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New Paths, New Directions: Reflections on Forty Years of Holocaust Studies and the GSA

Beorn, Waitman
Beorn, Waitman
The Western Association for German Studies (WAGS) was founded in 1976 on the cusp of a public reawakening to the horrors of the Holocaust. A year later, neo-Nazis in the United States argued before the Supreme Court for the right to march in Skokie, IL (a right they won in 1978, though the march took place in Chicago). This spurred the creation of a Holocaust museum there and led many survivors to begin breaking their silence. In that same year, the massively successful TV miniseries Holocaust was released, winning an Emmy, and airing on German television in 1979. Also in 1978, the Office of Special Investigations was created to track down Nazi war criminals living in the US. Finally, President Jimmy Carter created a commission on the Holocaust which resulted in the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). These public events should not, of course, obscure the fact that scholars had been researching the Holocaust prior to this point. Raul Hilberg published his groundbreaking Destruction of the European Jews in 1961 and Lucy Dawidowicz published her equally important work, The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945, in 1975. It was in this scholarly and popular moment for Holocaust consciousness that the nascent Western Association for German Studies held its first conference in 1977. There, for a seven dollar conference registration fee, attendees could attend a panel entitled simply “The Third Reich.” One of the presenters was a young assistant professor at Pacific Lutheran University named Christopher R. Browning who spoke on “Ribbentrop and The Final Solution,” material drawn from his dissertation on the German Foreign Office and the Holocaust. His advisor had told him there was no future in Holocaust studies. Indeed, it might have looked that way at the time. For Browning and others, the WAGS Conference (which later became the GSA) was a vital component of the growing field of Holocaust studies. Indeed, it was the only academic venue for those working on the Holocaust to present their work. The first Lessons and Legacies Conference, sponsored by the Holocaust Educational Foundation, would not be held until 1989. By and large, the Holocaust was not taught at the university level, let alone in secondary schools. There were no centers for the study of the Holocaust and genocide. In addition, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum did not exist and could not support Holocaust scholarship. Clearly, however, there was a future in Holocaust studies, which, along with genocide studies, represents an important area of historical scholarship. Courses in the Holocaust now routinely fill classrooms and most positions in the area of modern German History require the ability to teach this course. Since the GSA began meeting (and publishing the German Studies Review), the field of Holocaust studies has expanded almost exponentially and produced an incredible diversity of philosophical positions, topics of study, and methodologies. In this short essay, I will seek to illustrate some of the important trajectories of Holocaust studies over the past forty years of the GSA’s existence and the connections between the development of the discipline and the organization.
German Studies Review, 2016
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