Berg Explores German Histories of Holocaust

By Rebecca Egli - How did scholars in postwar Germany portray the Holocaust? Addressing this question on April 5, 2016, Nicolas Berg presented his illuminating work on the German and German-Jewish historians writing in the 1950s and 1960s. A historian and research fellow at the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, Germany, Berg drew on his recently translated book—a "history of a historiography" entitled "The Holocaust and the West German Historians."

Historiography is the study of historical writing and how historians in the past have interpreted a specific topic using particular sources, theoretical approaches, or techniques. For those who believe that writing about the past is merely a matter of stating the “facts,” Berg’s work may be eye-opening.

Auschwitz offers a prominent symbol of the violence that occurred during World War II. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s, among the majority of German historians, the Holocaust did not feature in the central narrative of the war. In The German Catastrophe, for example, Friedrich Meinecke mentions the Holocaust only once, claiming that the destruction of the Jews was merely an outward sign of much larger national problems.

As Berg explained, for these German intellectuals, while the Jews “might have suffered one Auschwitz, the German people had suffered another.” Claiming that the ideology of national socialism, or Nazism, had invaded and occupied the German nation, they believed non-Jewish Germans had suffered most.

Seeking absolution

As Liberal German historians such as Meinecke worked to downplay the Holocaust and emphasize German resistance to the Nazis, they were also highly critical of scholars like Joseph Wulf. Wulf worked to expose the genocidal nature of concentration camps and the degree of German complicity during the war. Instead, silence about the Holocaust attempted to absolve the German people of their guilt in Nazi crimes. 

Wulf and others sought to give a voice to those victims of the war that would otherwise be silenced. Professionally ostracized by his German colleagues and believing that he had failed, Wulf committed suicide in 1974.

Berg’s research reminds us that academic discourse about past events matters a great deal. While the work of historians is critical to shaping collective political and cultural memory, attempts to “silence the past” reveal that power and bias can operate in the writing of history, just as in the events it seeks to describe.

Learn more about Dr. Nicolas Berg at his Simon Dubnow Insitute faculty webpage.

This event was co-sponsored by the German, Russian, and History departments and the Jewish Studies program.