About Historical Others and Imagined Others: representations of Nazi perpetrators in exhibitions and public imagination – guest blog by Sarah Kleinmann

For my doctoral thesis, I examined exhibitions at memorial sites and documentation centres in Germany and Austria. The question of my research was how these exhibitions represented the NS-perpetrators. I was interested in the explanations and interpretations they provided for the perpetrators and what statements, possibly unintended ones, the exhibition design had created. But beyond the exhibitions, I am concerned with contemporary approaches to National Socialist crimes and their perpetrators. What is remarkable in this context is the connection between today’s perspectives on neo-Nazi violence and today’s perspectives on Nazi perpetrators. In the public eye, an argumentative pattern can be discerned which, in simple terms, reads “The Nazis are always the others”. This can be applied in two directions. Firstly, perpetrators of relevant violence are interpreted as a small alcoholic group, unemployed frustrated people, impetuous young people, or brutal individuals. They are therefore not considered Nazis; the real Nazis are unspecific absent others. The political motivation of these perpetrators is therefore not taken into account in its full extent. But this is not only a defensive pattern associated with the immense extent of Nazi crimes, but also a discursive strategy according to which there is no far-reaching and structural political problem with neo-Nazism. The second variant of “The Nazis are always the others” is: They are on the fringes of society, only a small group, in remote regions of the country or died a long time ago. Here, the Nazis are specific others, who have nothing to do with today’s völkischen self-images and who, as a broad movement, pose no danger.

Figure 4
Image 1: SS parade in Nuremberg, 1936, displayed at the Exhibition Documentation Centre Nazi Party Rally Grounds. Source: Exhibition Documentation Centre Nazi Party Rally Grounds, photo by the author.

With regard to today’s public perceptions of National Socialist perpetrators, my impression is that, despite all research and educational efforts, the perspective of prominent men such as Hitler and Himmler, plus some brutal individuals and emotionless bureaucrats, is popular. It introduces individual male actors with deviant or pathological personality traits, in parts not unlike the super villains as they are staged in feature films. Or else the reception is oriented towards the representation as it is done in exhibitions, for example—the perpetrators are considered historically distant others, uniformed members of the Nazi functional elite, who literally are to be viewed in black and white.

Figure 1
Image 2: Heinrich Himmler and Oswald Pohl on display in exhibition at Mauthausen memorial site. Source: Exhibition Mauthausen Memorial, photo taken by the author.
Figure 3
Image 3: Two unknown members of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp SS in 1944, displayed at an exhibition at the Mittelbau-Dora memorial site. Source: Exhibition Mittelbau-Dora Memorial, photo by the author.

Moreover, it is often assumed that murder was legal in the Nazi state. But this was not the case, and if you look at this fact with all its implications, you can learn a lot about Nazi morality, about Nazi ideology and the complexity and single-mindedness of systematic mass murder. And this knowledge can also prevent a perception of Nazi perpetrators as individual celebrities and isolated small groups; this knowledge points to questions of legitimacy and complicity.

There are various reasons for the widespread lack of understanding of the dimension of historical perpetration. Thus it is also the scope of the National Socialist crimes themselves which—as Hannah Arendt remarks, for example—made it difficult to understand after 1945. Above all, the targeted blurring of traces, the self-victimisation of German and Austrian societies, the disappearance, rehabilitation, and amnesty of perpetrators, and inadequate legal reappraisal under the conditions of the German-German division and the Cold War led to a selective reception of perpetrators and of Nazi crimes.

Gerhard Paul sketched out that the image of the perpetrator developed from the beast to the bureaucrat to completely ordinary people. This development, however, took place in social science and humanities research and historical-political education, i.e. the teaching of history and memorial pedagogy. In the public imagination, however, the National Socialist perpetrators still are often perceived as others. Not only does this lose sight of the normality of the acting persons and their development into perpetrators—also various other forms of participation and complicity in Nazi crimes, such as everyday discrimination, denunciation, material gain, jurisdiction, logistical help or looking away, are faded out.

