Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


Compromised Identities? Reflections on Perpetration and Complicity under Nazism


About the Project

AHRC-funded project (2018-2021)

Principal Investigator: Professor Mary Fulbrook; Co-Investigator: Professor Stephanie Bird

Research Associates/Fellows: Dr Stefanie Rauch and Dr Bastiaan Willems

Under Nazi rule, far more people were 'on the side of the perpetrators' than the few tens of thousands who were actually brought to court and found guilty after the war. Somewhere between 200,000 and close to one million people were actively involved in committing atrocities against Jewish and other civilian victims. Significant numbers were involved in the civilian machinery of oppression and the (often fatal) exploitation of slave labour. Many more had heard stories about atrocities, including mass shootings in the east, organised gassings, and 'euthanasia' in institutions for the disabled. And millions engaged in everyday social relations entailing the stigmatisation, exclusion and degradation of others.

Yet both the character and long-term significance of this huge penumbra of complicity remains inadequately understood. Such widespread involvement in state-sponsored violence raises questions about justice, identity, and the legacies of a violent past. This three-year project examines the ambiguous roles and changing representations of those who were entangled in the Nazi regime. It focuses both on people explicitly designated as 'perpetrators' - whether by victims or others, in testimonies, trials, the media, or cultural representations - and on the many more who facilitated, collaborated with, or through their everyday behaviours helped to sustain state-sponsored practices of persecution, exploitation and murder. It combines analysis of changing social relations under Nazi rule with later reflections and self-representations in a variety of contexts. Compromised Identities explores: discrepancies between individual motives and behaviours within a rapidly changing system; the ways in which people rethought their identities and sought to justify what they were doing, while disregarding the consequences for others; and how, under quite different postwar political circumstances and in the light of changing cultural discourses and moral frameworks, those who had been complicit found ways of 'reframing' their own past.

The project aims to transform our understanding of the character and personal legacies of perpetration and complicity in systems of collective violence over time. It analyses entanglement in collective violence under Nazism, and later reflections on such experiences, developing the concept of 'compromised identities' to explore historical subjectivities under changing circumstances. There are several interrelated research objectives, including: to develop a structural and interpretive approach to understanding the formation of a 'bystander society' in which widespread complicity and involvement in perpetration is possible; to examine strategies of self-representation by individuals involved, at the time and later; to understand the intersections between subjective identity and wider political contexts, legal interventions, and public representations; and to explore the links between personal narratives and cultural engagement with questions of violence, morality and justice. A focus on 'the perpetrator side' will thus illuminate both the dynamics of widespread involvement in collective violence and the complexities of dealing with its aftermath, whether in courts of law, in public representations, or in the privacy of the family.

Compromised Identities will both broaden the field and develop an innovative framework of analysis. The project extends the field beyond narrow definitions of 'perpetrators' and across the 1945 divide. Through interdisciplinary exploration, it systematically situates individual self-understandings among those 'on the perpetrator side' within changing political, social and historical contexts. It explores ways in which people performed new roles or capitulated to new pressures and demands, in the process transforming social relations and having effects that often bore little relationship to motives; the extent to which people felt they were compromising previously held values, and ways in which they justified complicity with violent practices; strategies to legitimise what was later seen as a 'compromised past'; and attempts to avoid compromising views of themselves as being a 'good' person across time, despite significant changes in worldview and political and moral frameworks. The project analyses changing notions of what it meant to be a 'perpetrator' and how postwar conceptions of justice were variously compromised in order to integrate key groups or sustain dominant narratives.

In these ways, the project will clarify the distinctive issues raised by individual participation in a system of state-sanctioned collective violence, developing an analytic framework that will be of broader relevance. Significant issues have been investigated in depth but rarely explored together. This multi-disciplinary project will contribute to specific research areas in the fields of history, literary and cultural scholarship, and oral history and memory studies, and make a larger contribution by bringing them together in new ways. This project will take forward the scholarly debates in all these areas, bringing them together in illuminating ways.

By the end of the project, the complex character and reverberations of perpetration and complicity in collective violence will be better understood, both within the relevant fields of academic scholarship and among interested wider publics. This will serve to shift the focus away from individuals as 'perpetrators' or 'bystanders' and towards a more differentiated understanding of involvement in systemic persecution and genocide. The project will cast light on ways of dealing with the aftermath of collective violence by addressing the relationships between systems of justice, political contexts, and cultural constructions of what it means to be a perpetrator. And it will promote a better understanding of the ways in which people who have become entangled in state-sponsored violence later reframe their biographies, justify their actions to themselves and to others, and create stories about their lives that deal with the difficult legacies of a compromised past. In all these respects, the project not only helps to illuminate the continuing significance of the Nazi past but also remains of wider relevance to other instances of collective violence today.

