Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


Interpreting Perpetrator Voices

Project summary

Accounts by perpetrators and so-called ‘bystanders’ challenge the notions of truth, authenticity, and witnessing that we often associate with survivor testimonies. Some scholars characterise these accounts as fundamentally different, dismiss them outright, or consider them to consist primarily of lies or (self-)deception. Others warn of ‘false testimony’, ‘antitestimony’, and ‘anti-witnesses’, and suggest that we should apply specific moral and interpreted considerations to these accounts. This anxiety is specific to accounts relating to Nazi violence. In genocide studies, there is an assumption that fieldwork involving convicted and imprisoned perpetrators is ethical, necessary and beneficial; only recently have scholars begun to reflect on the ethical implications of their research. There are also significant issues to be raised around the risks of seeming to give a platform to racist views and stereotypes without ensuring adequate counterchecks, balances and challenges – which raise further questions around truth, neutrality and objectivity in scholarly research.

The passing away of Nazi perpetrators and their enablers, facilitators, helpers and beneficiaries has nonetheless resulted in increased efforts at recording and reinterpreting their voices, a process that has been led by key institutions including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a number of filmmakers. Interviews conducted by filmmakers are among the most prominent, given their wide reach through documentary films. While few people will ever be confronted with several hours of an in-depth, audio-only oral history interview conducted by German scholars in the 1980s or 1990s, filmed accounts - short snippets embedded in a wider narrative as part of a documentary - reach far larger audiences. But these and other accounts remain under-used by scholars and they are still largely absent from exhibitions and other educational resources and programmes, as well as requiring significant contextualisation.

The dominance of first-hand testimony and especially of filmed testimony raises serious questions, not least regarding the ways in which a medium where filmmakers have played a key role impacts on historical understanding. How do we approach these and other accounts? Can they provide new insights into the history of National Socialism, the Holocaust, and their legacies, as well as mass violence elsewhere, both in the past and the present? How can we authenticate them, corroborate, and compare them to other sources or other historical contexts? How do we reconcile what seem to be contradictory approaches to testimonies depending on subject matter and how we identify the narrator? How can we make the often seemingly invisible work of the interviewer, filmmaker, or journalist transparent to a wider audience? Expressing judgments about what is morally right and wrong has been shown to prevent critical evaluation and analysis; how can we learn and teach techniques for assessment that are both alert to the historical context and the needs of the present in which we engage with the topic?

In the wider context of mass public engagement with not only the Holocaust but also continuing and new forms of racism, antisemitism, and prejudice today, with numerous representations of perpetrator voices, it is even more important to raise critical awareness of key issues in this way. Using UCL’s copy of ‘Final Account: Third Reich Testimonies’ as a springboard to engage with broader questions, this project is designed to explore the opportunities and challenges of working with ‘perpetrator voices’ in research, education, and public history. The project also aims to establish and promote ‘Final Account: Third Reich Testimonies’ as a key resource and source collection for researchers and educators.

In addition, the project seeks to have a wider impact on our capacity to understand ‘perpetrator voices’ and their spin on the truth. In an era characterised by the spread of social media, ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, it is crucial to hone skills of critical thinking and the capacity to critique narratives that misinterpret ‘evidence’ in light of prejudices.