What is History For? 4: Afterlives and Memory

by | Jul 19, 2022 | General, Guest Posts, What is History For? | 0 comments


In this final post of our What is History For? series, Dr Thomas Brodie considers historical afterlives, with reference to a post-war group of Jewish scholars – ‘Oneg Shabbat’ – and their archival work to memorialise the experiences of Holocaust victims.

As Thomas argues, history serves a purpose beyond scholarship. For many it is a moral duty to document the lived experiences of the past and present: in order that its future legacies are grounded in knowledge and truth.

A version of this post was first presented at the What is History For? conference at the University of Birmingham, held on 12 May 2022. Click here for more articles in the series.




Afterlives & Memory: Nazi Germany and the ‘Final Solution’


As a historian of the Third Reich, the question ‘what is history for?’ naturally prompts profound ethical as well as historiographical reflections. In this blog post, I will outline some of the intellectual, moral and political values scholars of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust have invested in their work, from the period itself until our own present. I conclude by pondering what it means to study the Third Reich’s history in our own times.

During the Second World War, the writing of history assumed an existential importance for Jewish communities in German-occupied Europe. Confronted initially with persecution at the hands of the Nazi Regime, and subsequently systematic extermination, Jewish scholars sought, against all the odds, to leave behind an account of their communities’ sufferings, and to document the crimes of the Third Reich and its allies. As the Warsaw teacher Chaim Kaplan (1880-1942) stated in May 1940, regarding his chronicle of the German occupation, ‘This idea is like a flame imprisoned in my bones, burning within me, screaming Record!’ [1] Central to this sense of obligation, movingly evoked by Kaplan, was the dawning realisation that the Nazi Regime planned not merely to destroy Jewish life in occupied Europe, but also Jewish histories of that genocidal process.

No individual better embodied this form of ethical and historiographical resistance than Chaim Kaplan’s fellow prisoner in the Warsaw Ghetto, the historian and social activist Emmanuel Ringelblum (1900-1944). Ringelblum had trained as an academic historian during the inter-war period, completing a doctorate in 1927 on the Jewish community of medieval Warsaw. In the 1930s, he worked on a history of Polish Jewry during the early modern period. [2] During his imprisonment in the Warsaw Ghetto, Ringelblum put this historical training to work, forming the Oneg Shabbat (Joy of the Sabbath) group of scholars, who, meeting secretly, gathered ‘materials and documents relating to the martyrology of the Jews in Poland’. [3] This project culminated in the creation of an archive consisting of thousands of documents and images, chronicling life and death in the ghetto. [4]

As the Nazi Regime deported and murdered the Jews of Warsaw in 1942 and early 1943, Ringelblum and his associates progressively buried their collection in three locations under the ghetto, using metal tins and milk cans to preserve the documents. Their conviction and desperate hope was that Jewish voices should find a place within the historical record of these terrible events. In 1946 and 1950, surviving members of Oneg Shabbat successfully assisted in the recovery of two of these document collections, whose contents constitute one of the most important sources concerning the social history of the Holocaust in Poland. The third collection has never been found. Sadly, Emmanuel Ringelblum did not live to witness the fruition of his labour, and that of his colleagues. In March 1944, having survived for a year in hiding on the ‘Aryan’ side of Warsaw, he and his family were captured and murdered by the Gestapo. [5]

While Oneg Shabbat’s ultimate purpose was to preserve Jewish voices for posterity, its focus was also profoundly analytical. Ringelblum’s historical research prior to 1939 had been resolutely social in its approach; this commitment to analysis of everyday life was now brought to bear on the wartime present. He and his associates did not merely chronicle the directives issued by the Warsaw Ghetto leadership or the German authorities, but the concerns, hopes, fears and struggles of ordinary people, as revealed in documents and images such as art, diaries, ration cards, newspaper articles and poetry. In gathering such materials, the Oneg Shabbat group consciously sought to facilitate the work of future historians. [6] Ringelblum, in particular, paid close attention to the lives of Jewish women in the ghetto, and his admonition of future historians to share this focus is often quoted in recent works on the subject. [7] In this sense, Oneg Shabbat represented the attempt to embrace history as both a moral and an analytical imperative.[8]

This challenge, to create histories as simultaneous works of commemoration and interpretation, has naturally shaped much Jewish writing on the Holocaust since 1945. For some Jewish historians, the desire to embrace dominant models of scholarly objectivity was such as to demand the sharp separation of their academic work from personal experience and memory. For example, the Czech-Israeli historian Otto Dov Kulka (1933-2021), did not, for most of his distinguished career as a historian of the Holocaust, divulge that he was himself a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he had been imprisoned as a young boy between September 1943 and January 1945. And it was only in Kulka’s 80th year that he felt able to do so in his remarkable work, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, a series of moving essays exploring his adult memories of the camp. [9]

