Wolfson History Prize 2019 Blog Tour: “Reckonings”

Thank you for joining me here on And On She Reads for my part of the Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour 2019. There are six fantastic books, and six fantastic bloggers, lined up as a part of this, and it’s brilliant to be part of it.

Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest For Justice

“The “it” about which people allegedly “knew nothing” was raging around them.” – Part One, Five: End Points

When I received an email asking if I would like to be a part of the first blog tour that the Wolfson Prize have done, I said “yes” immediately. I figured, I loved history, I loved reading, and I’ve been following this Prize since my teens. How could I possibly say no? What I didn’t consider was how much of an impact it was possible that this book was going to have on me.

When “Reckonings” arrived, I was immediately struck by just how beautiful the book itself was, both – hauntingly – with and – classically – without the dust cover, and the strength of the full declaration of its title; “Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest For Justice”. I made a good coffee, as I always do when about to dig into a new book for review, I made sure I had my water bottle, my eye drops and my reading glasses, got comfy and began to read. And read. And read.

It took mere pages for my emotions to spill over. There is such power behind the words, such an emotive capability that is so absent often in historical writing. It is far too easy for history to sound cold, detached entirely removed from what it is discussing. Maybe that should more accurately say, that it is entirely possible for emotion to be included in historical texts without it subtracting from the factual nature.

I read details I knew but hadn’t heard put with such a combination of bluntness and caring before, and I read so much I had never known; maybe, had, by my own admission of ostrich-in-sand syndrome, never wanted to know, and yet I should know. Everyone should know. The stories told here, and the information prepared readily for all to see, should be known by everyone. It seems unfathomable that these things were so far beyond my thought process, but that is a large part of this books as I understand it. I am not alone in my ignorance, which is both wilful and inescapable when the world around us wants to suppress the amount we know about the genocide that is within our own lifetimes. We knew then, and did nothing, so we make sure people now do not know, so they cannot be held to account.

Everyone knows the basic facts, or so they think. “The Final Solution”. And yet, murder, torture and horror had been going on for around a decade before the camps were captured from Nazi control. We hear “Holocaust” and think about the Jewish population. But, if we think about there being other victims at all, we don’t necessarily think of the Roma and Sinti, who were persecuted to the level of nothing less than genocide. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the political prisoners from everywhere between Russia and France, the disabled. We probably almost certainly don’t know or consider that the homosexual prisoners were shunned upon their return to community, many sent on to prison to continue to rest of the sentences the Nazis had ordered them, and all told they were unsuitable for compensations because their sexuality was still a crime. The fact they were tortured, raped and brutally murdered was inconsequential to government officials – many of whom were often the same ones who had been working in those offices before the end of the war, just wearing a different uniform.

But this is the heart of the matter. Nazi control began a lot sooner than some people might know, and it ended – when? With many high level Nazis leaving the country, the ones below them, in mid level or low level positions of power, were simply left there, to continue their work as they had before, with different people higher up. Certainly when it came to the legal departments, the people that victims of the Holocaust were supposed to go and appeal to, were the same people who had stamped the letters impacting them. Some knew this from personal interactions, others knew it as a general rule, and the damage this added on top of already unimaginable horrors is just an extra wave of trauma that no one should have to deal with.

Stories have changed through the generations, but they changed within days too. One day someone was proud to serve their Furher and the next they had had no idea what had been going on; they had just been following orders.

It is unfair, of course, to dismiss everyone as ‘evil’ by nature and not simply sucked up into the turmoil and increasing spirals that whipped around them. Psychology is far more complicated than that; humans are far more complicated, especially when put in stress positions, on either side of the fence. “For those involved in killing, varying combinations of careerism, cowardice, conformity, fear, lust, brutalization, hopelessness, desire for reward, choosing the lesser of two evils, simply “doing one’s duty” or “obeying orders”, or fitting in with what others were doing could all play a role.” It is a horrendous idea to imagine yourself pushed into a corner where those are your options. To kill or to be killed, as many were faced with. Yet it is the absolute denials both of what they had done as individuals, and what they had done as a pack, that truly seals the nature of people.

“I didn’t know” was far too common a justification, and Mary Fulbrook demolishes it with clear cut, absolute certainty. From Nazi officials who signed off on orders, to village livers around the concentration camps and the paths of the death marches. It’s simple. There is no way people could NOT have known. Murder and torture was happening every single day in front of them, and they chose to deny that, rather than having given the support to the communities that had been destroyed around them. As Fulbrook says, “This network was not some thing hidden away in the east. By the end of the war, there were somewhere between 900 and 1,200 sub-camps of the major concentration camps”.

“Reckonings” has been a massive eye opener to me, both with the facts it delivers, but also in the way that writing can be factual whilst also emotive. There is a veil that often surrounds non-fiction that doesn’t allow it to be penetrated by matters of the heart, even when looking at subjects such as the Holocaust. Yet this incredible book breaks apart that myth, and allows the two to combine effortlessly, ready to fill your heart and your mind, without hesitation, without thinking about “fitting in”, just simply creating an amazing read. More amazing still is the effort survivors of persecution went to, doing all they could to make sure the truth was heard, whether it was immediately, or so long later they never saw the results. Maybe people didn’t listen when they should have, and when they could have changed things. The only justice we can do is to listen now, to learn now, to change now.

It really has been an honour to read this book, and I finish with this quote, which I think signs off regarding this work far better than I ever could.

“… this need to provide a detailed account, in the hope of future reckoning, was what kept them going at the time – and which is why we too need to face these almost unbearable accounts.”

The other blog posts will be going out over the next few days, and I hope you’ll join us in reading them. Our Twitter names are shown below, and my Instagram name is the same too, for anyone who has found me recently! Thank you for reading, thank you to Mary Fulbrook for this amazing insight, and thank you to the Wolfson Prize for involving me in this.

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