(p. 188)
Far from being contradicted, Hilberg’s work somewhat prefigures that of a new generation of historians who emphasise that genocide as a policy emerged for different reasons and at different times in different locations, not driven by a centralised decision-making process. But, where does this leave our understanding of the Holocaust as a whole? Have we reached a position where to put these policies together is nothing more than a narrative construction, the post-hoc rationalisations of historians, removed from the Nazi reality?
Actually The Destruction of the European Jews suggests not, and performs a valuable service in providing a sense of the context for the fragmented narrative emerging from new historiography – usefully helping to prevent the breakdown of the concept the Holocaust. Hilberg’s massive text, with its mastery of the structures and relationships that organised genocide on a continent-wide scale, remind us first of the geographical extent of the ‘destruction process’. That sense of scale also aids our understanding of the overall context within which individuals and bureaucracies, spread throughout the continent of Europe, took murderous decisions. Indeed it could be argued that it acts as a framework within which the new and ever more detailed Holocaust historiography may be understood, helping to restore or remind us of the usefulness of a single (but not necessarily unified) framework within which to understand the phenomenologically-identifiable Nazi attack on the Jews of Europe.
Hilberg makes the comparatively simple point at the beginning of his work that no single centre of Jewish policy existed in the Third Reich. There was no single ministry or institution that dealt with Jewish affairs (although Heydrich’s SD (Sicherheitsdienst) may have regarded itself as the centre of genocidal policy after 1941, this was not actually the case). The implications of such an observation are manifold, and should not simply be seen as the result of the ‘polycratic’ and decentred organisation of the Nazi state. As Hilberg also points out, almost every institution or administrative grouping in the machinery of government inside and outside the Reich did have officials and groups responsible for the management of Jewish matters. In this sense ‘Jewish policy’ actually lay outside the sphere of what we might understand as politics. It was an essential element of the regime, underpinning a great variety of assumptions and initiatives, impacting on every administrative structure. Indeed, the ‘Jewish Question’ could be argued to have been the driving force of politics itself in the Third Reich.
This observation of the centrality of what, for the sake of convenience, can be called antisemitism, to the Nazi Weltanschauung is not new: it was of course at the centre of intentionalist readings of Holocaust history. But Hilberg does not allow the absurd simplicities of the argument that antisemitism equals the genocide of the Jews to stand. Nor does he give any credence to the contention that the idea of antisemitism as traditionally understood is enough to encapsulate Nazi attitudes towards the Jews. Hilberg’s homage to the work of Götz Aly is an implicit acknowledgement that antisemitism was for many cast in the context of a much wider racial vision in the Third Reich. Original deportations from the Reich, and inside occupied Poland, were one element of a vision of a racially-restructured Europe, personified in Himmler’s appointment as the Reich Commissioner for the Strengthening of Ethnic Germandom.(10 ) Götz Aly’s wider contribution to historiography is to demonstrate that antisemitism could function as a part of diverse political purposes in the Nazi era, as elsewhere he and Susanne Heim have demonstrated how lower level economic planners, their so-called Architects of Annihilation, envisaged the murder of Europe’s Jews as a part of an economic modernisation of Eastern Europe.(11 ) Hilberg provides us with a narrative framework within which we can locate these diverse purposes of antisemitism, which were put to diverse policy ends.
It was, argues Hilberg, the ‘shared comprehension’ of the rectitude of pursuing antisemitic policy that drove the German bureaucracy forward towards the ‘Final Solution’. In emphasising the ideational underpinnings of that bureaucracy, Hilberg reminds us that the officials which made up the Nazi institutions were not simply the banal practitioners of a faceless murder process, but the enthusiastic implementers of a social and political vision: if you like, their intention was not removed from their function. It is common now to read that the heat of the intentionalist / functionalist debate which defined approaches to the Holocaust for so long has been cooled. But it is clear from re-reading Hilberg, that his deft analysis of the relationship between ideology and structure actually offered us a way out the fog much earlier.
Hilberg presents the bureaucracy of genocide on such a scale that it becomes clear that it in fact encapsulated a cross-section of German society under the Nazis. By doing so he provides a framework which both helps us to understand, and contributes to, what has been described as the ‘emerging consensus’ around attempts to explain the behaviour of the perpetrators of the ‘Final Solution’.(12 ) This consensus unites the ideological pathfinders of the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt – the SS Security Main Office) and the WVHA (Wirtschafts und Verwaltungshauptamt – the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office) with the ‘ordinary men’ of the Order Police, the shared assumptions of racial policing on the home front, and even the extension of complicity revealed in new analyses of popular involvement in aryanisation and expropriation. All are rendered explicable with reference to the triumph of a new moral and ideological atmosphere throughout the institutions of the Third Reich. In their own way institutions and individuals became progressively radicalised, as the horizon of possibilities was expanded by each new policy, action, theft or killing.(13 ) Michael Thad Allen’s masterly investigation of the bureaucrats concerned with the Business of Genocide in the WVHA is a useful example. His detailed exposition of the individuals and individual administrative groupings within this section demonstrates how individuals contributed to and were shaped by, the ‘shared comprehension’ of the different elements of the SS. Thad Allen is keen to make clear that his study of the minutiae complements Hilberg’s ‘macro’ sense of the bureaucracy. (14 )
The idea of ‘shared comprehension’ also allows us to solve some of the self-imposed problems of Holocaust historiography too – for example the tension regarding the role of Jewish slave labour within a framework of genocide. If we raise antisemitism from the level of simple politics, then we can perhaps explain the apparent contradictions of policy by discerning their relationship to the same, new and dominant value system. The different uses and abuses of Jews throughout Europe, in line with local circumstances and perceptions, become complementary rather than contradictory.(15 ) Within the framework that Hilberg provides, debates about decision-making and the precise moment that the Nazi leadership crossed the Rubicon to imagining a policy of wholesale genocide can also continue to be fruitful. While new perspectives on the contested months from the summer of 1941 may challenge Hilberg’s throwaway assertion regarding Hitler’s mindset, and will impact upon our precise understanding of the Nazi psyche, they should not be allowed to unseat Hilberg’s unique perspectives on the continent-wide scale of the politics of annihilation. (16 )
Raul Hilberg’s Destruction of the European Jews certainly remains a vital source of information on this tragic subject. While the simplicities of his condemnation of the Jewish Councils are unfortunate, his insight does aid our understanding of the Judenräte as an element of the German bureaucracy. Most of all Hilberg continues to give us a sense of the overall framework within which this bureaucracy functioned, and as such a sense of the wider significance of what may well have been localised genocides. If nothing else, Hilberg reminds us why that bureaucracy produced the Holocaust, in a manner that avoids the simplicities of explanations indicting either antisemitism or simply the depersonalised structures of government and occupation:
Why are we obsessed with the Nazis?
The Nazis still have a strong hold on us – in daily news stories, in bookshops and cinemas, even on the streets of Europe. But how has thinking about the Third Reich changed over the decades? And does it exert such a grip because it represents racism in its most extreme form?
Chimneys of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters
Chimneys of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters
Last modified on Wed 29 Nov 2017 12.04 GMT
W hy are we still so obsessed with the Nazis? Hardly a day goes by without a television programme or a newspaper article about them. Movies featuring them continue to pour out of the studios, from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds to Polanski’s The Pianist. The Nazis’ crimes continue to haunt us. One current manifestation is the vast number of artworks they stole or forced out of the possession of their original Jewish owners thousands of these cultural objects remain in galleries and museums across the world, waiting for the heirs of those who lost them to turn up and claim restitution. There is even still the occasional prosecution of an ex-Nazi for war crimes – only this week, the date was set for the trial of 93-year-old Oskar Groening, the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, for being accessory to more than 300,000 murders in the camp.
Across Europe, political protest in some deprived or crisis-ridden areas seems increasingly to be taking on neo-Nazi characteristics, whether it is the Greek Golden Dawn movement, with its swastika-like logo and its penchant for violence or the antisemitic thugs of the Azov battalion fighting in eastern Ukraine under a banner that looks even more like a swastika than the Greek one or the Hungarian Jobbik party, with its ultra‑nationalist demands for the return of huge swaths of territory from the surrounding states, taken from Hungary by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.
The leaders of Golden Dawn are mostly in prison on charges relating to the murder of an antifascist rapper, though the party still polled more than 6% in the recent Greek elections. Jobbik did a lot better, winning 20% of the vote in the last Hungarian election. Nazism’s appeal, it seems, lives on in some sections of the anti-immigrant and antisemitic far right. Such groups may deny they have anything to do with nazism, but that did not stop the founder of the Islamophobic demonstrations of the Pegida movement in eastern Germany, Lutz Bachmann, having himself photographed as Hitler, with a toothbrush moustache and a slick of black hair across his brow.