Research Strands

The first (Mary Fulbrook) of four interrelated research strands focuses on the formation and legacies of a 'bystander society'. It develops an alternative approach to the somewhat individualistic notion of 'bystanders', which does not work well for complicity in sustaining systems of collective violence. This research explores the structures, social relations and subjective understandings underpinning widespread complicity, as people accommodated themselves to new demands, notions of identity shifted, and new patterns of social relationships facilitated Nazi rule. Focussing on topics such as intimacy, friendship, the 'racialisation' of personal identity, 'misfits' (including so-called Mischlinge or people of mixed descent, homosexuals, and others), perceptions of power and authority, trust, fear, and responses to violence, this strand analyses emergent 'communities of empathy' and the development of indifference, 'wilful ignorance' or 'turning a blind eye' to the fates of those who were excluded. Individual behaviours could range between acts of rescue or resistance at certain times through to facilitation of Nazi rule at others; and while some conformed for reasons such as conviction or careerism, others capitulated in the face of fear, powerlessness, or perceived lack of leeway for alternative courses of action. By examining ways in which individuals both thought about and enacted new roles, improvised or followed emergent social scripts, and engaged in new types of social performance, it raises questions around complicity, collusion, the distribution of guilt and a (widely lacking) sense of personal responsibility. Varying patterns of reintegration of former Nazis in the three successor states (East and West Germany and Austria) and the implications of postwar social and political contexts for wider understandings of perpetration and complicity and personal narratives are also explored. In this respect East Germany, in particular, has to date been under-researched, since it is often treated from the analytic perspective of a 'communist dictatorship' rather than as a 'post-Nazi society'.

Professor Mary Fulbrook (m.fulbrook@ucl.ac.uk) is Professor of German History and Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences. For more information on Mary's work, visit her UCL webpage.

The second strand (Stefanie Rauch) explores ways in which changing public images affect private discourses and self-representations among those who had been complicit in sustaining the system and assisting the crimes of the Third Reich. This strand focusses on post-war oral testimonies by people who occupied a multitude of positions in and towards Nazi rule, and examines how they later reflect on, evaluate, and interpret their behaviours, attitudes, and (compromised) identities in past and present once the moral and normative parameters have shifted. The strand will consider the relationship between pre- and post-war experiences and changing socio-political contexts while taking into account factors such as generation, stage in the life cycle, gender, nationality, and proximity to violence. The project will put oral testimonies from the perpetrator side firmly on the scholarly map and explore them as sources in their own right, with their own specific challenges and opportunities. It will contribute to debates about the categorisation of actors into perpetrators, victims, and bystanders, and about the long-term impact of war and genocide and post-conflict resolution and justice. Finally, it will go beyond current scholarship and offer the first comprehensive and relational exploration of a wide variety of oral testimonies from the perpetrator side, situating them in their particular context, and combining analysis of self-representations with a long-term historical perspective.

Dr Stefanie Rauch (s.rauch@ucl.ac.uk) is Research Associate at the UCL Centre for Collective Violence, Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS). For more information on Stefanie's work, visit her IAS webpage.

