Professor David Bankier: Leading scholar on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust

Friday 28 May 2010 00:00

David Bankier was the head of the International Institute for Holocaust Studies and a prominent scholar on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. His ground-breaking research showed that it was not only the élite circles of the Nazi party leadership who were steeped in anti-Semitism; it was absorbed by wider swaths of German society. Bankier was an esteemed scholar with a distinct approach to Holocaust research.

Among his interests was how anti-Semitism became the most central and efficient tool used by the Nazi regime to sustain the flame of its ideology, both in its internal struggles and in its efforts to recruit the masses. Bankier came to prominence with his work on anti-Semitism, particularly its use by Hitler and the Nazis to promote and sustain a broader ideology. He helped expand the contours of Holocaust research by examining the participation of ordinary Europeans in the extermination of their Jewish neighbours.

He examined how Hitler used prophecies in his speeches rather than direct threats against the Jews in order to put his views across. Bankier explained that "he [Hitler] always employed a technique of complicit presuppositions, which means 'to say without saying', so that the listener became responsible for what he understood from the statement." Hitler was seen to be deliberately vague in detail so as to avert public discussion and thus demonstrated his unaccountability; he became an agent of deterministic forces, and the seeming lack of control over circumstances neutralised his moral responsibility for the genocide.

Bankier published numerous studies, including The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism. A recent book, Hitler, the Holocaust and German Society: Cooperation and Awareness, collated a selection of his articles.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Bankier was born in a displaced persons camp near the small Bavarian town of Zeckendorf in 1947. His family moved to Argentina when he was five years old. He then emigrated to Israel with a group of youths following the Six-Day War in 1967. He pursued his undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned his doctorate in Jewish History; his thesis focused on German society and Nazi anti-Semitism, 1933-38.

A Lady Davis fellow, he was the Solomon and Victoria Cohen Professor at the Hebrew University and headed the section for Studies in Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust at the University's Institute for Contemporary Jewry. Over the years, Bankier served as visiting professor at universities in London, the United States, South Africa and South America, and was involved in developing centres of Jewish studies in Latin America, as well as promoting academic publications in Spanish. In 2000 he was appointed Head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, and Incumbent of the John Najmann Chair of Holocaust Studies. In 2004 he was Senior Visiting Scholar to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington.

Bankier always sought to understand the most bewildering aspects of genocide: for example, how someone could play football with an acquaintance one day and assist in his murder the next. He insisted both on the uniqueness of the Nazi Holocaust of six million Jews and on its applicability to other cases of mass murder. In 2009, he explained that the work he was overseeing on the role of bystanders and neighbours in numerous smaller mass killings across the former Soviet Union in the early 1940s had important implications for contemporary genocide in Africa and other places. He argued that the world was a different place as a result of what the Nazis had done and that if genocide in far-off places shocked average people today it was partly because of their knowledge of the Holocaust. In other words, Holocaust awareness is central to contemporary sensibilities.

Between 1986 and 2008 Bankier was a member of a wide range of organisations related to Holocaust research. Among them were the Board of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Leo Baeck Institute, the Scientific Committee of Yad Vashem, the International Historical Commission for the Investigation of Liechtenstein's Role in World War II, the Experts Commission for the Bergen Belsen Memorial and the International Scientific Advisory Board of the Wiesenthal Institute of Holocaust Studies.

Bankier also served on the editorial board of scholarly journals, such as Studies in Contemporary Jewry and Yad Vashem Studies, and was the associate editor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He directed research projects and scholarly initiatives as well as publishing over 120 books, articles and reviews, becoming one of the most important and most cited scholars in the research of Nazi Germany. His publications in the field were regarded as a cornerstone of modern academic work.

Bankier was described by his peers as a gifted and engaging lecturer and a man of integrity, brilliance and humility. His untimely death means the world had lost one of its most important scholars in the field of Nazi anti-Semitism.

Martin Childs

David Bankier, historian; born near Zeckendorf, Germany 1947; married (divorced; three children); died Jerusalem 26 February 2010.

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