“The extent of the persecution was not foreseeable”

A large collection of documents on the persecution of Jews in Europe is now being presented in Berlin. We spoke to project manager Susanne Heim.

A yellow Star of David with the inscription

A yellow Star of David with the inscription “Jew,” similar to what Jews were required to wear in Nazi Germany, is projected onto the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City on the evening of the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day.AP

As a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine, place names that were previously associated primarily with the persecution of the Jews by the Germans have resurfaced. The edition “Persecution of the Jews 1933 – 1945” provides an overall picture of these crimes that took place in many European countries. We spoke to the Berlin historian Susanne Heim, who edited one of the 16 volumes.

The 16-volume edition on the persecution of Jews between 1933 and 1945 in Europe was completed some time ago, but is now being presented to the public at a conference for the first time, delayed by the corona pandemic. What is special about this compendium?

Susanne Heim: It’s an edition that covers all the countries where the Holocaust took place. This means the allies of the Germans as well as the countries that were under German rule. Not included are the neutral states, which would have been a worthwhile chapter in their own right. Last but not least, what is special is the multi-perspective view, which means that the events are documented from the perspective of both the perpetrators and the victims. The attitudes of uninvolved third parties also occur, for example in the form of groups that have welcomed the persecution of the Jews or those that have tried to remain neutral. If you could do that at all. So it’s a collection of very different voices. The 16 volumes result in a mosaic, an overview with special attention to the course of the persecution of the Jews in the respective countries and regions.

What do you mean by votes?

The source material consists of letters, official letters, diary entries, notes, poems, petitions, court decisions, newspaper articles, and so on. These are mostly written documents. Last but not least, we did not use photos because it would have required a great deal of effort in terms of evaluating the source.

How long did the work take and what surprised you during the research?

The first volume was published in 2008, the last in 2021. That is a very long period of time, and before 2008 there was another several years of preparation. The German Research Foundation DFG has funded the work since 2005, it was the largest humanities project of the DFG. Not only did it take longer than planned, but it was also twice as extensive. 150 documents were planned per volume, now there are more than 300 each. The translation from more than 20 languages ​​proved to be particularly difficult. In addition to good readability, accuracy in terminology was particularly important. The aim of the edition is not only to provide materials for research, but also to reach a wider audience. One premise for the footnotes, for example, was: Everything is explained here that a German high school graduate might not immediately understand.

The collection of sources broadens the view of the persecution of the Jews in many European countries that had come under German influence. Was there a recurring pattern in the persecution practices?

If you look at the first volume of Germany, which deals with the years 1933 to 1937, you will notice how gradually the room for maneuver narrows. At first it was not foreseeable what extent the persecution would take.

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Albert Ludwig University

To person

Susanne Heim, born in Oldenburg/Holstein in 1955, is a historian and political scientist. She has contributed to numerous publications and projects on research into National Socialism, including at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. Since 2005 she has been project manager of the edition “The Persecution and Murder of European Jews by National Socialist Germany 1933 – 1945”.

Because the methods of repression and persecution up until 1937 still had the appearance of the rule of law and orderly procedural practices?

There were attempts to resist. The Jewish institutions tried to defend themselves with constitutional means. Partly with success, for example with complaints to the authorities. You can see how far the Nazi regime was trying to go. It remains to be seen how and to what the non-Jewish population will react. Occasionally, Jews are given justice in court. As the years have passed, the contradiction has become increasingly defensive. You can see that in a personality like the banker and politician Max Warburg, who was respected, well connected and influential and eventually became increasingly marginalized.

A look at other countries, such as Northern and Western Europe, Poland or the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, makes it clear, particularly through the diversity of the sources evaluated, how systematically the Nazi state proceeded. Are there regional differences?

One of the recurring patterns in all countries is that Jews were initially defined from the rest of the population. In some countries they were marked, in others not. In some they were housed in ghettos, in others not. Everywhere, however, Jews were dispossessed and there were anti-Jewish measures such as expatriation. From 1938 the processes accelerated. In Austria, for example, measures were implemented within weeks that had previously taken five years to be introduced in Germany. The Germans invaded the Soviet Union and without any further preliminary measures began to murder the Jews. In many areas, people didn’t bother to set up Jewish administrations. Despite all the specific differences and the different willingness to collaborate on the part of the respective population, it can be said that there was a synchronized approach that became more radical between autumn 1941 and spring 1943. During this period most of the Jews were murdered.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has made it frighteningly clear that in the phase of supposed historical reconciliation, at least in Germany, Ukraine was largely neglected as a place of particularly brutal tyranny. Do you now see your results in a new light?

Of course, there were historians who focused on this region even before the war against Ukraine, such as Timothy Snyder in his book “Bloodlands”. In any case, one can say that suddenly many place names reappear in consciousness. For example, there is a document in the edition about Bucha, but before the start of the war, even those working on the project who were not actually involved in the project would not have known exactly which part of the Soviet Union Bucha was in. That has now changed in a shocking way. Because of the war in the Ukraine, the massacres caused by the Germans have come closer again. And they no longer happened somewhere in the east, but can be precisely located geopolitically.

You devoted many years of your academic life to researching Nazi violence. How do you feel about the debate about the singularity of the Holocaust, which is questioned in particular by researchers on colonialism?

I don’t believe in playing off different research areas against each other. Dealing with colonial crimes is undoubtedly important, and there is no question that there is a lot of catching up to do in this area. But that doesn’t make dealing with the Holocaust superfluous. I don’t think that research into the Holocaust would supersede or prevent research into colonial crimes. The admissibility of the comparison is not even up for debate. There are certain characteristics of the Holocaust that have not been repeated in this form before. Certainly there are also features in colonial crimes that are very special and require further investigation. I don’t see why a hierarchy of historical phenomena of violence should be necessary for the interest in conducting accurate research.

With the document edition “The Persecution and Murder of European Jews by National Socialist Germany 1933-1945 (VEJ)” a thematically comprehensive selection of previously largely unpublished sources on the Holocaust is presented for the first time. It was published by the Federal Archives, the Institute for Contemporary History and the Chair for Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Freiburg, and was published by Verlag De Gruyter Oldenbourg.

The final day will take place from May 9th to 11th in Berlin. Participation is possible via live stream.

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