The third strand analyses selected trials and Nazi 'crime scenes' in relation to prevalent social, political and cultural discourses and wider historical contexts. This strand aims to shed new light on the contingent, situational and changing understandings of complicity, perpetration, responsibility, and justice in the three Third Reich successor states that occupied distinctively different positions after the war. It investigates legal and political processes and moral claims in the context of generational shifts and changing domestic and international contexts. Focussing on the dynamics of bringing former Nazis to justice in the courtroom, it explores the relative significance of the respective political and legal systems, the characteristics of the judges, lawyers, juries and others involved in court cases, public support for witnesses and defendants, and contested constructions of 'perpetrators' in the national and local media. It has sometimes been argued that the nazification of judges during the Third Reich affected the outcomes of trials in West Germany, where there were significant continuities in the legal profession, but far less so in the GDR, where the turnover of personnel and rapid training of politically acceptable new lawyers was marked; but in both states, differing political considerations contributed to the shaping of legal systems and processes, affecting subsequent trials and constraining legal practices irrespective of personal factors. Meanwhile, it has been suggested, continuing Nazi sympathies of juries in Austria contributed to the (sometimes embarrassing) failure to convict former perpetrators, and led to the cessation of Nazi trials in the mid-1970s; but nor, until the Waldheim affair of the 1980s, was Austria quite so under the international spotlight as were West and East Germany. Selecting cases where Nazis were brought to trial, and also examining materials relating to those who were not, this strand will explore the varying dynamics of justice in the three Third Reich successor states. It will furthermore explore local discourses and wider media representations and interventions, looking at newspaper and radio coverage, as well as, increasingly, television debates and their refractions. Specific cases and localities will be selected for in-depth analysis and comparison. These could include, for example, not only trials concerning major locations and crimes in the east, but also sites involved in the Nazi 'euthanasia' programme, and concentration camp sub-camps where slave labour was exploited. This apposition of differing political and legal systems, professional profiles, court material, media representations and public responses can shed light on changing identities and on the pervasive sense of unease and compromised identities which are a key legacy of the Nazi period across Europe.

Dr Bastiaan Willems (bastiaan.willems@ucl.ac.uk) is Research Fellow at the UCL Centre for Collective Violence, Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS). For more information on Bastiaan's work, visit his IAS webpage.

The fourth strand (Stephanie Bird) focuses on cultural representations of perpetration and complicity. The explicit explorations of perpetration in Jorge Borges's The Aleph and Imre Kertész's Detective Story raise intriguing questions about how fiction makes links between an individual's self-representation and internal motivation and desires within the context of mass mobilisation in collective violence. This strand explores how the figure of the perpetrator sustains or interrogates wider social discourses around morality and justice, and how the label of 'perpetrator' is challenged. In order to interrogate the theme of compromised identities, novels and films that have as their key figure a Nazi disguised as a Jew will be central. Examples include: Robert Shaw, The Man in the Glass Booth (1967); Edgar Hilsenrath, The Nazi and the Barber (1971); Emanuel Litvinoff, Falls the Shadow (1983); and Michael Lavigne, Not Me (2005). Questions to be explored include: how the perpetrator functions as a starting point for explorations of justice, morality and self-justification; fiction's distinct contribution to understanding the compromised identities involved in perpetration; how far justice and reconciliation depend upon acknowledgment of wrongdoing; and how far the dialectic of responsibility is manipulated in order to sustain a positive self-image. The figure of the disguised Nazi is frequently found in crime fiction, reflecting an intense interest in justice, just revenge or retribution, which follow from a perception of a failure of justice through legal means. Complementing the historical analysis of trials, the function of trials in fiction is explored in order to see how they relate to changing contexts and the implementation of justice. Artistic representations of perpetration may also be understood as a form of imagined justice where historically justice has failed, as is the case in Steiner's imagined Hitler trial. Finally, by exploring formal aspects of texts by authors such as Kristof, Littell and Baram, including voice, perspective, and representational modes (tragedy, comedy, melodrama), it addresses the ways in which art both facilitates fascination with violence and also challenges us to recognise the pleasure we take from engaging with representations of collective violence. Art condones a state of play in which moral boundaries are explored and in which extreme acts are both touched upon and necessarily withdrawn from. This dual gesture of approach and withdrawal is a crucial contribution to understanding the complex narrative constructions around perpetration and complicity and their legacy for individual identity and ethics.

Professor Stephanie Bird (s.bird@ucl.ac.uk) is Professor of German Studies and Director of the School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS). For more information on Stephanie's work, visit her UCL webpage.

Advisory Board
Affiliate Members

Dr Robert Knight, Senior Lecturer in International History, Loughborough University, Department of Politics, History and International Relations
Robert's main current research project compares the trajectories of West Germany and Austria in the 1950s and 60s. It takes as its starting point the argument put forward by Norbert Frei: that Adenauer's 'politics of the past' in the 1950s was based on a West German exculpatory consensus that helped evade self-critical discussion but - partly thanks to Allied interventions - also led to a process of 'normative demarcation' (normative Abgrenzung) in the mid-1960s. Robert's working hypothesis is that this process was less evident in Austria. The project explores possible explanations for this.

Robert is also interested in the way that liberal values, centred on individual freedom of choice have been been coopted and distorted to support illiberal agendas. This interest focuses on the ideological distortions of liberalism both under Nazi rule and in post-war European politics.

