Oral History: Christopher Browning

Christopher BrowningNarrator: Christopher R. Browning
Interviewer: John Tortorice
Date: 2 September 2020
Format: Text only via email during the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic.

Christopher R. Browning biography:
Christopher R. Browning is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received both his M.A. (1968) and Ph.D. (1975) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his B.A. (1967) from Oberlin College. Throughout his prolific career, Browning has received a number of honors and awards, including the Yad Vashem Book Prize in 2012 for Remembering Survival, two Honorary Doctorates (from Northwestern University in 2008 and Hebrew Union College in 2000), twice the National Jewish Book Award, Holocaust Category, in 2004 for The Origins of the Final Solution and in 1993 for Ordinary Men, and many more. In 2002, he was the George L. Mosse Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Tortorice: Where were you born? In what kind of milieu were you born? What was your childhood like? Describe your family background and early schooling. Talk about any family members, teachers or others who encouraged you in your studies. Describe the trajectory of your young years. Was there an individual who encouraged your interest in learning?

Browning: I was born in 1944 in Duke Hospital in Durham, NC, while my father was teaching (first in the Philosophy department and then in the 90-day officer training program) at UNC-Chapel Hill. At that time he was ABD at UC Berkeley. After finishing his PhD, he taught two years at Syracuse U. (1945-7) and then spent his entire career at Northwestern University. Thus I grew up in a liberal, academic family (my mother was a school nurse) but as a kind of “fish out of water” in the ultra-conservative and wealthy suburbs north of Chicago. I was virtually alone in daring to wear a [Adlai] Stevenson (1900-1965) button in 1956. I had two courses from a key teacher in high school—a world history class freshman-year, in which he actually had us working in primary documents (excerpts of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars and from the correspondence of Gregory VII and Henry IV during the Investiture Controversy, for example), and a “great books” course as a junior.

Tortorice: Where did you do your undergraduate work? How did you make your choice of where to go? What was your major? Why did you decide to study history? Talk about any courses and/or instructors that stand out during your undergrad years? Did a specific undergraduate teacher leave the most memorable impression? Did you always have a passion for the study of history?

Browning: I did my undergraduate work at Oberlin College (because it was as polar-opposite from my north shore high school and bastion of conservatism—New Trier—as I could find). I initially intended to major in political science. After my freshman year, I took what we now call a “gap year” and traveled around the world. My father had a Ford Foundation Globalizing Grant to prepare to teach comparative world philosophies, so my brother and I and a friend mostly high-hiked around and met up with my parents in various places where he was studying (Istanbul, Cairo, Calcutta, Kyoto). It was in the course of that year of travel that I decided I was much more interested in the past history of the places I was visiting than in current politics. When I returned to Oberlin a year later I had decided on a history major even before I had taken my first history course. Key professor were Barry McGill (my honors supervisor senior year), Robert Neil in German history, Nate Greenberg in ancient history, and a one-year visitor Herman Lebovics who went on to Stony Brook.

Tortorice: Why did you decide to attend UW-Madison? What year did you arrive in Madison? How many years were you there? What was Madison like in those years? What was UW like? Were you politically active?

Browning: I arrived in Madison in the fall of 1967. I chose to go there because I was still not decided about exactly what area of research I would pursue, and its department seemed to cover all the bases. I did my MA in French diplomatic history with Robert Koehl (1922-2015) (and Ed Gargan, 1922-1995). I campaigned for Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005) in the 1968 Wisconsin primary. Johnson’s withdrawal on the eve of the primary vote was a brief moment of respite in a dismal and traumatic year characterized by the Tet Offensive and the assassination of MLK and JFK (and culminating in the electoral victory of Richard Nixon!). Many of my German colleagues remember 1968 with nostalgia; I remember it as an unmitigated horror.

In my very first semester (fall 1967) Johnson announced that grad students who had begun their studies that fall would not receive any further graduate deferment from the military draft. Thus the added pressure of that year was to complete my MA and hope for a teaching job the next year, as my draft board was still giving teaching deferments. I did complete the MA, and days before my student deferment expired I was hired to teach at St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield. This provided me the necessary haven to escape the draft. The following two years I was fortunate to get a teaching job at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA, where I asked to teach courses in the fields in which I would take my prelim exams. In 1969 I got that job with just one year of grad school and a MA; two years later I was replaced by Gordon Craig’s (1913-2005) number one student out of Stanford with PhD in hand, which illustrates the magnitude of the job market collapse that occurred at that time.

