How Christopher Browning realized the importance of eyewitness testimony





Though it has long played a central role in the popular history of the Holocaust, survivor testimony has for decades been seen as marginal by Holocaust historians. The issue has preoccupied scholars since Raul Hilberg’s landmark 1961 book, The Destruction of the European Jews, in which he largely discounted the “usefulness” of survivor accounts.

Hilberg’s pioneering work established a methodological orthodoxy with regard to survivor testimony that was long adhered to by historians looking to establish a credible and unassailable historical record of Nazi crimes.

Christopher Browning was still operating within the boundaries Hilberg had set when he chose to focus on the slow brutalization of a single battalion of German soldiers in his pathbreaking 1992 book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

But, more recently, while studying a 1972 German court case that acquitted a Nazi police chief on all charges related to his role in the liquidation of a small Jewish ghetto in central Poland, Browning was outraged.

He was struck by the presiding judge’s chilling dismissal of some 100 eyewitness testimonies by the ghetto’s survivors who attested to the defendant’s memorable savagery. The judge dryly noted, “As a matter of principle … eyewitness testimony was ‘the most unreliable form of evidence’ with which the judicial process had to deal.” Compounding the insult was the fact that virtually no other documentary or evidentiary material existed in this case.

In his latest book, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp, Browning offers a corrective—one that represents a shift away from the field’s long-held eschewal of survivor testimony. “The history of the Holocaust,” Browning has concluded, “cannot be written solely as either perpetrator history or history from above.”...


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gustav - schonfeld - 7/28/2010

It is nice to see that Mr. Browning had a change of heart about witness testimony. As a survivor I appreciate the vote of confidence.

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