You can't run from your research
by Claire E. Aubin
It would not be an exaggeration to say that at least once every two weeks, the word “Nazi” trends on Twitter. The events which prompt those days are seemingly random – maybe a politician has invoked atrocity to make a point, or maybe white supremacists have vandalized a building, or it’s the anniversary of a tragedy, or there’s no discernible reason at all – but they surface with incredible regularity. On those days, I close my research about Nazis and then open my Twitter to read about more Nazis. Inescapability, I think more than anything else, is one of the most subtly haunting aspects of working on violent history.
It is also not an exaggeration to say that trauma is everywhere, all of the time. Violence is in the news every single day, and often in ways which might converge with our own topics as researchers. For instance: Nazis and their legacy are unfortunately constantly relevant to current events. Working on Holocaust perpetrators means that as a researcher I am incessantly faced with news cycles that pertain to my research, regardless of whether I might need or want a break from it. This is true for people who work on topics entirely unrelated to the Third Reich, such as violent crimes, sexual abuse, disability, racism, homo- or transphobia, or anything else that inspires uncomfortable silence in a pub when explained. Even more, it is perhaps doubly true for researchers with firsthand experience of the topic addressed in their research, for whom a need to escape is a matter of both academic and personal history. How do you avoid causing yourself further trauma when you cannot hide from its source?
The relentlessness of historical research (and its contemporary echoes) is a problem for researchers of all topics, including the more cheerful ones. Many historians find it difficult to switch off, regardless of what they’re working on, simply because that is often the nature of academia and its related fields generally. However, while general burnout from over-work is rampant among most types of research, not all topics inherently have the same emotional and mental impact on their researchers. Spending my already-lengthy work day reading and writing about the Holocaust is difficult and anxiety-inducing enough without knowing that my time outside ‘official’ work will likely involve Nazis as well.
The solution cannot be to avoid your topic when it materializes in new or unexpected non-academic contexts, because these moments are unavoidable. The solution is probably also not to engage with it loudly and obstinately, as I have been known to do, because that usually just gets you into unproductive Twitter feuds and depletes any non-academic energy reserves you might have. One might say to simply log off of social media, or to not watch the news after a certain time of day. But what happens when you turn on your television for a relaxing film and there is inevitably a new documentary about a new Nazi (or murder victim, or hate crime, or insert horrible thing here)? If you’re strict with your self-care outside working hours, you don’t watch it, but it still lodges itself in your brain as a small reminder that evasion is not always achievable.
In fact, I don’t know if there’s a solution at all, other than moving to the woods à la Thoreau and simply refusing to participate in modern society any longer, or in a more realistic scenario, to just quit researching what we research. Neither of these are feasible because I quite like living in a world where I know what’s happening in other places, and also because I care very deeply about my research and the time I’ve spent conducting it. I’m willing to bet that anybody else reading this probably feels quite similarly.
Anyways, I just checked Twitter, and Nazis are trending again.
Claire E. Aubin is a founding co-convenor of the Emotionally Demanding Histories Group and PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh School of Divinity. Claire's research focuses on the comparative individual agency of Holocaust perpetrators throughout their experiences of post-war US immigration. Her academic work frequently explores concepts of perpetration, collaboration, community, and justice, as well as public perceptions of these issues. Follow her on Twitter at @CEAubin.