UCL European Institute


The Transmission of a Troubled Past: Between the Personal and Professional

12 May 2014, 12:00 am


Event Information

Open to


12 May 2014
How are we to make sense of, recount and transmit the past? How do we acquire knowledge of, interpret and analyse what is, by definition, removed from our immediate access and experience?

When: 12 May 2014, 1.30-5.15pm & 6.30-9.30pm

Where: Roberts 508, Roberts Building Torrington Place, WC1E 7JE and Pearson LT G22, Gower Street, WC1E 6BT


How do professionals - historians, authors, filmmakers - deal with the past, particularly where this past is immersed in at times unspeakable violence? What place do personal reflections and family history have in such endeavours? Long gone perhaps the days in which historical accounts were uncritically assumed to be scientific and accurate representations of events as they had truly occurred. Yet how to approach and probe history - especially how to understand and transmit the Holocaust - from a variety of disciplinary and personal perspectives remains a critical endeavour. In discussion with renowned authors from the US, Canada and Germany on Europe's troubled past, this half-day event proposes to do precisely that.


Event Speaker  Venue
Mary Fulbrook UCL European Institute
Michael Berkowitz UCL, Hebrew and Jewish
LT 508
Roberts Building

Aaron Sachs Cornell, History
Marci Shore Yale, History

Chair: Frank Dabba Smith UCL, Hebrew and Jewish

LT 508
Roberts Building
Tea Break

Rebecca Wittmann
Toronto, History
Mary Fulbrook, UCL

Chair: Gaelle Fisher (UCL SELCS)

LT 508
Roberts Building
5.30pm Reception   Pearson G22
Pearson Building
Alexandra Senfft, author:
In conversation with Stephanie Bird UCL, SELCS
Pearson LT G22
Pearson Building
Film Screening
2 oder 3 Dinge, die ich von ihm weiß ('Two or three things I know about him') Pearson LT G22
Pearson Building

2 oder 3 Dinge, die ich von ihm weiß (Two or three things I know about him)
Dir. Malte Ludin (2005), German with English subtitlesGerman filmmaker Malte Ludin explores the questionable legacy of his father, executed Plenipotentiary Nazi Party Minister Hanns Ludin, in this documentary that delves into a dark family history while exploring just how stories are passed down through the generations. It's been 60 years since the end of World War II, and though the story of Hanns Ludin is now a matter of public record, his family continues to whitewash their history and deny the brutal facts.


Marci Shore: "Voyeurism and Empathy: The Handmaid's Tale problem"
Totalitarian regimes strove for transparency, for the effacing of the boundary between public and private.  Totalitarian regimes distinguished themselves from their merely authoritarian predecessors by caring about what lovers said in bed.  Archival work is profoundly invasive by its very nature.   As historians, we read other people's diaries, we read letters that were never meant for us to see.  Being an historian of Eastern Europe under totalitarianism has meant further gazing once again through those totalitarian peepholes, reading reports written by eavesdroppers, reading files that never should have existed.  To be in Eastern Europe in the 1990s was to be voyeur.  Storytelling--what we do as historians--requires understanding, and this understanding requires empathy--an empathy that can only ever be born in voyeurism.

Aaron Sachs: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"
It's been more than a century and a half since Michelet interrupted his narrative of the storming of the Bastille to describe his own emotions.  In the interim, it became almost unthinkable to use what Gibbon had previously dubbed "the most disgusting of pronouns," and writing scholarly history in the first-person singular remains rather risky.  One reader's personable guide is another reader's narcissist; while the author might insist that he or she is productively using him or herself as a primary source, the reader might prefer to get back to more traditional sources.  But producing history in a more personal mode can offer great rewards, as a number of recent works suggest: one can defend the practice on epistemological, thematic, artistic, and even democratic and commercial grounds.  Maybe it would even help the men and women behind the curtain of academic history-especially the younger ones-to feel a greater sense of ownership over their work?

