Apart from early works by Jewish historians who in some cases had already commenced collecting and assessing documents during the war, the scholarly analysis and discussion of the Holocaust began – quite late, not only in Germany. While the first post-war trials brought to light an immense amount of detail on the mass murder, for the moment they focused on the question of guilt. In the immediate post-war period, German historians began to examine the Nazi dictatorship, without paying particular attention to the Holocaust. In 1949, at the urging of the Allies, the “Deutsche Institut für Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Zeit” (since 1952 the “Institut für Zeitgeschichte”) was founded for the purpose of researching Nazi rule between 1933 and 1945, its historical background and causes as well as its consequences. Even here, the Holocaust remained a marginal aspect at first.

The judicial investigations into Nazi crimes in the 1950s and 1960s stimulated scholarly interest in the Holocaust. A wave of prosecutions against Nazi criminals began, with judicial proceedings launched against more than 100 000 alleged offenders and evidence heard from at least the same number of witnesses. Documents related to Nazi crimes, initially seized by the Allies, were now made accessible for research. Historians explored the crimes in their capacity as court-appointed experts.

Broader historical research into the Holocaust emerged in the 1960s. At first, important works were published by historians from overseas, especially by Jewish scholars – for instance the epochal work by the American political scientist Raul Hilberg. His dissertation from 1955 was published in 1961 as The Destruction of the European Jews and is still regarded as one of the salient studies on the Holocaust. Hilberg examined the background history and ideological continuities as well as how the Nazi regime functioned by analysing the bureaucratic decision-making processes and the cooperation between the various Nazi authorities. For a long time, this comprehensive portrayal of the Holocaust remained unappreciated; numerous well-known German publishers rejected a translation. It was only in the early 1980s that a German translation was finally released by a small West Berlin publisher. In 1990, the S. Fischer Verlag published a paperback edition.

The Eichmann trial in 1963, the much-discussed thesis on the “banality of evil” put forward by trial observer Hannah Arendt and the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials between 1963 and 1966 ensured greater attention amongst historians and the broader public alike. More so than in the USA, Israel and the United Kingdom, research in Germany concentrated on the biographies of perpetrators, the “seizure of power” by the Nazis and the Nazi regime’s conduct of the war. The Holocaust remained a neglected theme and it took a number of years before the horizon of research interests expanded to include aspects like the history of Jewish victims, the careers of perpetrators and the connection between the genocide of the Jews and other German mass crimes. Detailed studies on the mass murder in Eastern Europe were hampered during the Cold War due to the difficulty in accessing important archives. Moreover, in German historiography the Holocaust was now more a subject to be interpreted than empirically researched. This was graphically illustrated in the “historians’ dispute” (“Historikerstreit”) that flared up in 1986/87. The pivotal question here was the singularity of the Holocaust and its role for a conception of history that could establish a sense of German identity. In any event, the discussions contributed to historical studies now focusing on the mass murder of the Jews.

Perpetrator versus victim research

New research approaches emerged in the mid-1990s: Holocaust research became increasingly international while at the same time becoming more and more specialised. Distinct independent fields of research were established, for example “perpetrator research”, a field increasingly attracting the attention of German historians. The “Goldhagen debate” of 1996 contributed decisively to advancing this research and placed the question as to the motives of the perpetrators at the centre of the discussion. Were they driven by “eliminationist antisemitism” that had developed over centuries? Or were they acting as individuals, responding to and deciding in specific situations, so that distinctions had to be drawn in each case according to biographical background, military rank and other criteria? The debate raised a host of other important questions, amongst them: were the perpetrators a group that needed to be defined separately from the rest of society? The titles prominent authors gave their works would suggest otherwise: Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992) by Christopher Browning, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) by Daniel Goldhagen (the book that triggered the debate) or Harald Welzer’sTäter. Wie aus ganz normalen Männern Massenmörder werden (2005).

Even though the perpetrators and the society they are coming from cannot be separated, the notion of a “society of perpetrators” [Tätergesellschaft] was criticised by historians: on the one hand because it ignores the individual perpetrators, while on the other, the impression of collective guilt is given, even if there was a high number of individually culpable perpetrators. The German post-war judiciary had been rather restrained in this respect, categorising only the main Nazi figures such as Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich etc. as “offenders”, while commandants, who had ordered the execution of thousands of Jews, were convicted merely as “accessories” [Beihilfe]. Research from the last two decades has clearly shown that the group of perpetrators was in fact very large, numbering between 200 000 and 250 000 persons. This estimate only includes the German and Austrian perpetrators; a large number of perpetrators from other countries also need to be considered, all of whom were actively involved in the murder process.

