2021 Balzan Prize for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
Acceptance Speech – Bern, 01.07.2022
Mrs. President of the National Council,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
The awarding of the 2022 Balzan Prize for Holocaust and Genocide Studies was an entirely unexpected honor for me. I am deeply grateful to all those who have made it possible. Of course, I accept the Prize and can only hope that the generous amount earmarked for research will open some additional vistas in
this difficult and – unfortunately – still relevant domain.
In general terms, the notion of genocide is familiar to millions of people all over the world and the basic facts about the Holocaust may be widely although very superficially shared, notwithstanding a long period of silence following the end of the Second World War. In general, however, knowledge and understanding of various aspects of genocidal events remain mostly hazy for the immense majority of those not directly concerned. Thus, further research and the widest possible communication of its outcome are essential not only for purely scholarly reasons but also for drawing attention to potentially similar situations.
The passivity of bystanders to the Holocaust – the research domain chosen here – is an obvious part of this overall effort. For me, the present research will be the final sequel to the work that has been central to most of my life. For scholars of my generation, the study of the Holocaust was most often determined by biographical circumstances. Incidentally, this has sometimes been used as criticism in the name of some abstract objectivity. The initial motivation for my own work was the obvious consequence of my having been a Jewish child in hiding in wartime France, while my parents, sent back at the Swiss border, were delivered to the Germans and murdered in Auschwitz. It took many years, however, for my becoming aware that this history would be my life’s work, and it took many more years before I decided to embark upon a general history of Nazi Germany and the Jews. The trigger of this second phase was
precisely the argument of the prominent German historian of Nazism, Martin Broszat, used in an exchange of letters with me, that the memory of the Holocaust of Jewish survivors was “a mythical memory”, worthy of respect but, as such, an obstacle to the more rational German historiography of those events.
A measure of subjectivity is only natural when considering such emotionally charged events as the Holocaust and other genocides. Such unavoidable subjectivity can, however, be limited and, if necessary, corrected when the historian is and remains aware of the context he or she is speaking from. This much should be obvious.
The role of the historian of these events is becoming increasingly important as time goes by and as the witnesses leave the scene. The politics of memory are a well-known phenomenon, as are ceremonial ritualization on the one hand and the exploitation of this past by the entertainment industry on the other. History is unable to compete with such massive social needs, but it remains the only avenue for a closer understanding of an unmasterable past.
I will contribute as much as possible to the research launched here. For giving me this opportunity, I am deeply grateful to the Balzan Foundation.
Thank you for your attention.