Here, Kulka confessed that in his academic studies of the ‘Final Solution’, he had focused on ‘the broad background of the ideology and the policy underlying it all’, and thus never confronted the ‘violent end, the murder, the humiliation and torture of those human beings’, echoing how, as a child decades earlier, he had daily walked past mounds of corpses in the Auschwitz camp complex. [10] Nevertheless, even while outlining the commitment to ‘strict and impersonally remote research’ which had marked his professional career, Kulka conceded in Landscapes that his scholarship had served more than purely intellectual purposes. [11] Reflecting on his career as a historian of the Holocaust, he stated that it had been his hope, however daunting the task, to ‘infuse a consciousness of the intensity of the experience of those historic events, a consciousness of their trans-dimensionality, a consciousness of their vast impersonality, which I experienced through the prism of that present…’ [12]

For Saul Friedlaender (1932-), also, possibly the Holocaust’s greatest historian, the dual obligation to commemorate and to analyse underpinned his scholarship on the subject. Prior to the 1990s, Holocaust historiography featured little research on Jewish victims, and overwhelmingly focused on the ideology and decision-making processes of the Nazi State. [13] Friedlaender, by contrast, in his two-volume masterpiece, The Years of Persecution and Years of Extermination, placed Jewish voices in the form of  ‘ego documents’ at the very centre of his narrative, not only as a means of enriching its social historical analysis, but also of dignifying the victims within the chronicle of their destruction. [14] As Friedlaender stated in 2007:

…the voices of the victims — their lack of understanding, their despair, their powerful eloquence or their helpless clumsiness—these can shake our well-protected representation of events. They can stop us in our tracks. They can restore our initial sense of disbelief, before knowledge rushes in to smother it. [15]

For Friedlaender, himself the child of Holocaust victims and a survivor, the prominence he afforded Jewish voices represented the fulfilment of a profound personal as well as intellectual duty. As he informed an interviewer in 2007: ‘I considered the completion of these books as a personal and professional obligation that superseded any other considerations.’ [16] And it is surely not a coincidence that The Years of Extermination’s closing sentence invokes ‘the indelible memory of the dead’. [17]

Of course, the enormity of the Nazi past has also confronted German historians with profound moral, political and intellectual challenges since 1945. Many scholars in the early post-war years were only too willing to dismiss the Third Reich as a transient aberration in German history – others had Nazi pasts of their own to hide. [18] Nevertheless, from the 1970s onwards, a new generation of West German historians, pioneering critical and archivally-grounded scholarship, played a crucial role in progressively discrediting the comforting myths of the 1950s, and forcing societal confrontation with the Nazi past.

And if today the Berlin Republic is – rightly in my view – praised for the maturity of its memory culture, this achievement is in no small part due to the collective labour of German historians, ranging from university professors to grassroots community groups. [19] Such efforts continue to this day, with the University of Augsburg recently launching an MA programme, designed to train students for work in public education at heritage sites connected to the Nazi past, such as the former Dachau Concentration Camp. This initiative is explicitly defined by its pioneers as a riposte to the recent ‘right-wing populist attacks’ on Germany’s culture of remembrance. [20] It also embodies Ian Kershaw’s argument that ‘Knowledge is better than ignorance; history better than myth.’ [21]

As this example from Augsburg highlights, new challenges now confront the study of Nazi Germany, and the commemoration of its crimes. On the one hand, the period is increasingly receding beyond living memory, and public education will soon no longer be able to call upon the emotive power of eyewitness testimony. On the other, new forms of nationalist political authoritarianism are rising around the globe, and in Europe itself, the far right has acquired significant political influence for the first time since 1945. [22] As Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman notes, we live in the ‘age of the strongman’. [23] In this context, the moral as well as intellectual duty to research, write and teach the history of Nazi Germany remains urgent, and doing so continues to confront us with a past which serves as a terrible warning for the present.

In the course of this article I have discussed the work of several distinguished male historians of Nazi Germany; I would like to conclude by affording the final word to a wonderful female scholar, and one, moreover, to whom my own understanding of the period is greatly indebted. In the concluding paragraph of her 2019 Very Short Introduction to Nazi Germany, Jane Caplan summarised what it means to contemplate the Third Reich in our own times:

…Nazi Germany confronts us with….profound questions concerning the resilience of democratic culture and civil society that are not peculiar to that history alone, and these are not the least of the ‘lessons’ of National Socialism.


Nazi Germany was built on a host of threats to the values of democracy and pluralism that were not confined to the twelve brazen years of dictatorship, terror, and mass murder and that call us to constant vigilance: the siren song of demagogues, the political exploitation of popular fears and resentments, the retreat of confidence in public institutions, the structural power of economic and political elites, the corrosion of governmental standards, the weaponization of prejudice, the repression of difference and dissent, and the eternal temptation of the blind eye. [24]






Burleigh, Michael, Germany Turns Eastwards: A Study of Ostforschung in the Third Reich, (London: Pan Macmillan, 2002)

Caplan, Jane, Nazi Germany: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2019)

Friedlaender, Saul, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997)

Friedlaender, Saul, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007).

