From Central European History’s founding in 1968, Nazism commanded a great deal of attention in the journal, but it was only after many years that this was also true of the Holocaust. A quick search on JSTOR shows that, of the articles and reviews mentioning the Holocaust, less than 10 percent were published in the journal's first twenty years, and over two-thirds were written between 2000 and 2014 (the last year of the JSTOR search). Of course, there is some semantics involved, as other terms such as Final Solution were sometimes used in earlier decades. But there is no doubt about the underlying trend, both in terms of the growing number of books that have come up for review, and the increasing number of important articles. In the 1970s, only one essay, by Lawrence Stokes, was devoted to the Holocaust.1 The 1980s saw a review article by Richard Breitman and a seminal piece on the ghettos by Christopher Browning.2 By contrast, since 2000, CEH has published around ten major contributions to Holocaust scholarship.
In 1978, when CEH was celebrating its tenth anniversary, Leonard Krieger published an intriguing review essay, “Nazism: Highway or Byway.”3 From our contemporary perspective, much of its discussion (a central question was whether the Nazi regime should be seen as revolutionary) seems intelligent but deracinated, with the regime's murderous violence almost invisible, though this no doubt accurately reflected the tenor of research at the time. Yet, in a striking concluding passage, after mentioning Lucy Dawidowicz's work on the Holocaust, Krieger writes that “everything we write about the Nazis bears explicit as well as implicit marks of the same monstrous provocation.”4 Gordon Craig's seminal history of modern Germany appeared that same year.5 As others have noted, Craig deals with the Final Solution in just two pages. Yet, here too, though the word itself does not appear in the text, the Holocaust's moral centrality is clear, not only as the “most dreadful chapter of German history” but also as the culmination of Nazi policy. In other words, the absence of explicit discussion does not preclude a powerful shadow presence for the Holocaust within CEH's pages and in German historiography more generally. What Craig's textbook shows, rather, is how many unwarranted assumptions the historian makes when the “most dreadful chapter” remains untouched by detailed research.
Since then, historians from Germany and historians of Germany have contributed hugely to our knowledge of the Holocaust. Our picture of the evolution of policy, the role of different institutions, the forms and patterns of participation, as well as the impact on and responses of the victims has expanded and changed dramatically.6 CEH articles in the new millennium have engaged, among other things, with the debate about the precedents of the Holocaust (Matthew Fitzpatrick on colonial prehistories of the Holocaust); the evolution and contradictions of Nazi discourse (Thomas Pegelow on Jewishness in the Nazi press); the Wehrmacht's role in the Holocaust (Waitman Born on the Holocaust and anti-partisan warfare in Belarus); the forms and impact of popular opposition to Jewish persecution (Wolf Gruner and Nathan Stolzfus in debate in various issues between 2003 and 2005); German Jews’ perceptions and responses (Wolf Gruner on the impact of their knowledge of the Armenian genocide); the intersections between the Holocaust, on the one hand, and Nazi policy toward the Arab world and toward Islam, on the other (two pieces by Jeffrey Herf); as well as a 2017 forum on Holocaust scholarship and politics in the public sphere, with an eye to the significance of the Historikerstreit and the debate about Daniel Goldhagen's controversial 1996 study, Hitler's Willing Executioners.7
Has the pendulum reached the end of its swing? In the last few years, both German History and German Studies Review have hosted discussions about whether enough, or even too much, attention has been devoted to Nazism and the Holocaust.8 Donald Trump's election has undoubtedly had an impact on such discussions, a point to which we will briefly return.9 Elsewhere Tim Snyder, a participant in the CEH forum on the Historikerstreit, eloquently decried what he sees as the Germano-centricism of Holocaust research.10 Snyder's claim seems significantly outdated, however, referring to a period in the 1970s and 1980s when the “intentionalist-functionalist” debate revolved around a narrow set of decision-makers in Berlin.11 German academic historians were blithely unaware at the time of the extensive research by Jews on the experience of victimhood, on local collaborators, and on other topics that had already begun during the war itself. Such research was pursued intensively in the immediate postwar period in Poland, the DP camps, and elsewhere, and it continued both in and outside Israel.12 Nicolas Berg has since carefully documented the way in which historians such as Josef Wulf were pushed out of German academic discourse.13
Since the 1990s, however, a central characteristic of Holocaust research within German history has been not just its growth and diversification, but also the increasingly close conversation between “Jewish,” German, and Eastern European scholarship—indeed, the labels are increasingly meaningless.14 A number of institutions, most notably the Center for Advanced Research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), have played an important role here, as have historians such as Omer Bartov, Christopher Browning, Jürgen Matthäus, and others who have worked prominently on both perpetrators and on victim and survivor experiences.15 To that extent, a narrowly Germanic view of the Holocaust, or a narrow focus on German institutions, no longer exists.
