Dispossession: A call for papers

Dispossession: Plundering German Jewry, 1933-1945 and Beyond

Conference at Boston University, November 9-11, 2014

Among the stereotypes about Jews circulating in Nazi Germany, perhaps the most prominent portrayed Jews not simply as rich, but as enriching themselves at the expense of non-Jewish Germans. It is one of the cruelest of ironies, however, that the Nazis were the real economic predators, robbing Europe’s Jews before murdering them. Within twelve short years, the Nazis managed to dispossess Germany’s Jews, taking away first their rights, then their property, and finally their lives.

Despite the enormity of the crime, however, the dispossession of the Jews has only recently become the focus of scholarly attention. To some extent, interest in the state-sponsored seizure of Jewish assets has been understandably overshadowed by the more pressing need to reconstruct and understand the Holocaust. If theft paled in comparison with murder, moreover, such technical problems as currency transfer restrictions, capital levies, and blocked accounts have seemed far too arcane to most historians to deliver significant insights into the nature of the “Third Reich,” much less the murder of Europe’s Jews. And where a lack of interest in financial history has not inhibited the study of the confiscation of Jewish assets, lingering concerns about confirming antisemitic stereotypes about Jews and money has. Finally, differences in analytical emphasis, such as a focus on the perpetrators instead of their victims, have perpetuated historiographic divisions between German and Jewish history. Those divisions have also contributed to a narrative incoherence that made it more difficult to identify the business of economic discrimination as an autonomous topic.

For all of these reasons, the organizers – Jonathan Zatlin (Boston University) and Christoph Kreutzmüller (Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz) – seek to bring together scholars from a variety of countries working on the financial history, social significance, and cultural meanings of the theft of Jewish assets by the Nazis. In addition to promoting intellectual exchange, we aim to overcome the historiographic divisions between Jewish and German history by combining the history of the victims with that of the perpetrators in novel ways. Drawing on what might be called the “economic turn” in the field of history, we seek to disrupt standard accounts of German Jews, which alternatively downplay the embeddedness of the Jewish community in German society or reduce the diversity of Jewish experience to the ravages of antisemitism, and instead integrate Jewish into German history by incorporating Jewish agency into the larger story of the Nazi dictatorship. By construing “dispossession” broadly, moreover, we aim to combine cultural interpretation with economic analysis of this theft in order to make the significance of this history more accessible to larger audiences.

The organizers welcome proposals on a variety of relevant themes, such as:

  • The Jewish commercial presence under the Nazis, including regional and sectoral case studies
  • Nazi justifications of expropriation and plunder
  • The incompatibility of emigration and confiscation
  • Legal and financial technologies deployed by the regime to confiscate Jewish assets
  • The identification of assets as “Jewish”
  • The theft of artwork
  • The theft of Jewish communal property
  • Gender as a demographic and financial issue
  • Contemporary German reactions to the dispossession of the Jews
  • German-Jewish responses to these measures
  • The dispossession of German Jewry as a “learning process” or model for the rest of Europe
  • Problems of restitution

The organizers expect to publish a selection of papers in a volume designed to break new ground by bringing together cultural, social, and economic history. The language of the workshop and the published volume will be English. Please send a 500-word abstract and a one-page CV to the following email address by March 1: disposs@bu.edu.


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