Dr Rafael Kropiunigg
As Affiliate Fellow in the collaborative project 'Compromised Identities? Reflections on Complicity and Perpetration under Nazism' (2018–2021), Rafael is working on his second book, tentatively entitled ‘Concentration Camp Functionaries and Former Functionaries: The Example of Mauthausen, 1930s-1990s’. For this purpose, he is employing the biographies of SS and prisoner functionaries connected to the Mauthausen complex as a lens into continuities between different wartime and post-war Third Reich communities. In tracing changing conceptions towards functionaries between the period of National Socialism and the end of the Cold War, his work seeks to capture how the image of these two groups was negotiated and re-negotiated over time and space. Rafael is identifying functionaries who lived out their lives in post-war German societies, and whose biographies can be traced though Allied trial, clemency appeal, prison and parolee archival documents. These files promise to reveal differences across various localities with respect to their legacies and regarding the social, political and legal support that many exonerated suspects and rehabilitated war criminals enjoyed until the early 1990s. Rafael is also exploring the role of actors at the local level in helping former functionaries assimilate to new post-war realities, and in re-conceptualising private and public narratives of complicity, victimhood and perpetration.

Rafael holds a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge and an MSt in Modern European History from the University of Oxford. As part of his BA in Politics and Modern History, he studied at the universities of London and California. Rafael joined Women without Borders as a Senior Research Fellow in 2017 and UCL as an Affiliate Fellow in 2018. Prior to UCL and WwB, he was JB and Maurice C Shapiro Fellow at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. He has devoted his academic career to the study of the Holocaust and its aftermath. His doctoral research dealt with the cultural and political legacies of two National Socialist forced labour sites connected to the Mauthausen concentration camp complex. He has since also developed expertise in contemporary radicalisation, de-radicalisation and rehabilitation dynamics. Rafael is the author of the monograph Eine österreichische Affäre: Der Fall Borodajkewycz (Vienna, 2015), which is an extended version of his published article ‘The Rehabilitated Austrians’.

Dr Udo Grashoff, DAAD Francis Carsten Lecturer in Modern German History, UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies
Udo Grashoff is working on two projects dealing with betrayal within resistance groups in Nazi Germany and its aftermath:

1) He is about to finish a book manuscript on betrayal within the German communist resistance movement in the Third Reich. The study explores the variety of action of German Communists who let themselves in for collaboration with the Nazis. By examining dozens of individual cases, the study identifies factors that influenced the communists' betrayal. Most 'traitors' were forced to work as informants through blackmail and torture but often there was scope for manoeuvre. Some communists even managed to outwit the Gestapo. Hence the study explores a spectrum of behaviour including not only willing collaboration, defection and renegacy, but also temporary opportunism, ambiguity, forced confession and tactical manoeuvring. Moreover, the study examines how the illegal Communist Party used denunciation and killings against 'traitors'.

2) He is planning a follow-up study focusing on the aftermath of betrayal in postwar Germany. This project will compare and contrast how occupation powers as well as the East German dictatorship and the West German democracy dealt with former members of communist and social democratic resistance groups accused of collaboration with the Gestapo.

Jeannette Madarász-Lebenhagen
Jeannette Madarász-Lebenhagen holds an MA and PhD in History from University College London and received an BA from Cambridge University. She has published two books on East German history and various articles discussing social history and issues related to the history of medicine in both German states.

As an affiliate member of the Compromised Identities project, she asks how former members of the NSDAP, SA and SS represented themselves before and after 1945, focusing on East Germany after the downfall of the Third Reich. What did they do before and after 1945. How did they act and behave in political, professional and private spheres? How did they make themselves at home in a state which proclaimed itself as the absolute opposite to the Third Reich? How did they accommodate their national socialist pasts to the socialist present?

The project thereby looks at the practical implementation of the theoretical framework outlined by laws, political concepts und public representations. By using German archival material from the Stasi-Unterlagen-Archiv and the Bundesarchiv, the living and working contexts of Nazis shall be scrutinised to determine in which ways their identities were first formed and then compromised.

By using case studies, the project will attempt to use the overarching concept of ‘compromised identities’ to show that everyday life could certainly overlay past experiences but never undo them in their entirety. It will show that it wasn’t decisive for one’s professional and political career exactly where one had stood along the lines between victim, bystander or perpetrator.