Ultimately, I was on the Madison campus for only three non-consecutive years. I returned to Madison in 1971-2, immediately took prelims, and applied for dissertation funding abroad. I received a DAAD for my research year abroad in 1972-3, and returned to Madison write my dissertation and complete course work in my minor in 1973-4. I turned in my dissertation in the summer of 1974 (defended the following January 1975) and headed off to Tacoma, Washington to begin 25 years of teaching at Pacific Lutheran University. Thus my grad school experience at Madison was utterly untypical and without much continuity.

I should mention that one reason for my going through so quickly was financial. My first year I was supported by a Wilson Fellowship, with the promise of 4 years of additional support from the department. When I left after the first year, I asked for the promised financial aid to be deferred. With malicious glee, the dean informed me that there were two ways by which I could have my promised fellowship deferred: I could enlist or I could get drafted. She was good to her word, and I never received any further financial support from the university, though the department did succeed in getting me out-of-state tuition remission. Hence I had a major financial incentive to finish as quickly as possible, since I was being supported by my wife (working in the UW purchasing department) and parents.

Tortorice: What had you heard about the reputation of the History Department at UW? What was its national reputation? What was the History Department like in those years?

Browning: The department had a strong reputation in American, European, and African history at that time. When I arrived in 1967, the department had an immense number of grad students because higher education was trying to staff the vast expansion in higher education that had taken place. Now they were stranded in the pipeline. In 1973-4, the department had 14 grad students who were candidates for every German history/20th century European history job in the country. I think just two of us got jobs that year. Thus what had been a vibrant and exciting place when I arrived, had become a terribly depressed grad program in which most grad students had no realistic prospect of getting the job they were training for, and little incentive to finish. Morale was dismal.

Tortorice: Talk about your major professor and how you decided to work with him? What was Robert Koehl like as a dissertation adviser? Did you know of his work in detail before you applied to UW? Describe the aspect of his work that resonated with your interests. Did he have other students working in your field? Were there other students at UW working on your topic? Talk about what you decided to research? What was the topic of your dissertation? Talk about your teaching and research experiences in graduate school.

Browning: Robert Koehl had focused on Nazi German history but was moving into comparative (and colonial) education when I arrived. But he also supervises topics in European diplomatic history. Thus, when I came to work on French diplomatic history for my MA, I worked with Koehl. When my interests shifted to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, it was very convenient for me that I did not have to shift advisors. Koehl’s own work on the neo-feudal aspects of National Socialism was very influential on my own outlook at that time. Later I came to appreciate his pioneering work in Nazi policies of demographic engineering when I was doing my own research into Nazi population policies (Bevölkerungspolitik) in Poland. By the time I arrived in Madison, however, most of his PhD students who had worked in Nazi Germany had finished or were finishing, and he was not taking other new students in that area. The Koehl cohort of PhDs working on National Socialism were thus a few years ahead of me, and I did not have much contact with them. Koehl was a superb editor, and returned my chapters with careful and valuable suggestions as fast as I could turn them in. Without such promptness, I would not have been able to finish writing the dissertation that one year. I had no teaching experience at UW. In my first semester at PLU, I received a letter from the TA Association asking if I wanted to be moved up on the TA waiting list from ninth to eighth place.

It was in preparation for teaching a course in German history at Allegheny that I read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). She referred to Raul Hilberg’s Destruction of the European Jews (1961), which I ordered. When it arrived in the mail, I immediately concluded that in preparing to teach my first college courses I would certainly have no time to read an 800-page book on this topic and threw the book on the table next to my bed. I then became quite ill and was bed-ridden for a month. When I felt well enough to read, it was the only book within reach. In the next 3 weeks, I read it cover to cover, and had what can best be called an “academic conversion experience.” As I had already worked in diplomatic history, I thought of doing a dissertation on the “Jewish desk” of the German Foreign Office, that was in liaison with Eichmann and the SS to impose German policies on and obtain agreement for deportations of Jews from Nazi Germany’s allied and satellite countries. On my next visit to Madison, I discussed this possibility with Koehl. His answer was threefold: 1. It was a good dissertation topic; 2. It was also a topic that had “no professional future”; but 3. If that is what I wanted to do, I should go ahead, since there was no fate worse than spending years researching and writing a dissertation, if my heart wasn’t in it. Thus we agreed on the dissertation topic long before I was able to return to the UW campus and resume my grad studies.

