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Award winning historian advocates importance of curiosity-driven research

Mary Fulbrook

Professor Mary Fulbrook - winner of Wolfson Prize for history 2019
Credit: Wolfson Foundation

The winner of the prestigious Wolfson Prize for history 2019 has praised the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for supporting curiosity-driven research that “helps people really understand the past”.

The Wolfson Prize judges described Professor Mary Fulbrook's book Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice as a “masterly work which explores the shifting boundaries and structures of memory”.

The Professor of German at University College London says winning was “incredible news”.

“I was so surprised!” she told the AHRC. “There was such a strong shortlist, and such a wide diversity of books representing history in all its facets; it was quite impossible to predict who would win. I certainly wasn't expecting to be the one!”

Reckonings explores the lives of individuals across the full spectrum of suffering and guilt, each one capturing a small part of the greater story.

It exposes the disjuncture between official myths about dealing with the past, and the extent to which the vast majority of Nazi perpetrators evaded justice.

“I think the wonderful thing about the Wolfson Prize is the way it rewards, not just excellence in research, but also accessibility to the wider public and the ability to communicate what you have studied. I think that is incredibly important,” says Professor Fulbrook.

“I am very grateful to the AHRC for supporting my research. I think that what is fantastic about the AHRC is that it supports research that is curiosity-driven.

“I think that it's important to understand that this kind of research has the potential to help people really understand the past.

A great strength of Reckonings is the way that illuminates the little-known stories of those whose lives have not previously been extensively explored by scholars, placing their experiences in the wider context of the Holocaust, as all involved tried to account for the past and build new new lives.

“I have had so many emails from people that say my work has helped them understand their grandfather or grandmother,” says Professor Fulbrook.

“People have agonised over the issues I explore and I hope my work has helped them by opening them up to the complexity of it all.

“I have been trying to tackle such a difficult subject, and all the way through I was worrying that I wouldn't be able to do the enormity of it justice.

“I really struggled to shape it all into a form that would work as a book, and I worried endlessly that there was no way to do it well. So, I was delighted the judges felt I had succeeded!”

Reckonings also tackles head-on the complexity of the machinery of mass murder in which many, many people were complicit.

“We can't think of the Holocaust simply in terms of victims and perpetrators; of Hitler and his henchmen and those subject to them,” says Professor Fulbrook.

“Instead I try to convey the multiplicity and diversity of the range of different people who were victims of Nazi atrocities and go beyond the Jewish holocaust to look at the experience of homosexuals, of Roma gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and others who ended up being the subject of persecution.

“I try to tell these stories as vividly as possible, using a lot of primary sources that reflect the maelstrom of experiences, and explore how the shared experience of humiliation and dehumanisation create a wider community of victimhood.”

Reckonings also explores the different ways the Third Reich successor states – particularly East and West Germany and Austria – did or did not bring perpetrators to justice.

“When people talk about trials they usually talk about the Nuremberg trials, the Auschwitz trial, and that's the end of it,” says Professor Fulbrook. “But it isn't as simple as that and I wanted to explore in more detail the ways in which these states failed to bring more than a tiny proportion of perpetrators to court.

“I also wanted to go beyond the court cases to look at justice in the wider sense, such as the failure to pay compensation or even recognise the victimhood of certain groups of people.”

For example, slave labourers only received minimum compensation many decades later and homosexuals that were liberated from camps were in some instances re-imprisoned for 'crimes' related to their sexuality.

“To understand a system of violence you have to understand not only the radical actors and the convinced ideologues, but also the very large number people who play along, and conform with the system and make it work,” says Professor Fulbrook.

“The Nazi atrocities could not have happened without the involvement and collusion of a large number of bystanders. Why did so many people remain passive?

“I also look at the memorialisation of it all and which sites have been preserved, such as Auschwitz, and which have been buried under the weeds and forgotten.

“Throughout the book I have taken case studies and explored them within the wider context of these enormous events that were changing Europe.”

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