Bachmann’s gesture, which cost him his leadership, points to a vital factor in the powerful hold of memories of nazism on our culture. Hitler fascinates us not least because he appears in retrospect as the ultimate embodiment of evil. Stalin murdered millions in the name of what he saw as social progress Pol Pot commanded an “auto-genocide” in Cambodia to eradicate all traces of the modern world the Hutus in Rwanda beat, shot and stabbed to death a million of their ethnic rivals the Tutsis in the belief that only by doing so could they liberate themselves from oppression the Young Turks of the late Ottoman empire massacred more than a million Armenians in the cause, as they saw it, of national security, religion and ethnic homogeneity. But only Hitler deliberately exterminated millions of people solely because of their race. Only Hitler used specially constructed gas chambers for this purpose and had the victims’ bodies systematically exploited for economic purposes. Only Hitler deliberately launched a war of European and, ultimately – in intention at least – world conquest, planned from the moment he took power, if not earlier.
Hitler’s murderous policies, like Stalin’s, cannot be labelled “barbarous” or “medieval” like so many others. Theideology that underpinned Stalin’s policies of mass extermination died in 1989 with the fall of communism, but the racism that drove Hitler’s lives on in myriad forms that continue to trouble the world today. The Third Reich represents racism’s most extreme form: in Nazi Germany everything came down to race.
The gatehouse to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Photograph: Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Marriage was only allowed to the racially approved, armed with their certificates of “Aryan” ancestry. Modernist art was condemned as “degenerate” because Hitler thought it was part of a worldwide conspiracy of Jews hellbent on destroying German culture. “Asocial” Germans, alcoholics, petty criminals, vagrants, mixed-race Germans, the “work-shy”, were forcibly sterilised lest they pass on their alleged defects to the next generation. Homosexuals were killed because they were a danger to the Aryan race, supposedly compromising its virility. Gypsies were slaughtered because the Nazis thought they carried a hereditary taint of criminality. The official wartime “General Plan for the East” envisaged the deliberate extermination through starvation and disease of up to 45 million Slavic inhabitants of Eastern Europe following a Nazi victory, to make way for German settlers. This was genocide planned on an almost unimaginable scale.
And then there’s the fact that the Nazis came to power in a modern European society, a society of great cities, classic buildings, bustling urban streets economically advanced, technologically sophisticated and culturally literate, the land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, of Richard Strauss, of Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, of Goethe and Schiller, Caspar David Friedrich and the modernist artists of Die Brücke (the Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider). The Nazis and those who served them were wedded to modern technology, racing cars, motorways, cinema, TV, rockets, jet-propelled planes – even the atom bomb, though they never succeeded in their attempts to build one. This makes it all the more easy to imagine ourselves in their situation and wonder what we might have done in the Third Reich had we been there.
Nazism, the society it created, the world of the Third Reich and the people who lived through it all appear as a kind of moral drama where the issues are laid out starkly before us with a clarity we are no longer able to achieve in the morally complex, confusing and compromised world we live in today. It has become commonplace to classify the inhabitants of Nazi Germany and the countries it conquered and occupied as “perpetrators”, “victims” or “bystanders”, as if the Third Reich was one single, gigantic act of criminality to be retrospectively judged as if history were a court of law. Occasionally we might nod in the direction of the few who resisted, but their numbers shrink into insignificance in comparison with those considered guilty or innocent, the actively criminal and their passive victims.
Yet we have not always approached the history of nazism in this way. Indeed, the predominantly moral perspective from which Hitler and the Germany he created are currently viewed is a relatively recent one. For a long time after the end of the war he launched in September 1939 and lost five and a half years later, Hitler was a comparatively neglected topic for historians, as were the Nazi movement and the Nazi state. Evidence was piled up for the Nuremberg trials, but the focus was very much on “war crimes”, the years before 1939 were more or less out of the visual range of the prosecutors, and the death camps at Treblinka, Auschwitz and elsewhere were not the central point of the investigation.
The trials were quickly forgotten, at least for the time being. In Germany, a kind of collective amnesia followed, undermined only by resentment at the trials themselves, the intrusive process of “denazification”, the brutal expulsion of 12 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe at the end of the war and the mass bombing of German cities in its later stages. In the countries formerly occupied by Nazi Germany, such as France, people wanted to remember the resistance. In the Eastern bloc, communist governments celebrated (and exaggerated) the role of communist resisters but preferred to try to integrate ex-Nazis into the new society they were building rather than come to a reckoning with their crimes. In Britain, people remembered the war, the stoicism of the population during the blitz and the achievements of the British armed forces, but not much besides.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that things began to change. For Germans, the key question was how and why the Nazis had come to power. The Federal Republic, with its capital in the Rhenish university town of Bonn, had gained legitimacy through the “economic miracle” of the 1950s, but was still not much older than Germany’s first democracy, the Weimar Republic, had been when it had given way to Hitler’s Third Reich. People asked nervously “Is Bonn Weimar?” Political scientists and historians examined the reasons for the vulnerability of Weimar’s institutions and found, reassuringly, that the answer was “No”.
Hitler and his Nazi party officials at the 1938 Nuremberg rally. Photograph: Hugo Jaeger/The Life Picture Collection/Getty
By the 1970s, social history had arrived on the scene. Nazi documents had become available in large quantities, a younger generation of West German historians began work on them, and research students in Britain and America travelled to Germany to take advantage of their release. The focus turned towards how “ordinary” Germans behaved in everyday life, how far they had supported the regime, how far they had opposed it. Unsurprisingly, research uncovered a huge variety of responses, ranging from fanatical enthusiasm to underground opposition, mostly by former communists and social democrats.
The pioneer of this approach in Germany, Martin Broszat, director of the Munich-based Institute of Contemporary History, led a massive project whose report, published in six stout volumes, showed that most Germans had complied with the regime in many respects, but resisted when it impinged on their deepest beliefs, notably in the area of religion. A lot of ordinary people grumbled about their standard of living, were pessimistic about the war, criticised the corruption of leading Nazis and were generally less than enthusiastic about the way things were going, above all when the economy was in the doldrums, as in 1935, or when the war started going badly, from early 1943 onwards. But Hitler held their allegiance almost to the end.
For the historians of the 1970s and 1980s, and not just in Germany itself, it was important to remain as objective as possible, particularly in view of the political bias and right-wing parti pris of the older tradition of historical writing that had led German historians to sympathise with the Nazis and then, after the war, to try to argue that their ideas were not really German, or that the fall of the Weimar Republic was caused by the allies’ hardline treatment of defeated Germany at the Treaty of Versailles. Nazi Germany was portrayed as a country under the occupation of a small group of gangsters from whom the great majority of people had remained detached. For the younger generation of historians, social science theory and methods would help generate a less one‑sided and more truthful picture of the Third Reich.
Thus nazism had to be treated like any other historical phenomenon, using the methods of modern historical scholarship and eschewing moral judgment and condemnation. In advocating this view, Broszat was building on his experience and that of his colleagues in providing expert reports to the trials of Nazi war criminals, notably the 1964 Auschwitz trials, in which the Munich Institute supplied affidavits on issues such as whether the SS camp guards were forced to choose between committing atrocities and facing a court martial for disobedience, or how the concentration camps had been established and how they were run.
Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds. Photograph: Allstar
But this cool approach, which Broszat termed the “historicisation” of the Third Reich, ran into criticism from the Israeli historian Saul Friedländer, who argued that it was simply wrong to treat Nazi Germany in the same way as 16th-century France or medieval Italy. The crimes of the Nazis were so extraordinary, so extreme that to historicise the Third Reich in this way was to miss the centrality of antisemitism and the extermination of the Jews to Hitler and the Nazis. The younger historians of the 1970s and 1980s concentrated on issues such as the complicity of German elites in the rise and triumph of nazism, and the long-term roots of the Third Reich in the social and political history of 19th-century Germany. But to do so, charged Friedländer, was to smooth over the chasm that separated Nazi Germany from any kind of normal historical era.
Friedländer’s parents had both been gassed in Auschwitz, and he himself went on to write a major, two-volume study of Nazi Germany and the Jews (published in 1997 and 2007) that movingly brought together individual stories of the persecuted and the murdered with a detailed account of the larger picture of antisemitic policy and its implementation. It fulfilled all the requirements of modern historical scholarship while at the same time conveying a close sense of identification with the victims who were its principal subjects.
