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Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice

Reviewed by Kate Docking.

Reckonings, authored by Mary Fulbrook, analyses the various implications of Nazi atrocities on both an individual and state level. A key aspect of the book explores how the judicial punishment of those involved in National Socialist persecution in the decades following the war could vary vastly between states. The stories of Rudolf Zimmerman and Walter Thormeyer provide a particularly poignant example of this. Zimmerman lived a seemingly innocuous life before the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Residing in a village near the city of Mielec in Poland, Zimmerman helped his father’s farming business. When the SS came to Mielec, Zimmerman soon became involved in Nazi atrocities; he murdered Jews, and was later also involved in selections and deportations. After the war, Zimmerman became a ‘model’ socialist citizen in East Germany; he even acquired awards for his work. However, Zimmerman’s dark past soon caught up with him. He was arrested by East German authorities in 1966, put on trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1967. Walter Thormeyer, who was Zimmerman’s superior during the war, was tried in West Germany, and received a lesser sentence; he was condemned to twelve years in prison, in spite of the copious amount of evidence pertaining to his participation in murderous crimes. The cases of Thormeyer and Zimmerman are reflective of how East and West Germany often adopted different approaches to the handling of those involved in Nazi crimes; harsher punishments were (generally) dealt out in the GDR, whereas the Federal Republic embodied a more lenient approach.

Yet the monograph does not simply provide an analysis of the reverberations of Nazi crimes in courtrooms, but explores the many different legacies of Nazi atrocities for individuals and their families, in different geographical and chronological contexts. Fulbrook thus covers a vast amount of ground in the book. Yet a key strength of Reckonings is its lack of generalisations. Fulbrook rarely assumes that the experiences of one person – whether this was someone who committed violence during the Nazi regime such as Zimmerman, or, for example, survived a concentration camp – are representative of the histories of other individuals who fall into the categories of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ she deploys. The utility of the aforementioned terms has been hotly debated – and, indeed, sometimes disputed – by historians. However, the use of the ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ in Reckonings works well to conceptually ground the book’s analysis, particularly since Fulbrook acknowledges the capacity for individuals to slide between these categories.

The structure of the book reflects how Fulbrook essentially contends historians should analyse experiences of Nazi atrocities and their legacies; we ought to resist simplistic chronological accounts of events within rigidly delineated geographical borders. While the book largely pursues a broad chronological structure – to paint the outline with a broad brush, Part I deals with persecution during the Third Reich, Part II explores post-war justice, and Part III discusses the response of survivors to Nazi atrocities – there is nonetheless overlap between space, place and time in these sections. The structure of the monograph not only allows for the stories of individuals at different times to be deftly woven throughout, but also enables an analysis of particular sites in different contexts. For example, the town of Mielec in Poland, is discussed in the context of those who were subjected to Nazi violence there and with regard to the trope of memorialisation after the war. Indeed, Fulbrook suggests that we direct more focus – in a scholarly sense, and in the context of education and memorialisation – on such sites of persecution that are lesser-known than Auschwitz; this is one of the main contentions of the book. To develop this approach, Reckonings makes use of an impressive array of secondary literature and the author’s own research, which is thorough and stretches far beyond archival research. Particularly illustrative of this is the inclusion of interviews with the children of Rudolf Zimmerman, who murdered Jews in Mielec, in the book’s analysis.

Reckonings is ultimately a timely intervention that moves forward the existing scholarly literature on ‘integrative’ histories of the Holocaust; an approach that was shaped by Saul Friedländer in the late 1990s and has influenced much writing about Nazi persecution since. Friedländer advocated that historians should focus on German activities, activities of authorities, institutions and those of different groups in societies in the occupied countries and satellite states, and on Jewish perceptions and reactions in relation to each other. In Reckonings, Fulbrook argues that we need to extend this approach to incorporate a full analysis of the Holocaust’s reverberations. We ought to analyse not only the experiences of ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ during the Nazi regime alongside each other, but also examine the reverberations of persecution for both groups in relation to each other. It is precisely this that Fulbrook achieves so well in her analysis, providing an apt model for future studies of this nature, even for ones that might be more narrowly focused.

In Reckonings, Fulbrook not only puts forward a novel suggestion of how we might methodologically approach the legacies of Nazi persecution, but she also contributes to the debunking of some long-standing contentions about National Socialist violence and its legacies. Some of these claims have already been well unravelled (but are nonetheless worth reiterating in a book which is aimed at a wider audience beyond historians well versed in the field), such as the notion that ‘ordinary Germans knew nothing’ about the murder of civilians. Yet other historiographical interventions Fulbrook makes might be somewhat more surprising. With regard to the discourse of perpetrators after the war, far from keeping completely silent about their somewhat dubious pasts, some of these people, Fulbrook notes, were ‘willing to be apparently open about their past, providing it was appropriately framed and presented’. (p. 230) This bolsters existing scholarly debunking of the ‘myth of collective amnesia’ – the idea that the Nazi past was simply brushed under the carpet in West Germany and not discussed at all. Fulbrook also makes a statement that contributes to the burgeoning historiographical view that conceptualises the divide between East and West as comprising of a ‘Nylon’ curtain, as opposed to an ‘Iron’ one, in the sense that some information was freely exchanged between states on different sides of the divide. Fulbrook contends that sometimes, details about known or suspected participants in National Socialist atrocities were shared between East and West Germany; the author notes that there was a ‘complicated dance in both East and West Germany around mutual willingness (or unwillingness) to assist the other state in requests for extraditions or materials’. (p. 329) Although this is not explicitly fleshed out nor a key aspect of the book, Fulbrook thus goes some way to noting that such collaboration could also occur in the judicial realm, with regard to investigations of Nazi crimes. It would be good to know if this willingness for East and West to assist each other in the tracking down of those involved in Nazi atrocities fluctuated over time, with the broader context of the Cold War’s development taken into account.

In a book of this scope, it is understandable that certain aspects of the legacies of Nazi persecution might be brushed over, as Fulbrook herself acknowledges. The reader might wonder, for example, about the differences – if any – between justice metered out to men and that administered to women across time and space; a trope that Fulbrook nods towards only quite tangentially. Yet this in no way detriments what is ultimately a meticulous and insightful book, which serves as essential reading for anyone interested in not only the history of the legacies of Nazi persecution itself, but in how we now might go about writing about it.

Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, by Mary Fulbrook (Oxford University Press, 2018; 672pp.; £25.00)

Kate Docking is a second-year PhD candidate at the University of Kent. She is a member of the Centre for the History of War, Media and Society, and the Centre for the History of Medicine. Kate’s thesis focuses on a group of female doctors and nurses who worked at Ravensbrück concentration camp during the Third Reich; her work assesses the impact of broader gendered constructs on these women’s experiences.

Image Credit: Berlin – Brandenburg GateCC BY-SA 2.0 by Roger W/Flickr.

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