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Hitler & Holocaust on the Screen: Perspectives & Challenges

4 March 2016, Old Library, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Seventy years after his passing, the riddle of making sense of Hitler’s role in bringing about the death of up to six million Jews and millions of non-Jews continues to be unresolved. The challenge remains twofold, an intellectual one in dissecting and interpreting Hitler’s ideas and actions, and an artistic one in fostering meaningful public discourse.

Even though most, but by no means all, scholars would agree with Ian Kershaw’s dictum ‘No Hitler, no Holocaust’, there has been little consensus as to how Hitler’s actions and ideas were translated into the mass killings of tens of millions of people in Europe’s ‘bloodlands’ as well as elsewhere.  Similarly, there has been no consensus as to how the actions and ideas of other decision makers and of ‘ordinary’ Germans and non-Germans interacted with Hitler’s ideas and actions in bringing about genocidal warfare. The recent heated discussion about Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth is thus but the latest episode of a debate that, due to its implications for understanding both the past and present, and for understanding ourselves, continues to stir emotions equally in the ivory tower and in the public.

 The artistic challenge in depicting Hitler and in fostering public discourse is illustrated well by the reception of the 2103 German TV mini series ‘Generation War’. The worldwide success of the Emmy-winning series, broadcast in more than a hundred countries, is a testament as to how great the public thirst for understanding the process culminating in genocide continues to be. Yet the responses to the mini series, e.g., by many Polish commentators or by the New York Times film critic reviewing the mini series, who misunderstood the intentions of the filmmakers, also underline the challenges and pitfalls of fostering new public debate about the Holocaust.

                Anyone depicting Hitler artistically touches necessarily upon the same sensitivities as Generation War did, that continue to impact on the self-image of people and of nations in the twenty-first century: How do we give Hitler, other leaders, ordinary Germans, and non-Germans their respective correct right weight in explaining what tends to be seen as the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century? How do we present the perpetrators of genocide in a way that is at the same time historically accurate, intelligible across cultural and linguistic boundaries, and aware of the differing societal sensitivities and taboos around the globe about the subject?

                The challenge of making sense of Hitler’s own role has been particularly high due to the risk of falling victim to undue accusations of overemphasizing the role of Hitler and thus of purportedly playing into the hands of apologists. Rather than address the challenge, there has thus recently been a tendency to duck the issue, as a result of which Hitler tends to be cast as an omnipresent but one-dimensional support character. The same has arguably been the case for scholarly engagement with Hitler’s role in the Holocaust too.

 The symposium aims to address both challenges. It will take stock and make sense of the state of art of research on Hitler’s role in bringing about genocide and exterminatory warfare. It will also discuss the challenges in casting Hitler on the screen, not as an omnipresent yet strangely empty supporting character, but as a protagonist.

 The symposium will bring together leading academics as well as some of the makers behind the forthcoming fictionalised TV series on Hitler’s life, produced by UFA-Fiction and Beta Film. It is the outcome of a series of related events held in Cambridge in past years: a panel debate on Hitler research at the Modern European History Research Seminar in Michaelmas 2013, and a presentation of the planned Hitler TV series at the Public & Popular History Seminar in Michaelmas 2014. The symposium forms part of the programme of German Studies Research Hub, supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FFO).



 Symposium programme

9.00:  Coffee

9.15-9.30: Welcome -            Sir Christopher Clark (Cambridge)

                                                Bernhard Fulda (Cambridge)


Session 1: 9.30-11.00

Hitler and the Judeocide: the state of research

Chair: Sir Richard J. Evans (Cambridge)

  • Robert Gerwarth (Dublin), Hitler and the SS architects of genocide
  • Wolfram Pyta (Stuttgart), Reflections on Hitler's decision–making culture
  • Nick Stargardt (Oxford), Whose Holocaust? German war-time conversations on genocide

Session 2: 11.30-13.00

Hitler and the Holocaust on Screen

Chair: Moshe Zimmermann (Jerusalem)

  • Martin Ruehl (Cambridge), Hitler Films - a brief survey
  • Axel Bangert (NYU Berlin), Viusualising motives for mass murder
  • Frank Bösch (ZZF Potsdam), One-way road? Scholarly knowledge and audiovisual       representations of the Third Reich

Lunch break - 13.00-14.30

Session 3: 14.30-15.45

Concept and challenges of the planned UFA Fiction/beta film production: Hitler

Chair: Bernhard Fulda (Cambridge)

  • Jonathan Steinberg, (UPenn), Mass Murder and its Bureaucracy
  • Thomas Weber (Aberdeen) & Niki Stein, Behind the scenes: crafting 'Hitler'

Coffee break - 15.45-16.15

Session 4: 16.15-17.00

General Discussion

The symposium forms part of the Cambridge German Studies Research Hub, supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FFO). The organiser would also like to thank UFA Fiction for its support. A limited number of places for guests is available; for registration, please email Bernhard Fulda,