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Of all the individuals who have either participated in or been the victims of genocide, the majority of those who are the subject of biography have come from three relatively small and discrete groups: the perpetrators in the highest echelons of political and/or military power; victims (mostly survivors) who have distinguished themselves through their literary works; and the liberators, those who risked their lives to save or aid victims. Unsurprisingly, biographies emanating from each of these groups have been significantly different in tone as well as purpose.

The biographies of perpetrators have drawn the most attention from both scholars and the reading public. These works not only chart the rise to power and prominence of their relatively well-known subjects, they also invariably seek to explain the environmental, psychological, political, and ideological forces that motivated these infamous individuals to plan and organize mass killings. Although no biography of Adolf Hitler has achieved undisputed canonical status, several have provided satisfying and convincing portraits. Allan Bullock's Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) still remains the most penetrating biography, although Joachim Fest's Hitler (the English translation was published in 1975) does an excellent job of exploring the German fascist dictator's early ideological development. A superb overview and analysis of the existing literature on Hitler may be found in John Lukacs's The Hitler of History (1998).

Although source material is less complete (and less available) for the communist mass murderers of the twentieth century, several fine biographies of Joseph Stalin do exist, including Dmitrii Volkogonov's Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy (1991) and Robert Conquest's Stalin: Breaker of Nations (1991). For Mao Zedong, Ross Terrill's A Biography of Mao (1999) and Stuart Schram's Mao Tse-Tung (1974) are excellent. As of 2004 several biographies of the enigmatic Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot have been written—although the amount and overall quality of scholarship on Cambodian genocide remain inadequate.

Biographies of victims have primarily (although not exclusively) focused on writers who were also survivors, such as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Nelly Sachs, and Paul Celan. These works provide insight into how these survivors' experiences affected their lives post-trauma as well as informed their writing. The finest examples examine the capacity of history and literature to convey both the horror of mass murder and the evil underlying it. In many cases biographies have furnished valuable added insight into the lives of acclaimed memoirists and diarists such as Anne Frank and Hannah Senesh. Two notable works that defy categorization are Maus (1986) and Maus II (1991), Art Spiegelman's comic book portrayals of his parents' experiences in pre-war Poland, Auschwitz, and post-war America. Blending biography and autobiography with self-conscious explorations of aesthetic representation, Spiegelman has created an original and individualized approach to Holocaust narration. In the realm of visual media many fine bio-documentaries have been made about individuals from all three groups. One example—Chaim Rumkowski and the Lodz Ghetto (1991)—paints a dramatic and unflinching portrait of the Jewish leader and Holocaust victim.

Biographies of liberators (or righteous Gentiles in the case of the Holocaust) have focused primarily on the reasons such individuals risked their lives to save others. As such, they tend to emphasize the heroic as well as the personal. Two prominent subjects include Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman and diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jewish lives in wartime Budapest, and Oskar Schindler, the German businessman turned protector of Polish Jews. Both men have also been the subjects of widely acclaimed feature films—Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg (1990) and Schindler's List (1993).

The biographies of perpetrators and victims (as well as liberators) of genocide have explored issues of wide scholarly and public interest. Combining the historical and the private, such biographies have provided valuable perspective on the incalculable human toll of mass murder in the twentieth century.

SEE ALSO Diaries; Memoirs of Perpetrators; Memoirs of Survivors


Gilbert, Martin (2003). The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust. New York: Henry Holt.

Lukacs, John (1997). The Hitler of History. New York: A. A. Knopf.

Mark C. Molesky

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