Tortorice: In those years, UW was notably strong in Central European history. Profs. Koehl, [Theodore S.] Hamerow (1920-2013), George L. Mosse, [Jurgen F.H.] Herbst (1928-2013), and others were teaching then. Other areas of study in the History Department were equally strong. Tell me about some of the scholars you studied with at UW.

Browning: I never had a course from George L. Mosse since I did not do a prelim field in intellectual and cultural history. I did have courses from Koehl, Hammerow, and Gargan, and audited Harvey Goldberg’s course on the French Revolution. I did an “internal minor” in Asian history, and was fortunate enough to take a course in modern Chinese intellectual history from Maurice Meisner (1931-2012) and two courses in Japanese history from the young and untenured John Dower.

Tortorice: Tell me about some of the other students who you studied with at UW. Did you find a supportive intellectual community of scholars there? Have you been influenced by their work? Have you maintained contact with scholars you studied with at UW?

Browning: Because my 3 years at UW were non-consecutive and spaced over 7 years, and because I was in a field of study (Holocaust studies) that did not yet exist, I was not part of an intellectual community of scholars. I had more contact later with former UW grad students of Mosse, Koehl, and Hammerow through what became the Western Association for German Studies and then the German Studies Association than I did in Madison.

Tortorice: Jewish Studies had not yet been established at UW when you studied there. Were there professors whose interest in the field supported your work? George Mosse taught his first undergraduate course in Jewish history in 1971. Were you a T.A. for this course?

Browning: My first contact with Mosse was when he read the rough draft of my dissertation. He was wonderfully supportive and enthusiastic and made helpful additional bibliographical suggestions. After I defended the dissertation in January 1975, he shared a copy with Yehuda Bauer (b. 1926) in Jerusalem, which was the point at which Israeli scholars became aware of my work for the first time.

Tortorice: When did you first come in contact with Mosse’s work? Was he an influence on your life and work? When did you first meet him? What was he like as a person? Did you make connections with students who studied with Mosse? Is there a “Mossean” community in the field of history? Did you maintain contact with Mosse after you received your dissertation?

Browning: I became a kind of “honorary” member of the Mosse cohort after I left Madison, both because some people simply assumed that I had been his student (just as others assumed I had been a student of Hilberg), and because our paths fortunately often crossed. I was in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University’s institute for advanced study in 1984-5, when George was teaching there. He attended our weekly seminar, and we met socially as well. I then taught as a visiting professor in Madison in the fall semester of 1988, a visit that was arranged primarily by George, so we saw each other frequently that year as well. I’ve also had frequent contact with various Mosse students such as Michael Berkowitz, Steven Aschheim, Anson Rabinbach, and Jeff Herf (UW undergrad). Thus I was included in the 80th birthday celebrations in Madison in 1998.

The first Mosse book I read was The Crisis of German Ideology, followed by Toward the Final Solution. When I taught my first grad student seminar at UNC-Chapel Hill, the book I chose to start off with was Fallen Soldiers.

Tortorice: What do you think was Mosse’s main contribution to the study of history, and in particular modern Jewish history? In your recently published new introduction to Mosse’s Toward the Final Solution you mention that in this book Mosse adopted a clear “intentionalist” approach to the implementation of the Holocaust that was influenced by Lucy Dawidowicz (1915-1990) who Mosse knew well. Do you feel Mosse modified his views in light of new research? Did you have discussions with him on this topic?

Browning: I had my most frequent contact with George in 1984-5 and 1988 and also when I came to lecture at UW in 1992. On those occasions George was always interested in my research, and indeed he did modify his views about “intentionalism” in the 1980s. At that point he was trying to work out the relationship between the mass death of WWI and the Holocaust of WWII.

The one topic we never discussed was the viciousness with which Dawidowicz recommended against the publication of my dissertation when it was sent to her as a reader (her conclusion after 4 pages of vitriol was “this manuscript makes no contribution however minor to scholarship in the field.”) On my second try, the manuscript was sent to Hilberg as a reader, and it was subsequently published.

I think the two most important of George’s many contributions to history were, first his directing intellectual/cultural history away from the “great ideas of great minds” to recover the long-forgotten and previously highly influential “second-rate ideas of second-rate minds”, i.e. to excavate the popular mentalities of the time, and second his incredible creativity as a pioneer in formulating what were then new topics (memory, gender, manliness, etc.) but which now seem obvious.

