Tag Archives: Nazi

The Dead We Have Yet To Find: Archives, History, Violence

The remains of 86 Jewish Holocaust victims have been found at a forensic medicine institute in Strasbourg. Reports vary as to the state of the remains. Some say that fragmented pieces of skin are all that is left of some of the dead, while others claim that in some cases the bodies are physically intact. If is difficult to imagine how these remains could lie undiscovered at the institute for more than seventy years, we know that there is a long history of using human bodies in scientific research including forensic work.

The 86 people were killed during experiments conducted by the Nazi anatomist August Hirst and moved to the institute by him, possibly to be put on display. According to recent reports a forensic professor at the institute, Camille Simonin, in 1945 decided to keep the remains so that they could be used as evidence in the prosecution of Hirst. However, Hirst committed suicide and it seems that the existence of the 86 bodies was somehow ‘forgotten’ in the confusion of the immediate postwar years.

It was historian Raphael Toledano who discovered a reference to these remains in a letter by Simonin, and, following it up, found them at the institute earlier this month. That they were recovered via a paper trail is a reminder of the importance of historical research and the work of progressive museums, archivists and activists who challenge the display of human remains.

It is also a reminder that other human exhibits and research specimens may be hidden from view in the storage spaces of institutions that have lost of track of their possessions and histories.

L0057747 Preserved human left hand, mid 19th century.  Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

L0057747 Preserved human left hand, mid 19th century.
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

As part of my Hirschfeld project I have been reading up on the Herero genocide, a brutal episode in Germany’s colonial history, which according to some historians paved the way for the atrocities of the Nazi regime. In 1904 German colonial forces in southwest Africa responded to an uprising by the local Herero and Nama people with extreme violence – commander Lothar von Trotha ordered a war of annihilation – and imprisoned the survivors in a concentration camp where they were subjected to forced labour, violence, random killings and medical experiments.

In 1908 Eugen Fischer, who would later gain infamy as a Nazi anatomist, visited the camp and conducted experiments upon the prisoners, which led him to formulate a spurious but influential theory about ’white’ European supremacy. The skulls and some skeletons were then sent to Germany for use at institutions such as the Institute for Pathology in Berlin and the city’s Charité hospital, which is where Hirschfeld had completed his medical training a decade earlier. In 2011, twenty skulls found in the Charité archive were returned to Namibia.

IMG_3384 - Version 2

Credit: Heike Bauer

The uncovering in the twenty-first century of human remains in the archives and store rooms of major research organisations rightly makes headlines. If it sometimes enables the identification of the dead, and their burial under their own name, finding a material presence of lives extinguished so brutally can hardly be described in terms of closure. Perhaps more accurately the work of uncovering, rediscovery and research is a process of opening: of prising apart the ‘hidden’ doors behind which lie the dead we have yet to find.

6 May 1933: Thinking through History (before the General Election)

On this day in 1933, a group of Nazi students stormed the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. Leaving a trail of destruction, they removed most of the Institute’s library and a bust of its founder, Magnus Hirschfeld. A few days later, on 10 May, these materials would be set alight on Berlin’s Opernplatz – the opera square –  an event that marks the beginning of the infamous Nazi book burnings (for more information click here).

“Bundesarchiv Bild 102-14597, Berlin, Opernplatz, Bücherverbrennung” Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons.

In his diary – or what he calls in German his Testament, a word used to refer both to a person’s will and their legacy – Hirschfeld writes about the deep distress he felt when his lifework was set alight on a Scheiterhaufen. The English translation ‘pyre’ does not fully capture the strong associations of the German term with the early modern witch hunts. Yet Hirschfeld clearly drew on this difficult history to articulate his own experience of persecution and terror.

It is not uncommon that discussions of collective oppression and injury turn to ‘history’ to make oversimplified comparisons between distinct kinds of experience and circumstance. While we should be critical of such approaches – it is important, for instance, to recognise the distinct histories of antisemitism and homophobia that informed the Nazi attack on the Institute – remembering certain moments in history at certain points in the present nevertheless has its uses.

Eighty-two years after the events of May 1933, Hirschfeld’s tragic fate has itself come to stand for past injustice including in relation to the horrific acts perpetrated by the Nazi regime, and how they are remembered. It took until December 2003, for instance, before the German government agreed to a memorial dedicated to the homosexual victims of the Holocaust.

Thinking with and through this history remains an urgent task – especially perhaps today, on the eve of the UK general election when right-wing voices are heard so loudly across the country. This is not to draw a correlation between events of 1933 in Germany and British politics in 2015. But remembering the destruction of Hirschfeld and his Institute nevertheless serves as a poignant reminder that lives are easily turned into targets whose very existence is attacked and denied because their apparent ‘difference’ or ‘otherness’ from an imaginary norm is proclaimed problematic for the nation.

6 Feb. 2014: Nazi Laws and Public Feelings

I’m currently grappling with the question of how to attend to the relationship between law, politics and everyday lives and feelings in the past?

There now exists a considerable amount of cultural and critical scholarship on the shape and shaping of ‘public feelings‘, especially in the present-day U.S., and about what Sara Ahmed has called the Cultural Politics of Emotions. These insights, in different ways, follow in the feminist tradition of challenging the divide between the public and private, the personal and the political.

Photo-0525This article on the ‘Nazi murder law that still exists‘ indicates the importance of such modes of inquiry even as it shows that the law can provoke public feelings that do not address the full extent of systemic injustices. The broad content of the article – that some of the legislation introduced by the Nazis has never been revoked – was not new to me. However, I had previously only looked at the legal history of Paragraph 175 and its variations, which criminalised homosexuality and remained in West Germany’s Criminal Code until unification in 1994 (I’m showing a movie from 1919 about the impact of this law next week. For more info click here).

It is disturbing that  – so many years after Nazi rule has come to an end – people who are tried for murder in the German courts are still subjected to laws that were introduced by a regime which actively pursued hate, discrimination and inequality, and which killed millions of people. Stephen Evans, the author of the piece, points out the gendered effects of the Nazi murder laws, which distinguish ‘murder’ from ‘manslaughter’ via a definition of ‘the murderer’ ‘as someone who killed “treacherously” or “sneakily” (“heimtueckisch” in German):

‘This means that a man who beats his wife over many years, finally killing her, is less likely to be convicted of murder, with a mandatory life sentence, than to be convicted of manslaughter, which may mean only five years in jail. The argument is that there was nothing “sneaky” or “treacherous” about the killing – it was frontal and direct and might have been expected.’

The article gives examples of how some convictions under this law caused public outrage in Germany, but it appears that these public debates largely focused on the individual cases rather than the fact that Nazi laws remain in place in contemporary Germany.

Aside from drawing attention to the very real legacies of Nazism and its twenty-first century presence – how can a state work through its past if its institutions retain the values of an atrocious regime? – these debates also raise questions about the role of the law in historical research. In the history of same-sex sexuality, which is the concern of my current project, changes in legislation – such as the introduction of Paragraph 175 in the newly formed German Empire or the Labouchere Amendment in Britain – clearly impact on individual lives. But my work on Hirschfeld’s private papers and public work has already taught me that the relationship between legal and political developments and ‘felt experience’ is fraught. For laws, while helping to define the conditions of possibility for individual and collective existence, only ever tell part of the story of what it feels like to live at certain moments in time.

This is why, for me, the tools of literary analysis and cultural criticism are so important. As verbal and visual representations are our bridge between the imagined and the real, paying attention to the narratives that shape a historical archive provides access to the lives and feelings of the women and men who inhabit it.