Conceptualizations of the Holocaust in Germany, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine since the 1990s. Historical Research and Public Debate
The European and transnational dimension of the Holocaust was an important element of both the survivors' memories and the perpetrators' experiences. Although extensive investigation of the Holocaust was conducted by Jewish historians such as Filip Friedman, Szymon Datner, Leon Poliakov, and Joseph Wulf in the early post-Holocaust period and although numerous post-war trials against the perpetrators took place in Europe and beyond, for a long time the persecution and murder of the European Jews did not play a significant role in the understanding of the national histories of the countries where the actual events took place. This applies equally to West Germany as well as to those countries that had been occupied by Nazi Germany such as Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine and which subsequently found themselves on the other side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. The approach taken to their own history only began to change in the 1990s – after the screening of the mini-series “Holocaust” in most European countries and the beginning of public debates about the Shoah in the countries concerned or in their communities overseas. The confrontation with the reality of the events and the “discovery” of the Holocaust for the national histories of the above mentioned countries triggered a number of debates on the nature of individual and societal participation in the Holocaust. During these debates certain exculpatory stereotypes were questioned by historians, while at the same time some national misperceptions were reinforced. In the case of Germany, new historical narratives emerged that dealt with the behaviour and role of concrete perpetrators, groups of perpetrators as well as ordinary members of the German perpetrator society (such as the Wehrmacht and employees of the Reichsbahn) during the Holocaust. As it became clear that the Holocaust “was in reality a series of ‘Holocausts’” (Dan Stone), a European phenomenon that the Nazi regime could not have carried out on such a scale if it had relied on the participation of Germans only, questions of indirect or direct involvement of parts of the civilian populations of German-occupied Europe and their responsibility have emerged.
In Federal Republic of Germany, the myth of the ‘clean Wehrmacht’ was dismantled by the exhibition “Crimes of the Wehrmacht”. Daniel Goldhagen’s theses were publicly discussed, and the convenient separation of the perpetrators from German society, encapsulated in the distinction between Nazis and Germans, was subject to questioning. Nevertheless, the topic of non-German perpetrators and their cooperation with the German occupiers in the Holocaust has, with the exception of Poland, received only scant attention – although this began to change recently in Lithuania, Ukraine and some other East Central European countries.
In Poland, the publication of Jan Błoński’s essay Biedni Polacy patrzą na getto as well as the screening of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah contributed to a growing Holocaust awareness in the late 1980s. However, it was only thanks to Jan Tomasz Gross’ Neighbors (2001) that the first public debate about the participation of ordinary Poles in the murder of Jews took place. This subsequently led to the emergence of further important historical research.
In Ukraine, there has been an increase in the number of thoroughly researched publications on the involvement of Ukrainian nationalists and ordinary Ukrainians in the Holocaust as well as on the fascistization of Ukrainian radical nationalism. These have challenged the apologetic and nationalist narrative of the Ukrainian diaspora which had replaced the Soviet narrative in independent Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In Lithuania, historians have examined the participation of ordinary Lithuanians in the Holocaust. In addition, there have been several public debates about the so-called žydšaudžiai (Jew-shooters) since the mid-1990s. While the publication of the book Mūsiškiai (Our People) by Ruta Vanagaitė has ensured a continuation of the public debate, as yet no debate has had the dimensions, intensity and consequences of the Jedwabne debate in Poland.
Drawing on the examples of Germany, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine, the conference seeks to examine how the persecution and murder of the Jews was investigated, explained, and debated in these four countries. Special emphasis will be placed on the intertwining of historical research and public debate as well as collective and individual Holocaust participation. The conference aims to explore the interplay between research and academic conceptualizations of the Holocaust and representations in public discourse as well as the tensions between national representations and these academic conceptualizations.
The organizers wish to invite scholars who would like to present papers on the following subjects:
- Why were the four countries under examination so reluctant to discuss the participation of sections of their own societies in the Holocaust for such a long time? Why were the facts that had already been established by survivor scholars in the immediate aftermath of the events only rediscovered in recent years? How can their absence from the professional historical and the local and public discourse for so many years be adequately explained?
- What was it exactly that triggered debates on the subject of Holocaust participation in these four countries since the late 1980s and early 1990s? Why were the initial investigations of the Holocaust marginalized and ignored, and their authors berated, especially by their West German colleagues and the Ukrainian diaspora?
- Who initiated the debates on the subject of Holocaust participation? Which events and constellations played a key role in this context and which ones were marginalized? To what extent was the issue of the role played by anti-Semitism within national self-understandings and national histories discussed in these four countries?
- What determined and characterized the course of Holocaust debates? What consequences have resulted for these societies because of these debates?
- What was the role played by international Holocaust research, mainly established in Israel and the USA as an academic discipline, in the debates in Germany, Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine? Were some of the debates initiated by outside sources? If so, why was this external stimulus necessary?
- What impact did national and international trials of the perpetrators and the survivors’ testimonies and memoirs have on the course of history writing of the Holocaust and the debates in Germany, Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine? Who were the scholars involved in the rediscovery of these types of documents? What effect have the new historiographies and debates had on the way the societies view and define themselves and how are they in turn viewed by others?
- How has the subject of Holocaust participation been discussed among German, Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian historians? Have specific national Holocaust narratives emerged and how do they react to other narratives? Why have some German, Lithuanian, Polish, and Ukrainian historians skirted around the issue of transnational perpetrators and how has this in turn affected the understanding and definition of the term Holocaust within their scholarship?
Concept and organization:
Dr. Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe (FU Berlin)
Dr. Katrin Stoll (DHI Warschau)
Conference language: English
Please submit your proposals (500 words maximum) along with a brief biographical note by 30 April 2016 at the latest to Katrin Stoll (firstname.lastname@example.org). The conference will take place at the German Historical Institute Warsaw from 5 to 7 December 2016.