20th Annual Symposium of the Friends of the GHI

Nov 11, 2011

Award of the Fritz Stern Prize at the GHI | Prize Winners: Brendan Karch (Harvard University) and Eric Steinhart (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Prize Winners

  • Brendan Karch (Harvard University): "Nationalism on the Margins: Silesians between Germany and Poland, 1848-1944"
  • Eric Steinhart (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill): "Creating Killers: The Nazification of the Black Sea Germans and the Holocaust in Southern Ukraine, 1941-1944"

The Symposium of the Friends of the German Historical Institute in generously supported by the Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius ZEIT Foundation

Event Report

The twentieth Annual Symposium of the Friends of the GHI featured the award of the 2011 Fritz Stern Dissertation Prizes to Brendan Karch (Harvard University), for his Harvard dissertation "Nationalism on the Margins: Silesians between Germany and Poland, 1848-1944," and to Eric Steinhart (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), for his dissertation "Creating Killers: The Nazification of the Black Sea Germans and the Holocaust in Southern Ukraine, 1941-1944," completed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The prize selection committee was composed of Ian McNeely (chair), Maria Mitchell, and Benjamin Marschke. After introductory remarks by Hartmut Berghoff, director of the GHI, the award ceremony was chaired by David Blackbourn (Harvard University), President of the Friends of the GHI. After the presentation of the awards, the two Stern Prize winners gave lectures about their dissertation research.

Brendan Karch's dissertation uses Upper Silesia in the period 1848-1944 as a case study to examine how borderland communities endured and dealt with the rise of radical nationalism. In Upper Silesia, he argued, ethnic ambiguity outlasted efforts to instill radical nationalism. Most Upper Silesians were indifferent to nationalist agitators, preferring Catholic communalism and regional identification. In fact, radical nationalism and ethnic ambiguity formed a reinforcing feedback loop. Giving a quick overview of his findings for the Nazi period, Karch noted that Poles remained a protected group in Nazi Upper Silesia until 1937 thanks to League-of-Nations minority protections. When those protections ended, the Nazis cracked down on the Polish minority; nevertheless, Polish-speaking Upper Silesians escaped the worst Nazi anti-Polish measures. After the end of the war, most German speakers in Upper Silesia stayed in place.

Eric Steinhart's dissertation addresses the question why the local German population in Transnistria, in the Southern Ukraine, participated in the Holocaust. Although this German-speaking population had greatly suffered under the Soviet regime, their initial attitude to the Nazis was primarily one of indifference. But when the Romanian authorities deported large numbers of Jews to Transnistria, the local German-speaking population participated in their mass murder under the leadership of the SS. How to explain this transformation from indifference to willing participation in mass murder? Steinhart argued that for Black-Sea Germans taking part in the Holocaust was a way of demonstrating their German-ness to the Nazi authorities in order to gain access to the resources that were being reserved for ethnic Germans. This was possible because Nazi Sonderkommandos used attitudes and behavior to gauge German-ness.

The presentations were followed by a commentary by Fritz Stern and a lively discussion with the audience. Articles based on Brendan Karch's and Eric Steinhart's dissertations will be published in the Spring 2012 issue of the GHI Bulletin.


Prize Citations

Committee: Ian F. McNeely, chair (University of Oregon); Maria Mitchell (Franklin & Marshall College); Benjamin Marschke (Humboldt State University)

Eric Steinhart
Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“Creating Killers: The Nazification of the Black Sea Germans and the Holocaust in Southern Ukraine, 1941-1944”
Advisor: Christopher Browning

This tremendously accomplished dissertation is an example of Holocaust research at its best, showing how “ordinary” people were pressured and enticed to murder their neighbors in Transnistria, a multiethnic region on the border between Romania and the Ukraine. This work advances our knowledge in numerous ways, offering a painstaking reconstruction of a complex story of horror resting at the intersection of Romanian, Nazi, and Soviet policy; Jewish suffering and death; and Black Sea German victimization and crime. Steinhart’s focus on Black Sea Germans, the largest group of Soviet ethnic Germans under Nazi occupation, sheds light not only on Nazi policy vis-à-vis the Volksdeutsche, but, more broadly, on Nazi plans for the Soviet lands Germany occupied. Furthermore, by focusing on the role of Black Sea Germans in executing Jews, the author contributes to our understanding of Holocaust perpetrators, in particular perpetrators from outside the Reich. Unfailingly attentive to class, religion, and gender, this dissertation thoughtfully engages methodological issues and historiographical debates throughout the text, all in the course of treating a vast expanse of sources from Germany, Romania, and the Soviet Union. Given contemporaries’ failure to keep complete records, and the intentional destruction of other materials, Steinhart’s careful and creative use of problematic and politicized sources, many of them produced decades after the events described, is especially innovative.

Brendan Karch
Ph.D., Harvard University
“Nationalism on the Margins: Silesians between Germany and Poland, 1848-1945”
Advisor: David Blackbourn

This elegantly conceptualized and meticulously researched dissertation explores how Upper Silesians resisted being assimilated into either the German or Polish “nations,” sometimes overtly, often more subtly. Focusing on the local and regional history of Oppeln/Opole, it rests on thorough and detailed use of archival and printed sources in both German and Polish. Moreover, it engages the entire period from 1848 through the late 1940s, seamlessly integrating several widely divergent historiographies covering an eventful century that saw the creation of German and Polish nation-states and two world wars. Finally, it mounts a comprehensive microhistory, treating associational life, the media, and the public sphere; social class and the economy; education and language policy; elections, political parties, and plebiscites; government administration; and religion. Karch’s fine-grained and nuanced approach enables him to reconstruct the tensions between nationalistic elites and the wider Upper Silesian populace who resisted becoming either Germanized or Polonized. Far from merely documenting Upper Silesians’ apathy and indifference toward projects of nation-building, this work shows how their political culture hinged on the toleration and embrace of ethnic ambiguity and a refusal to adopt nationhood as the primary axis of identity. Karch’s finding that Upper Silesians partly avoided the violence and ethnic cleansing of the 1940s highlights the long-term resiliency of the region’s political culture even and especially for the period of Nazi totalitarianism.