Surprisingly, there is a parallel in this inadequate reception of Nazi perpetrators with that of today’s perpetrators of sexual violence, as Kate Manne has pointed out. Now, comparisons with Nazi crimes are always in danger of being inappropriate, and indeed often are. However, Manne’s interpretation, in which she relates Arendt’s findings on the banality of evil (in the context of the Shoah) to her own findings on today’s perpetrators of sexual violence (in the context of patriarchal societies), illustrates quite well a central discursive mechanism against structural violence, which—to put it simply—is directed against the equality of people. Manne writes in her book “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny that perpetrators of sexual violence are usually presented as monsters waiting for their victims in the dark in the bushes: Strangers, thoroughly evil persons, who have nothing to do with the familiar social environment. However, this imagination is wrong: The degradation of women, accompanied by the idea that they must always be physically available to men, is a structural problem—and not one based on evil individuals. Therefore, empirically only a small minority of perpetrators correspond to the widespread image of the monster—which in turn has the effect that the victims of sexual violence are not believed in view of the normality of the perpetrators—as friends, brothers, successful students. It is Kate Manne herself who refers in this context to Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Adolf Eichmann: “That misogynist violence and sexual assault are generally perpetrated by unremarkable, non-monstrous-seeming people must be accepted if things are to improve in this arena, among others. We must accept the banality of misogyny, to adapt a famous phrase of Hannah Arendt’s—and an often-maligned idea. But Arendt’s basic moral point regarding the banality of evil seems to me not only correct but crucial to recognise now more than ever, whatever the wisdom of her having extrapolated it from the observation that Adolf Eichmann didn’t resemble a monster either.” (pp. 211-212) Manne also refers to the fierce contemporary criticism of Arendt’s analysis, but ignores the fact that historical research now assumes that Arendt fell for Eichmann’s self-dramatisation as a dispassionate bureaucrat. But what Arendt was striving for, and what Manne is also aiming for, is to bring the NS-perpetrators and their actions into the space of the comprehensible, to demystify it and make it explainable. The fact that Arendt excluded Eichmann’s ideological impregnation—which would not have been necessary, because his ideological motivation and enthusiasm could have been shown parallel to his mediocrity, or even as part of his mediocrity—is another matter. Arendt and Manne point to a central point that still applies to the reception of National Socialist perpetrators today: their public imagination as something entirely different.

The fact that Manne can relate her contemporary findings to misogyny in this way may have to do with a discursive tendency in the societies of the modern nation states of the global North, according to which the causes of serious violence are not to be found in structures, organisations, or the constituent conditions of the societies themselves, but in degenerate individuals who are then symbolically excluded. This has a particularly negative effect when it comes to political fields: misogyny, authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, racism, fascism. The symbolic exclusion of the perpetrators relieves societies of social responsibility and change, also retrospectively, and with regard to the culture of remembrance and the politics of history, which always help to shape contemporary societies. In addition to what has already been mentioned, the structural preparation and facilitation of Nazi crimes also falls by the wayside here—through organisations, laws, orders, training, construction measures. Certainly—there were the beasts, to which the excess and initiative perpetrators belong; above all, especially the survivors of the Nazi persecution have every right to describe their experiences with torturers and murderers with words like monster, beast or monstrosity.

From an analytical perspective, however, research and educational processes must go beyond this. We need to continue to emphasise the ordinariness of male and female perpetrators. This can also be achieved by highlighting the following points: the gender relationships in which perpetrators were socialised; the organisations for which they worked and their mechanisms of action and demands; the diversity and variety of the acts for which they were responsible throughout Europe; the surrounding societies (including partnerships, families, friendships) and their communication channels, conventions and expectations; the legal and administrative bases of their actions; and the exceptions, denials, counter-arguments, and support measures for victims, which show that there was room for manoeuvre. Focusing on the normality and becoming of the perpetrators also means analytically acknowledging the simultaneity of humanity and complicity that Mary Fulbrook speaks of when she examines the involvement of German society in the Nazi state in its crimes on an everyday level. Even the photo of the concentration camp commander with his wife and children, the legality and legitimacy of the SS jurisdiction or National Socialist moral concepts become easier to understand. Emphasising the ordinariness of male and female perpetrators could therefore contribute to understanding “the Nazis” as “the others” only in one sense: as concrete, historical others closely linked to society.

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Image 4: A concentration camp commander with his wife and children or of a SS-Wedding in Wewelsburg (1937), displayed at an exhibition at Wewelsburg Memorial Museum. Source: Exhibition Wewelsburg 1933-1945 Memorial Museum, photo by the author.

About the author: Dr Sarah Kleinmann holds an MA in Historical and Cultural Anthropology, Political Science, and History from the Eberhard Karls University Tuebingen, Germany, and a Ph.D. in Historical and Cultural Anthropology from the Eberhard Karls University Tuebingen, Germany. In her dissertation she analyzed the museum representation of male and female Nazi perpetrators in Germany and Austria. Her main research fields are commemorative cultures and politics of history regarding National Socialism, and Border/Boundary Studies. She is a member of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Volkskunde (DGV), the Société Internationale d´Ethnologie et de Folklore (SIEF) und the Perpetrator Studies Network (Utrecht University).


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