Gellately's work, many would argue, should be translated into every nation's language, for his project does more than just apply rigorous scholarship to demystify this period of history.
Earl Ray Beck Professor, Department of History
Few disagree with keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive.
But the question of what to remember is still in debate, and one of the most respected and persuasive voices belongs to Robert Gellately, the Earl Ray Beck Professor of History, whose work challenges the central notions of the role played by "ordinary" German citizens in the rule of the Gestapo (secret state police).
His research began with a chance discovery.
Gellately had already published a book on German anti-semitism before the First World War and was doing research in a German archive when a librarian alerted him to a collection of Gestapo files—19,000 of them—that Nazi officers had not had to time to burn before the Allies arrived.
"I started to read these files about all the victims in just one region of Germany that the Gestapo had processed," Gellately says. "It would have taken a large force of secret police to collect information on so many people. I needed to know just how many secret police there really were. So I asked an elderly gentleman who would've lived through those times, and he replied, 'They were everywhere!'"
That was the prevailing myth.
"But I had evidence right there in my hands that supported a different story," Gellately explains. "There were relatively few secret police, and most were just processing the information coming in. I had found a shocking fact. It wasn't the secret police who were doing this wide-scale surveillance and hiding on every street corner. It was the ordinary German people who were informing on their neighbors."
This chance experience in an archive grew into his second book, The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy 1933-45 (Oxford University Press, 1990). Gellately had begun his lifetime project: writing books as a way of righting inaccuracies about one of the most significant events in human history.
As he was uncovering who was acting as the Gestapo's unsolicited agents, he also began to discern what motivated neighbor to inform on neighbor. The surviving myth told the story of informers who were motivated either by a commitment to the Third Reich or by a fear of authority.
But the motives Gellately found were banal—greed, jealousy, and petty differences.
He found cases of partners in business turning in associates to gain full ownership; jealous boyfriends informing on rival suitors; neighbors betraying entire families who chronically left shared bathrooms unclean or who occupied desirable apartments.
And then there were those who informed because for the first time in their lives someone in authority would listen to them and value what they said.
Did informants know the consequences of their accusations? Did they know that the accused were frequently freighted to concentration camps? Tortured? Killed?
"If somebody tells you that they lived in Germany during the Holocaust and didn't know about concentration camps, they are self-delusional, at best," Gellately says.
Not only were the camps not a secret, Gellately's research revealed, but the Third Reich made them a part of most Germans' daily life.
"I tested the assumption that 'Germans didn't know about the camps' by looking at their daily newspapers. This research project checked a small sample of newspapers, collecting only those articles with literal references in the headlines to 'concentration camps' and other related terms," he explains. "Even within that limited sample we found enough articles to fill a large carton."
This revelation became a focus of his third book, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, 1933-1944 (Oxford University Press, 2001) and set off a controversy that became the focus of an episode on the popular German television program Panorama (the German equivalent of 60 Minutes), for which Gellately was interviewed at length.
A show produced by the BBC rendered the controversy by interviewing people who had informed.
"One woman who was interviewed by the BBC typifies how Germans revised their own personal histories," explains Gellately. "When she was presented with a Gestapo document she had signed that denounced a Jewish woman, she admitted the signature was authentic—was hers. She then said, 'But that's not me.'"
Sorting out this tangle of history and rendering it in exposition engaging to both the academic and non-academic readers have prompted reviews in most major newspapers and magazines, from Newsweek to The New York Times. This review in The Washington Post (July 29, 2001) typifies the critical reception for Gellately's work:
Backing Hitler also challenges conventional views on the nature of modern dictatorships. Perhaps as a way for us to believe that "it couldn't happen here," we have viewed the Holocaust as an atrocity that was the work of a handful of evil men. Gellately, however, presents persuasive evidence that Hitler and the Third Reich were able to build a consensus for their policies.
"They began with small violations of the rights of Jews and other minorities, and then ratcheted up their racism and persecution only when they saw implied consent from the German people." Gellately says. "Many Germans disapproved of Hitler's fascism and brutality, at first. But after the long economic depression following the First World War, the German people allowed the thriving economy and return to law and order under Hitler to mute their concerns. People had jobs and the streets were safe. Hitler was managing a fine balance of consent and coercion."
Gellately has recently published a set of original documents dealing with the 1945-46 Nuremberg trials of war criminals in The Nuremberg Interviews: Profiles of the Leading Nazis, by the Prison Psychiatrist to the Nuremberg Trials (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). This volume is scheduled to be translated into fourteen languages.
Gellately's work, many would argue, should be translated into every nation's language, for his project does more than just apply rigorous scholarship to demystify this period of history. It is a study of the modern human being, what we have done and how we came to do it—and how in understanding our vulnerabilities, we might survive them.