The Shoah as a European “Project”? New Perpetrator Research in a Transnational Perspective

The Shoah as a European “Project”? New Perpetrator Research in a Transnational Perspective

Frank Bajohr / Andrea Löw / Anna Ullrich, IfZ München; Havi Dreifuss, Tel Aviv University; Jürgen Finger, DHI Paris; Agnieszka Wierzcholska, Centre Marc Bloch Berlin; Claire Zalc, EHESS Paris
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
14.03.2023 - 16.03.2023
Natalie Schwabl, Faculté des Lettres, Sorbonne Université

In recent decades, Holocaust studies have become increasingly international. Nevertheless, national narratives are back in vogue, while methodology of transnational history, i.e., of transfer processes, systematic comparisons, and overarching frameworks of interpretation, is still being too little used when it comes to the question of how local societies became complicit in the murder of Jews.

Following the ideas of Thomas Sandkühler and Mary Fulbrook, the goal of this conference was a comparative, transnational understanding of the European dimension of collaboration and complicity in a transnational framework – in short: an insight into the entangled, or shared, European history of the Shoah. The concept of collaboration, highly controversial but frequently used in research, must be put to the test as an analytical category to find out whether we need “new collaboration research” or “new perpetrator research" that includes non-Germans.

In her introductory remarks, AGNIESZKA WIERZCHOLSKA (Berlin) stressed that the Shoah was a project of Germany: this conference did not want to minimize the German guilt but wanted to add another layer of thinking – how other nations were implicated in the murder of Jews. The locals acted in very different motivations and ways in the process of the Shoah, and the German occupiers found helpers and facilitators throughout Europe.

Seven thematic panels with two to three speakers, a chair and a commentator should reveal the European dimension of non-German perpetrators in the Shoah by analyzing not each country individually, but by developing a conceptual, comparative, and transnational understanding of the Shoah in a European perspective. The dialogue between historians who have until now focused on a single country should be encouraged.

Any nationalist approach to this topic would be very limited in its reach and explanatory power. CHRISTOPH DIECKMANN (Frankfurt am Main) explained the reason for the considerable involvement of local societies in the murder of Jews – as the number of Germans present at some massacres was surprisingly small: antisemitic, nationalist and fascist groups played major roles in all European countries in the persecution and murder of Jews. For Dieckmann, terms like “collaborators” and “bystanders” were not only unhelpful “umbrella terms” but showed how historical thinking about the Shoah has been deeply coined by judicial forms and discourses from the very beginning. Instead of writing a judicial assessment of criminal cases, Dieckmann proposed to work on historical narratives, delivering an adequate understanding and various perspectives of social processes in a context of warfare and occupation politics. Questions of power, choices, and responsibility could be tools for our analysis and reconstitution of the crucial processes that led to the mass crimes and the Shoah. Dieckmann underlined the danger of terms like “bystander”: after 1945, it functioned as an appealing alibi for people involved in the persecution and murder of Jews. If an individual managed to persuade oneself and others that one was not a perpetrator, but merely a bystander, claiming innocence through ignorance, one could assert a passive onlooker status.

Adapting a term coined by Lawrence L. Langer, FRANZISKA EXELER (Berlin/Cambridge) introduced the concept of “choiceless choices” or “impossible choices” that people in occupied territory made. When they were confronted with decisions, all options entailed a destructive effect on their personal lives, families, and local communities. Exeler demonstrated how, within the constraints of occupation, non-Jews had a range of options at their disposal which also included smaller, seemingly insignificant acts, such as taking Jewish property – or refraining from doing so. At this point, a discussion on the term itself of “choiceless choices” came up, where Christoph Dieckmann claimed a use of this concept only when referring to “the ones without power”, essentially Jews. Hundreds of thousands of people were, on the one hand, victims of the German occupation but became at the same time, sometimes unintentionally, beneficiaries of the German occupation, thus subjects implicated in German crimes. This is shown in Mark Rothberg’s The Implicated Subject. Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (2019) where the author demonstrates how a person, while not being a direct agent of damage or violence, may still contribute to or benefit from a regime. Similar to complicity, being implicated also comes in different forms – such as the beneficiary, the perpetrator, and the descendant – and in different degrees.

