This year’s £40,000 Wolfson History Prize has been won by Mary Fulbrook for her “masterly” book Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press).
The winner was announced by historian and award judge Diarmaid MacCulloch at a reception in Claridge’s last night (11th June), who declared Fulbrook had journeyed "into some very dark places with the human sympathy that marks the best historical writing”.
Reckonings is a 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. The book draws on personal accounts of both victims and perpetrators, exploring issues of suffering and memory, asking difficult questions along the way.
It was praised by judges as “a masterly work which explores the shifting boundaries and structures of memory.”
Accepting the prize, a visibly moved Fulbrook thanked those who helped her along the way, including her own family whose holidays were sidetracked by research.
Fulbrook, a professor of German history at UCL, said: “It was a horrible book to write, it was about a ghastly subject and I was filled with moral outrage a lot of the time I was writing. I was either agonised and upset or moved by the people’s fates that I was writing about and felt almost as if it was impossible to do justice in the writing to the people who had so signally failed to obtain justice in their lives.”
She added: “Thank you to the Wolfson Foundation for understanding that it’s really important that we not merely understand the past but write to make it accessible.”
In an opening speech, chair of the judges and president of the British Academy, Sir David Cannadine, took a swipe at politicians and their handling of Brexit, saying an understanding of history was vital to stop “parochialism” and allow countries to see themselves as others saw them.
He said: “One of the most dismaying aspects of the long-running debate on Brexit is how historically uninformed and deeply ignorant ait has almost entirely and invariably been, on behalf of Remainers and Brexiteers alike.”
Sir David added: “The Wolfson Foundation’s commitment to the Wolfson History Prize is our own way of affirming that any society that hopes and aspires to be healthy and take responsible and well-informed political decisions needs to know not only something of its own past but also something of other nations’ pasts too.”
Fulbrook’s book was picked from a six-strong shortlist that also featured Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words by ornithologist Jeremy Mynott (Oxford University Press), Trading in War: London's Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson by Margarette Lincoln (Yale University Press), Miles Taylor’s Empress: Queen Victoria and India (Yale University Press), John Blair’s Anglo-Saxon England (Princeton University Press) and Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis (Apollo).
The prize is run by the Wolfson Foundation, an independent charity awarding grants in the fields of science, health, education, arts and humanities.