While some of the most exciting developments in Holocaust research have undoubtedly taken place outside the boundaries of German institutions and German actors, it is not the case that the range of important Holocaust-related topics within German history has been exhausted. It is true that our knowledge of victim experience was long dominated by German-speaking Jews, which led to calls from Snyder and others to turn to the lives of other groups of victims. But, while memoirs abound, historians have been relatively slow to recover the lived experience of German Jews using contemporary records, even though it is now twenty years since Marion Kaplan deployed diaries to such great effect in Between Dignity and Despair, her pathbreaking account of German Jews under Nazism.16 As the first volume of the USHMM's Jewish Responses to Persecution series, which dealt with German and Austrian Jewish contemporary reactions to Nazi persecution, revealed, the power of hindsight in memoir literature has often blinded us to German Jewish responses at the time, even though a wealth of contemporary materials exists to correct the picture.17 Innovative and striking approaches to Jewish experiences in greater Germany, including in Theresienstadt, can be found in the recent volume edited by Andrea Löw, Doris Bergen, and Anna Hajková; the last scholar, in particular, has transformed our perception of societal dynamics in the Theresienstadt ghetto.18 One result has been to refine our understanding of the shifting and shrinking possibilities for individual agency. The same is true of recent scholarship on help and rescue (the remarkable memoir by Marie Simon has been as important as the historiographical work with contemporary sources): this has profoundly challenged older, unhistorical scholarship about an allegedly altruistic personality.19
Along similar lines, there have been attempts at innovative reconstructions of the mental world of the non-Jewish German population and its relationship to Nazi racial policy and Jewish persecution. A number of major analyses by Otto Duv Kulka, Peter Longerich, Bernward Dörner, and others sought to make sense of the accounts of popular attitudes, as recorded by official Nazi reports.20 But the most revealing studies have worked with letters and diaries on home fronts and battlefronts, notably the still innovative work of Susanne zur Nieden, as well as newer studies by Peter Fritzsche, Nicholas Stargardt, and Janosch Steuwer.21 Through their work, we see recognizable and sympathetic figures who accepted many of the terms of regime policy without regarding themselves as convinced Nazis—or perceiving that they had lost their moral compass.
At one end of the scale, then, it has been finely calibrated microscopes used by empathetic interpreters of chronicles, diaries, and letters that have made us look anew at the historical landscape. But, at the other, it has been the orbiting satellite telescopes of Donald Bloxham, Mark Levene, and others that have provided the most revealing images.22 Neither Bloxham nor Levene is a historian of Germany, per se, but each offers entangled histories of the Holocaust, linking Nazi thinking to prewar and interwar geopolitical contexts—while, at the same time, showing the ways in which self-interest and diplomatic pressures established antisemitism as the cultural code between Germany and its partners and satellites. Levene's work on the functioning of antisemitism during and after World War I, and on the ways in which genocidal victims were often targeted as perceived agents of international power, offers a striking analytical context for further thinking about the Holocaust.23 When we also bear in mind recent studies on the interwar economic system, on new understandings about rights and sovereignty, and on the entanglements between radical left- and right-wing politics between the wars, it is clear that there is scope for a great deal of new work to locate Nazi thinking and policy in the international context of the interwar period.24
Research is never conducted in a vacuum. German history survives in the United States as a vibrant subject, above all because of student and popular interest in Nazism and the Holocaust. To that extent, the institutional context for continued scholarship is given. But personal experience in the classroom suggests that the nature of that interest is shifting. Until the last few years, it was the unbelievable history of a modern society applying its energy and expertize to genocide that commanded student interest. Increasingly, at a time of Trump and reviving authoritarianism across the world, it is as much the warning signs and lessons of democratic fragility and authoritarian abuse of institutions that are compelling. The Holocaust demanded inquiry as inexplicable extreme. Now the vanishing point of 1933 is regaining its position on the canvas—not as the focal point for a portrait of German exceptionalism, but rather for the lessons it holds for everyone. It may well be that, in future years, the center of gravity in work on the Nazi period will move away from the Holocaust narrowly defined. When we reflect on the most pathbreaking and persuasive scholarship of recent years, it has often, in any case, been work that crosses boundaries—be it entangled histories traversing national borders of the kind alluded to earlier; policy analyses juxtaposing Nazi treatment of Jews with that of other groups; scholarship by Atina Grossmann and others on the entangled histories of Jews and Germans in the immediate aftermath of the war; the close-up studies of ordinary Germans also mentioned earlier, which analyze attitudes on race and antisemitism in the broader context of popular responses to the regime and war; or creative juxtapositions like Alon Confino's 2012 tour de force, Foundational Pasts, which places Holocaust historiography in relationship to that of the French Revolution.25
However it may be framed, the search for lessons will continue, with any luck. In 1978, Krieger, as a historian of Nazi Germany, alluded in the pages of CEH to the disquiet that the Holocaust engendered—a disquiet that was not directly addressed by the scholarship he was reviewing, but that, he felt, provided an essential part of its context. Scholars of the Holocaust are familiar with that disquiet: it constitutes the essential motivation for their work. But these days, the speed with which authoritarian populists are dismantling democratic safeguards; the tens of thousands of young Poles taking to the streets under antisemitic banners, as the Polish government renders illegal references to “Polish extermination camps”; the resurgence of radical nationalist and antisemitic slogans in the United States; the proposal by the new Austrian government (one of the most nationalistic and anti-immigrant since the end of the war) to create a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust at Maly Trostenets while simultaneously proposing massive restrictions on the rights of asylum seekers—all of this joins to it a new worry: that the world is not listening, and what knowledge it does retain seems to offer no meaningful moral or political compass. But it is at least reassuring to know that Central European History, with its range and its depth, and its responsiveness to developments in the field, is still going strong and continuing to shed light on these difficult issues and questions.