The mass executions were carried out not only by the SS in the concentration camps, but by the entire network of the widely diverse SS and police apparatus: the Gestapo, the battalions of the Order Police (Ordnungspolizei), but also units of the regular army murdered in large parts of Central and Eastern Europe. The German civil administrations set up in occupied countries, responsible for the persecution of Jews in the respective territory under their control, were also part of the murder process. An increasing awareness of the countless murder sites, where thousands of Jews were shot face to face, corrected the long-held view that it was mainly “desk murderers” who had ordered the mass gassings in the concentration camps from far away and that there had hardly been any direct contact between the victims and perpetrators during the executions.

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These new research perspectives have radically changed the picture of the Holocaust. With good reason, special emphasis has been placed on the enormous number of massacres of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years (encapsulated by Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands”), meaning that Auschwitz, which became the centre of the “Final Solution” only in 1943/44, is no longer the sole focus of attention.

Up until a few years ago, the perspective of the persecuted remained a marginal theme and it was left to mainly Jewish authors to depict the Holocaust from a Jewish point of view. In the first comprehensive studies on the history of the Third Reich this perspective was presented only in passing or, at the most, was dealt with in a special chapter. Path-breaking in this regard was undoubtedly Saul Friedländer’s two volume study on Nazi Germany and the Jews, a work that weaves countless documents of the persecuted from across Europe together, thus putting into practice the author’s call for an “integrated history”. In the 1990s the American historian Marion Kaplan examined the changes in gender relations in the Jewish community under Nazi rule. She showed that a change of roles took place in Jewish families, with women developing survival strategies for themselves and their children.

Important studies by German historians examining in detail the perspectives and actions of persecuted Jews have emerged in recent years (foremost by Beate Meyer, Andrea Löw, Susanne Heim and Jürgen Matthäus). It is only this recent research that has elaborated how Jews were not just passive victims but also active individuals, engaging in various areas. Thus, the room for manoeuvre they had in their respective contexts, their interpretations of and reactions to events are now the subject of detailed analysis.

The perspective is broadened further by how historians today, above all those of younger generations, regard it as absolutely vital that they have a command of the respective languages when researching the Holocaust in specific regions of Europe. This allows the sources concerning both the Jewish and non-Jewish populations to be integrated into the analysis.

The Holocaust in Europe

With the end of the Cold War and growing internationalisation, Holocaust studies surmounted the confinement of national perspectives, attention turning increasingly to the regions of East-Central and Eastern Europe, where the genocide was mainly carried out. Research today is concerned with the pivotal question of interdependencies between the war of extermination, the occupation and the Holocaust, as well as to the connections between the Holocaust and other mass scale Nazi crimes. Historians still remain divided as to how much importance should be assigned to the regions – characterised as “Bloodlands” – where the frenzied violence was concentrated, although the Holocaust was not of course limited to a specific territory.

In any event, it has become clear that, for the most part, cooperation functioned smoothly between the power centre of the Nazi dictatorship, the German administration apparatus in the occupied territories, the non-German local authorities and (if applicable) the respective governments. Research has shown that while the genocide was planned and organised in Germany, the support necessary to carry it out in Europe had to be found. Up until the 1980s, the idea prevailed that there must have been a “Führer order” and that the whole extermination process was controlled from above. While the history of the Holocaust cannot be written without Hitler and Himmler, the same holds true for the thousands of persons who in the Nazi-occupied territories became perpetrators themselves and were involved in the Holocaust in a variety of ways. More recent studies have demonstrated that a “Führer order” was by no means necessary – rather the interaction between the centre of power and its periphery radicalised the killing. On the periphery German and non-German killing units frequently took the initiative themselves and showed far greater commitment than was actually demanded.

In 2002 Peter Longerich had already noted: “The more research is shaped by thematic diversity and their emerging interrelationships, producing works with a regional profile and detailed micro-studies, the more it becomes clear that the murder of the European Jews was a gigantic massacre of millions, committed by more than a hundred thousand perpetrators and helpers before the eyes of an incalculably large number of contemporaries who passively became witnesses to the crime.” (Peter Longerich: Holocaust. In: Wilhelm Heitmeyer/John Hagan (eds.): Internationales Handbuch der Gewaltforschung. Wiesbaden 2002, 188)

In the past few years, research has not only become more international but also – as described – more differentiated and specialised, with the consequence that it is barely possible to keep track of the findings – now published globally and in a variety of languages – emerging from the individual areas covered by Holocaust studies.

Despite this boom, a number of desiderata remain: the economic aspects of the Holocaust require more intensive consideration, for they were an ever-present issue on all levels of the decision-making processes. The fate of those Jews who survived also needs to be addressed in more detail, as does the contextualisation of the Holocaust in terms of other crimes committed on a mass scale in Eastern Europe (e.g. the mass death of Soviet POWs in 1941/42).


Sonja Schilcher

Next chapter: Sources