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Rita Thalmann 1926-2013

Tout commença à Nuremberg (It all started at Nuremberg), was the title of the autobiography, published in 2004, of historian Rita Thalmann.

It did indeed all start for Thalmann in the Bavarian city which was so important to Hitler and which was mostly destroyed by Allied bombing in successive raids between 1943 and 1945. She was born there in June 1926, the daughter of Nathan, a prosperous textile dealer, and Helene Hausmann, from Basel in Switzerland. Thalmann had been awarded the Iron Cross for his service in World War I; he was to be murdered in Auschwitz in October 1943. Her mother died in a psychiatric hospital in Dijon.

After 1945, Thalmann worked in Jewish orphanages while completing her secondary education, broken off by the war. She became a teacher in Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne, opting for German studies (Germanistique): “After what we had been through, I felt the need to understand how this Germany, at the forefront of culture, science and technology, had been able to generate national socialism, to wipe out millions of people – including from my own family – and progressively sink into such a degree of dehumanisation.”

Thalmann continued to teach in secondary schools until the publication of her thesis, Protestantisme et nationalisme en Allemagne, 1900-1945, (Protestantism and nationalism in Germany, 1900-1945) in 1976. Among her other works were La Nuit de cristal (1972) (Kristallnacht) and La Mise au pas: idéologie et stratégie sécuritaire dans la France occupée 1940-1944 (1991) (Asserting control: ideology and security strategy in occupied France 1940-1944).

A natural feminist, Thalmann became ever more interested in the place of women in society – and their right to a place in written history – after reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex on its appearance in 1949. She wrote Être femme sous le IIIe Reich (Being a Woman under the Third Reich) in 1982.

Thalmann, writes Annette Wieviorka in her obituary in Le Monde (August 20th), avoided party political organisations after an early involvement with the French communist party, which she left after the Slánský trial in Czechoslovakia and the Doctor’s Plot in Russia (1952/53), both persecutions tinged with anti-Semitism.

With the death of Thalmann on August 18th, Wieviorka writes, we have lost one of the last historians who, like Léon Poliakov (author of a three-volume history of anti-Semitism) and Raul Hilberg (historian of the Holocaust) “experienced the coming of Nazism and the upheaval it caused in our lives”.