- Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice by Mary Fulbrook
Eighty years after the onset of World War II, the legacy of Nazi Germany and its crimes remains contested in myriad ways. In one recent example, the summer of 2019 saw a lively media and political debate in the United States over what the term “concentration camp” means and how the atrocities of the Nazi era are to be understood today. Even the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum weighed in with a public statement on Holocaust analogies, which in turn prompted hundreds of scholars to sign an open letter to the museum’s leadership asking it to reconsider its stance. In this charged context, Mary Fulbrook’s probing if problematic book could not be timelier. The questions it explores are anything but academic disputes in the current historical moment.
Fulbrook, a prolific British historian whose earlier work often centered on the East German dictatorship, has turned increasingly in recent years to the challenging topic of the Holocaust and its ongoing reverberations. Her new book focuses not just on the Nazi attempt to exterminate Europe’s Jews but on the full spectrum of Nazi persecution in its many forms. Oxford’s tasteful [End Page 169] design and presentation of the volume suggests they are aiming for a broader readership beyond specialist circles, a welcome sign in a frequently insular discipline. The initial results have been impressive: Reckonings won the prestigious Wolfson History Prize for 2019, sometimes seen as the British equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. What the book offers is a panoramic perspective on the efforts by different groups—survivors, perpetrators, accomplices, courts, governments, and others—to face up to the Nazi past. Fulbrook tries to make this daunting task more accessible through a series of personal case studies built around select individuals followed throughout the book.
This approach has several strengths. It highlights a succession of powerful vignettes, which Fulbrook calls “microcosms of violence,” allowing readers to relate more directly to a history that can seem overwhelming and incomprehensible. Much of the book consists of a well-crafted synthesis of secondary literature, first-hand accounts, and archival sources. Fulbrook acknowledges that in view of the enormity of Nazi evil, the potential for a genuine “reckoning” is limited: “[i]t is virtually impossible to do justice to this past—not only in the courts of law or in personal and cultural narratives but also in historical analyses” (viii). Her work nonetheless sheds light on each of the areas it examines, affording new insights about those caught up in “the machinery of extermination” and the society that enabled it.
Some of the strongest material comes in the book’s middle section on the postwar judicial confrontation with the Nazi regime’s transgressions. The chapter on “Selective Justice in the Successor States” (the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic, and Austria) details the halting efforts to bring selected perpetrators to account for their actions. Constrained by Cold War dynamics, compromised legal systems, and deeply ambivalent public perceptions, these trials contrasted with the proceedings overseen by the Allies, above all the 1945–1946 International Military Tribunal commonly known as the Nuremberg Trial. Whereas the Nuremberg principles held entire branches of the Nazi apparatus to be criminal organizations, court cases in the successor states, with Germans trying Germans, hinged on individual offenses. Fulbrook notes that this procedure yielded “many lenient sentences and surprising acquittals [End Page 170] even where evidence seemed absolutely compelling” (236). Her lengthy discussion of the uneven pursuit and prosecution of Nazi perpetrators in East Germany is particularly fascinating.
Leaders of the Federal Republic, for their part, were determined to rely on the existing German legal code rather than the Nuremberg principles as the basis for prosecuting Nazi crimes, implicitly asserting that Nazism was an aberration, a departure from the proper course of German history. This caused fundamental problems in the search for justice, since it meant that court proceedings had to center not on organizational activities but on individual...