A Dissertation is Born

When I was doing my Ph.D. coursework and searching for a dissertation topic, the hot debate was Browning and Goldhagen – was Batallion 101 ordinary men or ideological killers? I had become convinced that institutional roles were overlooked. Discussion with George Browder brought into focus the twin factors of police subculture and colonial situations, especially as they come together in colonial policing. Along the way, I read Michael Mann’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies article on 1,581 perpetrator biographies, and became taken with his work on regional origins, party membership, and social background as means of determining the ordinariness of perpetrators. While in Berlin on a DAAD, I read Alexander Hohenstein’s Wartheländisches Tagebuch – virtually an epistolary novel of colonial life in the Warthegau. I became so fascinated that I lost interest in the police and went on a quest to figure out who was Alexander Hohenstein. The search led me to the Polish State Archive in Lodz, to a batch of personnel files I hoped would contain clues to Hohenstein’s identity. Noticing that the signature cards of most of these files were entirely blank, filled as they were with the records of hundreds of ordinary German civil administrators, I realized I had a dissertation in my hands – a study of “colonizer” biographies.

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I became sidetracked by a couple of issues. (1) If these were “colonizers” and life in occupied Poland felt so colonial, then what was the relationship, if any, of this episode with what we think of as “colonialism”? Postcolonial studies were becoming mainstream about the same time, and pulled me down paths of wondering how the Nazi “civilizing mission” in the East bore resemblance to that of “run of the mill” colonialism. For the Nazis did have a mission, as surely as they had a conscience and a sense of virtue, perverted as these were. (2) The colonial parallels ran deeper than I had ever imagined, but were never a simple, easy-to-explain, one-to-one correspondence. In particular, in 2003, Wendy Lower showed me a memo from Reichskommissariat Ukraine (RKU) that mentioned the German Togo Trading Company operating in the RKU. The resulting odyssey brought me close to the research of Karsten Linne on the Hamburg trading companies, via Götz Aly and Susanne Heim’s Vordenker der Vernichtung. With Heinrich Himmler and his crass colonizing ambitions striking me as too obvious a mark, instead I grappled with Walter Emmerich’s economic development plans in the Government General. Wherever I turned, I found people trying to turn Poland into a German colony, according to their individual or institutional perspective. And this always brought me back to the original question – who were these people? Why did they choose to come to Poland? And were they careerists or ideologically motivated?

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When I was doing my Ph.D. coursework and searching for a dissertation topic, the hot debate was Browning and Goldhagen – was Batallion 101 ordinary men or ideological killers? I had become convinced that institutional roles were overlooked. Discussion with George Browder brought into focus the twin factors of police subculture and colonial situations, especially as they come together in colonial policing. Along the way, I read Michael Mann’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies article on 1,581 perpetrator biographies, and became taken with his work on regional origins, party membership, and social background as means of determining the ordinariness of perpetrators. While in Berlin on a DAAD, I read Alexander Hohenstein’s Wartheländisches Tagebuch – virtually an epistolary novel of colonial life in the Warthegau. I became so fascinated that I lost interest in the police and went on a quest to figure out who was Alexander Hohenstein. The search led me to the Polish State Archive in Lodz, to a batch of personnel files I hoped would contain clues to Hohenstein’s identity. Noticing that the signature cards of most of these files were entirely blank, filled as they were with the records of hundreds of ordinary German civil administrators, I realized I had a dissertation in my hands – a study of “colonizer” biographies.

\r\n

I became sidetracked by a couple of issues. (1) If these were “colonizers” and life in occupied Poland felt so colonial, then what was the relationship, if any, of this episode with what we think of as “colonialism”? Postcolonial studies were becoming mainstream about the same time, and pulled me down paths of wondering how the Nazi “civilizing mission” in the East bore resemblance to that of “run of the mill” colonialism. For the Nazis did have a mission, as surely as they had a conscience and a sense of virtue, perverted as these were. (2) The colonial parallels ran deeper than I had ever imagined, but were never a simple, easy-to-explain, one-to-one correspondence. In particular, in 2003, Wendy Lower showed me a memo from Reichskommissariat Ukraine (RKU) that mentioned the German Togo Trading Company operating in the RKU. The resulting odyssey brought me close to the research of Karsten Linne on the Hamburg trading companies, via Götz Aly and Susanne Heim’s Vordenker der Vernichtung. With Heinrich Himmler and his crass colonizing ambitions striking me as too obvious a mark, instead I grappled with Walter Emmerich’s economic development plans in the Government General. Wherever I turned, I found people trying to turn Poland into a German colony, according to their individual or institutional perspective. And this always brought me back to the original question – who were these people? Why did they choose to come to Poland? And were they careerists or ideologically motivated?

‘, ‘I wrote this paper for the “National Socialism, Colonialism, and Genocide” workshop sponsored by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research on March 29, 2007.

January 12, 2008 in History