Interview with Mary Fulbrook

The Wolfson History Prize winner talks about her work on the failure to bring to justice the perpetrators of Nazi atrocities, and the connection between her family history and research

June 20, 2019

Mary Fulbrook is professor of German history at UCL and a former dean of its Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences. Her latest book, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, won this year’s Wolfson History Prize, the UK's most valuable non-fiction writing award with prize money of £40,000. The judges called it a "masterly work which explores the shifting boundaries and structures of memory".

When and where were you born?
Cardiff, Wales, in November 1951.

How has this shaped who you are?
With a Canadian father and a German mother, living in South Wales – which was in the 1950s a quite closed community – I had a sense that our family did not really belong. This probably shaped a continuing feeling of always being in some sense a visiting anthropologist wherever I happened to be; and when asked the question “where do you come from?” I could never think of a good answer. But I also had a very privileged and happy early childhood, and my parents’ values have remained significant for me. I absolutely reject the view that “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere”; citizenship is about so much more than parochial nationalism.

What originally drew you into the study of German history?
We went on annual family summer holidays to Germany, so for me as a child it was the most lovely place on earth. But there was also, always, the simultaneous knowledge that it was the most evil place on earth: the place where the most terrible things had happened. At no time in my life did I not know about what we have come to call the Holocaust; but I have only recently come to confront this directly in my research. As an adult, I continued to wrestle with the ambivalence aroused by German history, and wanted to explore the complexity of German society and culture over the long term.

Reckonings examines the failure, in the two post-war German states and Austria, to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. Why is it so important to record and show this?
Failures of justice can no longer be rectified, but they can at least be recognised, and lessons learned about collective violence and its aftermath. There was an enormous mismatch between post-war systems of justice and the extraordinary scale and character of Nazi crimes. Moreover, justice is about more than sentencing; there are also questions around the recognition and compensation of different groups of victims, and the impact on survivors and their families, as well as the legacies of shame for subsequent generations on the perpetrator side. It is important to understand the complexity of the continuing legacies.

Did your research for Reckonings take you to any places (literal or figurative) to which you had not expected to go?
It was an agonising book to research and write. I was shocked by the apparent ease with which perpetrators managed to shrug off any sense of guilt or responsibility, and former employers of slave labour refused to pay compensation, while those who had been persecuted were often plagued by the past and continued to suffer. In terms of literal places: tramping through extermination sites off the beaten tourist track – Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka – or exploring traces of ghettos; visiting former “euthanasia” clinics for murdering the physically and mentally disabled; searching for covered-up entrances to underground tunnels from a Mauthausen subcamp near the Danube; or looking for lost traces of the little-known Mielec concentration camp in Poland. And the most surprising interview was with the son of a perpetrator from Mielec, later sentenced to life imprisonment in East Germany; this son had grown up thinking his father was not a Nazi perpetrator but rather the victim of Stasi injustice.

Your mother fled Nazi Germany. How has your family’s history interconnected with your academic research? 
The most immediate interconnection with my academic research came when, following my mother’s death, I discovered that the husband of her closest school friend had been the chief civilian administrator of a county near Auschwitz. He had covered up his Nazi past so successfully in post-war Germany that he rose to be a senior civil servant in North Rhine-Westphalia. I was so shocked by this discovery that I had to explore it in greater detail, to confront his half-truths and lies with the murderous consequences of what he called “merely administration” – the stigmatisation, humiliation, expropriation and ghettoisation of the Jews of his area. This resulted in one of my books, A Small Town near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust (2012). But I guess all my work has related in some way to trying to understand what gave rise to these world historical developments, and what were the longer-term reverberations.

If you were universities minister for a day, what one policy would you introduce? 
I would massively increase government financial support; ensure that the humanities and social sciences were valued as highly as science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects; change the current student loan repayment system to one based on taxation; and ensure that, whatever happens with Brexit, European collaborations and research funding were not merely protected but further enhanced, so that our universities might remain capable of world-leading research and teaching.

When were you, or when are you, happiest?
At a macro-level: my family has been a huge source of happiness and is immensely important to me. I am also, perhaps oddly, often happiest when I entirely forget myself while immersed in research and writing on something that greatly interests me. At a micro-level: I can be intensely happy in a few places that I love to be, particularly Berlin and some other favourite spots in Europe.


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