Yet by the time it appeared, the whole historical landscape had changed. During the 1990s, the generation of Germans who had entered the legal, medical and other professions under the Third Reich had retired, giving way to younger people, who had nothing to hide. A stream of historical studies implicated judges and lawyers in the unjust trial and execution of thousands of ordinary people who had done no more than criticise the regime. The close involvement of the medical profession in the murder by gassing and lethal injection of people who were mentally ill or disabled was uncovered and brought to public attention. A travelling exhibition of photographs documented the atrocities committed by regular German armed forces on the eastern front, which sparked demonstrations in Munich and calls for its withdrawal. Critics discovered some inaccuracies in its presentation, but these were quickly removed and did not undermine the exhibition’s message.
A leftwing foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, angered at the anodyne obituaries of retired diplomats that glossed over or suppressed their activities during the Hitler years, commissioned a large-scale investigation by professional historians that showed in detail how closely diplomats had been involved in the central crime of the Third Reich: the arrest of Jews in the countries occupied by the Nazis, their deportation and their murder in Auschwitz. Under pressure from American public opinion in particular, major German companies who had investments at stake across the Atlantic commissioned historians to research and write about their role in the Nazi economy, their use of slave labour under degrading and often murderous conditions, their exploitation of the gold fillings extracted from the bodies of Jews gassed at Auschwitz and other crimes.
Certainly, there were, and continue to be, attempts to cover this up, most recently in the official history published to mark the bicentenary of the iron, steel and arms firm Krupp in 2011, which does not deal adequately with the company’s brutal treatment of the slave labourers it employed during the war and glosses over many other aspects of the darker side of its past. But on the whole, at least recently, German business has wanted to advertise its open and honest approach to its involvement in the crimes of nazism, in order to demonstrate its moral disapproval and distance itself from it.
The Warsaw ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland. Photograph: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images
Such work has been fuelled by a strong moral drive that has drawn its power from a number of sources. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in 1989 opened the way to a flood of compensation claims by people who had fled communist East Germany after 1949 and now wanted their property back. A good number of them had been Nazis, of course, and these claims prompted former slave labourers in Eastern Europe to demand compensation for their suffering. And many Jewish families whose property, especially their art collections, had been requisitioned or looted by the Nazis now began to file claims for their return as well.
By the turn of the century, a large international conference held in Washington DC had laid down some ground rules for dealing with these claims, and individual states were beginning to set up their own specialist bodies in the field, starting with the UK’s spoliation advisory panel, which advises on cultural objects in British museums and galleries that were looted during the Nazi era. As the issue gains publicity, aided by movies such as George Clooney’s The Monuments Men (2014), and as more museums and galleries put up lists of works of uncertain provenance in their possession on their websites, the number of claims is increasing. Last October the panel recommended the return of a large and elaborately ornamented 16th-century saltcellar from the Ashmolean Museum to its original owners, a family of Jewish collectors in Hamburg who were deprived of it by the Nazis. More claims are in the pipeline.
The 1990s was the era when the memory of the Holocaust, as it had now come to be known, entered the mainstream of European and American culture, with memorial museums set up in numerous cities across the US, including Washington, and a permanent Holocaust exhibition installed at London’s Imperial War Museum. Hollywood played its part in this process with movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Former camp prisoners and survivors began to publish their memoirs after decades of silence. In the UK, the Holocaust Educational Trust, founded in 1988, sought to make school students aware of the Nazi extermination of European Jews.
Since the turn of the century, these developments have had a major influence on how historians approach the Nazi past. In a sense, Friedländer has won the debate he conducted with Broszat in the 1980s. It is now almost impossible to write about the Third Reich in the years of its existence, 1933–45, without also writing about its legacy in the present day and recent past. Partly this reflects the fact that historians’ attention has been turned for some time towards the postwar years in Germany, with the gradual release of documents under the 30-year access rule. A large amount of evidence has been uncovered of the survival into the postwar decades, often in positions of power and influence, of former active Nazis responsible for crimes of many kinds. The rise of “memory studies” has fed into this development. History has become intertwined with memory, and the idea that one should write about the Third Reich in the same way as one would write about 16th‑century France is no longer very widely shared.
Often the postwar transformation of memory took on strange forms, as in the appropriation by Mexicans of the Volkswagen Beetle, originally the Nazi “Strength Through Joy” car, as a national icon in the late 20th century painted yellow, the vochito, as it is known, is still widely used as a taxi. The Beetle is also a German national icon, the symbol of the 50s economic miracle, with the company manufacturing a “New Beetle”: an example of postmodern retro-chic. Owners of the original cars hold conventions on the old grounds of the Nuremberg rallies, seemingly oblivious of, or indifferent to, the car’s Nazi origins.
Volkswagen Beetles were originally the Nazi ‘Strength Through Joy’ car. Photograph: Hugo Jaeger/Getty Images
But more generally, in recent years, memory has trumped amnesia. This has its own problems. In some instances the emotional need to confront the misdeeds of nazism and expose the complicity and guilt of those who participated in them has led to crude and sweeping condemnation where historians should be making careful distinctions. The discovery of a wealthy businessman’s postwar concealment of his activities in the Third Reich, for example, has led to massive exaggerations about his implication in the worst crimes of the regime. Like many fellow travellers, he went along with the regime from start to finish, but a closer look at his inglorious career fails to reveal any instances of using slave labour, manufacturing arms, supplying materials to cover up mass murder or uttering a single word of an antisemitic nature. Losing one’s moral compass is not the same as setting it to mass murder. Similarly, the revelation, after decades of careful cover-ups, of the role professional diplomats played in the development of Nazi foreign policy has led to unsupported accusations that they actually drove on the extermination of the Jews rather than merely facilitating it (bad enough in itself, but not the same thing, and a contention that implicitly lets the real guilty parties off the hook).
An increasing amount of historical writing over the past decade and a half has sought to argue that the overwhelming majority of ordinary Germans supported the Nazis from the very beginning, that the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 was carried out without any violence except against despised minorities, that Hitler really did succeed in moulding all Germans together in an acclamatory “national people’s community”: so all are guilty.
But it is not excusing the choices they made to point out that there was, in fact, massive violence visited upon nazism’s opponents, above all but far from exclusively in the communist and social democratic parties, as Hitler created his dictatorship, with 100,000 imprisoned in concentration camps, bullied, beaten, tortured and – in at least 600 cases and probably many more – brutally murdered. The Third Reich was, after all, a dictatorship in which dissent, even at the level of telling jokes about Hitler, could be punishable by death. The time has come to remember that Nazi Germany actually was a dictatorship in which civil rights and freedoms were suppressed and opponents of the regime were not tolerated. Repression was carried out not just against social outsiders but also against whole huge swaths of the working classes and their political representatives. Just because people had to exercise their moral choices within such constraints does not mean they had no moral choices at all, or that they were not responsible for the ones they made. Similarly, just because people rendered the Hitler salute in public did not mean that they believed in the regime in private.
Sweeping generalisations about “the Germans” are out of place both in serious historical scholarship and in an informed public memory. Wartime propaganda damned all Germans past and present for the rise of nazism and the murderous triumph of antisemitism, but nazism, it should not be forgotten, was a tiny fringe movement until the very end of the 1920s. The regime had to work hard to get popular support once it came to power in 1933, and violence played as important a role as propaganda. Prominent Jews in the Weimar Republic, notably the foreign minister Walther Rathenau, were not despised, marginal figures but enjoyed huge popular support and admiration, expressed in the national outpouring of grief on his death.
It has become increasingly difficult to sustain the view, rooted in wartime allied propaganda and given more sophisticated expression in the work of the dominant school of left-liberal West Germans of the 1970s to 1990s, that the roots of nazism lay deep in the German past. Often seen against the long-term background of modern German history since the era of Bismarck’s unification of the country in the 19th century, the Third Reich is now increasingly also viewed in a broader international, even global context, as part of the age of imperialism, its drive for domination building on a broader tradition of the German quest for empire.
Barbed wire at Auschwitz concentration camp. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian
Nazi policies in Eastern Europe drew heavily on Hitler’s image of the American colonisation of the Great Plains, derived from the prewar pulp-fiction writer Karl May. Hitler’s murderous quest to found a new German empire focused on Europe rather than Africa or Asia, but it drew on many legacies of the age of European imperialism, above all its doctrines of racial superiority. A handful of Englishmen, Hitler said more than once, had been able to rule millions in India surely the Germans could do the same in Eastern Europe. That the British Raj was ruled indirectly, through the structures of Indian society, did not occur to him he put it all down to the supposed racial superiority of the rulers.
