Mary Fulbrook wins Wolfson History Prize 2019 for Reckonings

News - Prizes Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Top history prize, worth £40,000, goes to Fulbrook's study of the Holocaust and the subsequent post-war failures of East and West Germany to prosecute war criminals

Mary Fulbrook was presented with the 2019 Wolfson History Prize for Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press) at Claridge's last night.

In her victory speech, Fulbrook broke down in tears briefly as she recalled the "grim and ghastly" subject of her book' which was "horrible to write", involving detailed research into some of the most dismal corners of Europe, uncovering sites of mass graves and overgrown remnants of death camps.

She thanked her publisher, Tim Bent at OUP, and her agent, Emma Parry at Janklow & Nesbit. Speaking to BookBrunch after winning, Fulbrook confirmed that her next book, Bystanders, on German society in the 1930s, is not contracted to OUP and is available through her agent.

In her winning book, Fulbrook looks at how post-war Germany, East and West, dealt with the aftermath of the mass killings of the holocaust. She told BookBrunch that she estimates that between 200,000 and one million Germans were directly involved with the murders: in West Germany less than 200 were ever imprisoned for their crimes.

Fulbrook, who is a leading authority on German history, was selected from a shortlist of six authors to win the £40,000 Prize, which is awarded annually to a work of 'historical writing that combines excellence in historical research with readability for a general audience,' and is judged by leading British historians.

The prize money has been raised to £40,000, with shortlisted authors taking £4,000 apiece, and Midas brought in this year to handle PR for the first time. Certainly the event was better attended than in previous years, with at least 150 publishers, historians and authors packed into two large reception rooms at Claridge's.

According to a statement from the organisers: 'Reckonings is an affecting study of the legacy of the Holocaust, exploring the extent to which Nazi persecutors were brought to account, and how myths of justice being done developed in the years following the Second World War. Illuminating the stories of those who have until now remained outside the media spotlight, Reckonings draws on personal accounts of both victims and perpetrators, exploring issues of suffering and memory, and asking difficult questions of the reader.

'Reckonings seeks to expose the disjuncture between official myths about dealing with the past on one hand, and the extent to which an overwhelming majority of Nazi perpetrators ultimately evaded justice, on the other.

The Wolfson History Prize judges said: 'Quoting many moving accounts from victims of the extreme cruelty perpetrated by the Nazis, Fulbrook moves through the generations to trace the legacy of Nazi persecution in post-war Germany. A masterly work which explores the shifting boundaries and structures of memory.'

Paul Ramsbottom, chief executive at the Wolfson Foundation, said: "The Prize celebrates wonderful books which break new ground in understanding the past. Mary Fulbrook’s book highlights the importance of history – and debates about history – to a healthy and flourishing society. It also demonstrates the engaging, accessible writing style which is a hallmark of the Wolfson History Prize: taking high quality, research driven history outside of academia to a diverse audience."

The other titles shortlisted were Building Anglo-Saxon England by John Blair, Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words by Jeremy Mynott, Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson by Margarette Lincoln, Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis, and Empress: Queen Victoria and India by Miles Taylor.

The judges described the book in a more detailed citation released subsequently:

'A focus on a single concentration camp - however horrific, however massively catastrophic its scale - leaves an incomplete story, a truncated history. It cannot fully communicate the myriad ways in which individuals became tangled up on the side of the perpetrators, and obscures the diversity of experiences among a wide range of victims as they struggled and died, or managed, against all odds, to survive. In the process, we also miss the continuing legacy of Nazi persecution across generations, and across continents.

'Mary Fulbrook's encompassing book expands our understanding, exploring the lives of individuals across a full spectrum of suffering and guilt, each one capturing one small part of the greater story. Reckonings seeks to explore the disjuncture between official myths about dealing with the past, on the one hand, and the extent to which the vast majority of Nazi perpetrators evaded justice, on the other.

'The Holocaust is not mere history, and the memorial landscape barely hints at the maelstrom of reverberations of the Nazi era at a personal level. Reckonings illuminates the stories of those who remained outside the media spotlight, situating their experiences in changing wider contexts, as both persecutors and persecuted sought to account for the past, forge new lives, and make sense of unprecedented suffering.'

Fulbrook is professor of German History at UCL. She is the author of numerous books on German and European history, including the Fraenkel Prize-winning A Small Town near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust. A Fellow of the British Academy, she is former chair of the German History Society and was founding joint editor of its journal, German History.

First awarded by the Wolfson Foundation in 1972, the Wolfson History Prize is the most valuable non-fiction writing prize in the UK. Over £1.1 million has been awarded to more than 100 historians in the prize’s 47-year history. Previous winners include Mary Beard, Simon Schama, Eric J. Hobsbawm, Amanda Vickery, Antony Beevor, Christopher Bayly, and Antonia Fraser, who attended last night's ceremony.

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