Compromised Identities? Reflections on perpetration and complicity under Nazism

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: UCL Institute for Advanced Studies


Under Nazi rule, millions were involved in the machinery of persecution. In 2015, the UK's Holocaust Commission noted that, while the Holocaust could only be carried out 'with widespread complicity', there is 'a great deal of education on perpetrators' roles, but not enough on the role of society and bystanders' ('Britain's Promise to Remember', p.49). This statement reflects both the character of public education and the current state of research. Yet the category of 'bystanders' is too broad to encapsulate the ambiguities of a wide range of behaviours variously motivated by conviction and careerism, conformity and passivity, partial enthusiasm or self-distancing, as well as capitulation rooted in fear and powerlessness.
This interdisciplinary project analyses how people became entangled in Nazi systems and practices, and how they responded to what later, under different circumstances, came to be seen as a 'compromised' past. Exploring perpetration and complicity in state-sponsored violence and questions of justice in its aftermath, it focuses on representations by and of people 'on the perpetrator side' from the Third Reich to the present. We explore patterns of involvement on the side of the perpetrators in a multi-facetted manner, contextualising and interpreting the 'voices' of the perpetrators and raising awareness of the complexities of representation.
The project examines ways in which people who were involved in or witnesses to Nazi crimes talked about, silenced, or variously negotiated accounts of their roles, often constructing retrospective accounts of having been merely an 'innocent bystander'. It analyses how individual identities come under pressure when circumstances and value systems change, and how self-representations develop over time. It explores how public discourses - political, cultural, journalistic and judicial - address state-sponsored violence and interrogate or contribute to exculpatory strategies at a personal level. Public images often helped to demonise 'excess perpetrators' as unlike 'ordinary people', while others suggested the significance of 'just following orders'; private self-understandings and exculpatory strategies were affected by such images.
We develop a concept of 'compromised identities' in relation to collective violence and its legacies. Four interrelated research strands examine the interplay between wider social, cultural and political contexts, and people's self-representations over time. The first analyses the emergence of a 'bystander society', as people accommodated themselves to changing roles under the Nazi regime. Using ego-documents (letters, diaries, memoirs) it explores behavioural shifts and social relations while people often retained an inner distance from new demands. A second strand analyses oral history interviews from the 1960s to the present to explore ways in which changing public images affected private discourses and self-representations among those who had been complicit in sustaining the system and assisting the crimes of the Third Reich. The third strand analyses the significance of postwar political and legal systems, and the character of professionals and others involved in trials, in shaping constructions of 'perpetrators'; and it explores how specific crime complexes are refracted through the media and local settings in selected cases. The fourth strand explores intriguing twists in the ways in which questions of agency, identity and morality have been engaged with in works of creative literature and films that specifically thematise issues of justice. These strands are brought together in a wider comparative context.
The project will have an impact on academic debates on perpetration and complicity. It will also develop for research and educational purposes a unique collection of filmed interviews with some 250 former perpetrators and witnesses of Third Reich crimes. A website, public events and a mobile exhibition will engage wider audiences.

Planned Impact

In Holocaust education, musealization and commemoration, an (understandable) focus on victim voices and the top echelons of power and repression predominates. The broad spectrum of perpetrators, beneficiaries and facilitators of persecution remain underrepresented, as does the wider social context. A 2016 survey by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education established a serious lack of knowledge and understanding of these issues among a majority of young people in the UK. Although the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust wrote that bystanders 'enabled the Holocaust, Nazi persecution and subsequent genocides', their voices were largely missing from the Trust's 2016 Holocaust Memorial Day's 'Don't Stand By' materials and ceremonies. Moreover, the focus often presupposes a degree of individual choice that was not available to many people at the time. The relative absence of 'perpetrator perspectives' adversely affects teaching and public understanding of the conditions under which genocide was possible and means of addressing its legacies.
Our research will help transform this situation: first, by developing a differentiated, interdisciplinary analytic framework for understanding patterns of involvement in state-sponsored violence, and the interplay between changing contexts and self-representations; and secondly, by opening up perspectives and developing materials for further research and study. It will therefore have an impact, nationally and internationally, on: practitioners and third sector organisations in Holocaust education and commemoration; institutions concerned with preserving archival sources and educating about genocide and persecution; academic scholars, students, and members of the public interested in German and European history, Holocaust and genocide studies, memory studies and oral history, film and literature.
These outputs will deliver impact:
- A travelling exhibition, 'Compromised Identities? Entanglement in Collective Violence'. Team members will discuss sources and approaches, facilitating understanding of complicity and perpetration as well as subsequent efforts to engage with a violent past.
- Time-coded indexes of 250 video interviews in the 'Final Account: Third Reich Testimonies' collection, accessible online to authorised users. These will widen digital national and international access for both academic and non-academic audiences, increase and enhance discoverability, and facilitate further research, as well as benefiting educators and others seeking information on specific events, individuals or localities.
- Three public events engaging educators and teachers, third sector practitioners in museums, memorial sites and charities, students and scholars, and members of the public. These will foster engagement with specific research outcomes as well as the wider implications for other cases of collective violence, including current conflicts.
- Academic workshops and an international conference fostering knowledge exchange and including diverse audiences.
- An edited volume, four monographs, and six journal articles, disseminating the research both in the scholarly and wider community.
- A project website.
We will achieve impact throughout and beyond the grant period. All project members will contribute to the outputs. The exhibition will be developed in collaboration with an external specialist provider, monitored by the team under the guidance of the PI. Evaluation of impact will be ensured through reviewing user statistics of website and indexes, monitoring exhibition and event attendance, and responses through online surveys. UCL Communications and Marketing will assist in organising events, promoting impact activities and media strategy, and monitoring responses both online and in the press and social media. The project will shift the focus, engage practitioners, and enhance scholarly and public understanding of involvement in systems of collective violence and the implications for the aftermath.


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