In Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, Mary Fulbrook concentrates on the way that we—survivors, perpetrators, descendants, academics, non-academics, and so on—frame the Holocaust in our minds and our speech. Each of the three sections has a slightly different focus, but they all thoroughly discuss post-war silence, court proceedings, literature, museum exhibits, memorials, and conversation above all. I have to take my hat off to Fulbrook for tackling a topic that I would find impossible to write about. The atrocities of the Holocaust are such that the usual words—horrible, terrible, appalling, evil—don’t seem powerful enough to accurately describe what happened. But in Reckonings, she dives deep into the very question of how we do and do not talk about the holocaust.
Reckonings touches on so many topics that I wonder if it should have been broken down into two books: one on the court and legal history and the other focusing on psychology, literature, and memorialization. The first third and a lot of the second read like a traditional history, with some very astute arguments about the motivations of perpetrators who dodged justice after 1945. Because they are more typical of history writing, it’s easy to follow Fulbrook’s progression from Aktion T4 to the Holocaust to judgment in West Germany, East Germany, and Austria. Fulbrook argues that Aktion T4—the Nazi program of euthanizing or starving mentally ill patients or patients with congenital disabilities to death—served accustom ordinary Germans to the idea of killing “less desirable” members of their society. It was shockingly easy for leading Nazis to convince doctors and health workers (often Party members themselves) to kill their patients. There were protests from the relatives of the murdered, but only enough for the killers to stop for a while, resume their work, then transfer on to death camps across Europe.
After the war, West and East Germany vied against each other to be considered the toughest on the Nazis caught in their territory. Both fell short. In West Germany, the fact that many members of the judiciary had been Party members and the decision to use pre-Nazi law that had curious definitions of murder, combined with a pervasive attitude that members of the SS, the Wehrmacht, and the Nazi-era civil service should be lightly punished, if at all. Many mass murderers were acquitted or served insultingly short sentences. In East Germany, sentences were harsher, but many former Nazis walked free. Austria had the worst record of the three countries Fulbrook covers. Their record is so dismal that many prosecutors and survivors gave up pursing cases against former Nazis.
It’s only in the last third that I started to see what I thought was Fulbrook’s overall purpose. In that last third, Fulbrook points out that the way that anyone talks about the Holocaust reveals a lot about their attitudes toward what is arguably the worst thing that one group of humans has ever done to another. Unfortunately, this section has weaknesses. There are several sections where Fulbrook steps outside of her expertise as a historian to psychoanalyse the people she quotes. She has a better grip on literary analysis, but there are passages where I feel that Fulbrook does not have enough evidence for her claims. I much prefer it when an author lets their subjects speak for themselves, quoting enough of the primary sources that they unambiguously support the author’s suppositions.
Fulbrook does sterling work in Reckonings when it comes to victim groups that, for various reasons, are not often given much attention in most discussions of the Holocaust. She provides heartbreaking testimony from two gay men, one French and one German, who suffered horrific abuse but could not talk about what was done to them because homosexuality would be illegal until the 1960s and generally disapproved of for decades more. The Roma and Sinti also receive more attention from Fulbrook, especially in the overview of Holocaust memorials. Even decades after the war, there is still widespread prejudice in Central Europe against the Roma and Sinti.
Reckonings could do with lengthier quotes from primary sources and a bit more editing to root out some of Fulbrook’s pet phrases (“as we have seen”), but overall I found it to be a thoughtful exploration of why people talk about the Holocaust the way they do. She discusses the need for many survivors to not speak of what happened to them and the competing need for perpetrators to not implicate themselves. I was particularly interested in her careful dissections of how perpetrators and their descendants, when forced, dodge around the crimes committed during the Third Reich. Her analysis of how the Holocaust is framed in speech, writing, museum exhibits, court proceedings, and so on was definitely needed. It’s not just enough to talk about the Holocaust. We, as a society, have to think more about how we can talk about the Holocaust in a just way, in a way that hopefully fulfills the prayer of “never again.”
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.