Confronting a history of genocide

Mary Fulbrook detailed how survivors and perpetrators reckoned with the legacy of the Holocaust.

A GROUP of German soldiers and civilians look on as a Jewish man is forced to cut the beard of another in 1939. (photo credit: US HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM)
A GROUP of German soldiers and civilians look on as a Jewish man is forced to cut the beard of another in 1939.
Discussions of the persecution of “undesirables” by the Nazis invariably turn to Auschwitz. Located within the greater German Reich, Auschwitz epitomizes the machinery of mass killing. More than a million people died there, in gas chambers and from torture, shootings, starvation, illness, overwork and medical experiments.
Focusing on the largest, most obvious and most horrific extermination camp, Mary Fulbrook – a professor of German history at University College, London, and the author of A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust – takes substantial risks. Limiting the landscape of remembrance can “displace attention from other sites of terror, large and small.” It can lead us to forget that violence was not hidden from sight “but all around and plain for all to see, even within the heart of the Reich,” and to overlook “the myriad ways” in which doctors, teachers, classmates, administrators, employers, co-workers and neighbors (who claimed they had known “nothing about it,” where the “it” was reduced “to the gas chambers and the killing sites to the east”) were, in fact, complicit in making genocide possible, “well before and far away” from Auschwitz.
In Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, Fulbrook reconstructs the intersection of political and social developments with individual lives in the 1930s and ’40s, and in the decades following the fall of the Third Reich. Attentive to variations in time and place, in individual attitudes, behaviors and roles, and “the limits of any useful notion of complicity,” she documents the imbalances in reckoning with the impact of Nazi atrocities. While survivors struggled to repair their damaged lives (amid belated and inadequate compensation from the Federal Republic of Germany), she maintains, “former persecutors all too easily evaded being brought to account.”
Extraordinarily well-researched, filled with heartbreaking, heroic and harrowing life stories, Reckonings is comprehensive, cogent and compelling. Fulbrook’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in the realities – and legacies – of the Nazi past.
Fulbrook provides examples of the ways in which individuals negotiated Nazism’s challenges and demands. Rather than risking becoming the objects of violence or exclusion, most Germans, she indicates, went along with the exclusion of Jews from German society, ending friendships, firing or demoting colleagues, and switching to Aryan family physicians. Intoxicated with helping the führer make Germany great again, more than a few went well beyond what was required of them. During World War II, corporate elites used slave labor to manufacture weapons and the “pesticides” that killed more than a million people. When the war ended, Jewish survivors found it risky, abhorrent, and in some cases, impossible to reconcile with former friends and acquaintances.
Reckonings reminds us all that Jews were not the only group targeted by the Nazis. Following Hitler’s order, Nazis murdered 70,000 “defectives” in six T4 euthanasia centers; an additional 230,000 perished from enforced starvation, willful neglect and deliberate overdoses. Gypsies and gay men experienced murder rates comparable to that of Jews, with the latter selected as live targets for SS shooting practice and prioritized for medical experiments.
In the 1950s, Fulbrook reveals, West German courts decreed that euthanizing incurably ill and suffering children was not murder. As late as the ‘60s, judges found that before the December 16, 1942, Auschwitz directive, Gypsies had been deported “legitimately,” because they were “asocials” and “habitual criminals,” not for reasons related to race or religion; therefore, they were not entitled to compensation. With homosexual acts illegal in West Germany until 1969, most gays were unwilling to self-incriminate by claiming their rights to compensation. In the overwhelming percentage of cases involving Jewish targets of Nazi persecution, moreover, judges extended more empathy to perpetrators acting “under orders” than to their victims.
In the late 1970s, Fulbrook points out, “the era of the witness,” with victims appearing in court to establish the guilt of defendants or to claim compensation, gave way to “the era of the survivor.” In court, victims now “bore witness,” in their very presence, to evils of the past, rather than testifying to specific knowledge of guilt or innocence. Outside the courtroom, younger generations began to empathize and seek to identify with them.
Scattered throughout the world, some of the children and grandchildren of survivors turned a deaf ear to the tragedies that defined their parents’ existence. Others, compelled by a sense that every really significant event occurred before they were born – that the Holocaust was “a deeply internalized but strangely unknown past” – searched for their roots (and, perhaps, some relief from the burden of dead relatives) by reconstructing family histories.
“I am concerned about the Holocaust,” one self-identified “memorial candle” declared, “and my brother is concerned about my new refrigerator.” Not surprisingly, only a few children of perpetrators sought to make amends.
Fulbrook suggests that with survivors dying out, the imbalance between perpetrators and victims “can only be recognized and no longer rectified.” Nor can we continue to learn why some survivors relived the past, almost incessantly, without resolution, sometimes in nightmares, while others who came to terms with it, remained silent, or confided only to close friends and family.
This loss impoverishes us all.
“For all the moral awareness and civil responsibility” the “never again” message demands, Fulbrook concludes, it “runs the danger of overgeneralizing.” Specific circumstances, political structures and social processes, after all, help us clarify individual choices and degrees of culpability. They help us understand how and why violence erupts and “the changing circumstances in which reckonings take place.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American Studies at Cornell University.