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Monday, March 29, 2010

Calling all students of Omer Bartov

     Last week, the Shoah Foundation sponsored an "international academic forum" on the use of its visual history archive. As part of that conference, Dr. Omer Bartov (Brown University) lectured on reconstructing the Holocaust from below.
     Since this topic shares the same foundation as our own work, I took good notes!
     Bartov notes that generally, those who lived in Europe between 1933 and 1945 tend to be classified as victims, perpetrators, or bystanders. Black and white. Defined as one of the three, period.
     He argues that "testimonies" ~ such as those found in the Shoah Foundation's video archives ~ must be integrated into Holocaust history with validity equalling that of more traditional, "historical"
primary sources. These testimonies add events to the historical record that would otherwise remain completely unknown, saving them from oblivion. Additionally, personal testimonies give new perspective to known events.
     As we have found in our own "White Rose" research, testimonies can also serve as factual correction to the historical record. Bartov says that eyewitness accounts provide historians with a richer, more complex reconstruction of an event or series of events. Their very subjectivity (one reason too many historians ignore them) gives unparalleled insights into the lives and minds, into the psychology of the protagonists, be they victim, perpetrator, or bystander.
     Bartov stresses that this psychological aspect of historical analysis has been improperly disregarded. I would add, out of the wrongheaded notion that there is such a thing as objective truth. A notion that especially meets its Waterloo when writing about the Shoah. He says that too often historians equate subjectivity with "unreliability" and subsequently deem testimonies as solely worthy of anecdotal or illustrative usage.
     I wholeheartedly agree with Bartov when he states that personal testimonies must be treated with care and suspicion... and respect.
     He identifies two "limits" on the use of eyewitness accounts in the historical record:
     1) A good historian will collect a "critical mass" and not rely on merely a few testimonies.
     2) Research benefits when focus is limited to a single locality and a narrow time span. This better enables the historian to carry out proper fact-checking to verify the validity of the individual eyewitness accounts.
     Bartov admits that there are indeed drawbacks to use of testimonies in the historical context. Especially when dealing with "testimonies of trauma", it's difficult for the historian on a psychological level, as these testimonies reveal a great deal about human nature ~ and that can be hard to process.
     Further, there will always be skepticism among historians, Bartov says, because the use of testimonies can undermine trust in the historical craft. The greatest drawback to reliance on personal stories? It can be next to impossible to retain the detachment necessary to objectively evaluate the narratives. (And this is where subjectivity indeed has no place.)
     Bartov illustrates the theory of these musings with his own very-concrete work. He has spent the last fifteen years gathering as much information as possible on the Shoah in Buczacz (on the Strypa River) and its immediate surroundings, formerly Eastern Galicia, now part of the Ukraine. The region consisted primarily of Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews.
     As he collected eyewitness accounts ~ video testimonies at the Shoah Foundation and similar organizations, NSDAP "official" documents, city archives, and the like ~ and processed them to create a new history of that town in that era, he found that the current official historical record was largely false. Excerpts from his conclusions:
     a) Official primary sources, those generally deemed acceptable by historians, can be just as skewed and unreliable as personal testimonies.
     b) History is rarely as black and white as we would like it to be. In Buczacz, instead of perpetrator-victim-bystander, there were few if any bystanders. The person who was a hero ("victim") one day could be a villain ("perpetrator") the next. And vice versa.
     c) He found good guys in unexpected places. The testimonies repeatedly pointed to a few of the German Nazi occupiers as individuals who had saved the lives of Jewish citizens of Buczacz, something not contained in official histories of the town.
     d) On the flip side, he learned that the Ukrainian population had exercised a most virulent form of anti-Semitism, seeming to delight in brutal executions, shooting former neighbors in the streets. And that the anti-Semitism appeared to have been driven more by greed than by ethnic, religious, or cultural conflict.
     e) The oral histories proved reliable (although Bartov took care to correct for, eliminate, or explain contradictions between accounts), regardless of when the testimony was given. Some accounts had been memorialized shortly after the end of World War II. Others during trials of various Nazi criminals in Germany and Israel in the 1950s and 1960s; and yet others had only recently been captured by organizations like the Shoah Foundation. The passage of time did not seem to affect accuracy, Bartov said.
     My commentary to Omer Bartov's lecture:
     Bartov assumes that a good historian will automatically do the legwork to ensure that personal testimonies are properly fact-checked before including them in the historical record. This is not always the case.
     The historiography of the White Rose is replete with those who may otherwise be decent historians, but who have turned a blind eye to glaring inconsistencies and blatant contradictions in the accounts given by Inge Scholl (aka Inge Aicher-Scholl), George J. ("Juergen") Wittenstein, and Franz Josef Mueller.
     Too many of these historians (using the term loosely) cannot be bothered to dig deeper, to collect a "critical mass" of testimonies. If only they would, they would quickly set aside any statements made by Aicher-Scholl, Wittenstein, and Mueller as irrelevant at best, and consciously fraudulent at worst.
     That being said, personal testimonies represent an essential, critical, and at times mandatory element of writing about and understanding German (and other) resistance during the Holocaust. Perhaps more than any other facet of Holocaust studies, research into resistance requires understanding the WHY. It's not enough to know WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, and HOW. Without the WHY, books about German resistance ring hollow.
     It is that psychology thing that Bartov addressed.
     Bartov's lecture greatly encouraged me. We've encountered much resistance to our work, since it defies conventional wisdom and paints a more accurate ~ warts and all ~ portrait of German resistance in general and White Rose resistance in particular. People who claim to be objective hang on tightly to heroes on a pedestal, which makes no sense. If you want heroes on a pedestal, you've got to stick to writing (and reading) only fiction. Bad fiction.
     If any of his students ~ whether actual students at Brown University, or those who simply adhere to his standards of scholarship ~ were to jump in feet first to our work, we would welcome them enthusiastically! That's the kind of person we need.
     Contact us if you are interested.

PS: As a reminder of our own methodology, read this.

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