Nazi-Nostalgia? Looking back on the 1970s Hitler Wave

Dr Tobias Becker (German Historical Institute London)

Time: 5.00 pm, Wednesday 21 March 2018

Location: Room 20, South Wing, Institute of Advanced Studies, Wilkins Building, UCL, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT

Abstract: In the historiography of the German engagement with the Nazi past, the 1970s are usually a blank space, especially when compared to the 1960s and 1980s. However, the 1970s did see a major debate about the Nazi past under the title of the "Hitler nostalgia wave" (or "Hitler wave"). Fed by the omnipresence of Hitler in the mass media and popular culture as well as the simultaneous rise of neo-Nazi groups, it was less concerned with Nazi crimes and retribution than with the representation of Hitler and the Nazi period in the mass media and the question whether Germans were still susceptible to fascism. By reconstructing the discourse about the "Hitler wave", by examining its manifestations and by critically evaluating contemporary interpretations and putting them into historical context, my paper makes a case for taking this debate more seriously.


Selected publications related to current research on reverberations of war and collective violence:

  • Stephanie Bird (2018), 'Nazis disguised as Jews and Israel's pursuit of justice: the Eichmann trial and the kapo trials in Robert Shaw's The Man in the Glass Booth and Emanuel Litvinoff's Falls the Shadow', Holocaust Studies, DOI: 10.1080/17504902.2018.1428783
  • Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker (Yale University Press, 2005). German translation, Ein ganz normales Leben. Alltag und Gesellschaft in der DDR (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft and Primus Verlag, 2008)
  • Mary Fulbrook, Dissonant Lives: Generations and Violence through the German Dictatorships (Oxford University Press, 2011; revised and reissued in two volume paperback, 2017)

  • Mary Fulbrook, A Small Town near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust (Oxford University Press, 2012). Joint winner of the Wiener Library’s 2012 Fraenkel Prize. Translated into Dutch, Een kleine Stad bij Auschwitz. Gewone Nazi’s en de Holocaust (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2013) and German, Eine kleine Stadt beu Auschwitz. Gewöhnliche Nazis und der Holocaust (Essen: Klartext, 2015)

  • Stephanie Bird, Mary Fulbrook, Julia Wagner and Christiane Wienand (eds), Reverberations of Nazi Violence in Germany and Beyond. Disturbing Pasts (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015)

  • Mary Fulbrook, Erfahrung, Erinnerung, Geschichtsschreibung. Neue Perspektiven auf die deutschen Diktaturen (Wallstein Verlag, 2016; Reihe: Jena Center Geschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Vorträge und Kolloquien, Bd. 17)

  • Mary Fulbrook, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (OUP, 2018)

  • Stephanie Bird, Comedy and Trauma in Germany and Austria after 1945. The Inner Side of Mourning (Cambridge: Legenda, 2016)

  • Stefanie Rauch, ‘Understanding the Holocaust through Film: Audience Reception between Preconceptions and Media’, History & Memory 30, no. 1 (Spring/Summer, 2018), 151-188. DOI: 10.2979/histmemo.30.1.06

  • Stefanie Rauch, ‘“I honestly felt sick:” Affect and Pain in Viewers’ Responses to Holocaust Films’, in Berenike Jung and Stella Bruzzi (eds), Beyond the Rhetorics of Pain [Forthcoming, Routledge]

Grants underpinning research:

  • AHRC-funded collaborative and interdisciplinary research project on Compromised Identities? Reflections on perpetration and complicity under Nazism (2018-2021) (PI: Mary Fulbrook; Co-I: Stephanie Bird)

  • AHRC-funded collaborative and interdisciplinary research project on Reverberations of War: Communities of Experience and Identification in Germany and Europe since 1945 (February 2010 – January 2015). This project was funded by a grant of £848,828.00, made up of £729,928.00 for two Post-Doctoral Fellows, research trips and conferences; and £118,900.00 for two attached PhD studentships. (PI: Mary Fulbrook; Co-I: Stephanie Bird)

  • 2006-09: Leverhulme three-year Major Research Fellowship (Mary Fulbrook) Grant of £126,206 for research on generations in twentieth-century Germany

  • 2002-06: AHRC Research Grant of £281,106 for a four-year collaborative project on The ‘Normalisation of Rule’? State and Society in the GDR, 1961-1979 (PI: Mary Fulbrook)