GW Work


Disregarding Disregard? The Representation of Passive Complicity among European Civilian Populations in Holocaust Museums Open Access

In large part due to the clouded and inarticulate nature of moral ambiguity, many questions surrounding inaction during the Holocaust remain unanswered. Yet it is possible that more still remain unasked. Since the 1990s, several academics have noted that the passive complicity of European civilian populations during the genocide is far less examined than other areas of Holocaust scholarship. Though in some cases quick to warn against passivity through a quote in their final installation or slogans printed on pencils in their gift shop, many Holocaust museums similarly devote limited attention to non-structural "bystanders" within their exhibitions. This supposed underrepresentation of passivity is curious not only due to the fantastic breadth of Holocaust scholarship, but also because of the prominent didactic position the inaction of individuals occupies in popular discourses surrounding the genocide. If action is to be projected as a salient moral lesson from the Holocaust, it seems justified that a thorough and nuanced understanding of inaction as it existed from 1933 to 1945 should be further developed in Holocaust historiography and presented in museums. My project seeks to a) assess the capacity in which the relative paucity of academic literature surrounding Holocaust "bystanders" has been manifested in public history and b) analyze museum representations of passive complicity among European civilians in a comparative framework. Through archival research, interviewing curators and scholars, and conducting fieldwork throughout Europe, I explored if and how a selection of Shoah exhibitions presented passive complicity at the level of the individual. My analysis of four case studies in Germany, Italy, Poland, and the United States suggested three main findings. First, the reasons predicating the relative absence of "bystanders" in Holocaust scholarship and commemoration run parallel in a variety of capacities. Second, while the majority of Holocaust museums limit their discussion of passivity among European civilians, institutions inside or on the periphery of concentration camps are more likely to examine the inaction of local individuals. Third, the exhibitions that do historicize the "bystander" narrative often utilize oral histories of "bystanders" to mitigate curatorial concerns surrounding the sensitivity of the subject.

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