Rachman, Gideon, The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World, (London: Bodley Head, 2022)

Kassow, Samuel D., Who Will Write Our History?: Emmanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Oyneg Shabes Archive, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007)

Kershaw, Ian, Hitler, The Germans and the Final Solution, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Kulka, Otto Dov, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, (London: Penguin Books, 2020 edition)

Steinweis, Alan, Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2006).

Stone, Dan, Histories of the Holocaust, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Waxman, Zoe, Women in the Holocaust: A Feminist History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)



Berninger, Simon, ‘Das Grauen der NS-Geschichte vermitteln lernen’, Deutschlandfunk Kultur (March 2022), https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/gedenkstaettenarbeit-studierende-augsburg-kz-dachau-100.html

Chabal, Emile, ‘Europe’s far right: the new normal?’, History Workshop (March 2017), https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/europes-far-right-the-new-normal/

Gregor, Neil, ‘Priests, Catechisms and Heretics: Some Thoughts on Dirk Moses’ Remarks’, The New Fascism Syllabus (May 2021), http://newfascismsyllabus.com/opinions/priests-catechisms-and-heretics-some-thoughts-on-dirk-moses-remarks/

Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, ‘Emanuel Ringleblum and the Oneg Shabbat Archive’, https://www.hmd.org.uk/resource/emanuel-ringelblum-and-oneg-shabbat-archive/

JDC Warsaw, ‘In Memoriam: Emanuel Ringleblum 1900-1944’, https://archives.jdc.org/exhibits/in-memoriam/emanuel-ringelblum/

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, ‘The Oneg Shabbat Archive’, Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-oneg-shabbat-archive

Wiener, Jon, ‘History as Obligation: Interview with Friedlander’, Dissent Magazine (July 2007), https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/history-as-obligation-interview-with-friedlander


[1] Quoted in Jane Caplan, Nazi Germany: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2019), p. 133, Abraham I. Katsch ed., Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), p. 144.

[2] https://archives.jdc.org/exhibits/in-memoriam/emanuel-ringelblum/ (accessed 12 July 2022).

[3] https://www.hmd.org.uk/resource/emanuel-ringelblum-and-oneg-shabbat-archive/ (accessed 7 July 2022).

[4] See the excellent, Samuel D. Kassow, Who Will Write Our History?: Emmanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Oyneg Shabes Archive, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).

[5] https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-oneg-shabbat-archive (accessed 11 July 2022).

[6] Kassow, Who Will Write our History?, pp. 9-14, 213-16. See also, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-oneg-shabbat-archive (accessed 11 July 2022).

[7] Zoe Waxman, Women in the Holocaust: A Feminist History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 24-25.

[8] Kassow, Who Will Write Our History?, pp. 12-14.

[9] Otto Dov Kulka, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, (London: Penguin Books, 2020 edition).

[10] Ibid, pp. 82-83.

[11] Ibid, p.xi.

[12] Ibid, p. 82.

[13] Dan Stone, Histories of the Holocaust, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 268.

[14] Saul Friedlaender, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997), Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007).

[15] https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/history-as-obligation-interview-with-friedlander (accessed 7 July 2022).

[16] https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/history-as-obligation-interview-with-friedlander (accessed 7 July 2022).

[17] Friedlaender, Years of Extermination, p. 663.

[18] For the complicity of contemporary German historians, Michael Burleigh, Germany Turns Eastwards: A Study of Ostforschung in the Third Reich, (London: Pan Macmillan, 2002), Alan Steinweis, Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[19] I am in agreement with Neil Gregor on this point, http://newfascismsyllabus.com/opinions/priests-catechisms-and-heretics-some-thoughts-on-dirk-moses-remarks/ (accessed 12 July 2022).

[20] https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/gedenkstaettenarbeit-studierende-augsburg-kz-dachau-100.html (accessed 7 July 2022).

[21] Ian Kershaw, Hitler, The Germans and the Final Solution, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), chapter 12, ‘Shifting Perspectives: Historiographical Trends in the Aftermath of Unification’, p. 330.

[22] See Emile Chabal’s perceptive analysis, https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/europes-far-right-the-new-normal/ (accessed 12 July 2022).

[23] Gideon Rachman, The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World, (London: Bodley Head, 2022).

[24] Caplan, Nazi Germany, p. 141.




Dr Thomas Brodie is a Lecturer in 20th-century European History at the University of Birmingham and author of German Catholicism at War, 1939-1945 (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Thomas presented a version of this article in the Afterlives panel at the What is History For? conference at the University of Birmingham, held on 12 May 2022.





For further contributions to this short series of posts, see What is History For?

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