In the new, transnational vision that has emerged among historians in our own era of globalisation, nazism appears as an ideology drawing on sources from many countries, from Russia to France, Italy to Turkey, rather than being the culmination of exclusively German intellectual traditions, as the historians of the postwar generation argued. Racial doctrines borrowed from the French theorist Arthur de Gobineau were married to a distorted version of social Darwinism originating in Britain, antisemitism derived from Russian and French writers was fused with anti-Bolshevism imported from the Whites in the Russian civil war, the worship of violence and hatred of parliamentarism taken from Mussolini’s Italian fascist movement were joined to ideas of national reawakening taken from Kemal Atatürk’s nationalist revolution in Turkey.
Following this trend, historians have come to see the Nazi extermination of the Jews not as a unique historical event but as a genocide with parallels in other countries and at other times, not only the German extermination of the Herero tribe in the Kaiser’s colony of Namibia before the first world war, but the actions of the Turks in 1915, of Stalin in Ukraine in the early 1930s and of the Hutus in Rwanda, to name only three of the mass murders of the 20th century.
Yet while such comparisons can add to our knowledge and understanding of what Hitler and the Nazis did, they can also blur distinctions by homogenising all acts of mass murder until it is impossible to tell them apart. Only in Germany did the eclectic hotchpotch of European ideas that formed the ideology of National Socialism rise, triumph and put itself into practice. And the genocide it inspired was different from other genocides: for Hitler, the Jews were not merely subhumans to be eliminated in the interests of an allegedly superior race, they were the “world enemy” of the “Aryans”, endowed with almost superhuman qualities, to be hunted down and ritually humiliated wherever they were found before they were killed without exception. That is why modern neo-Nazis find it so important to deny the atrocities of Auschwitz, and that is the reason above all others why the Nazis linger so powerfully and persistently in our collective memory.
Richard J Evans’s The Third Reich in History and Memory is published by Little, Brown on 26 February.
The Dark Side of the Grimm Fairy Tales
In the original version of “Rapunzel,” published in 1812, a prince impregnates the title character after the two spend many days together living in “joy and pleasure.” “Hans Dumm,” meanwhile, is about a man who impregnates a princess simply by wishing it, and in “The Frog King” a princess spends the night with her suitor once he turns into a handsome bachelor. The Grimms stripped the sex scenes from later versions of “Rapunzel” and “The Frog King” and eliminated “Hans Dumm” entirely.
But hidden sexual innuendos in “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” remained, according to psychoanalysts, including Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm, who examined the book in the 20th century.
Although the brothers Grimm toned down the sex in later editions of their work, they actually ramped up the violence. A particularly horrific incident occurs in “The Robber Bridegroom,” when some bandits drag a maiden into their underground hideout, force her to drink wine until her heart bursts, rip off her clothes and then hack her body into pieces. Other tales have similarly gory episodes. In 𠇌inderella” the evil stepsisters cut off their toes and heels trying to make the slipper fit and later have their eyes pecked out by doves in “The Six Swans” an evil mother-in-law is burned at the stake in “The Goose Maid” a false bride is stripped naked, thrown into a barrel filled with nails and dragged through the streets and in “Snow White” the wicked queen dies after being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes. Even the love stories contain violence. The princess in “The Frog King” turns her amphibian companion into a human not by kissing it, but instead by hurling it against a wall in frustration.
Even more shockingly, much of the violence in “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” is directed at children. Snow White is just 7 years old when the huntsman takes her into the forest with orders to bring back her liver and lungs. In “The Juniper Tree” a woman decapitates her stepson as he bends down to get an apple. She then chops up his body, cooks him in a stew and serves it to her husband, who enjoys the meal so much he asks for seconds. Snow White eventually wins the day, as does the boy in “The Juniper Tree,” who is brought back to life. But not every child in the Grimms’ book is so lucky. The title character in 𠇏rau Trude” turns a disobedient girl into a block of wood and tosses her into a fire. And in “The Stubborn Child” a youngster dies after God lets him become sick.
The Grimms gathered over 200 tales for their collection, three of which contained Jewish characters. In “The Jew in the Brambles” the protagonist happily torments a Jew by forcing him to dance in a thicket of thorns. He also insults the Jew, calling him a 𠇍irty dog,” among other things. Later on, a judge doubts that a Jew would ever voluntarily give away money. The Jew in the story turns out to be a thief and is hanged. In “The Good Bargain” a Jewish man is likewise portrayed as a penny-pinching swindler. During the Third Reich, the Nazis adopted the Grimms’ tales for propaganda purposes. They claimed, for instance, that Little Red Riding Hood symbolized the German people suffering at the hands of the Jewish wolf, and that Cinderella’s Aryan purity distinguished her from her mongrel stepsisters.
In 𠇊ll-Kinds-of-Fur” a king promises his dying wife that he will only remarry if his new bride is as beautiful as her. Unfortunately, no such woman exists in the whole world except his daughter, who ends up escaping his clutches by fleeing into the wilderness. While interviewing sources, the Grimms likewise heard versions of a different story–“The Girl Without Hands”–with an incestuous father. Nonetheless, in all editions of their book they recast this father as the devil.
Evil stepparents are a dime a dozen in fairy tales, but the Grimms originally included some evil biological mothers as well. In the 1812 version of “Hansel and Gretel,” a wife persuades her husband to abandon their children in the woods because they don’t have enough food to feed them. Snow White also has an evil mother, who at first wishes for and then become infuriated by her daughter’s beauty. The Grimms turned both of these characters into stepmothers in subsequent editions, and mothers have essentially remained off the hook ever since in the retelling of these stories.
During the Enlightenment, there was a rise in nationalistic feelings. People with a shared culture, language, history, race and value systems, bonded together into political, economic, and social entities with distinct continuous geographical boundaries which we refer to today as nations. A nation was a group of people united politically and militarily under a single flag and a single leader to ward off the domination of foreigners. The group had a shared loyalty to the nation.
Jews, as outsiders who did not share the common language, culture, religion, and values, were seen as a threat by extremists in the nationalist movement. As such, they became the targets of anti-Semitic persecution.
From Nazism to Never Again
Defeated regimes are not only swiftly removed from power but often immediately erased from memory as well. When Adolf Hitler’s “thousand-year German Reich” came crashing down in 1945 with the Allied victory in World War II, reminders of the 12 years of its actual existence were hastily scrubbed away as Germans scrambled to adjust to life after Nazism. Stone swastikas were chiseled off the façades of buildings, Nazi insignia were taken down from flagpoles, and, in towns and cities across Germany, streets and squares named after Hitler reverted to their previous designations.
Meanwhile, millions of former Nazis hid or burned their uniforms, and in the final days of the war, the Gestapo set fire to incriminating records all over the country. Many of the most fanatical Nazis did not survive: they either perished in the final conflagration or killed themselves, along with Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and many others, in one of the greatest waves of mass suicide in history, unable to imagine anything beyond the all-encompassing world of the Third Reich, the only thing that gave their lives purpose and meaning.
In stark contrast to the countries that the Nazis had conquered during the war, Germany saw no resistance to the Allied occupation. As wartime gravestones eloquently testified, many Germans had fought and died “for Führer and Fatherland.” But with the führer gone and the fatherland under enemy occupation, there seemed no point in fighting on. German cities had been reduced to rubble, and millions of Germans had died as a result, everyone could see what Nazism had ultimately led to. The Allied occupation was vigilant and comprehensive, and it quickly suppressed even the slightest act of resistance. The Allies put in place an elaborate program of "denazification,” war crimes trials, and “reeducation” measures that targeted not only former Nazi activists and fellow travelers but also the militaristic beliefs and values that the Allies believed had allowed the Hitler regime to gain support and come to power in the first place. In 1947, to symbolize this forced reinvention of German political culture, the Allied Control Council, which governed Germany at the time, formally abolished the state of Prussia, which “from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany,” the council claimed.
Germans by and large wanted to focus on the gigantic task of rebuilding and reconstruction and to forget the Nazi past and the crimes in which, to a greater or lesser extent, the vast majority of them had been involved. The year 1945, many of them declared, was “zero hour”—time for a fresh start. However, politicians and intellectuals also reached back to older values in their quest to construct a new Germany.
