Occupation Studies

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Maastricht University

PhD Workshop Report: Experiencing and Remembering Mass Violence

Maria Fritsche, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)

The aim of the workshop on Experiencing and Remembering Mass Violence: Social and Cultural Perspectives on the Histories of Violence of War, held on 16 September 2022 in Amsterdam, was to bring together PhD students studying issues of war, violence and genocide from a social and cultural perspective. Although the call for papers did not specify a specific geographic region, all submitted papers focused on the Second World War in Europe and its aftermath.

While not all papers dealt directly with the system of occupation, it was nevertheless an overarching theme. Without the German occupation of large parts of Europe, there would have been no Nazi concentration and extermination camps, no forced conscription to German labour or army service (as in the case of Luxembourg), and no persecution of natives by a foreign power. Nazi Germany’s occupation of Europe also had repercussions for the Germans themselves, resulting in the Allied occupation of Germany that was accompanied by acts of revenge as well as widespread hunger from which the Germans had previously been spared. This obviously raised the question of the extent to which one can deploy a comparative framework to study very different cases of occupation.

The papers covered three thematic clusters: the experience of violence, everyday life under occupation, and narratives of suffering. Those discussing the first topic focused predominantly on Nazi violence directed against specific groups: the Funktionshäftlinge (prisoner functionary or ‘kapo’) at the concentration camp Mauthausen (Gerry Faber) and the extermination camp in Treblinka (Alexander Williams); members of local Polish elites (Izabela Paszko); and Dutch forced labourers in Nazi-Germany (Renske Krimp-Schraven). Even though the Nazis implemented a system of terror within the Reich immediately after they had come to power, the German occupation greatly expanded the range of people who became targets of Nazi persecution. Moreover, the camp system relied on a hierarchy of power between guards, functionaries and prisoners that actively exploited construed and real differences to aggravate the victims’ exploitation and suffering.

While Nazi violence in the camps and prisons was more immediately felt than the structural violence under occupation which, at least in western and northern Europe, constituted for many a more remote threat, the two forms of violence were closely linked. Whereas Manuel Mork’s analysis of the (not so clandestine) listening to BBC broadcasts in German-occupied France emphasised agency and the subversion of Nazi power and thereby suggested the limitations of the occupiers’ power, Pazko’s study of occupied Poland demonstrated how the brutal repression of resistance ripped apart whole families. Félix Streicher examined the little-known post-war Luxembourgish occupation of two districts in western Germany and illustrated the far-reaching impact of Nazi violence by detailing acts of revenge taken by members of the Luxembourgish army against their former occupiers.

The third theme – individual and collective narratives of suffering – was analysed by Anne van Mourik, Renske Krimp-Schraven, and Alexander Williams. All of these narratives were rooted in war and occupation, yet represent vastly different and incomparable experiences. The extraordinary amount of suffering witnessed and experienced by prison functionaries in extermination camps was deliberately inflicted by an identifiable group of perpetrators, whereas the hunger Germans suffered after the war had no single cause. Van Mourik’s analysis of narratives of German hunger in textbooks and exhibitions examined the role and especially the discursive function of the Allied occupation in these representations to illuminate the construction of victimhood. Her analysis could serve as a useful case to compare with other narratives of occupations in order to establish whether the civilian experiences of occupation were similar.  It also raises the question whether the dominant national narratives of perpetrator (i.e. the occupiers and collaborators) or victim are also influenced by hierarchical power structures of occupation.

Particularly fruitful for the participants were the discussions on methodological concepts: Alexander Williams made a compelling argument for why time and space were experienced differently in extermination as opposed to in concentration camps, which made us think about how war and occupation alter concepts of time and space. In extermination camps the prisoners had no hope of survival. Another interesting discussion point was the issue of agency which plays a key role in every history from below, whether one adopts an Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life) or a microhistorical approach.  The discussion made clear that in some contexts, such as in occupied France, people retained considerable amounts of agency despite German oppression, whereas in other contexts, such as in the Nazi camps, agency was very limited or almost non-existent. Does a microhistorical or everyday history approach to the study of occupied societies tend to understate the extent of repression, precisely because it looks for traces of agency and subversion that a macrohistorical structure-oriented approach is unable to detect?

Violence, as mentioned above, plays a central role in any occupation. Whether directly experienced or applied, or as a permanent threat, occupation relies on the use of violence to retain an asymmetry of power between the occupiers and the occupied. Apart from the decisive difference in the quality and extent of violence applied under Nazi and Western Allied occupation, another difference lies in the fact that there were far fewer and less severe repercussions for people who expressed unease about the use of violence under Allied occupation.

An additional and perhaps equally important finding was that people living under occupation had a widespread desire and need to connect socially: whether through collective listening to foreign broadcasts, letter writing, or by identifying other people with a shared social or political background in the camps. Social relations were vital to endure deprivation, violence, and loss. It is only through a history from below which is interested in the social experiences, practices and responses of individuals and groups that these aspects of the occupation become visible. However, to truly understand how the ‘structure’ of one particular occupation functioned it is vital to compare different occupations or the experiences of different groups within one system of occupation.

Maria Fritsche and Ville Kivimäki organised the PhD workshop by invitation of the Duitsland Instituut Amsterdam (DIA) at the University of Amsterdam. The two convenors, together with Mario Daniels, Hanco Jürgens, and Krijn Thijs from the DIA, as well as the participating eight students, took turns to comment on the pre-circulated papers.


Photo credits:

Cover picture: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943. Jews captured during the Warsaw ghetto uprising are marched to the Umschlagplatz for deportation.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Maria Fritsche is Professor of Modern International History, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Norway.