Germany Is Fueling a False History of the Holocaust Across Europe

The well-intentioned determination of German politicians and academics to take exclusive responsibility for the Nazi genocide is now aiding other perpetrators to whitewash their participation

Jan Grabowski
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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Germany's national Holocaust memorial,in front of the Reichstag, Berlin
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Germany's national Holocaust memorial,in front of the Reichstag, BerlinCredit: AP
Jan Grabowski

While most Israeli and American historians of the Shoah have tended to devote more attention to its Jewish victims, German academics have excelled at the study of their "own" people: the troops, police, Nazi leadership, the common people, the decision-making processes. That particular interest led to the rise of the Tätergeschichte ("the history of the perpetrators"), a stream of historical writing that has become a trademark of German historians dealing with the Holocaust. 

But that immovable, exclusive focus on how the Holocaust was solely and uniquely perpetrated by Germany is now in danger of leading to the distortion, even falsification, of the history of the Holocaust.

To understand this surprising claim, let’s take a trip to Tutzing, a picturesque village close to Munich. I was participating in an academic workshop there that brought together German and other specialists in the history of the Holocaust, and "paired" German scholars with their non-German counterparts to discuss differences in our approaches to history.  

It quickly became obvious that some of our German colleagues felt that their "perpetrators’ history" specialism had reached its logical end. The explanations had been found: the hundreds, of studies of German society, of the police and military units, of Nazi leadership and party structures and their involvement in the Holocaust, left little room for further investigation. 

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Several foreign scholars (myself included) tried to argue the opposite. The Tätergeschichte, was from being finished: it could still flourish.

But the German scholars would have to broaden out their foundational definition of the perpetrator as German, and only German. They would have to place at least some of the blame for the Shoah on the shoulders of masses of non-German actors, from nearly all the nations of occupied Europe, who gladly, often without prodding and constraint, joined Nazi Germany’s genocidal actions.

The suggestion to expand the field of inquiry was largely met with silence by the German historians. I believe their unwillingness to engage in this debate was related to two issues. 

For one, studying the so-called "bystanders" to the Holocaust (a category which often includes local enablers of the Germans) took the focus off what had happened to the German ‘soul’ in WWII and was therefore considered of lesser value by German historians.  

To explicate: the Holocaust and its academic study has served as a lens though which Germans could look at their own society in order to understand what went so horribly wrong. They wanted to know how what was unique to them – trends, characteristics, political and religious traits – had conspired to make the genocide possible. And German historians took on themselves the mission of establishing whether, in the decades after WWII, these characteristics, this rot, had been decisively expunged from the German national community and from the German body politic.

There was also a parallel grassroots version of this peering into the wartime German psyche. When Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, an American historian, published his "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" in 1996, academics were unenthusiastic, but the book became an instant success in Germany, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Goldhagen explored the concept of "eliminationist antisemitism," a peculiar brand of vicious cultural and ideological prejudice presented as unique to German society.  

"Eliminationist antisemitism" gave German readers tangible, manageable proof of what had gone wrong. But it also offered a measure of mental comfort. Since antisemitism had been largely eradicated in Germany (and in the late 1990s few would debate it) there could never again be such horrors; Germany had found a path to immunity. 

There was a second reason that German academics were so wary of investigating non-German perpetrators: any attempt to shift even the smallest part of the blame for the genocide away from the Germans and onto other Europeans, is seen as dangerous: revisionist at best, and at worst, a career-ending exercise. A no-go area, where no German historian should venture.

Back then, in Tutzing, I was unaware of the broader implications of this phenomenon. Good, well-intended Germans were eagerly trying to take all the blame. Can that really be bad, I thought to myself?

The times, however, have changed. In the course of the last decade, more and more states in Europe, democratically inclined or not, have energetically developed their own historical narratives and impose them on domestic and foreign audiences. They all have one thing in common: they are based on the assumption of their own national innocence. 

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020. Credit: Ronen Zvulun,AP

Outright Holocaust denial, the curse of the past, is no longer on the agenda. What the authorities in Poland, Ukraine, Hungary or Lithuania (the list of the most active offenders is longer) are now involved in is Holocaust distortion. The Holocaust happened, they argue, but we, our people, had nothing to do with it. The rare individuals who were indeed perpetrators automatically excluded themselves from the Polish, or Lithuanian, or Hungarian national community, their Volksgemeinschaft.  

For states, for the institutions involved in this kind of historical distortion, and for the nationalist politicians who infuse them with money and purpose, the German position of taking exclusive blame is most welcome. The Goldhagen one-key-open-all-doors thesis – that Germans were uniquely eliminationist antisemites – conveniently whitewashes the vicious actions of so many other Europeans, be they Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Hungarians or Poles, who decided to make their own contribution to the extermination of the European Jews.   

As the battles over WWII memory ramp up, such as the ongoing hostilities between Russia and Poland, the German position has actually become a threat to independent scholars, historians, who increasingly find themselves targets of institutional and state-sponsored wrath.  

