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Victims, Perpetrators, Bystanders and Collaborators: Conference Report

Written by Kate Docking.

There has been a lack of meaningful scholarly engagement with the utility of the terms ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’, ‘bystanders’ and ‘collaborators’ as historical concepts. Too often, the word ‘perpetrator’ is used by historians without any explanation as to its meaning. But what exactly makes a ‘perpetrator’? How do we define a victim? Have the connotations of these terms changed over time or been overly politicised? Is it the job of the historian to label who is a victim, and who is a perpetrator? These were the questions that pervaded the early thought process of my thesis, which examines a group of female doctors and nurses who worked at Ravensbrück concentration camp in Nazi Germany. I found myself increasingly grappling with the question of whether to use such ‘labels’ when writing the history of these women. After conversing with Ellis Spicer, another History PhD student at Kent, I realised that I was certainly not alone in harbouring these considerations. Further discussion with other research candidates affirmed that there was a definite dearth of critical analysis surrounding the problematic concepts of ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’, ‘bystanders’ and ‘collaborators’. Since the labels are increasingly used in a range of historical contexts, from the history of genocide to accounts of colonialism, it seemed ever more pertinent to initiate a discussion of their utility in historical writing. Consequently, these concepts provided the theme for this year’s South East Hub, an established history conference at the University of Kent that aims to provide research postgraduates and early career scholars with the opportunity to share their research in a friendly environment.

The conference ‘Victims, Perpetrators, Bystanders and Collaborators as Historical Concepts: Redundant Labels, Useful Categorisations or Somewhere in Between?’ took place at Kent on 19 June 2018. The first panel of the day, chaired by Juliette Pattinson (Kent) was entitled ‘Resistance, Accusation and Collaboration’. Papers by Nigel Perrin (Kent), Richard Guille (Kent) and Raisa Ostenpenko (Sorbonne, Paris) insightfully drew on these themes in the context of the Second World War. Nigel Perrin indicated that we should exercise caution when labelling Mathilde Carré, a French resistance agent who turned into a double agent, as a ‘collaborator’, since she presented herself as a heroine in her memoirs. This more widely indicates that we as scholars should perhaps consider what role historical actors considered themselves to play, rather than imposing labels upon them. Raisa Ostenpenko also took issue with the term ‘collaborator’ in the context of Ukrainians who lived under German occupation and who may have been requisitioned to perform tasks for their occupiers, since the phrase reflects a willingness and meeting of similar ideologies, which was not necessarily always the case with regard to all Ukrainians and their German occupiers. She also believed that the term ‘bystander’ is too arbitrary in this context. Richard Guille too questioned the utility of the term ‘collaborator’ in his paper that discussed the relations of those who lived on the island of Sark in the Channel Islands with their German occupiers. He argued that the term does not allow suitable space for unique local factors to be taken into account. In his oral history interviews with those who had lived through the occupation, he found that many did not view themselves as ‘collaborating’ with the Germans but merely ‘fraternising’; that is, developing contacts with those they saw on a regular basis. During this panel, the inherent subjectivity of the terms ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’, ‘bystanders’ and ‘collaborators’ and the moral judgements we bestow on historical actors when using them was mentioned by Phillip Boobyer (Kent), leading him to conclude that history ultimately cannot be separated from philosophy.

The second panel, chaired by Natasha Silk (Kent) explored the trope of the ‘victim voice’ in history. Papers from Ashley Dee Paton (Open University), Thomas Cheetham (Wolverhampton) and Charlotte Walmsley (Cardiff and Exeter) explored the utility of the term ‘victim’ as a concept in their research. Here, different approaches were revealed: Ashley Dee Paton favoured the term ‘acted upon’ rather than ‘victim’ to describe the women who sought divorce in Victorian Glasgow, given that the so-called ‘victims’ were not always passive and were not necessarily ‘innocent’ either – traits we traditionally associate with victimhood. This raises wider questions of how we as historians define who is a ‘victim’. In contrast, Charlotte Walmsley advocated the use of the word ‘victim’ to describe those subjected to head shaving in France and Spain in the 1930s and 1940s, which suggests that the term ‘victim’ is perhaps more useful in certain historical contexts than others and illustrates the different scholarly approaches as to the utility of this category. In this panel, the gendered associations of the terms ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ were brought to the fore. This is a phenomenon I often encounter in my own research; stereotypes of women as ‘naturally good’ and incapable of committing atrocities often lead us to overlook their capabilities for violence. In a similar vein, conceptions of masculinity as heroic can sometimes prevent us from seeing men as victims, as raised by Thomas Cheetham. However, he noted that soldiers of the Second World War have been perceived as victims in popular discourse, including films, in spite of the associations of the term with weakness, and that war and victimhood are inextricably linked. Soldiers must also accommodate conflicting identities as both victims and perpetrators, but the popular narrative of ‘soldiers as victims’ often makes it problematic for them to acknowledge their execution of violence in later testimonial accounts.

