Studying Nazi Germany

By Adam Wolinsky, history undergraduate student (2012-2015).

I chose to write a Free Standing Long Essay in order to take advantage of the unique opportunity to select a topic of interest to me and explore it in great depth. Nazi Germany is a period of history that has always been of interest to me; unsurprisingly it is also one of the periods of modern history most hotly debated amongst academics. I chose specifically to focus on the pre-war period, which allowed me to explore the creation of the racial Volksgemeinschaft (‘national community). Through gathering source material I was able to analyse the impact that the anti-Semitic policies of the Third Reich had on the everyday life of ‘ordinary Germans’ (the use of this phrase was a nod to Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, a favourite book on the topic).

My approach to the project was to collect as many personal testimonies as possible, and attempt to identify patterns of how attitudes amongst Germans varied with location, age, gender and class. Many of my primary sources were gathered from the extensive archives of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. However, I was also afforded the incredible opportunity to create my own oral history; through the Holocaust Survivors Centre in Hendon, London, I was introduced to several German-born Jews who had fled Germany before the war and emigrated to the UK. These remarkable individuals kindly allowed me to interview them, and shared fascinating tales of their experiences as Jewish children in pre-war Nazi Germany.

Although this was a topic that I had studied for several years prior to the project, many of the testimonies and much of the source material I encountered surprised me, adding several layers of nuance to my understanding of the period. It led me to form the overarching argument that many ordinary Germans displayed an official hostility towards ‘the Jew’, whilst reserving a personal tolerance for individual Jews they knew and interacted with. One of the biggest challenges of the dealing with the topic matter was attempting to grapple with this seemingly contradictory dichotomous behaviour.