Christopher R. Browning. Collected Memories: Holocaust History and Postwar Testimony. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. x + 105 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-299-18984-6.
Reviewed by George Browder (Emeritus, Department of History, State University of New York, College at Fredonia)
Published on H-German (March, 2004)
Using Holocaust Survivor and Perpetrator Testimonies
Using Holocaust Survivor and Perpetrator Testimonies
One has come to expect from Browning something digestible by both expert and general reader, some thorough overview of available sources or current interpretations, plus some challenging new insights. This little volume, an expansion of Browning's inaugural George L. Mosse Lecture at the University of Wisconsin, generally meets such expectations.
This time, Browning focuses on the problems of eyewitness testimony, specifically that of perpetrators and victims, so heavily shaped by overwhelming emotions of anger, hate, loss, suffering, betrayal and/or guilt, as well as the perpetrators' need to avoid any criminal responsibility. Because of such problems, some scholars have argued against their use as sources. Rather than throwing the baby out, Browning is among those who would extract whatever is of value. He lays out his guidelines for doing so, and then in two case studies, demonstrates convincingly what he is able to get from them. He concludes that although some may consider it presumptuous for scholars to sit in judgment of the memories and stories of Holocaust survivors, "the alternative is to consign survivor testimony to the realm of commemoration rather than history and to refrain from filling in gaps in our historical knowledge ... that a careful use of survivor testimony would otherwise permit" (p. 85).
His perpetrator is Adolf Eichmann, for whom the largest body of testimony and masses of parallel documentary evidence and others' testimonies are available. He provides a useful summary and critique of the voluminous records of Eichmann's "memory." The tests he proposes for handling perpetrators are, first, the self-interest test--in cases where statements are against the perpetrator's self-interest, or where telling the truth was in his self-interest, a closer look is merited. The second is the vividness test--when there is "unusual attention to details of visual memory," (p. 11) the alleged events should be seriously considered. Of course, the perpetrator's interpretation of his and others' participation in them is another matter. The third is the possibility test--when claims are not contradicted or proven impossible by more extensive documentation, they should be considered possible. And, the fourth is the probability test--when claims fit a pattern consistent with other documentation, they should be viewed as probable.
Browning explores eight examples of events mentioned in Eichmann's testimonies. He demonstrates how comparison among Eichmann's own statements and with other testimonies and documentary records yields both reliable and highly probable information. He concludes that Eichmann's "account about how he learned from Heydrich in the fall of 1941 of the Hitler order ... has been given short shrift in most historical works on the origins of the Final Solution" (p. 35). Indeed, the account is quite probable. He notes how the context thus established will be inconvenient for some current trends in scholarship emphasizing local and regional initiatives and downplaying Hitler's clear decision making at the center. This restates his position in the ongoing debate over what he terms the "fateful months," in which he has consistently argued for September/October 1941 as the date for Hitler's decision to exterminate the Jews totally as soon as possible.
Of course, Browning notes the flagrant mendacity of Eichmann's defensive maneuvers and shows how he contradicted himself, especially by flaunting antisemitic feelings in his pre-capture interview with former SS-man Wilhelm Sassen. Without rejecting the applicability of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" concept to the majority of perpetrators, he agrees that as far as Eichmann's personality was concerned, she was taken in by his defensive strategy. This leads to the dismissal of all his statements about the extent of his suffering from the psychic strain of witnessing mass killings and the suffering of victims. Clearly such accounts were part of his strategy to present himself as first a compassionate searcher for humane solutions to the Jewish problem, then as merely dutifully carrying out the legal orders of superiors, once his earlier efforts had floundered.
Failure to retrieve any of the baby from this part of the bath water is the only part of Browning's presentation that is incomplete. The self-pitying memories of the perpetrators are among the few significant insights that we have into the evolution of their behavior. Although the idea of perpetrator as victim rankles, one must acknowledge that only the rare human being can participate in massive inhumanity without suffering psychic strain. Himmler's frequent pep talks to his SS killers and his search for more "humanely" indirect methods of extermination testify to his awareness of this problem. Surely we must be equally "sensitive." The perpetrators obviously intended for accounts of their "suffering" to portray themselves as more human and less guilty. Yet that does not totally invalidate such memories. Although all human memory is a construct, it is built on reality, both material and psychic. To understand the routes taken by perpetrators to their crimes, their subsequent behavior, and the effects of all that on their minds, we have to unravel both aspects of that reality. Their memories of suffering are part of the processes of rationalization and adaptation that they went through before, during and after their involvements. Elsewhere Browning has turned to social psychologists for insight into perpetrator motivation with valuable results. Historians must employ more fully their humanist instincts and marry them with social science insights if we are to understand the pitfalls that lead "ordinary men" to involvement in evil acts of massive inhumanity.
