Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Perpetration, Complicity and Collaboration: Conference Report
On 21 October 2016, the Centre for Collective Violence, Holocaust and Genocide Studies at UCL, with the support of the IAS Octagon Small Grants Fund, organised the one-day workshop on ‘Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Perpetration, Complicity, and Collaboration in Nazi-dominated Europe’. In the past two decades, research into perpetrators, collaborators, and bystanders in Nazi-dominated Europe has been thriving. This rigid categorisation, which has its roots in Raul Hilberg’s work, is increasingly being challenged, as the behaviours and motivations of those involved were often much more complex than these neat categories suggest and they have thereby lost much of their explanatory power. Bringing together academics from different disciplines and areas, the workshop aimed to address this problem as well as discuss the legacy of perpetration, complicity and collaboration under Nazism.
The conference began with a short opening discussion by Professor Mary Fulbrook, Professor of German History and Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences. She reminded delegates of the complexity of the terms, and raised questions as to who is implicated and where and when complicity ends.
— HistoryToThePublic (@HTTPhistory) October 21, 2016
The first panel focused on commemoration and memorialisation in Germany. Dr. Caroline Sharples (University of Central Lancashire) asked, ‘What do you do with a dead Nazi?’ and outlined the issues surrounding what officials should do with the remains of Nazi criminals. This paper also highlighted the ethical issues and questions regarding respect for the dead, and the complicating factor of these graves attracting Neo-Nazis.
Dr. Caroline Pearce (University of Sheffield) then presented on the Topography of Terror’s new exhibition (‘Mass Shootings. The Holocaust from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea, 1941-44’), discussing its display of violent and disturbing images, which are used to explore a range of perpetrator motivations. Pearce argued that while the exhibition broadens the perspective on perpetrators, it still distances emotionally and morally, calling its pedagogical value into question.
The second panel focused on education and musealisation of the Holocaust in the UK. Dr. Andy Pearce (Institute of Education, UCL) pointed to the tendency in schools for teachers not to look into the causes of the Holocaust, and discussed students’ lack of knowledge concerning the key agents of the Holocaust. He argued that teaching practices alone cannot fully explain this phenomenon. Further, he stated that Holocaust Education does not take place in a vacuum as students encounter the subject outside the classroom too.
James Bulgin (IWM, Royal Holloway) brought out some of the challenges of the museum’s redevelopment of a permanent Holocaust exhibition by 2020. The aim is to integrate it more tightly with the exhibit and history of the Second World War. A further aim is to look at themes such as plunder, gender, and colonialism. This is to ensure that visitors can engage with perpetrators as humans, and draw their own conclusions.
In the discussion, some questioned if we had ‘set the bar too high’ for Holocaust education. Andy Pearce stressed age appropriateness and the importance of encouraging students to think critically. James Bulgin highlighted that the new exhibition should be seen not as the endpoint of engaging with the topic but as part of a wider digital engagement.
We then turned to cultural representations, with Professor Sue Vice (University of Sheffield) and Dr. Elizabeth Ward (Royal Holloway) both focusing on films. Vice looked at ‘perpetrator aesthetics’ in outtake interviews from Lanzmann’s Shoah and showed how the footage toes the line between fiction and nonfiction.
Ward followed on by discussing three recent German films: Im Labyrinth des Schweigens; Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer; and Die Akte General. She argued that they constitute a new move away from Holocaust memory and towards civic modes of remembrance. All three films emphasise that time does not dilute criminal responsibility, and that there is no ‘statute of memory’. Instead, they make a case for the ‘engaged citizen’.
The lunch break began with PhD students Siobhán Hyland (University of Northampton), Flaminia Bartolini (University of Cambridge), and Dr. Hedda Joyce (UCL), presenting their research via posters.
— HistoryToThePublic (@HTTPhistory) October 21, 2016
The last panel of the day combined intimate perspectives on perpetration and complicity. Dr. István Pál Ádám (CEFRES, French Research Center in Humanities and Social Sciences) explored the role played by Hungarian concierges in Budapest during the Holocaust. The concierges would know which tenants were Jewish, and were instrumental in identifying, delivering, but also protecting Jews. Highlighting material motives, Ádám explained that they were recruited from the countryside and worked for low salaries.
Professor Emeritus Karl Figlio, working in the field of psychoanalysis, argued that psychoanalytic dialogue with history could open up new avenues for understanding and make it possible to explore what makes an enemy. Drawing on various historiographical works and Freud’s understanding of narcissism, he argued that hatred of sameness is potentially stronger than hatred of difference. Figlio considered the creation of an enemy arising from this hatred of sameness as significant to our understanding of the anti-Semitism in Germany that led to the Holocaust.
Finally, Tiia Sahrakorpi of HTTP considered perpetrator family stories in memoirs written by members of the ‘Hitler Youth generation’ (born 1925-1933). Specifically, she looked at how the memoirists write about family and how they position themselves within it. Arguing that family stories are important identity markers invisible to others, she contrasted a published and an unpublished memoir to illustrate ambiguity and the challenges posed by the sources.
The day concluded with a joint panel with UCL’s Professor Stephanie Bird, Dr. Andy Pearce and Dr. Joanna Michlic. Participants reflected on the day’s presentations and discussions, and the meaning of the workshop. Andy Pearce asked whether it is possible to speak of a European narrative, and whether most people would want to know about complexity. The discussion focused on the difficulties and importance of complexity. In the future, Michlic argued, we should focus on Eastern Europe, by looking into microstudies of areas. We should further look at the aftermath of child survivors and do more comparative studies of forgetting and amnesia. Stephanie Bird highlighted the workshop’s aim in focusing on processes rather than identities when considering perpetration, collaboration and complicity. Yet, she was critical of the fact that we did not reach stronger conclusions or agree on definitions. The role played by emotions in collective violence also remains inadequately explored.
From the workshop and discussion emerged a need for clearer definitions of terms on the one hand and a more comprehensive exploration of emotions which are relevant to the understanding of the Holocaust, and which point to the need for these topics to be addressed from an interdisciplinary perspective.