Influential historians claim Leipzig award for European understanding | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 13.03.2012
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Influential historians claim Leipzig award for European understanding

The Book Award for European Understanding is presented to mark the opening of the Leipzig Book Fair. This year the award is shared between two celebrated historians: Ian Kershaw and Timothy David Snyder.

Leipziger Buchmesse zugeliefert von Gabriela Schaaf, märz 2012

Leipziger Buchmesse Pressebild

They belong to two different generations but specialize in the same epoch. Ian Kersaw, born in Great Britain in 1943, is one of the most important experts on 20th-century German history. His two-volume Hitler biography, published in 1998 and 2000, has long been considered a benchmark study. American Timothy David Snyder, born in 1969, has devoted his work to Eastern European history and Holocaust research.

From hobby to profession

British historian Ian Kershaw poses with the first installlment of his big two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler

Ian Kershaw is receiving the Leipzig award for his analysis of the fall of the Third Reich

Kershaw taught at the University of Sheffield in England before he became professor emeritus of contemporary history. His decision to specialize in the history of National Socialism stemmed from his hobby as a youth. In the 1970s, Kershaw began learning German at the Goethe Institute in Manchester, where he must have had a very good teacher. As Kershaw once explained in an interview, his teacher managed to awaken her students' interest in German culture, literature, art, politics and history.

Kershaw switched from medievalism to contemporary German history, studied the social history of the Third Reich and wrote books as part of a research project on public opinions in Bavaria under National Socialist rule and the myth of Hitler. Here Kershaw found his profession. Eventually, he published a short book on Hitler's profile of power and, later, after many years of study, he completed his two-volume Hitler biography. In it he showed Hitler to be a product of society and undertook attempts to de-demonize him.

The historian broadened the moral guilt of the crimes of National Socialism, accusing smaller participants who went along with regime of being cogs in the same complex machinery. The grand narrative work found popular support in professional circles and secured Kershaw a wide readership.

Downfall of the National Socialist state

Over the course of the last few years, the British historian has been researching the downfall of National Socialist Germany. His study, "The End: Hitler's Germany, 1944-45" (Allen Lane), is a richly detailed account of the final phases of the Third Reich based on the central question of why the German military continued to fight for an entire year after their effective defeat in 1944, leading to a nearly total devastation of the country.

According to Kershaw's theory, virtues such as duty and honor were instrumentalized and abused by the Nazis. Many people could not see a viable alternative to the reigning system, and the terror wreaked by the SS and Gestapo was as dreaded as the opposite end of the political spectrum: Bolshevism and the communist Red Army.

In 1994, the British historian was awarded Germany's Federal Cross of Merit for his contribution to German history. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2002. Now, on the eve of the 2012 Leipzig Book Fair, Ian Kershaw's "The End" has been honored with the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding.

Remembering terror

Timothy D. Snyder is an American professor of history at Yale University, specializing in the history

Timothy D. Snyder takes a new perspective on suffering behind the Iron Curtain

The second winner of the award is a historian at Yale University and also teaches part-time in Vienna. Like Kershaw, Timothy David Snyder has also produced a book which has helped to further the understanding of one of the most ghastly periods in European history. With "Bloodlands: Europe between Stalin and Hitler" (Basic Books), he offers a corrective to the traditional Western European representation of history.

The fact that the inhabitants of central Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States suffered for 12 long years under Soviet and German occupation is often neglected in Western accounts of the period. Citizens there were horrifically murdered, deported and starved to death. Kershaw painstakingly details the atrocities committed by both regimes, rendering more precisely their varying methods and aims and makes clear the unimaginable suffering of people according to individual fates. Stalin's reign of terror was directed against his own people, while the National Socialists murdered millions of people who stood in the way of their war of conquest.

New insights

The memory of those dark atrocities seemed to disappear behind the Iron Curtain after the end of the Second World War. With "Bloodlands," multiple award winner Timothy D. Snyder made them visible once more, offering his own interpretation of this particular chapter of European history.

The Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding is endowed with 15,000 euros (nearly $20,000). The award is traditionally presented at the opening ceremony of the Book Fair at the Guild Hall in Leipzig.

Author: Silke Bartlick / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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