This often-blurred connection between being complicit and being implicated was important for ŁUKASZ KRZYŻANOWSKI (Warsaw) as well: bystanders moved en masse into the category of perpetrators. Taking as an example the Polish village of Chlewice, Krzyzanowski, through the analysis of social mechanisms and social psychology, showed the psychological impact of direct or indirect participation of locals where a clear lack of intervention was visible.

MARKUS ROTH (Frankfurt am Main) held a vivid plea for leaving moral and static categories behind. Both, “bystander” and “collaboration” should be historicized, since they were outdated and obsolete as analytical categories. Notions of guilt and innocence should be developed in order to understand the complexities of responsibility and accountability.

When it comes to research the relations between individuals, society and the state, gender perspective is crucial. TERESA MALICE (Bielefeld) explained that in several European countries, a general tendency to downplay or belittle female responsibility was visible, attributing to women a lesser capacity for judgment. Women could be labeled as “bystanders” but could quickly become co-perpetrators. Mary Fulbrook’s five categories of responses to violence can be applied here: active intervention on behalf of victims – demonstrative sympathy for victims – being “neutral”: inactive, impassive eyewitnesses – demonstrative support for acts of perpetration – participatory complicity and being active on the side of perpetrators.

OMER BARTOV (Providence) focused on questions and problems of Total History in the following keynote. Stressing the pan-European aspect of the Holocaust as a social event, he criticized that the term of “collaboration” was employed without implying the self-motivated involvement in the murder of Jews, and that “complicity” could involve material enrichment and career advancement as well. According to him, we need to view the Holocaust not only from above and the center, but also from below and the margins: not strictly from without the event, but also from within. Nevertheless, the analysis and understanding of the Holocaust must be integrated in their nazi-specific context, because without the thousands and thousands of non-Germans, genocide would not have been implemented and could not have reached such extents. Moreover, as also described in Saul Friedländer’s works, there was no public, social or religious institution to show compassion with the Jews. Referring to his book Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (2018), Bartov asked himself the question of the right methodological approach: how representative of the whole is one single event – in this case the happenings in Buczacz? He responded that a single event could not be applied to the Holocaust as a whole, but that it could help to understand the unfolding of violence. From a historiographical point of view, local studies write a better history; from the point of view of memory, they bring more empathy.

A closer look at the local administration was given by MARKUS ROTH. Analyzing the robbery of Jewish property, he stated that this phenomenon was a social process, i.e., with ideological, moral, and existential aspects. German robbery policy differed from region to region, and even if local administrations rested on a common basis, the differences were large, not only because these administrations were very specific, namely local, but also because the degree of antisemitism of the non-Jewish population varied greatly. They had nonetheless a significant amount of crucial knowledge on which the Germans depended when it came to Jewish property. This “shared knowledge” created a close connection between the administration and the local society. For Roth, having a close look on the local administration offers us a deep understanding of the Holocaust by broadening the perspective.

MARIA FERENC (Warsaw) highlighted that there was a personal level of knowledge, of relations and connections in the European world among Jews, as well as a public one, with information about persecution of the Jews in France, the Netherlands, etc.

JUDITH LYON-CAEN (Paris) commented that this localized, yet concerted knowledge had to be brought into a transnational European perspective by “formalizing without erasing” the content and tone of the sources. She pointed out the difficulty of analyzing the “transfer of knowledge” when people “knew but didn’t want to believe what they knew”.

ANNE-LISE BOBELDIJK (Amsterdam) and ANASTASIA FAIRCHILD (Paris) proposed to widen the lens from the specific local event in order to perceive the diversity of actors and the levels of the transmission of knowledge and practices. Like TAL BRUTTMANN (Cergy), they put forward the importance of not isolating crimes by studying the mobility of non-German perpetrators. Transnationality was not a side effect of the Holocaust; space and dimensions did play a significant role. Transnational methods served the ongoing trend, as THOMAS SANDKÜHLER (Berlin) stressed in his comment.