Tortorice: Your book Collected Memories: Holocaust History and Post-War Testimony published in the Mosse Series at UW Press (2003) analyzes various controversies in the field, and the use of often problematic, conflicting sources of historical evidence. Have your ideas and approach to the use of such material changed since the book was published eighteen years ago?

Browning: After I gave the Mosse lectures and published Collected Memories, I went on to write Remembering Survival (2010). There is far more continuity than revision between the two books. My approach to survivor testimony remained the same; Collected Memories was the prototype or trial balloon for working out that approach.

Tortorice: You were instrumental in establishing Holocaust Studies as a field, and your book Ordinary Men and your many other publications are major contributions to this field. Tell me about the early years and the efforts to legitimize the field. Was Mosse involved in this effort? Did you discuss your response to Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners with Mosse?

Browning: In the first decades of my career, I focused on two topics: the mid- and lower-level perpetrators (initially of course of mid-level bureaucrats of the German Foreign Office, but then also ghetto managers and German public health doctors in Poland, military administrators in Serbia, etc.) on the one hand, and the decision-making process that led to the Final Solution on the other. Fortunately, the Western Association of German Studies (later the German Studies Association) provided me a venue to regularly deliver panel papers on these topics, when there was no other forum in which I could have shared my developing research with large numbers of colleagues. Despite my publications, however, there was no avenue or opportunity to move beyond PLU for decades. It was not until 1999, when I was hired at UNC, that a regular German-history slot at a major research university in the US was filled by someone with a specialty in the Holocaust. The following year Omer Bartov was also hired to fill Brown’s position in German history, so that wall was finally breached. Before that, as a Holocaust expert, I could not get consideration for a German history position, and as someone focused on Nazi policy and personnel, I understandably could not be considered for a Jewish history position. I simply fell between two stools. Mosse was always supportive in writing letters on my behalf; I assume his ties to Dick [Richard Allen] Soloway (1934-2009) were extremely helpful in my finally getting the UNC position.

Goldhagen’s book did not come out until 1996, and I did not have an opportunity to discuss it at any length when I last saw George in 1998.

Tortorice: Mosse often was asked how he could study such a horrific chapter of history, and aspects of human behavior. I assume you are also asked this question. How do you answer this question? Do you think the study of human evil takes an emotional, psychological toll?

Browning: I answer that just as I hope my surgeon can operate on me without being squeamish about blood, that I can maintain the professional distance to write about Nazis and mass murder without being emotionally overcome. It is an act of compartmentalization that is helped by the fact that I never have to question myself about whether the topic I am researching is important or not.

Tortorice: When did you first visit Israel? What was Israel like in those years? Who did you engage with there? How was your work received there?

Browning: I first visited Israel in June 1981, at the invitation of Yad Vashem, to be interviewed about the possibility of contributing a volume to their envisaged Comprehensive History of the Holocaust. (This finally appeared in 2004 as The Origins of the Final Solution.) As noted earlier, the Israelis were first made aware of my work through George L. Mosse’s contact with Yehuda Bauer. The next step was my “Reply to Martin Broszat” published in the Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte in early 1981. The Israelis, I think, were very curious and puzzled about a young scholar who was neither German nor Jewish who was writing about ‘their’ topic and criticizing Broszat (1926-1989) from a moderate functionalist rather than intentionalist stance, in a way that they themselves could not do (i.e. I was immersed in the documentation relevant to Nazi decision-making, not just Nazi ideology). I was potentially a useful “shabbas goy.” It took a number of years, and obvious reluctance on the part of some, before I was finally offered the contract. The 1984-5 year at the Institute for Advanced Studies of the HUJ, which included Saul Friedländer, Yehuda Bauer, Israel Gutman, Dov Kulka, Dinah Porat, Bernard Wasserstein, and Michael Marrus, as well as George as a visitor, was clearly one of the pivotal years of my career both in terms of professional contacts and an extraordinarily stimulating atmosphere in which to take up my initial research into the Origins of the Final Solution.

With Ordinary Men, I seemed to have a “fall” from good graces among some Israeli scholars. Despite the interest of several Israeli publishers for a Hebrew translation, those inquiries always mysteriously terminated. It was not until Yad Vashem was about to publish Origins of the Final Solution in a Hebrew translation that suddenly a Hebrew translation of Ordinary Men appeared at the same time in 2004, twelve years after the initial English edition.