As long as discussions about the Holocaust and the exclusivity (or not) of German responsibility remained in the domain of academic debate, they had less of an official impact. But once they emerge as semi-official declarations signed by the highest officials of the German state, the situation acquires a different momentum, and requires a stronger answer.

One clear example that encapsulates the German problem with history was a recent article marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s capitulation and the end of WWII, co-written by the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, and Prof. Andreas Wirsching, director of the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich. It was entitled, "There is no politics without history," and was published in several languages.

The most important part of the text considers the sole responsibility of Germany for the outbreak of WWII and Germany’s sole responsibility for the Holocaust. "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." 

As a Pole and a professor of the history of the Holocaust, I have to respectfully disagree. I understand that the Holocaust was a German project, and I understand that Minister Maas and Prof Wirsching want to do a decent and honorable thing by taking responsibility for it, as German academics have done for so many years. I also understand that your primary goal was to warn against the rise of the German far right (but then the letter should perhaps have been signed by the Minister of Interior, rather than the Minister of Foreign Affairs.) Although I understand their motives, I strongly disagree with the proffered cure.

Holocaust memorial at the Grunwald cargo railway station in Berlin, used by the Nazis to transport Jews to concentration and death camps
Holocaust memorial at the Grunwald cargo railway station in Berlin, used by the Nazis to transport Jews to concentration and death campsCredit: FABRIZIO BENSCH/ REUTERS

In their haste for Germans to assume the entire blame for the Holocaust, they forget that the history of the Jewish catastrophe is a complex issue. There is absolutely no doubt (and I stress it very strongly) that the genocidal project was purely German, but one needs to also stress that this German project found very many willing partners and enablers all across occupied Europe.

The willingness to appropriate all the blame for the Holocaust is noble, but in the case of the extermination of Europe’s Jews, there is more than enough blame to go around.  

In the rush to assume the entire responsibility for the Holocaust, you deprive us Poles, us Hungarians, us Frenchmen, us members of so many other nations, of our own right and duty to own and to assume the blame for our own troubled and dramatic histories. Yes, Germans, your forefathers, created the master design, you set the wheels in motion and you executed the horrible plan – no doubt about it. But can you deny us, other Europeans, our right to confront our own past? 

As a Pole I have the right, no – let me rephrase it, I have the obligation –  to take stock of and consider all those Polish Jews who were robbed, murdered, denounced, pulled out of their hideouts in the liquidated ghettos, or/and driven to death trains with the help of my own countrymen. It is our duty as citizens to have a right to talk and to think about people who very often joined German plan of extermination of the Jews without prodding, without force, often with eagerness, enthusiasm and zeal.  

Surely Lithuanians should want to assume some blame and responsibility for the horrific "communal genocide" perpetrated by their countrymen on local Jews. Latvians must take some blame for the murderous commandos and other volunteers of death. Ukrainians should reflect on the civilian and uniformed crowds which took part in the mass-murder of Ukrainian Jews.

The Dutch should continue to reflect on the pro-Nazi volunteers who tirelessly hunted down the Jews of Amsterdam and elsewhere. Slovaks own the blame for the Hlinka Guards and the tens of thousands of Slovak Jews shipped to their deaths in the German factories of death, and the Croats (this list could be much more extensive) have the same "right" to own at least a small piece of the blame for the Holocaust. 

Saul Friedlaender, one of the Holocaust’s most eminent historians , noted in his seminal "Years of Extermination”:

"Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews (some of the Christian churches declared that converted Jews were part of the flock, up to a point); to the contrary, many social constituencies, many power groups were directly involved in the expropriation of the Jews and eager, be it out of greed, for their wholesale disappearance. Thus Nazi and related anti-Jewish policies could unfold to their most extreme levels without the interference of any major countervailing interests."   

As historians, we have not yet discovered any genocide in human history that could have been conducted if local populations, neighbors, had not participated.

In the last part of the Maas and Wirsching article, they declare that anyone who disagrees with Germany’s sole guilt, "makes history instrumental and divides Europe." That is a somber, and mistaken, statement.

In their rush to do the right thing, a prominent German politician and a prominent German academic have done just what they warned against: they have intrumentalized and distorted the history of the Holocaust, and they are encouraging the divisive forces of nationalism, tribalism and discrimination, empowering the people who, across Europe today, refuse to assume blame and responsibility for the past, who refuse to learn any lessons from history. Germany must not take from us the right and duty of coming to terms with our own history. 

That, unfortunately, is the worst thing that well-meaning Germans should do. If there is one thing that the Germans cannot do – in any way, and regardless of their current and future raison d’état – it is to distort and thus falsify the history of the Holocaust. 

Jan Grabowski is Professor of History at the University of Ottawa and Senior Invitational Scholar at the Advanced Holocaust Studies Center at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He received the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research for his book "Judenjagd"

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