Rebecca Wittmann: "The Mercy of Late Birth? A Historian's Professional and Personal Confrontation with the German Past"
In an extraordinary essay, literary scholar Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht explains what for him is the postwar German memory conundrum: "The real problem was the daily experience that, with very few exceptions, there was nobody among those born before, say, 1930, who were ready to assume any guilt or any responsibility for what had happened in the country…. Because of the explicit (albeit never explicitly mentioned) refusal of their parents and grandparents to accept responsibility, they grew up in an atmosphere that was heavy with 'free-floating,' with 'un-bound' guilt. And some of them decided … to deliberately accept that impossible responsibility that had fallen upon them" (Gumbrecht 2000). It is this problem that lies at the heart of my scholarly work.  It was with this "free-floating" guilt - and with frustration, disgust, and condemnation of my grandparents' generation - and of Germany, ultimately - that I grew up, and grew into my chosen profession of historian of postwar Germany. This problem animates my latest research: how do the children and grandchildren of the so-called "perpetrator generation" cope with the past under these conditions, in which those who committed the crime, the whole generation, refuses to take responsibility? In this paper I will explore a few key moments of confrontation, including the repression of German suffering in the 1950s, terrorism in the 1970s, and the trial of John Demjanjuk in 2009. These three examples demonstrate that the process is complicated, uncomfortable, confusing, and certainly unfinished. We know that ultimately Germany has done a very good job of confronting the past, but it came late and continues to be tortured and haunted by the ghosts left behind by the mass crimes of the Nazis. The historical work being done on the topic now is largely being conducted by scholars (including me), whose work is profoundly shaped by their own personal histories, scholars with more distance from this past than their parents; how does and will this shape our understanding of the Nazi past and the postwar period? My professional identity - and personal journey - is devoted to exploring how this process began and where it is headed.


Marci Shore is associate professor of history at the University of Yale, where she teaches European cultural and intellectual history. She has written an unusually personal reflection on her engagement with post-Second World War Polish and East European history in her latest book The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe (Crown, 2013). She is also the author of Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation's Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968 (Yale University Press, 2006) and the translator of Michal Glowinski's Holocaust memoir The Black Seasons (Northwestern University Press, 2005). Currently she is at work on a book project titled "Phenomenological Encounters: Scenes from Central Europe.

Aaron Sachs is associate professor in the Department of History at Cornell University, where he also teaches in American Studies and coordinates the Cornell Roundtable on Environmental Studies Topics (CREST). The core of his research is about how ideas about nature have changed over time and how those changes have mattered in the western world. He has a particular interest in innovative history writing and the blend of history and memoir, explored in his latest book Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition (Yale, 2013), which interweaves his and his family's history with interpretations of nature and the built environment. He is also co-editor of a book series at Yale University Press, called New Directions in Narrative History.

Rebecca Wittmann is associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on the Holocaust, postwar German trials of Nazi perpetrators and terrorists, and German legal history.  She has received fellowships from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service).  She has published articles in Central European History, German History, and Lessons and Legacies.  Her book, Beyond Justice: The 'Auschwitz' Trial (Harvard University Press, 2005) won the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History.  Her current project, "Nazism and Terrorism: The Madjanek and Stammheim Trials in 1975 West Germany" investigates the cultural and political mood in 1970s West Germany through a comparison of Nazi and Left-Wing terrorist trials.

Alexandra Senfft is an author and journalist whose work focuses on the Near and Middle East, the transgenerational consequences of National Socialism in Germany, and the dialogue with victims and their descendants. Having studied Islamic Sciences, she was an advisor on the Near East to the German Green Party, UN Observer in the Westbank and until 1991 press spokeswoman for the UN in Gaza. Her intriguing memoir, Schweigen tut weh. Eine deutsche Familiengeschichte (Silence is painful. A German Family History) received the German Biography Prize 2008. It engages with the troubled life and tragic death of her mother, daughter of senior Nazi Hanns Ludin, who was unable to come to terms with his crimes. Senfft is also the niece of Malte Ludin, whose film about the family difficulties with Hanns Ludin's Nazi past, 2 oder 3 Dinge, die ich von ihm weiß (Two or three things I know about him'), will be shown in the evening.