Compromised Identities?

Reflections on perpetration and complicity under Nazism

We readily think of ‘perpetrators’ as those directly involved in physical violence: giving the orders, pulling the trigger, killing innocent victims. But under Nazi rule, millions were involved in broader processes of persecution. How can we understand not only direct perpetrators, but also those who were complicit in systemic racism, as well as the passivity of ‘bystanders’?
‘Compromised Identities?’ explores how perpetration and complicity are represented and understood both at the time and later. It considers ways in which individuals and others tell their stories about being involved in state-sponsored violence, and how the stories change over time. Individuals and societies understand themselves and create identities through the narratives they tell. These narratives evolve under changing circumstances and through social interaction. People’s individual and collective identities, how they view and feel about themselves, may be compromised if they are involved in mass violence; they may feel that they have made moral compromises or not lived up to their ideals. But more commonly, individuals and societies try to maintain a ‘good’ version of themselves by justifying acts of violence or denying involvement.
With a recent rise in racist and antisemitic acts, continued instances of collective violence, and renewed calls for reckoning with violent pasts, these reflections remain all too relevant today.

From everyday denunciations, through the exploitation of forced and slave labour, to violence in the killing sites, millions of people facilitated the Nazi system, and hundreds of thousands became directly involved in acts of perpetration. What sorts of compromise did they enter into?

In their everyday lives before the war, Germans helped to create a hostile environment for those now excluded on ‘racial’ grounds. How did people accommodate themselves to a system characterized both by repression and constraints, as well as inducements for public compliance and enthusiasm?

Under wartime conditions, persecution rapidly turned into mass murder – of the mentally and physically disabled, Jews, Roma and Sinti, and many others. How were people mobilised to engage in acts of mass killing, and under what conditions could atrocities take place?

The invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was a turning point. The ‘war of annihilation’ envisaged the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens. The genocide of the Jews soon began to be systematically pursued across all parts of Europe under German influence. How were German troops involved in these killings and how far were traditional military values and practices compromised?

Some killers were committed, others merely compliant, and some were uneasy and plagued by pangs of conscience; a few refused and were put on other duties. How did individuals represent their actions to themselves and others, maintaining a sense of themselves as essentially ‘decent’ or ‘good’ people?

After the defeat of Germany in 1945, many Nazis evaded justice. From claiming they had ‘only obeyed orders’ to professing they ‘knew nothing about it’, strategies of denial and self-justification were widespread. What sorts of new identities did people develop to live with a compromised past?

In the Third Reich successor states – East and West Germany and Austria – attempts to bring perpetrators to justice were controversial and insufficient. Criminal justice systems were inadequate to the task of putting mass murder on trial, while Cold War politics complicated efforts to achieve justice.

Collective violence and racism have continued to flare up across the world, despite the post-Holocaust commitment to ‘Never Again’. How can analysis of involvement in Nazi persecution and genocide, and subsequent attempts to achieve justice, reconciliation, or self-justification, enhance our wider understanding of issues that remain all too relevant today? 

Blogs & Essays

  • The representation of violence
    Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones depicts many scenes of graphic violence
  • Choices in dictatorships
    In Imre Kertész’s novel Fiasco, Köves describes his experience of being called up to do military duty under the Hungarian regime of János Kádár (1956-1988). He was asked to sign a piece of paper committing him to become a prison guard in the central military prison. Despite not wishing to assume this role, he signed.
  • Conformity and Hypocrisy
    Elisabeth Langgässer (1899-1950) was a writer. The story ‘Start of the Season’ was published in 1947 in her collection of short stories, The Torso.
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Exhibition Design

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