In the throes of the Cold War, the country split into the capitalist Federal Republic in the West and the socialist Democratic Republic in the East. From 1952 onward, a fortified fence separated them in 1961, the last remaining links were severed with the building of the Berlin Wall. On either side, rival visions of the new Germany emerged. Konrad Adenauer, the leading politician in West Germany, sought to rebuild the country on the basis of “Western,” Christian values, while Walter Ulbricht, the leading politician in the East, looked to the traditions of the German labor movement, formed in the mid-nineteenth century under the inspiration of Karl Marx. The democratic traditions of the United States—and, to a lesser extent, those of France and the United Kingdom—exerted a powerful influence on West Germany, whereas the Russian Revolution, Leninism and Stalinism, and the social and political precedent of the Soviet Union provided the model for the socialist state in East Germany.
Yet postwar German efforts to forge a new identity could not just leap across the Third Reich as if it had not existed. Germans ultimately had to confront what the Hitler regime had done in their name. The process of doing so was halting and hesitant at first, and complicated by the country’s division during the Cold War. In recent decades, however, Germany has accomplished an undeniably impressive feat: a collective acceptance of moral responsibility for the terrible crimes of its recent past. The country has given material expression to this acceptance by preserving physical traces of the Nazi era and building fresh memorials to its victims. These memorials serve more than just a symbolic function: in the face of increasingly influential far-right groups and parties that reject contemporary German norms of tolerance, seek an end to what they consider the “shaming” of Germans, and encourage pernicious forms of historical revisionism, these monuments to the past act as constant, unavoidable, and visceral reminders of the truth.
In the aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allies moved swiftly to prevent any of the sites associated with Hitler and the Nazi leadership from becoming pilgrimage destinations for those who still adhered to Nazism. The Soviets blew up the remains of the bombed-out Reich Chancellery in Berlin. The underground bunker where Hitler spent his final weeks was progressively demolished or filled in. Deliberately anonymous and unremarkable new buildings were constructed around the site today, if visitors manage to find the spot, all they will see is a children’s playground and a parking lot.
Yet even when the physical damage of the war had been repaired, by the 1960s, many reminders of the Nazi regime persisted in most German cities quite a few of the physical remains of the Hitler regime proved simply too massive to dismantle easily. It was one thing to remove a concrete Nazi eagle and swastika from a public building, but quite another to demolish the huge stadium constructed for the track-and-field events of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, for example, or the grandiose and largely intact Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, originally designed by the Nazis as one of four terminals that would serve what they imagined would be the “World Capital of Germania” after their eventual victory. What is more, both of those structures were just too useful to eliminate. A postwar role was even found for the concentration camps, the sites of the regime’s worst crimes, as some of them were used to house Nazi prisoners awaiting trial or even to provide temporary shelter for German refugees and exiles from eastern Europe.
There was a limit, as well, to what the Allies could achieve in encouraging or forcing the Germans to come to terms with what they had done. West Germans, the vast majority of the formerly united country’s population, seemed to suffer from a generalized historical and moral amnesia in the postwar years on the rare occasions when they spoke about the Nazi dictatorship, it was usually to insist that they had known nothing of its crimes and to complain that they had been unfairly victimized and humiliated by the denazification programs and the “victors’ justice” of the war crimes trials. Many still seethed with anger at the Allies’ carpet-bombing of German towns and resented the expulsion of 11 million ethnic Germans by the postwar governments of Hungary, Poland, Romania, and other eastern European countries. An opinion poll carried out in West Germany in 1949 revealed that half the population considered Nazism to be “a good idea, badly carried out.” In the East, the country’s new Stalinist leaders wanted the public to identify with the memory of the communist resistance to Nazism, which had been real enough, but which the authorities massively exaggerated. As a result, East Germans were not really forced to face up to their involvement in the crimes of Nazism at all.
In the 1960s, however, things began to change. The much-heralded “economic miracle” transformed West Germany into a prosperous and flourishing society. Germans reconciled themselves to democratic institutions because they were finally delivering economic success, as they had not managed to do under the ill-fated Weimar Republic in the 1920s and early 1930s. A new generation of young Germans, born during or after the war and brought up in a democratic society, began to demand the truth about the Nazi era from their parents and teachers. Historians, most notably at Munich’s Institute for Contemporary History, began to research the Nazi period seriously and critically, as the documents seized by the Allies for the Nuremberg prosecutions were returned to German archives. The West German authorities themselves launched numerous prosecutions for war crimes, culminating in the trials of Auschwitz camp personnel in 1963–65. Massive publicity was generated by the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal administrators of what the Nazis had euphemistically called “the final solution of the Jewish problem in Europe.” The German student rebellion of 1968 and the coming to power of a Social Democratic government led by Willy Brandt, who had spent the Nazi years in exile, further opened the way to a more honest confrontation with the Nazi past. The neo-Nazi National Democratic Party emerged in 1964 to challenge these developments and won a few seats in state parliaments but never managed to get the five percent of the vote necessary to secure representation in the national legislature.
These developments lent urgency to the question of what to do with the remaining relics of the Third Reich. In Nuremberg, for example, there was the roughly seven-square-mile site where the Nazi Party had held huge rallies, one of which was immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl’s chilling 1935 propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Municipal officials converted the Luitpold Arena back into a public park, as it had been before Nazi times, and blew up the massive grandstand known as the Tribune of Honor, where 500 Nazi dignitaries had seated themselves to watch the mass choreography of party rallies.
By the end of the 1950s, however, some groups in the city began to argue in favor of preserving some of these buildings as sites of memory, rather than obliterating them—and with them, not unintentionally, the memory of Nuremberg’s role in the Nazi movement. Although some members of the city council were keen to dissociate the city from its Nazi links by appealing to a more distant, medieval past, others thought this smacked of dishonesty and deception. At the Zeppelin Field, another vast arena used for the Nuremberg rallies, the Allies had blown up the huge swastika that topped the main grandstand, which had been constructed by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer. But the buildings encircling the field were preserved, and the arena itself was used for sports practice, camping, and other open-air activities. Parts of an unfinished great hall became the home of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra. In view of the harmless nature of these new functions, it seemed wasteful to demolish the structures that housed them. In 1994, the city council decided to put up a permanent exhibition about the Nuremberg rallies and the surviving buildings in the complex, housed in a wing of the great hall, placing the events in their historical context and explaining the function and impact of the rallies in winning over people to the Nazi movement.
The concentration camps went through a similar series of phases after the war, reflecting changing German attitudes to the Nazi past. For example, in 1948, the British occupying forces returned the camp at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, back to the Germans, who immediately converted it into a state penitentiary, removing the wooden huts and replacing them with a large new prison complex. The authorities pledged that the facility would be run in accordance with standard legal norms and penal practices, unlike its predecessor. But the fact that it incorporated the old concentration camp implied that the latter, too, had housed a population of criminals rather than the innocent victims of a genocidal regime. Meanwhile, the canal that camp inmates had been forced to build was leased to a commercial enterprise, as was a wing of the former camp’s brick factory.
The few memorial sites that appeared on the grounds of the old concentration camps in West Germany said little or nothing about the camps themselves, instead paying homage to the victims with Christian monuments organized according to religious denomination. Only after groups formed by ex-prisoners pressured state authorities did they agree to open exhibition centers at the camps: at Dachau in 1955, Bergen-Belsen in 1966, and Neuengamme in 1981. But these exhibitions framed their messages in Cold War terms, decrying totalitarianism yet making little mention of the fact that many of the prisoners were held there because they were communists. The opposite was the case in the concentration camp sites in East Germany, which focused on the (often overstated) resistance activities of communist inmates, with whom the visitors were urged to identify.
THE TRUTH WILL OUT
The landscape of memorialization had thus already changed considerably between the immediate postwar years and the 1980s. But a far more dramatic transformation took place following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany in 1989–90. This change was accentuated by a second generational shift, as the senior members of the German professions (medicine, law, education, and so on), who had started their careers during the Nazi period, reached retirement age and relinquished power to younger colleagues, who had not been implicated in the crimes of the Third Reich. The 1990s saw a far-reaching reckoning with the past, as new research, often accompanied by public controversy, exposed the role of doctors in the killing of mental patients of academics in planning the extermination of the Jews, Slavic peoples, the Sinti, the Roma, and others regarded by the Nazis as inferior or dispensable of civil servants in the implementation of the Holocaust of judges and lawyers in the condemnation and execution of political offenders, “social deviants,” gay men and women, and many others who fell afoul of discriminatory Nazi laws.
Such revelations were not uniformly accepted. There were public demonstrations against a touring exhibition that exposed the crimes of the German armed forces on the eastern front during World War II, which included the massacre of Jews, the killing of civilians, the wanton destruction of enemy property, and much more besides. Still, by the late 1990s, most people in Germany accepted the validity of these accounts, and a majority of Germans had come to believe that their country bore the major responsibility for the extermination of some six million European Jews by the Nazis.
