Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: December 2020

Historical Reflections on Holocaust Reparations: Unfinished Business or an Example for other Reparations Campaigns?



In Western thinking, the Nazi Holocaust has become the symbol of absolute evil, a moral universal that serves as a standard against which to measure gross human rights violations. The struggle to comprehend the origins of the ‘Final Solution’, the Nazi decision to destroy European Jewry, and cope with its legacies has troubled the minds of generations of scholars, policy planners and individuals who were directly or indirectly affected by these events. Many measures currently under discussion as possible responses to suffering caused by administrative massacres were first devised and tested in reaction to the crimes of the Nazi regime. However, as their evaluation illustrates, there is no easy answer to the question of how to cope with legacies of such widespread abuse. Recent literature on transitional justice stresses the many dilemmas associated with establishing accountability and restoring legal order in the aftermath of systemic violence. Criminal prosecution of the main perpetrators, for instance, inevitably focuses on selected individuals and, with regard to representations of a contested past, risks eclipsing the fact of widespread public and bureaucratic involvement in the abuses. At times, trials and lustration also fail to satisfy the victims’ expectation that they will be vindicated, especially when high-profile perpetrators, against whom there is overwhelming evidence, are acquitted for technical reasons. Against this backdrop, authors have suggested victim-based approaches as an alternative to criminal prosecution. Many also see efforts at reconciliation and restorative justice, including reparations, as complementary measures embodying the promise of both vindicating the victims and avoiding the aforementioned problems.

But with regard to victim reparations, the legal situation is sketchy. Absent an internationally recognised right to redress for human rights violations, the case of Holocaust reparations serves as a precedent, since it remains ‘unequalled’ in its scale, as Jon Elster emphasises in his recent book on transitional justice. When gauged only by the sum of money involved, the record is indeed remarkable: By the end of 2004, German expenditure for the rehabilitation of Nazi victims amounted to more than 62 billion euros. Accordingly, Holocaust reparations have come to represent, for some, Germany's exemplary efforts to redress the wrongs of the Nazi regime.