Responsibility, Collaboration, and Complexity: Intellectual Resistance to the Transnational History of the Holocaust in Germany

Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe,


Three weeks after Nazi Germany – with the assistance of Italian, Romanian, Slovak, Hungarian and Finish troops – attacked the Soviet Union, the Polish residents of Jedwabne carried out a massacre against the Jewish inhabitants of the town. On July 10, 1941, locals murdered over 300 Jews who were their neighbors. They murdered not strangers but their barbers, shoemakers, physicians, and former schoolmates. While some were burnt alive inside a barn, others were killed in their homes and in the streets. At that time, similar massacres took place in several other towns around Jedwabne and in hundreds of other places in what could be described as a pogrom belt stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. We will never be able to find out how many Jews were murdered by their neighbors in the pogroms of 1941. There is, however, no doubt that the perpetrators of those pogroms represented only a very small part of all collaborators or non-German perpetrators of the Holocaust. In contrast to Wehrmacht soldiers, the staff of Operation Reinhard or German officials in the General Government, these perpetrators of the Shoah have received very limited attention in German historiography, and they have never been integrated into German memory of the Holocaust.   

The debate triggered by Anthony Dirk Moses’s essay “The Catechism of the Germans,” which addresses the interdependency of the Shoah with other genocides and the question of why we should compare them, has elicited different opinions among historians. It also reminded us of the existence of different interpretations of the Shoah and the general history of global violence and genocides. Because the Holocaust was a complex event – and I believe we should explore and be aware of all of its facets – I would like to offer my views about the coming to terms with the Shoah in Germany and other countries as well as the common national distortions of the Shoah. Further, I would like to make readers aware that the debate about the “The Catechism of the Germans” has much in common with the debate surrounding collaboration in the Holocaust. Indeed, both were initiated by the same German-centered approach to the Holocaust and other genocides.

The debate about collaboration in the Holocaust addressed the question of whether a complex, transnational history of the Shoah, which pays attention to non-German perpetrators and the behavior of the occupied populations, should replace a German-centered narrative of the genocide against the Jews and if Germany needs a more complex and multifaceted history of the Shoah. An important article touching on collaboration was published by historian Jan Grabowski. His essay, “Germany Is Fueling a False History of the Holocaust Across Europe” was published in Haaretz. The publication of the German translation of his article was rejected by the FAZ, Die Zeit, TAZ, Süddeutsche Zeitung and other German newspapers. Only Tagesspiegel published an interview with Jan Grabowski, Frank Bajohr, me and some other colleagues. A few days after the interview appeared, I received a letter from a German historian who threatened me with a lawsuit if I ever dared “making false allegations” about him and his publications in public again. Although it never came to that, a couple of days later Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski were indeed indicted by the Polish League Against Defamation (Reduta Dobrego Imienia) for their publication Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Countries of Occupied Poland.

What connects the debate about “The Catechism of the Germans” and collaboration in Eastern Europe as well as the debate about Michael Rothberg’s Multidirectional Memory is a critique of a specific German-centered perspective on the Holocaust, which does not pay sufficient attention to the transnational and global history of violence and which ignores the political, social and cultural setting in which the Shoah took place. As a result, an examination of non-German perpetrators or a scholarly comparison of genocides is regarded as political and rejected as such. In particular, an exploration of collaboration in the Holocaust and an understanding of the Shoah as a transnational genocide are perceived in Germany as an attack on both scholarship and democracy. But how can a complex and transnational history of the Shoah be a threat to a state like Germany?    

It took a long time for the Holocaust to become an important part of German history, identity, and memory. One of the first pioneers of Holocaust studies, Joseph Wulf, who lived in West Berlin, was disliked by German historians, who labeled him a “dirty Jew from Eastern Europe” (schmutziger Ostjude) even as late as the early 1990s, although he had committed a suicide already in 1974. The Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, whose employees disliked Wulf, was headed by a distinguished German historian and former NSDAP member Martin Broszat until the end of the 1980s. Toward the end of his career, Broszat polemicized against Saul Friedländer’s concept of “integrated history” and dishonored Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Given all of that, it’s hardly a wonder that the process of investigating the Holocaust and coming to terms with the Shoah could begin in Germany, only in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

From the very beginning however, the process contained a dark side, which, until today, is not acknowledged by the majority of the population, including academics, politicians, and journalists. In reaction to the Historikerstreit in 1986–1987, German and other historians began to research the Holocaust intensively and systematically, though selectively. They concentrated on the German perpetrators and the German elements of the Shoah and ignored the complexity of this transnational event, including collaboration and the reactions of the occupied populations. Besides the reaction to the Historikerstreit, other factors played a role in conceptualizing a simplified history of the Holocaust. While some historians were not able to read the languages of the occupied or allied countries, others investigated and portrayed the Holocaust selectively, because they wanted to oppose the German revisionist interpretations of the Shoah or to investigate the most central elements of this genocide. Doing so, they deprived the Holocaust of its complexity.  

The critical investigations of and coming to terms with the Shoah were warmly welcomed by intellectuals and politicians in Germany and other European and non-European countries. On the one hand, German historians showed that they can critically cope with the difficult aspects of German history and take responsibility for the crimes committed by their parents and grandparents. On the other, they presented a history of the Holocaust that made German perpetrators solely responsible for the murder of all European Jews. It is not surprising that this simplistic version of the Holocaust and World War II was also welcomed by nationalist and national conservative politicians and historians in countries such as Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. These groups used the German-centered interpretation of the Shoah to exonerate their own perpetrators or to present them and their countries as victims of Nazi Germany.