A wave of memorials accompanied and encouraged this collective embrace of the truth. In 1992, the artist Gunter Demnig launched the Stolpersteine (“stumbling blocks”) project, in which small brass plaques the size of cobblestones were laid into the sidewalks of German towns and cities outside the houses where the murdered victims of Nazism had lived until their arrest. The plaques carry the names of the victims and the dates and places of their birth and death. The project quickly became popular as a way of memorializing the dead. To date, more than 56,000 Stolpersteine have been placed in urban locations in some 22 countries, the vast majority in Germany itself. By placing them where people would walk over them, the artist intended to remind passersby of the complicity of ordinary Germans in the violence. Although some towns still resist their placement, the number of these small but powerfully evocative memorials continues to grow.
Larger, more elaborate forms of memorialization took shape, as well. The sites of former concentration camps were turned into large-scale memorials to the victims, with elaborate exhibitions that now took a more comprehensive approach to their subject, replacing the partial view of the Cold War years. The modern Neuengamme prison was closed in 2006. A supermarket built on the grounds of the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp was never opened after widespread protests (although the building itself was not demolished). The camp at Sachsenhausen, to the north of Berlin, in the former East Germany, was cleared of rubble, and a new exhibition center was opened there in 2001. And in 2005, perhaps the highest-profile of these projects opened: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located in the center of Germany’s new capital, Berlin.
VICTORS AND VICTIMS
A shared sense of responsibility for the crimes of Nazism arguably aided the process of reunification, as Germans had to find a new source of national identity beyond the liberal democratic values or communist visions that had shaped the respective political cultures on either side of the Berlin Wall. Of course, there are still some who insist that the Germans were themselves victimized, above all by the Allied strategic bombing campaign that killed over half a million German civilians during the war, or by the expulsion under brutal and often murderous conditions of some 11 million ethnic Germans from eastern Europe in 1944–46. But this remains a minority view, and significantly, it has not found expression in permanent memorials: indeed, a plan to create a museum in Berlin to commemorate the victims of the expulsion had to be abandoned after protests lodged by the Polish government, in particular.
At the same time, a number of memorials created during the Nazi period have not been removed and have aroused considerable controversy and debate. One example is the memorial to the soldiers of the 76th Infantry Regiment at the Dammtor train station, in Hamburg, a huge concrete block commemorating the men of the regiment who fell in World War I. German veterans managed to frustrate Allied plans to demolish it, and so it remains intact. There are many monuments to the World War I dead in Germany, most of them politically more or less neutral, but this one, erected under the Nazi regime in 1936, is openly militaristic in character, carrying the inscription, in Gothic lettering, “Germany must live, even if we must die.”
For the Western powers in the Cold War, this sentiment was not wholly unwelcome. But the sight of such an unmistakably Nazi memorial, which depicts 88 steel-helmeted infantrymen in relief marching round the side of the block, brandishing their weapons, aroused growing protests from the 1970s onward. The response of the Hamburg authorities was to commission an “antimonument” by the Austrian sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka, which since the mid-1980s has stood next to the main block, commemorating the victims of war, and especially the 40,000 inhabitants of the city who lost their lives in the gigantic firestorm created by Allied bombing raids in 1943. Only partially completed (for financial reasons), it nonetheless poses an effective criticism of the original memorial: war, it reminds viewers, is generally not the glorious and heroic enterprise claimed by the monument to the 76th Regiment.
Not surprisingly, an understanding of war’s costs has deeply affected contemporary German political culture. Since 1945, no European country has been more pacifistic in sentiment or more opposed to military intervention outside its own borders. No country has placed more weight on stability and continuity, a preference expressed most succinctly by Adenauer’s famous electoral slogan of the 1950s: “No experiments!” And no European country has been more welcoming to immigrants and refugees, including Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) drawn by the economic boom of the 1960s and more than a million refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere looking for a safer and better life who have flooded Germany in recent years.
Today, such values are being tested as never before. The refugee crisis has sparked an intense backlash against postwar norms of tolerance. Two organizations in particular have emerged to object to the government’s policies in this area. Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) formed in 2014 in Dresden and has since held a series of mass street demonstrations against immigration, calling for “the preservation of German culture” and decrying “religious fanaticism.” One Pegida speaker declared that Germany had become “a Muslim garbage dump.” Opinion surveys in 2014 showed that although somewhere between a third and half of all Germans sympathized with the movement’s complaints, the great majority declared themselves unwilling to join in the demonstrations, correctly considering Pegida’s fears of a supposed overwhelming of German and European culture by Muslim immigrants to be grossly exaggerated.
In the past three years, Pegida has largely given way to another new political movement, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has emerged as a conventional political party and received the third most votes in national elections last fall, gaining 94 of the 598 seats in the national legislature. As well as being anti-Islam and anti-immigrant, the AfD denies human influence on climate change, wants to ban same-sex marriage, supports what it calls traditional family values, opposes European integration, and repudiates what it sees as a culture of shame and guilt over the Nazi past in favor of a new sense of national pride. In January 2017, the leader of the ultra-right faction of the party, Björn Höcke, demanded a “180-degree about-face in the politics of memory,” a statement that aroused controversy even within the AfD. And even the moderate faction’s leader, Frauke Petry, who has since left the party, showed no reluctance to use Nazi terms that have been more or less anathemas to German politicians since 1945, such as Volk, which means “folk,” “people,” or “nation” but now has strong racist overtones, owing to its usage by the Nazis.
The AfD enjoys its strongest support in the former East Germany. Around 20 percent or more of voters in the five states there cast their ballots for the party last fall, in contrast to between seven and 12 percent in the former West German states. This reflects the legacy of the communist regime’s failure to instill an adequate culture of remembrance in its citizens former East Germans don’t seem to have the same allergy to right-wing extremism that former West Germans have. In a similar way, it’s in former East German cities, such as Dresden, that Pegida has staged its most successful demonstrations. As the brief rise of the National Democratic Party in the late 1960s showed, when a coalition government of the two main parties holds power, as they did then and as they did under Chancellor Angela Merkel until the 2017 elections, the lack of any adequate political opposition encourages the rise of right-wing protest movements in Germany.
But neither Pegida nor the AfD has managed to disturb the German consensus about the Nazi past. All the other main political parties support Merkel’s refugee policy and are even more committed to the dominant German culture of memory. The threat of right-wing populism in Germany has proved to be far weaker than in a number of other European countries. The days when a genuinely neo-Nazi party could win significant numbers of votes are long over, and despite some flirtation with Nazi ideas and even acts of violence on its ultra-right fringes, right-wing populism in Germany no longer has the Nazi ties it used to have. Indeed, echoes of Nazism on the fringes of the AfD have on occasion plunged the party into crisis and have led to the resignation of some senior members. The party has said that it wants to end Germany’s sense of responsibility for the German past, but with so many solid and prominent memorials to the victims of Nazism scattered all across the land, from the Stolpersteine to the concentration camp memorials, it is difficult to see how that would happen. Such physical reminders of the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis confront Germans every day, and while a small minority may not like this, they have no choice but to put up with it. When it comes to accepting the sins of the past, there is, in the end, no alternative for Germany.
What&rsquos wrong with this picture?
Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. Source: U.S. National Archive
Well, nothing is wrong with the picture itself. It&rsquos real. It wasn&rsquot faked. It is a true artifact of 20th century European history. The poster on the shop window reads: &ldquoGermans beware. Don&rsquot buy from Jews&rdquo. What started as boycotts against Jewish shops and businesses eventually led to the gas chambers and incinerators of Auschwitz and Treblinka. All of this is irrefutable.
What&rsquos wrong is how this picture, and others taken at the same time in the early 1930&rsquos, are now being used to suppress free speech and non-violent protest and brand a movement for civil and political rights as racist and illegitimate.
It&rsquos an ironic and depressing state of affairs.
Nazis organise boycotts of Jewish owned shops in Berlin 1933. Source: U.S. National archive
What we are seeing is a deliberate attempt to make a direct link between those that follow the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel and those that perpetrated the Holocaust.
This week Hillary Clinton joined the anti-BDS campaign. In a letter to the Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban she adopted the language aimed at delegitimising the entire BDS movement.
&ldquoParticularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world &mdash especially in Europe &mdash we need to repudiate forceful efforts to malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people.&rdquo
Hillary&rsquos letter follows the comments made last month by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while on a visit to Poland that directly compared BDS to the actions of the Nazis towards the Jews.
