Schwarz, a journalist born to a German father and French mother, makes two powerful, interwoven arguments. First, history is too often reduced to the story of victims and perpetrators, heroes and villains, when we have as much to learn from the actions and elaborate alibis of the “Mitlaüfer,” those who “followed the current” — people like her grandfather, a member of the National Socialist Party in Germany. He was not openly anti-Semitic, but he thought little of buying a business from Jewish owners forced to sell their company at a fraction of its worth, and he later reacted with indignation (“all our agreements were made in the most amicable way”) when the only surviving Jewish owner attempted to secure reparations.
Schwarz examines the “succession of small capitulations” that facilitated the extermination of Europe’s Jews. She asks how German officials could have so often carried out deportation operations “smoothly and without incident.” Schwarz doesn’t know whether her German relatives personally witnessed Jews being deported but asks, when her grandfather “Karl Schwarz went to work that morning, when he stepped out for lunch, and when [her grandmother] Lydia went to take her little four-year-old girl for a stroll, didn’t they feel . . . that heaviness on the faces of passersby, who were more hurried than usual?” She wonders, “Didn’t it come up the next morning, with colleagues, shopkeepers, or friends?”
Initially, Schwarz fixated on Oct. 22, 1940, the date some 2,000 Jews were ripped out of their homes in her father’s hometown, Mannheim, where she found no record of German protestations. But she later learns that families like her own not only failed to protest the deportations; they participated in auctions over the leftover properties — dishes, rugs, silver, furniture — in the very homes where their Jewish neighbors had lived for generations. Schwarz imagines the photos of deported Jews still lining the walls of the newly confiscated apartments, children’s toys strewn around and laundry still hanging on the line. “How is it possible that these scenes didn’t grab them by the throat and force them to refrain from buying anything?”
Schwarz challenges her compatriots not from a place of self-righteous confidence that she would have acted otherwise but out of a conviction that, whatever the rationalizations of those living under Nazi rule, most would have in fact risked little by showing solidarity. When individuals question commonly held justifications and do deeper memory work, she writes, they see that “people often have more choice than they think.” She quotes German historian Norbert Frei’s observation that while each of us cannot know what we would have done, it “does not mean that we do not know how we should have behaved.” Schwarz provides her own addendum: “And should behave, if it ever happens again.”
Although she has written a searing book about the past, Schwarz’s work is oriented toward the present and the future (she began writing partly as a reaction to the election of President Trump). And it is her second line of argument that makes the book so timely and necessary. Schwarz contends that when societies don’t grapple with their complicity — acting instead as though the inheritance they possess has been innocently won or that the crimes of the past were orchestrated by a few villainous outliers — they will lack the antibodies to prevent present-day intolerance and targeted violence. She dissects decades of denialism in France, where citizens largely viewed themselves as the victims of German occupation or greatly exaggerated popular participation in the anti-fascist resistance. Failing to interrogate the breadth of French-Nazi collaboration not only left people misinformed; it almost inevitably made them less vigilant to the risk of falling prey to dark contemporary forces. Schwarz urges us all to probe “the psychological and collective mechanisms that lead an individual or a society, often in the context of a crisis, to become complicit in crimes out of conformism, opportunism, indifference, blindness, and fear.” If people better understand these mechanisms, she argues, “it helps them remain cautious about their own moral fallibility.”
Schwarz is careful: She does not argue that “memory work” is inoculation against extremism — the far-right Alternative for Germany party secured 10.7 percent in 2017 in what used to be West Germany, whose eventual Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past,” and “discernment, collective responsibility, and intellectual honesty” she rates highly. But she notes that, in places like the former East German territory, Austria and France, where the reckoning with the crimes of World War II has been more superficial, extreme right-wing and proto-fascist parties have made more substantial inroads.
“Those Who Forget” is as readable as it is persuasive. Schwarz embeds her appeal to citizens and nations to do memory work in a gripping detective story centered on her own family’s history. She has a gift for finding the single scene or exchange of dialogue that drives home her points. In describing, for example, the story of the United States and other countries slamming their doors on Jewish refugees at the 1938 Évian conference, she quotes Golda Meir, later an Israeli prime minister, who wrote: “Sitting in that wonderful hall listening to the representatives of thirty-two countries standing up one after another and explaining how terribly glad they would be to receive a larger number of refugees and how terribly sorry they were that they unfortunately could not — it was a shattering experience.”
Scenes such as these have moving resonance today when — with more people displaced globally than at any point since World War II — President Trump has slashed refugee admissions to their lowest point since the launch of the U.S. refugee program four decades ago. But Schwarz’s book deserves to be read and discussed widely in the United States principally for all it has to teach us about the urgency of confronting the darkest dimensions of our own history.
Bryan Stevenson, the death-row lawyer who runs the Equal Justice Initiative, worked for eight years to create the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, which opened in 2018. He has been on a mission to force Americans to confront the legacy of lynching, the brutal murders of thousands of Black people in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. As the nationwide protests this summer have so powerfully shown, White Americans’ failure to reckon with our country’s violence against African Americans has been a formidable impediment to addressing modern-day injustices. As a first step, school curriculums, memorials and public policy must address the crimes committed against Blacks because, as Stevenson recently put it:
“We have ignored all of the violence at Black people that took place in 1919, the Tulsa massacre, violence in Elaine, Arkansas, where hundreds of Black people were killed by White mobs. And the federal government did nothing. When you constantly see this sort of violence . . . from the early days of lynching, to the murder of Emmett Till, to police violence in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, you send a message that, if you’re going to victimize someone, if you’re going to be violent, and it’s a person of color or a Black person, you don’t have to worry so much about the repercussions.”
Schwarz’s grandmother never liked to discuss World War II or the family’s relationship to Nazi rule. Overcome with anxiety, she committed suicide late in life. Schwarz writes, “The spiny past she had carted around for the whole of her existence, like a suitcase that she never had time to set down, suddenly unfastened with alarming speed, ceaselessly unspooling the poison of memory.”
Cover-ups, whether willful or unwitting, help enable present-day harms.
This is Schwarz’s invaluable warning.
Those Who Forget
My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe – A Memoir, A History, A Warning
By Géraldine Schwarz
Translated from the French by Laura Marris
308 pp. $28