CFP: Biographies as “Probes” of Transformation? ‘Agency’ of Nazi Perpetrators after 1945 in the Federal Republic, the GDR and Austria

Oliver Gaida's picture
Call for Papers
September 30, 2021
Subject Fields: 
German History / Studies, Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies, Modern European History / Studies

Workshop at the University of Vienna, 03-04 March 2022

The workshop focuses on political biographies of perpetrators of National Socialism after 1945, with a regional emphasis on West Germany, the GDR and Austria.

Research on Nazi perpetrators published in recent years has increasingly concentrated on the definition of the concept of perpetration, on the identity and agency of Nazi perpetrators, and on the conditions for their participation in the crimes. In doing so, however, the "prehistory" during the German Empire, World War I, the Weimar Republic, and the First Republic was incorporated into the political biographies of the perpetrators. Further activities of the perpetrators after the end of the "Third Reich" are only mentioned as the aftermath of National Socialism, in the "politics of the past", and are rarely interpreted as the prehistory of post-National Socialist societies.

Moreover, transformation processes around the macro-historical caesura of 1945 are primarily analyzed from a structuralist perspective. Studies on this topic tend to focus on the examination of (federal) ministries, using the year 1945 as a marker of collapse and new beginning (which is also constituted in the biographies), and thus, contribute to the construction of a dichotomy of continuity and breaks. The individual perspectives of the biographical subjects, however, hardly become visible.

Adopting Thomas Etzemüller's approach of viewing biographies as instruments or “probes” (“Sonden”), into an integrated social history "in order to understand the functioning of society", we will consider and examine – on the basis the biographies of female and male perpetrators in National socialism – society and the individual not as separate entities, but as constituents involved in a reciprocal relationship. In this context, we will discuss and question in the workshop the dichotomy of macro- and micro-perspectives as well as the concepts of "structure" and "agency".

Workshop papers may address, but are not limited to the following questions:

- Perpetration: How did individual perpetrators deal with their participation in Nazi crimes? How is their participation integrated into the narrative of their own biography? Did they hide, legitimise, or deny their participation? What strategies did they use?

- Careers and networks: How did perpetrators react to system collapses and changes? Who succeeded in integrating into new systems and who did not? Which agents were able to use their qualifications and "expertise" acquired under National Socialism and how? How did system changes influence private and professional networks and functional elites?

- Integration: How did former Nazi perpetrators integrate into new systems? How did integration possibilities differ for perpetrators, especially with regard to elites? Where did integration succeed, where did it fail?

- Structure: The conditions and norms of post-National Socialist societies influenced and confronted the perpetrators first in the occupation zones, later in Austria, the GDR and FRG. How did the developing societal structures, constitutional systems, and norms influence the perpetrators' decisions to act?

- Legality and illegality: Who fled? Who maintained their legal existence and who entered illegality? What can be determined about the relationship between actual and feared prosecution and how did this influence the actions of the perpetrators? How did (feared) prosecution affect (dis)integration processes?

Application: We particularly encourage doctoral students in history and related disciplines to apply. Proposals should include an abstract describing the topic, relevance, empirical basis, and methodological approach of your paper, as well as a short CV of the applicant. Please send your proposal, which must not exceed two pages, as one PDF file to by 30 September 2021. Conference languages are German and English. Travel and accommodation costs can be reimbursed to a limited extent.

Contact Info:

Oliver Gaida / Kathrin Janzen / Stefan Jehne / Yves Müller