&ldquoThe attacks on the Jews were always preceded by slander. What was done to the Jewish people then is being done to the Jewish state now. In those days [in Poland] we could do nothing. Today we can speak our mind, hold our ground. We are going to do both.&rdquo
The use of the Nazi era photographs and the rhetoric of Bibi and Hillary is poor deduction, sloppy history, and appalling ethics. It also looks desperate and hysterical. Meanwhile, we could do without the constant politicisation of the Holocaust. But I&rsquom afraid we are only going to see more of this kind of thing as Israel is setting aside serious money to combat a campaign that is getting global traction.
So how does it work?
The skewed logic goes like this. The Nazis boycotted Jews. The Nazis were antisemites. There was a direct chronological and political link between boycotting Jews and murdering them. What started as an economic weapon eventually became genocide.
That&rsquos the premise. Now here&rsquos the corollary.
The BDS movement wants to boycott Jews and Jewish businesses (actually it doesn&rsquot, but I&rsquoll get to that sleight of hand in a moment). The BDS movement directs hatred against Jews (ditto previous parenthesis). Slander against Jews is always the prelude to violence and murder against Jews (to quote Prime Minister Netanyahu).
And therefore the conclusion must be&hellip
BDS is inherently racist and extremely dangerous and is consequently an entirely illegitimate form of protest.
Just look at history, goes the argument, see what happened in Germany. They did it to us then and now they are trying to do it again.
But accusing BDS of attempting to &lsquodelegitimise Israel&rsquo, as both Hillary and Bibi do, just turns every criticism of Israel&rsquos actions into a matter of life and death for the Jewish people.
Can&rsquot we dial down the hysteria and have a rational conversation about all this?
It would be better to see BDS as opening a debate about what kind of state Israel wants to be as it approaches its seventieth birthday. Is it going to be a Jewish homeland that protects and upholds the rights of all of its citizens? Or will Jewish ethnicity and Judaism trump the liberal and democratic values that Israel says it shares with Western democracies?
Spotting the difference between Nazis and BDSers
Here&rsquos why people should stop using photographs of Nazis outside Jewish shops whenever BDS crops up.
The German boycott of the Jews was inspired by racial hatred. Jews were presented as a cancer to be eradicated. It was aimed not at some Jews but at all Jews and nothing they could do or say would change their status as political, economic and social pariahs. It was not an economic protest to bring about change. It was an economic hammer to destroy the sustainability of a whole people.
In contrast, BDS is inspired by the wish to address the national and civil rights of the Palestinian people following decades of failed international diplomacy.
It is not directed at all Jews.
It is directed at businesses around the world with contracts or investments that help the Israeli government continue its illegal occupation of the West Bank.
It is directed at businesses around the world selling fresh produce or products from the Jewish Settlements on the West Bank, Settlements which are considered illegal by just about every government in the world including Britain and the United States.
If a company stops aiding the Occupation or selling products from the Settlements then the boycott or divestment ends.
While some that support BDS want to target just the Settlements themselves or the companies that aid the Occupation, others promote a full boycott of the State of Israel. Whether you agree with it or not, there is a clear logic in the full boycott stance since it is not the Settlers themselves that either maintain the Occupation or allow for more Settlements or the expansion of existing ones. It&rsquos the government of Israel that does all of that. And if the the Israeli government stopped the Occupation, addressed the rights of Palestinians and agreed a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue then the boycott, divestment and sanctions would end.
Unlike the Nazi boycott, there is a clear way to end BDS and it does not involve the annihilation of the Jewish people.
Okay, there are some racists who hate Jews and are happy to use BDS as political &lsquocover&rsquo for their antisemitism. But, to return to the rules of argument by deduction, just because some antisemites support BDS it does not mean that BDS is antisemitic. However, vigilance on this issue by the BDS leadership is required.
As for the sanctions part of the equation, the arguments from the anti-BDSers seem to revolve around the accusation that its unfair and immoral to call for sanctions against Israel while keeping silent on the world&rsquos real perpetrators of evil (they&rsquore thinking Islamic State, President Assad of Syria, Boko Haram etc).
Well, last time I checked there were already plenty of sanctions in place against Syria and I think we are still bombing Islamic State in Iraq. Even Russia gets sanctions imposed for its behaviour in Ukraine. Israel, which ought not to set its benchmark for human rights against its Arab neighbours but rather in line with Western democracies, has no sanctions imposed upon it despite being in breach of international law in multiple ways.
So the question is not why pick on Israel? But why does Israel get off so lightly?
A respectable position
Whether you agree with it or not, BDS is a perfectly respectable position to hold. In fact when it comes to the boycott of Settlement produce and products it should be those businesses still trading with them that need to justify their position rather than the other way around.
Why would you continue to trade with farms or factories operating on stolen land according to international law? Setting aside the ethics for a moment, at the very least it looks like an avoidable commercial risk in terms of your brand reputation.
Of course if you think that BDS is a racist tactic and an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people would you prefer to return to the previous tactics of passed decades to draw attention to the Palestinian cause and show resistance to the Occupation?
Hi-jacking and assassination in the 1970s?
Stone throwing in the 1980s?
Suicide bombing in the 2000s?
Indiscriminate rocket fire and &lsquoterror tunnels&rsquo today?
Personally, I&rsquoll take BDS every time. It&rsquos peaceful, it&rsquos lawful and nobody has to die.
Hillary Clinton in her letter to Saban said that only direct negotiations between the two sides will lead to a resolution. I think she&rsquos right. But the imbalance between the two sides is exactly why BDS is so needed. Israel will not negotiate seriously until its Jewish citizens and Jewish politicians accept that they have something to lose by not making serious concessions.
So let&rsquos keep the Nazi photographs in the history books and museums and refer to them only to explain the policies that led to the Holocaust.
As for BDS, let&rsquos start debating the issues and stop shooting the messengers.
Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)
The leader of the German National Socialist Workers' Party (Nazi) developed his anti-Semitic, anti-communist and racist ideology well before coming to power as Chancellor in 1933. He undermined political institutions to transform Germany into a totalitarian state. From 1939 to 1945, he led Germany in World War II while overseeing the Holocaust. He committed suicide in April 1945.
The men who led Nazi Germany
What Is Microhistory?
Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson is chair of the Center for Microhistorical Reasarch at the Reykjavik Academy in Iceland.
One of the most interesting and innovative approach to history, mostly cultural and social history, is microhistory, which just recently has been introduced in a new website called microhistory.org in Iceland.
Microhistory came about, according to the German-US historian Georg G. Iggers in his excellent summary of the development of modern historical practice, Historiography in the Twentieth Century, not because the microhistorians considered that the traditional methodology of the social sciences &ldquois not possible or desirable but that social scientists have made generalizations that do not hold up when tested against the concrete reality of the small-scale life they claim to explain.&rdquo1 In the light of this perception, monographs and journals began to appear focusing specifically on microhistorical research, and these became a forum for criticism of the kind of social history produced under the influence of the social sciences. Perhaps foremost of the contributors to the debate was the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, who delivered incisive criticisms of the prevailing methods in numerous articles in the Italian journal, Quaderni Storici, the German journal, Historische Anthropologie, in English in Critical Inquiry, and elsewhere.2
Ginzburg and many of his colleagues attacked large-scale quantitative studies on the grounds that they distorted reality on the individual level. The microhistorians placed their emphasis on small units and how people conducted their lives within them. By reducing the scale of observation, microhistorians argued that they are more likely to reveal the complicated function of individual relationships within each and every social setting and they stressed its difference from larger norms. Micohistorians tend to focus on outliers rather than looking for the average individual as found by the application of quantitative research methods. Instead, they scrutinize those individuals who did not follow the paths of their average fellow countryman, thus making them their focal point. In microhistory the term &ldquonormal exception&rdquo is used to penetrate the importance of this perspective, meaning that each and every one of us do not show our full hand of cards. Seeing what is usually kept hidden from the outside world, we realize that our focus has only been on the &ldquonormal exception&rdquo those who in one segment of society are considered obscure, strange, and even dangerous. They might be, in other circles, at the center of attention and fully accepted in their daily affairs.