The following round table invited the participants to reflect on the question whether a European narrative on perpetrators of the Shoah was possible. FRANK BAJOHR (Munich) laid emphasis on the necessity of a platform for European dialogue which, of course, included controversies. For him, there was a central German responsibility in the occupation regime in Europe, but also a European dimension of the Shoah. FLORENT BRAYARD (Paris) criticized that the focus on the period of the occupation was too short because German hegemony did not begin in 1939: a graduation in the severity of antisemitic policies had to be taken into account. For MARTA HAVRYSHKO (Basel), the grey zone in the role of perpetrators was extremely present in Ukraine – to this day, with yearly honors and commemorations of nationalist leader Stepan Bandera for instance. If we do not discuss this, we will stay in the lane of a full German responsibility without seeing the complicity of local people, according to her. JAN GRABOWSKI (Ottawa) summed up the participants’ ideas by making a “plaidoyer for the broad inclusion of local complicity without losing out of sight the master architect Nazi Germany”.

Bajohr and Grabowski then took up the question of responsibility, referring to Heiko Maas’s and Andreas Wirsching’s following statement: “Germany alone is responsible for the crimes against humanity of the Holocaust. Those who sow doubt about this and thrust other countries into the role of perpetrator do injustice to the victims, exploit history for their own ends and divide Europe”.1 According to Grabowski, the German willingness to take the whole responsibility – which was a well-intentioned action – gave “bad people” the license to distort. Nonetheless, a positive aspect is the development of the memorial culture from 1945 to the present, with the murder of the Jews in the center of German memorial culture. This was not the case at the end of the 1940s when the Germans saw themselves as double victims; first, of the totalitarian Nazi regime, then, of the allies, rejecting any kind of historical responsibility. But there are limits to assuming responsibility, because perpetrators were – for a long time – seen by German society as a separate criminal group. For Bajohr, the crucial point should be to reflect on the role of the German society as a whole, while bearing in mind the position of the perpetrators.

Florent Brayard described the Final Solution and its imposed cohesive measures as “an offer rather than an obligation”. It was a collective alignment process, not a simple result, which is why Brayard underlined the importance of shifting the attention to periods that are less scrutinized by historians, i.e., the period before 1939 and the question of how far anti-Semitic policies would have gone in a Europe without German occupation.

An outlook on very different case studies of post-war trials completed the conference. AUDREY KICHELEWSKI (Strasbourg) and EMILIA KOUSTOVA (Strasbourg) gave an insight on borderland violence by local collaborators, taking into consideration international cooperation, the question of media coverage and the functioning of the judicial system on a regional or local level. RENÉE POZNANSKI (Be’er Sheva) reminded the audience that this field of research dealt with two different periods of time: there was a huge difference between trials held immediately after the war, and later trials which often had the purpose to serve the government or to produce memory and national identity.

A final discussion, animated by the organizing team, reminded the audience that the first element to be kept in mind was the basis of the “European project”: antisemite or not, in all Europe, the Jews were considered to be irremediably different. Agnieszka Wierzcholska and ANDREA LÖW (Munich) pointed out that historians should not only look at social processes, but also at state actors. Frank Bajohr clarified that extreme nationalism in several European countries went along with national sovereignty, national pride, and thus the idea of an ethnical homogeneous nation state. The clash with the “German idea” created a contradiction between nationalism and the German “European project”. Many European countries saw a new possibility to get rid of unwanted neighbors, a new possibility to exercise power, a new form of opportunism. Bajohr insisted that ideological motives had to be analyzed on the ground.

In conclusion, the opening question whether the Shoah was a European “project” can be answered as follows: it was a European project of the Germans because only they had a European vision of the murder of Jews and the power to execute it. Perspectives and agendas of other European countries and local actors were not European, but national.

This conference had the great benefit of finding the right balance between primary sources in the original languages, interpretations, and vivid discussions, especially after each panel and during the round table. The presentations demonstrated how important new insights could be gained by bringing together new perspectives on terminology, methodology and case studies, while further strengthening international and interdisciplinary networks. This conference provided a meaningful input to the current global Holocaust research and its advancement.

Conference overview:


Thomas Maissen (Paris): Welcome address and greetings

Agnieszka Wierzcholska (Berlin): New Perspectives on the Shoah: A Transnational History of the Perpetrators

Panel 1: Choices & Responsibility: On Methodology and Analytical Approaches
Chair: Frank Bajohr (Munich)
Commentator: Markus Roth (Frankfurt am Main)

Christoph Dieckmann (Frankfurt am Main): Beyond Collaborators and Bystanders. Towards Narratives of Responsibility

Franziska Exeler (Berlin/Cambridge): Choices and Choiceless Choices under Nazi Occupation

Łukasz Krzyzanowski (Warsaw): Holocaust as a Social Process: Escaping Jews, Denouncing Peasants, and Other Social Actors