The two other chapters focus on survivor testimony from Starachowice, a factory slave labor camp of the Hermann Goering Werke in the Radom district in central Poland, which is Browning's current research project. Of course, Browning's focus is not the various uses of survivor memory to explore how they have remembered, narrated, struggled and coped after the fact. Instead, he asks, "how may a historian of the Holocaust use a variety of different, often conflicting and contradictory, in some cases clearly mistaken, memories and testimonies ... as evidence to construct a history that otherwise, for lack of evidence, would not exist" (p. 39)? This is especially the case for Starachowice, because only scant documentation and a few perpetrator interrogations survive. He builds his study on 173 survivor testimonies taken over almost the entire time since the end of the events.
After comparing earlier testimonies with more recent ones, he observes that rather than finding memories polluted by later influences and reshaped over time, such memories proved more stable and less malleable than he expected. In each chapter, he presents his reconstructions, based primarily on survivor testimony, of first the general history of the camp and then of the last seven days of the camp. Mostly he repeats a previous preliminary report on this project, given in a speech at Cambridge. Such duplication results from the inevitable high demand on such a prominent scholar to speak to educated audiences in prestigious institutions that routinely publish such presentations.
Browning's work provides significant information on what drove the evolution of the camp through three phases. He identifies them as an unmitigated reign of terror by a psychopathic commandant, permitted by the management for economic reasons; a period of relative moderation in killing driven by equally economic motives, despite two mass purges driven by SS ideological policy; and a final period in which killings were limited to "disciplinary" purposes during which Jews could bribe the economically motivated management with reliable results.
He repeats his earlier conclusions about the three categories of perpetrators whose behavior stuck in the victims' memories. They were the "dangerous," sadistic and hate-filled; the "corrupt," who could be bribed; and, the smallest category, the "decent" who behaved humanely and gave some succor. Since knowing each type was crucial to survival, Browning found testimonies focused on them to be both reliable and especially valuable. Equally revealing, the majority were those perpetrators whose behavior did not stand out in memory.
His fascinating insights into camp society must be read in at least one of Browning's two available forms to be appreciated. They clearly show how the Nazis forced their victims to behave in ways that "proved" the validity of their racist theories, thus reinforcing perpetrator motivation.
His recreation of the final days and arrival at Birkenau focuses especially on the problems of conflicting testimony and how it must be unraveled. He reveals that group memories undergo contradictory changes as a result of the passage of time, not necessarily the cliched simplification, sanitization and divorce "from the perplexing ambiguities and terrifying complexities of an increasingly distant time and place" (p. 81). Some memories are more willingly revealed with the passage of time and changing contexts. He nevertheless shows examples of how memory can be polluted by "archetypal images broadly disseminated in popular consciousness" (p. 82) such as stories of selection on the ramp at Birkenau by Mengele.
Unfortunately for those who need methodological guidelines for exploiting survivor testimony comparable to those given for perpetrator testimonies, Browning does not offer any. The reader can extract only a few from careful reading of the camp history that he built from such testimonies. Clearly, it is mostly the scholar's critical skills that must make the difference. Nevertheless, given the especially problematic nature of Holocaust related testimonies, Browning's book offers a valuable primer for graduate students who will have to tackle the problem of using eyewitness testimonies in any endeavor. As for those who have been at it for many years, they too will appreciate this opportunity to re-examine their methodology and working assumptions about human nature.
. Most recently summarized in "Initiating the Final Solution: The Fateful Months of September/October 1941," Ira Levine Annual Lecture (Washington DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2003).
. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1965); and cf. a recent critique, Yaacov Lozowick, Hitler's Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil (London: Continuum, 2002) which refutes its applicability to any of the Gestapo's Jewish experts.
. E.g., Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins, 1992); and see Browning's introduction to James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
. Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
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George Browder. Review of Browning, Christopher R., Collected Memories: Holocaust History and Postwar Testimony.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.