Nearly all cases which microhistorians deal with have one thing in common they all caught the attention of the authorities, thus establishing their archival existence. They illustrate the function of the formal institutions in power and how they handle people&rsquos affairs. In other words, each has much wider application, going well beyond the specific case under examination by the microhistorian. The Italian microhistorian Giovanni Levi put it this way in an article on the methods of microhistory: &ldquo[M]icrohistorians have concentrated on the contradictions of normative systems and therefore on the fragmentation, contradictions and plurality of viewpoints which make all systems fluid and open.&rdquo3 To be able to illustrate this point, microhistorians have turned to the narrative as an analytical tool or a research method where they get the opportunity to present their findings, show the process by which the conclusions are reached, and demonstrate the holes in our understanding and the subjective nature of the discourse.4
I belief that the methods of microhistory are extremely well suited for the study of American history, especially issues related to minorities, ethnicity, race, and gender. The interesting thing is that it has not been applied to American history in a noticeable fashion microhistory is, indeed, a European phenomena. I do want to encourage American historians to think about the methods of microhistory and contribute to its development as it is introduced on the new webside: www.microhistory.org run by the Center for Microhistoical Research at the Reykjavik Academy in Iceland. Among the features introduced on the webside is a new journal, Journal of Microhistory, an informal online publication which hopefully will work as a forum for ideas and debates about its methods. Also, an extended bibliography on microhistorical research is to be found on the webside which will help future microhistorians, especially those who want to apply it to new fields in American history.
1 Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: from Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Hanover, NH, 1997), p. 108. See also: Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson, &ldquoThe Singularization of History: Social History and Microhistory within the Postmodern State of Knowledge.&rdquo Journal of Social History, 36 (Spring 2003), pp. 701-735.
2 Ginzburg&rsquos ideas are put forward in a large number of books and articles, notably &ldquoJust One Witness,&rdquo Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the &ldquoFinal Solution&rdquo (Cambridge, Mass., 1992) The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, 1980) &ldquoProofs and Possibilities: in the Margins of Natalie Zemon Davis&rsquos &lsquoThe Return of Martin Guerre&rsquo,&rdquo Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, 37 (1988), pp. 114&ndash127 &ldquoMicrohistory: Two or Three Things that I Know about it,&ldquo Critical Inquiry, 20 (Autumn 1993), pp. 10&ndash35 &ldquoChecking the Evidence: the Judge and the Historian,&rdquo Critical Inquiry, 18 (Autumn 1991), pp. 79&ndash92 Carlo Ginzburg and Carlo Poni, &ldquoThe Name and the Game: Unequal Exchange and the Historical Marketplace,&rdquo in Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, eds., Microhistory and the Lost People of Europe, trans. Eren Branch (Baltimore, 1991), pp. 1&ndash10 Carlo Ginzburg, &ldquoThe Philosopher and the Witches: an Experiment in Cultural History,&rdquo Acta-Ethnographica-Academiae-Scientarum-Hungaricae, 37 (1991&ndash92), pp. 283&ndash292 Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, trans. John and Anne C. Tedeschi (Baltimore, 1989). This last contains several important essays, of which perhaps the best known is &ldquoClues: Roots of a Evidential Paradigm,&rdquo pp. 96&ndash125.
3 Giovanni Levi, &ldquoOn Microhistory,&rdquo in Peter Burke, ed., New Perspectives on Historical Writing (University Park, Pa. 1991), p. 107.
4 For good discussions of the importance of storytelling in connection with the methods of microhistory see Guido Ruggiero, Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage, and Power at the End of the Renaissance (New York, 1993), pp. 18-20.
Germany slowly relaxes its grip on how it confronts the Holocaust
BERLIN — As Germany marks Friday's 75th anniversary of a meeting where senior Nazi officials devised a plan to murder all European Jews, there are small signs the country is relaxing its grip on how it confronts the Holocaust.
For decades, Germany has taken a sober, straightforward approach to explaining its Nazi-era heritage. It has avoided sensationalizing, historical facsimiles or anything that can't be meticulously documented.
"It's an approach that's based on the idea that people shouldn't be intimidated and shocked but informed in a matter of fact, factual way," said Hans-Christian Jasch, a former government lawyer and director of the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site, a villa in southwest Berlin where 15 high-ranking Nazis conceived the plan to deport and kill Jews during World War II.
"It is not always necessary to show big piles of corpses," Jasch said. "The point is not to overwhelm people with history, yet still grant them access to it."
Museums and exhibits in the United States, Britain and France often present information about Nazis and the Holocaust in a different way, said Hanna Liever, an adviser to Germany's federal agency for civic education who helps organize information about Holocaust memorial projects.
"They really try to work more on an emotional level, with replicas and other methods," she said, mentioning a film at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington that follows a boy growing up in Nazi Germany. The movie uses recreated scenes. "In Germany, we are very strict about authenticity. We just wouldn't do that."
Still, a replica of Adolf Hitler's bunker office where he spent his final days went on display last fall in an air raid shelter where Hitler had committed suicide on April 30, 1945. The replica in Berlin is part of a private initiative that includes a portrait of Hitler's favorite Prussian leader, Frederick the Great, an oxygen bottle with a mask and a statue of the Nazi leader's dog Blondi.
"A lot of people come to Berlin and think there is one central place where they can learn about Hitler or see some traces of what his life was like, but there isn't," said Enno Lenze, founder of the Berlin Bunker Story, the company behind the display. "People want to know all the details, even about the rumors, if they are accurate or not. There needs to be an exhibition about Hitler himself, because he was the one who more or less caused World War II and whose death ended it."
Critics have accused organizers of showing a lack of respect for "objective" history.
Kay-Uwe von Damaros, a spokesman for the Topography of Terror, a museum in Berlin located on the site that housed the Gestapo secret police and Hitler's SS paramilitaries, said Lenze's replica, which he has not seen, was not something his institution would consider doing.
German authorities have resisted creating a single repository for information about Hitler, worrying that neo-Nazis could turn it into a shrine.
Lenze said he is providing a teaching experience. "The Topography of Terror has a lot of text and a lot pictures, and the content is great. But let's face it: If there's a school class, they don't want to read all this stuff. They want to listen to someone who can show and tell them about Hitler in an accessible way."
Germany has more than 2,000 memorial sites, including Wannsee, noting the Nazi-committed horrors that killed 6 million Jews and millions of others during World War II, according to the Berlin-based International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
In 2017, Germany will spend about $21 million running and conserving these sites, according to the department of culture and media.
"Germany makes absolutely no attempt to cover up. It's an exemplar in its openness for dealing with its difficult and conflicted past," said John Lennon, a professor at Glasgow University whose research focuses on people attracted to sites of mass killing, genocide and assassinations. "There is a very high willingness to debate the past, such as do you let the ruins crumble or do you shore them up? There is also almost an obsession with documentation and evidence."
A recent debate centered on a scholarly annotated version of Mein Kampf, Hitler's manifesto published in 1925 that was banned in Germany for seven decades after World War II for fear it could be used as propaganda. The book sold 85,000 copies last year, making it one of the best-selling non-fiction titles in Germany, according to its publisher, the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich.
"The number of sales has completely overwhelmed us. No one could have predicted it," Andreas Wirsching, the institute's director, told the German news agency DPA. The institute said the book has been bought by political and history buffs and educators, not "reactionaries or right-wing radicals."
Germany's top court rejects bid to ban neo-Nazi party
As the Nazi era recedes in time, Germans have been more willing to explore and question their own family history, said historian Oliver von Wrochem, who heads a research center that studies the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg. Over the past five years, he said a small, but increasing number of people are asking him to help find more about what their relatives did during the war.
"It seems almost natural that we should be able to talk about our history now in a more lighthearted way," said Timur Vermes, whose 2012 best-selling book Look Who's Back, a satire that re-imagines Hitler in present-day Germany, was made into a movie in 2015. "Humor is a way of dealing with terrible things. In Germany's case, it has taken quite a long time because of what we did, and on what scale we did it."
"A book like mine would probably have been possible 10 years ago here, but not 20. But I don't think there's necessarily some huge demand in Germany for dealing with Hitler or the Nazis in the way I did," Vermes said.
Christoph Kreutzmüller, a curator at the Jewish Museum of Berlin, said the Nazi era is becoming "normal history," allowing Germans to talk about it with less trepidation.
"Modern history is defined by eyewitnesses being there. And as they have disappeared, it has changed things. It is not the society's parents anymore. It's not even the society's grandparents anymore. It's the society's great-grandparents who did something, and most of us have a very weak connection to them," he said.
Jasch, the director of the Wannsee memorial, said he is working with a production company on the idea of installing screens in the villa to show short biographical films on the Nazi officials who attended the meeting 75 years ago.
"I'm concerned about it, but I'm still supporting it," Jasch said. "People have an urge to 're-live' history in this way. There is a danger that it somehow becomes kitsch."