Panel 2: Comparison, Gender and non-German Perpetrators
Chair: Jürgen Finger (Paris)
Commentator: Andrea Löw (Munich)

Teresa Malice (Bielefeld): Female Civilian Denunciation in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. On Bystanding, Complicity, Co-Perpetration

Andrea Petö (Vienna): Gendering the Dutch and Hungarian National Socialist Women’s movement during WWII: Comparative Approaches to Agency and Subjectivity

Omer Bartov (Providence): European Project, German Policy, Local Practice: Conundrums of a Total History of the Holocaust

Panel 3: Institutions as Agents in Perpetrating the Shoah
Chair: Jan Grabowski (Ottawa)
Commentator: Juliane Wetzel (Berlin)

Markus Roth (Frankfurt am Main): The Local Civil Administrations and the Plunder of the Property of Jews – Chances and Limits of a Comparative Perspective

Gaelle Fisher (Munich): “In Jewish circles in the capital it is asserted that...”: Romanian Intelligence, Persecution, and Jewish Life during the Holocaust in Romania

Panel 4: The Victims’ Perspective
Chair: Constance Paris de Bollardière (Paris)
Commentator: Judith Lyon-Caen (Paris)

Veronika Duma (Frankfurt am Main): What the Jews in the Ghettos Documented about Robbery: Robbery and Complicity in South and Eastern Europe from the Perspective of the Persecuted

Kiril Feferman (Ariel): How Much Knowledge Brings Sorrow? Information on the Holocaust and the Soviet Jews in the Threatened Areas, 1941–42

Maria Ferenc (Warsaw): Warsaw Jews in the Face of the European Realm of the Holocaust

Presentation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)
Juliane Wetzel (Berlin)

Panel 5: Mobility of non-German Perpetrators
Chair: Gaelle Fisher (Munich)
Commentator: Thomas Sandkühler (Berlin)

Anne-Lise Bobeldijk (Amsterdam): “We were replaced by other Latvian ‘punishers’” Transnational Networks of Perpetrators during the Mass Murder of Jews in the Summer of 1942 in German-Occupied Belarus

Anastasia Fairchild (Paris): Writing the Judicial History of Collective Crimes in Kamenets-Podolsk (26–28th August 1941) from a Transnational Perspective

Tal Bruttmann (Cergy): Substituting French Police, Implementing Nazi Policies: French Ultra-Collaborators and the “Final Solution”

Round Table: Is a European Narrative on Perpetrators of the Shoah Possible?
Chair: Agnieszka Wierzcholska (Berlin)
Jan Grabowski (Ottawa), Marta Havryshko (Basel), Frank Bajohr (Munich), Florent Brayard (Paris)

Panel 6: Transfer of Knowledge, Practices, and Discourses
Chair: Claire Zalc (Paris)
Commentator: Jean-Charles Szurek (Paris)

Florent Brayard (Paris): The “Final Solution” as an Integrated Process. Two Remarks on Mechanisms of Internationalisation

Loic Marcou (Paris): Partners and Accomplices of the German Occupier: Extent of “Collaboration” and “Transfers of Practices” in Occupied Thessaloniki (1941–44)

Johanna Lehr (Paris): Participation of French Police Forces in the Identification, Arrest and Subsequent Transfer of Jews to the Germans

Panel 7: Post-War Trials
Chair: Agnieszka Wierzcholska (Berlin)
Commentator: Renée Poznanski (Be’er Sheva)

Audrey Kichelewski (Strasbourg): Later August Trials in Communist Poland (1956–1970): Portraits of Local Collaborators

Emilia Koustova (Strasbourg): The Figures of Holocaust Participants in Soviet Investigations and Trials in Lithuania, between the Transnational, the Pan-Soviet and the Local

Vojtech Kyncl (Prague): The Holocaust in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Czechs as Helpers, Profiteers and Denunciators

Final discussion and conclusion
Agnieszka Wierzcholska (Berlin), Andrea Löw (Munich), Frank Bajohr (Munich), Claire Zalc (Paris), Jürgen Finger (Paris), Havi Dreifuss (Tel Aviv)

1 Heiko Maas / Andreas Wirsching, “There can be no politics without history”, May 2020, in: Federal Foreign Office, (25.03.2023).

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