What exactly took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Holocaust studies in Germany? German and other historians began to investigate the Holocaust in eastern and western Europe thoroughly and published important monographs. These have been recognized as standard works that established certain frames for the understanding of the Shoah and pushed the field of Holocaust studies in a particular direction. They also reduced the complexity of the Shoah to German elements such as the German perpetrators, German occupation, and German administration. Massacres committed by local perpetrators, collaboration with German occupiers or the persecution of the Jews by anti-German resistance movements were presented at the very edges or not at all.   

This narrative was then integrated into the school textbooks, museum exhibitions and memorial sites, “official” state politics of history and memory, and even the arts. It has served as the standard narrative of the Shoah, because it sacralized and nationalized the Holocaust by reducing its complexity. Despite this, most people assume that Germany successfully managed the process of coming to terms with the Holocaust and should be admired by other countries for its “success”. There is no discussion about how simplistic, selective and national Germany’s coming to the terms with the Holocaust was and how it impacted on the understanding of the Holocaust in countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary.

The question of whether it is possible to replace the German-centered narrative with a more complex one can be answered in two ways. First, it has already been replaced, at least partially, in a few publications such as Christoph Dieckmann’s book about the murder of the Jews in Lithuania and in Kai Struve’s monograph about the pogroms in Ukraine in 1941.  Although both authors do not reflect on the impact of transnational fascism on the Holocaust in these countries, they depicted at length the conduct of the Lithuanian and Ukrainian perpetrators and devoted much space to the victims. Thereby, they both came close to what Saul Friedländer called the “integrated history” of the Holocaust. The second answer is, however, less optimistic. In general, there is not much interest in a complex history of the Holocaust in Germany. This kind of history is absent in the discourse on the Holocaust and World War II almost everywhere. What is more, the transnational history of the Holocaust is perceived as an attack on the German responsibility for the Holocaust, democracy and other fundamental values. In short, this history is opposed by everyone, including historians, left-wing journalists, the majority of scholars, schoolteachers, and directors of museums and memorial sites, even if some of them know that a complex history of the Shoah would be better than a German-centered one.   

Historians who investigate the Holocaust from a German-centric lens are held in high esteem, although they keep presenting the history of the Shoah in a selective way. Yet their arguments and publications continue to be well received, especially in Germany and Eastern Europe, because people in those countries were conditioned to think that European Jews were murdered by the “Nazis” and that “Nazi Germany” is solely responsible for what happened to them. The arguments of these historians appear to be sound, and they appear to make an important contribution to the cause of democracy in Germany and other countries. They oppose narratives that relativize the German responsibility for the Holocaust and blame the Poles, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians for what the Nazis did. The collaboration of the Berlin Touro College, Freie Universität Berlin, European University Viadrina and various memorial sites with the Pilecki Institute, which distorts at length the Holocaust on orders of the Polish government, is only one of many examples of how the German-centered narrative of the Holocaust structures our understanding of the past and indeed undermines democracy.   

Historians who write the history of the Holocaust from a German point of view are, however, right on one important point. They observe that in the countries of Eastern Europe, new research on the Holocaust does not pay sufficient attention to the German structure of the Shoah. The rise of a critical Holocaust research in Poland, Romania or the Czech Republic indeed leads to an oversimplification of Holocaust history in a Polish, Romanian or Czech way – structured primarily through national frames. This is a reminder of what happened in Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s and has not been reflected until today.

In general, Germany is now well-immunized against a complex and transnational history of the Holocaust. German historians and intellectuals admit only unwillingly that the Holocaust was a transnational genocide, many other populations were involved in the persecution and murder of the Jews, and that German history is only one of many other “national” histories of the Holocaust. Many even assume that a complex conceptualization of the Holocaust would lead to a rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany or that it would deteriorate relations between Germany and Poland or Hungary.  

It is hard to predict whether or when this specific way of dealing with the Holocaust will be ultimately replaced by a more sophisticated and complex one and when German historians, museum directors, journalists, teachers, and politicians open their eyes to the transnational history of the Holocaust. To achieve this, it would require a reflection on the limits of German-centered interpretations, to integrate the history of collaboration into the history of Shoah, to take responsibility for what non-German perpetrators did during the Holocaust, and to search for new approaches to the Holocaust, which transcends the accepted borders of German history. Saul Friedlaender’s concept of “integrated history” could serve as a suitable approach. The questions of how, why or to what extent Germany is responsible for the Holocaust cannot be answered by reducing the complexity of the Holocaust to German perpetrators and “German” aspects of the Shoah. To understand and be aware of German responsibility for the Holocaust, we need a complex, transnational approach to this transnational genocide.  

A. Dirk Moses, Katechismus der Deutschen, (3.6.2022).

Jan Grabowski, Germany Is Fueling a False History of the Holocaust Across Europe, (6.9.2021).

Christoph David Piorkowski, „Ein Recht auf einen Anteil an Schuld“. Polnische Historiker werfen der deutschen Holocaustforschung Einseitigkeit vor – und stossen auf vehementen Widerspruch, Tagesspiegel, 30.6.2020, p. 22.

Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, Politische Eingriffe in die Holocaustforschung in Polen. Der Fall Engelking/Grabowski, in: Zeitgeschichte-online, Maerz 2021, URL:

Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,2009).