Tortorice: Where have you taught? What courses have you taught? Describe your approach to teaching. Has your teaching changed over the years, and if so, how? How many doctoral dissertations have you supervised? Discuss any students undergraduates or graduates whose work and/or career stand out.

Browning: I taught 2 years (1969-71) at Allegheny College, 25 years at Pacific Lutheran University (1974-99) and 15 years at UNC-Chapel Hill (1999-2014), as well as visiting stints at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northwestern, William and Mary, U. of Washington, and Monash University (in Melbourne, AUS).

At PLU there were only two European historians in the department. I taught the gamut of world history, western civ (from the pyramids to the present), as well as an array of upper level courses (French Revolution, nineteenth-century Europe, Europe and the World Wars, German history, History of the Holocaust. I also participated in team-taught interdisciplinary courses, my favorite of which was Just War Tradition taught with a member of the philosophy department.

For larger classes, I lecture. For smaller classes, i.e. seminars, I organize the class in such a way that students are assigned to carry the load (i.e. introduce the author and reception of the book under discussion, lead the discussion, etc.). My two favorite student evaluation criticism: 1. For lecture: “he doesn’t use power point, we have to listen to everything he says.” 2. For seminar: “he just sits there and makes us do all the work.”

At UNC Chapel Hill, I supervised 10 dissertations to completion, not all of them on Holocaust topics. Three were awarded the GHI’s Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize:

Michael Meng, Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Post-war Germany and Poland (it also received the Hans Rosenberg prize of the CEH).

Eric Steinhart, The Holocaust and the Germanization of the Ukraine

Ricky Law, Transnational Nazism: Ideology and Culture in German-Japanese Relations, 1919-1936

Also especially noteworthy: Waitman Beorn, Marching into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus, which was awarded Harvard U. Press’s prize for best first book published with that press, and

Laura Brade’s dissertation on the escape of Jews from Bohemia and Moravia 1939-41, which was the most recent dissertation completed.

Tortorice: If I recall, UW doctorates Richard Soloway and Konrad Jarausch taught at UNC when you arrived there as a member of the faculty. Did you form a good relationship with them?

Browning: Soloway had moved into administration, so I did not have much contact with him. I worked very closely with Konrad Jarausch. We were always on the dissertation committees of each other’s grad students. During my first years at UNC, Konrad split his time between Chapel Hill and Potsdam, so for one semester each year I was the main contact person for his grad students, especially those in their first three years. I still have very good and continuing relationships with a number of people who were officially classified as Konrad’s students but with whom I worked closely. Later Karen Hagemann joined our department too, working in German and women’s history. Thus, with Jarausch, Hagemann, and myself, in some ways Chapel Hill was like Madison in the 60s and 70s (with Mosse, Hamerow, and Koehl) with an unusual concentration of German historians, though with quite distinct specializations and approaches.

Tortorice: From where did your research interests come? What are the large questions that are explored in your research? Describe and summarize the substance of your research work. What do you consider to be your most important contribution to your field? How does your work differ from Mosse’s? Discuss what you consider to be your most important publications. Have you written on subjects other than the Holocaust?

Browning: I have worked in three sub-fields of Holocaust history: the origins of the Final Solution and Nazi decision-making on racial policy; mid- and lower-level perpetrators, with special focus on the issue of choice; and Jewish survival strategies, with special focus on the methodology of using survivor testimony. My three key publications for these respective sub-fields are Origins of the Final Solution, Ordinary Men, and Remembering Survival. My work is primary political and social history, in contrast to Mosse’s emphasis on intellectual, cultural, and gender/sexuality history. I also tended toward micro-historical case studies, while Mosse worked on a much more sweeping scale.

Tortorice: During the course of your career, what have been the most significant developments in your field of study?

Browning: My career has virtually overlapped the emergence and development of Holocaust studies as a field of study. It is easier to note those issues that had already emerged before I began my career, i.e.: debates over the Judenrat (Arendt) and Jewish resistance (Hilberg), Pius XII (Hochhuth), and FDR (Morse), than to identify the key developments since then.

Tortorice: What direction do you think the field of Holocaust studies will take in the coming years?

Browning: Aftermath studies, i.e. the effect and impact of the Holocaust since 1945, has been a major growth field (memory, museums, memorialization, justice, literature, cinema, political exploitation, etc.). The focus of Holocaust studies also continues to shift eastward and downward, from Germany to Eastern Europe, and from German perpetrators to the multi-ethnic milieu in which most Jews perished. Comparative genocide, including earlier European racial imperialism, also is a growth field.

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