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Vol 38  No 15
June 8, 2006


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Oration honouring Robert Gellately

History is a bit like heaven: it is a house with many mansions: some of them wondrously opulent, others oppressively poor, still others banally bourgeois. It is this last house that Robert Gellately occupies and he has decorated it with the everyday thoughts of German anti-Semites. But do not, Vice-Chancellor, think Gellately’s work takes on the character of his subjects. Far from it, for he brings to these people a depth of research, a pungency of analysis, a clarity of prose that lets us understand what the ordinary German was thinking before and during the last war. And this has implications that are not merely academic or even intellectually prurient for Dr. Gellately’s work leads to an understanding of what fosters racism and inculcates genocide.

His academic career has been most distinguished: he has held three university chairs in Holocaust studies at Clark University, at Florida State and, most recently, at Oxford. His three books, The Gestapo and German Society, Backing Hitler and Nuremberg Interviews have all been highly acclaimed, been brought out in French, German and Spanish and one has even been edited for use in German schools. So his reach is well beyond the academic and he has clearly touched on a matter of considerable public concern: the complicity of the person in the street with the action of the politician in the state. From what did this come? Bob Gellately was born in St. John’s and did his BA and MA at Memorial. But his career as an undergraduate can be seen as salutary. While he always did reasonably well in his studies, it was not until he got into the Honours History program that his mind was set afire. Caught by the courses he was doing, he wanted to read documents in the original, in German, in a language he had never studied. So he taught himself with a drive that staggered even his academically-driven professors. And he did brilliantly, winning the University Gold Medal in History in his graduating year. It was his MA thesis that put him on a track from which he has not swerved in almost 40 years. He began to look behind the obvious­ the centuries-old religious anti-Semitism ­ and to examine the development of political anti-Semitism brought into being by changes in late 19th century Germany.

He has looked at the process of this dark aspect of humanity as it moves from exclusion, to inclusion to extermination. The excluded comprise both victim and victimizer. His study of late 19th German retailers deals with a group who felt excluded by new developments in their trade and who, susceptible to the libels of the day, blamed the Jews for their plight. His co-edited volume, Social Outsiders, looks at the process of excluding peoples in various societies. Backing Hitler deals with inclusion and with the extraordinary and not entirely planned way in which the Nazis engaged the majority of Germans (and, indeed, other conquered peoples) in the elimination of the Jews. The Specter of Genocide, a collection of essays co-edited by Gellately, looks at the origins and the nature of genocide internationally so takes in the mass murders in Armenia, Cambodia and Rwanda. His most recent book, one that has drawn great public interest, Nuremberg Interviews, is an edition of the notebooks of an American psychiatrist assigned to observe the Nazi war criminals. What is most disturbing about this book is that none of the defendants expresses any remorse for his war crimes and that almost all display an appalling normality. It would seem then, that such conduct, that the capacity to be complicit in what is viewed as the greatest and most conscious mass murder in human history does not require that one be pathological. The deep horror is that quite ordinary people accepted Nazism in all its manifestations. Dr. Gellately’s works are the finest demonstration of what Hannah Arendt strikingly described as the “banality of evil.” Gellately sets us to look into this and to question ourselves in a time when small wars threaten to bloom into large, when racism is rife between communities and nations, when the drive of blood is not to unity but to division and to death. Vice-Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa, a scholar explicating the inexplicable, one who, reading the dark past, enables us to ponder the uncertain present, Robert John Gellately.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator

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