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Terrible truth of the Nazis who escaped scot-free

17 January, 2019 — By John Gulliver

Mary Fulbrook

MARY Fulbrook has been leading a split life – during the day she has headed a London University history faculty and then in the evening returned to her nearby home to sink herself in the most bloodthirsty episode in human history.

She has been investigating the causes and aftermath of the Holocaust in which millions of human beings were slaughtered.

Fulbrook has written extensively before about the Holocaust but this time she also had in her sights the high-ranking German Nazis responsible for the death camps in which Jews, Gypsies and children perished.

And, as she told me this week, she uncovered the terrible truth, that most of them had “got off scot free”, often ending their lives in pleasant retirement.

She has recorded her findings in a massive 657-page tome, nearly 300,000 words long, entitled Reckonings. The first half goes over the background to the Holocaust, the second records and analyses who did what and how they got away with it. It took her nearly six years of researching documents and carrying out interviews to complete her mission.

Critics of the half-hearted way West Germany pursued and dealt with Nazi criminals in the 1950s and 60s often pointed out at the time how they were escaping justice. But few listened to them – and the mainstream media gave scant coverage of the scandal.

Historians have wrestled with this shameful episode – but Fulbrook leaves no doubt that the then West German authorities conned the world into believing they were doing their best to pursue and punish the Nazis.

I talked to Fulbrook who lives in a flat near Red Lion Square, Hol­born, with her husband Julian, a veteran Camden Labour councillor whom she praises in her Acknowledgements for his comments on “successive drafts” and the way he accompanied her on trips to “dismal locations” across Europe.

Her mother was a German who had to flee from the Nazis just before the outbreak of the Second World War as a young teenager. Largely because of her background she has always specialised in German history but, to her, history is a living subject with lessons for today.

In her seminal work, Reckonings, she asks whether the Germans were “indifferent” to Hitler or “passively” accepted his sadistic views, the former a more neutral attitude, the latter one veering towards acceptance.

She talks passionately about Germany of the 1920s and 30s and sketches how teachers were frightened into joining the Nazi party, inculcating children with racist views – pointing out how school trips were organised so pupils could be shown the burnt-out synagogues and looted shops owned by Jews.

It was a world in which – perhaps out of terror – people stood by and pretended they didn’t see the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.

Similar moral questions can face us today when our liberties are challenged or we are dragged into wars as in Iraq where hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed – do we walk by or oppose them?

Fulbrook isn’t a detached, bookish academic. No sooner has she seen off her latest offering – it is just now hitting the shelves – than she has already started work on her second book on the Nazis, partly on the lives and stories of their children. Over the phone she talked quickly and passionately about the subject and I sensed that somehow she may be fulfilling a quest that lies interlocked somewhere with her family background.

• Mary Fulbrook is giving a talk on her book Reckonings at a meeting at the Bloomsbury Baptist Church, Holborn, chaired by Michael Horowitz, a retired judge and a fellow resident, on January 25, at 7pm. The book is published by Oxford University Press, £25.

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