The third panel of the day, chaired by David Peace (Kent) discussed the simultaneous applicability of the terms ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’, ‘bystanders’ and ‘collaborators’. Sophie Campbell (Nottingham) noted that these phrases are often applied retrospectively with regard to the history of slavery in Britain and that it can be complicated to label the enslaved as the ‘victim’ group. She also drew on the notion of ‘inherited victimhood’ with regard to the descendants of the enslaved. Sophie Campbell further questioned whether the moral responsibility for slavery passes on through generations of enslavers, arguing that white privilege often prevents this from occurring. Russell Moul (Kent) also evoked the theme of morality in his paper; he argued that French military and civilian doctors in Algeria during the country’s struggle for independence from colonial rule between 1954-1962 were sometimes perpetrators of torture, in spite of their adherence to ‘do no harm’, but that they were also victims of complex systematic pressures. In contrast, Tarryn Gourley (Kent) mentioned how youth are often viewed as victims of elite manipulation, but instead veered away from adopting the ‘victim’ trope in her paper and instead evoked the term ‘shrewd perpetrators’ to describe youth in post-colonial Zambia. This is an example of how nuancing existing categories can help us to write more balanced histories by moulding them to better suit the specific historical situation. The pressing question of how to define a ‘perpetrator’ was also raised in this panel, stimulated by the paper of Andreas Moeller (University of Cambridge alumnus) on those who committed atrocities during the Bosnian war. He contended that those who ordered murder from their desks – the so-called Schreibtischtäter– can indeed be classed as perpetrators since they were integral to the planning and mobilisation of war crimes. Andreas Moeller used legal terminology to argue that the mental intent behind the act – the mens rea– was primarily the responsibility of the so-called Schreibtischtäter; this more widely demonstrates the almost inevitable interaction between law and history in ‘perpetrator’ studies.

The fourth panel, entitled ‘Regimes and the Right’, was chaired by Phillip Boobyer. Papers from Megan King (Kent) Henry Mitchell (Edinburgh) and Darren O’Byrne (Cambridge) discussed the utility of the conference terms in the context of extremist regimes. Megan King suggested that we should view the radical developments of the Imperial Crisis, which took place during the American Revolutionary era, through the lens of contemporary scholarship on radicalisation and mobilisation. She questioned the utility of the term ‘victim’ as a label for patriots, arguing that they instead promulgated notions of victimhood themselves, rather than actually being ‘victims’. Through the media, social networking and public demonstrations, patriot leaders warned others of impending tyranny, despotism, and the reduction of the entire population to slavery. Henry Mitchell departed from the ‘victim’ trope in his paper about the politics of collaboration in the context of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) in South Africa during the late 1920s. He suggested that many of the radical ICU leaders also acted as police informers. The utility of the term ‘perpetrator’ was again discussed in Darren O Byrne’s paper. He grappled with the question of whether Wilhelm Kube, the General Commissioner in Belarus during the Second World War, was a perpetrator, concluding that given he tried to stop some extermination of Jews and gave Jews some protection by employing them, his position lay on the margins of perpetration. Darren O’Byrne raised another interesting point: that we seem to almost unequivocally accept who a ‘victim’ is, but struggle to define a ‘perpetrator’. Is this because we are reluctant to see ‘perpetrator’ as all-encompassing a category to the extent that ‘victim’ might be, since this means that we, too, could be perpetrators, which is a somewhat disconcerting thought?

The day drew to a close with a brilliant keynote talk from Tim Cole (Bristol). Cole dynamically tied together the various themes of the day and the content of the papers. He drew on the over-simplification of these categories in post-war representations, which can trouble the historian. Consequently, there has been a rush to ‘break down’ the terms ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’, ‘bystanders’ and ‘collaborators’ to explore the ‘grey zone’. Indeed, Russell Moul remarked that the speakers at the conference had all been championing these ‘grey areas’. But should we examine the ‘grey areas’, or persevere with these categories, in spite of their problems? Cole suggested that we should. He advocated the approach promulgated by the historian Saul Friedlander, to integrate – rather than separate– the histories of ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’, ‘bystanders’ and ‘collaborators’. Indeed, this approach seems to produce the most nuanced and detailed historical studies, as evidenced by Nikolaus Wachsmann’s recent book about Nazi concentration camps, KL. However, Cole went beyond advocating integrated histories to call for relational histories, which examine the relationships between historical actors, focusing on power, inequalities of power, and agency. Cole also advocated the idea of space and geography as focuses of analysis, since ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’, and ‘bystanders’ have often shared the same space; for example, the space of a concentration camp.

Ultimately, the overall conclusion of the day appeared to be that in spite of the inherently problematic nature of these concepts, these terms will not be abandoned altogether any time soon, since when they are used critically, they can indeed provide useful frameworks of historical analysis.

We would like to thank Phillip Boobbyer for his guidance during the organisational process of the conference. Our thanks also go to the Consortium for Humanities and Arts South East England (CHASE) and the School of History for generously funding the event.

Kate Docking is a first year PhD candidate at the University of Kent, working on female doctors and at Ravensbrück concentration camp.

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