Book Review: Krondorfer, Björn. Unsettling empathy: Working with groups in conflict. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020.

Having followed Björn Krondorfer’s work with great interest, I had the utmost curiosity about reviewing his newest book, Unsettling Empathy: Working with Groups in Conflict (2020). Krondorfer does not disappoint, he offers nuanced and powerful insights that reinforce and extend his earlier work. Ideally, Unsettling Empathy should be seen as being in conversation with his pre-existing body of work; that said, the text is accessible to the reader unfamiliar with his prior outputs.

I’ll begin this review with some context. Krondorfer published Remembrance and Reconciliation: Encounters Between Young Jews and Germans in 1995. Somewhat unsurprisingly, he argues that relationships between young American Jews, and young German non-Jews were marred, overshadowed, and contaminated, by the “past”, specifically by the Holocaust. This links the work of Krondorfer to other scholars who focus on Jews in Germany across generations. Three of his contemporaries who conducted research at roughly the same time are the historian-cum-ethnographer Andrew Stuart Bergerson (1997), the sociologist Lynn Rapaport (1997), and the German-based psychoanalyst Kurt Grünberg (1988, 2000). All three underline that the present is overshadowed by the past. The past is still not done more than twenty years later, as more recent scholars evidence for the third generation of Jews born and raised in Germany (Kranz 2015, 2021; Wohl-von Haselberg 2015) and also Jews of post-Soviet descent (Körber 2021) and the most recent group of Jewish immigrants, that is Israelis (Rebhun, Kranz & Sünker 2022). All of them tend to reject the label “German Jew.” Thus, Krondorfer’s early, pioneering work on the aftermaths of extreme violence down generations, and challenges of rapprochement remains strikingly current.

The aftermaths of genocide continued to divide Jews – in these studies, American, Israeli, and German-based Jews – and Germans into discrete groups, with the Jewish/non-Jewish divide marking the most pronounced boundary. Memories are passed on, silences travel intergenerationally; the past, and its injustices, cannot be undone. Observing meetings between individuals from groups in conflict, and facilitating these meetings, Krondorfer reasoned that empathy and honesty support reconciliation. He is clear that reconciliation occurs on an individual basis, and some individuals will not and cannot be reconciled. In other words, Krondorfer never says that reconciliation should follow specific steps. His analysis was, and remains, anchored by empirical observations, offering an ever-richer ethnographic picture as his career continues.

Carrying on his fine-tuned observations Krondorfer published “Theological Innocence and Family History in the Land of Perpetrators: German Theologians after the Shoah” in 2004. Not only did he continue the path of honesty as a core element of his work, in this text he emphasizes ethics, his own family history, and his friendship with a Polish-Jewish survivor in the US. Surprisingly, his father, a young German soldier in the Second World War, had been in close proximity to Edward Gastfriend – the Polish-Jewish friend of his son. When Krondorfer tells his father that Gastfriend had been imprisoned in Blechhammer in Upper Silesia – just three miles away from himself (Krondorfer 2004: 75), Krondorfer senior begins to share memories of the Shoah which had been silenced up until then. Jews from his former hometown in Upper Silesia enter his narrative of the past. Family history, reasons Krondorfer, transcends the “limited stories of the postwar years.” (ibid.) It does, indeed; if it is ever talked about, and if some coincidence comes to the fore; memories are inevitably triggered.

It is important to note that Krondorfer, born and raised in Germany, received his PhD in the United States—he now lives in Arizona. Strikingly, he falls into a group of German-born scholars and academics, educated abroad and who often remain abroad, who ask these questions – which, for many Germany-based and educated academics seem still too raw, as Sarah M. Ross and I recently argued (Kranz & Ross 2022). Martin Puchner is another such example. The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate (2020), written and published in English, focuses on the issue of Rotwelsch in Puchner’s family history. His research was triggered by him finding, as a graduate student, his grandfather’s PhD dissertation in the depth of the Harvard University archives. This leads him to unearthing a family history that his family does not wish to remember, much less talk about. The honesty with oneself that Krondorfer sees as the cornerstone in any attempt at reconciliation shows a specific pattern that can slowly change across generations. In Germany itself, it is the group of the descendants of the victims who deal most personally with the past in their academic writing, or descendants of the perpetrating group who are based abroad. Only now has a generation of young German scholars, such as Ina Schaum (2020, 2022), entered the academic stage, addressing blind spots and complex emotions from the vantage point of descendants of the perpetrating group. Yet, they publish in English. The analytical concept of generation, an issue that Krondorfer addresses across his publications, cannot be understated. Krondorfer’s work, including Unsettling Empathy, makes an important contribution to the realms of history and the sociology of science – areas themselves not immune to the aftermaths of intergroup violence.

Leaving the meta-level and returning to Unsettling Empathy, it is much to Krondorfer’s credit that the contents combine observation and analysis. He organizes them into frames (part one), then approaches and dynamics (part two), constituting the theoretical backbone of the book. He explains key concepts in a very helpful glossary. The latter makes the book more accessible, as well as more useful to practitioners. Krondorfer demonstrates that academic scholarship can be translated successfully into the applied realm without losing any of its rigor and that transdisciplinary work – he draws from an intriguing spectrum of disciplines – can bear creative and useful fruit.

These developments owe to his rich experiences as a facilitator for Germans and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, and Serbs and Bosnians, amongst others. Krondorfer draws on that experience to offer comparative perspectives on the impact of intergroup violence, and its consequences, down the generations. He makes the very important point that our present spans 200 years (Krondorfer 2020: 49); which means our combined living experience touches four generations. Each of us is impacted by and passes on stories, memories, and experiences to more than one generation. This also means that dividing the past and present is a futile task; the past certainly does not go away easily, a wish that might be voiced by members of the (former) perpetrating group.

Based on his accumulated knowledge, Krondorfer tackles uneasy questions of what happens when empathy is unsettled, when it fails, and when what members/descendants of a victims collective say and do becomes intolerable for those trying to empathize. This poses another, difficult question, that is beyond the limit of this (long) review: What if victims, or descendants of victims, do not wish to reconcile, but to avenge themselves? Is not the mere idea of forgiveness based in Christian theology? Be that as it may, one possible way out of this deadlock, according to Krondorfer, is thinking of future generations without betraying the dead or one’s own deep-seated loyalties to one’s ingroup. However, to reach this point, ways to re-tell formative stories need to be found, along with practical and pragmatic solutions for how to co-exist. Krondorfer explicates that this re-telling requires honesty towards oneself and to others: and that this honesty might not be achieved, and no solution might be found – hence my excursion into the issue of Jews and non-Jews in Germany.

If the opposing groups, and, more so, single individuals who fall within either collective, feel attuned to Krondorfer’s suggestions, his insights can offer possible solutions to intractable conflicts. Yet, in line with the honesty that he demands of himself and others, he is clear that the way to reconciliation is an uneven path, and that not every participant wants – or can – walk it. Despite this realistic, if discomfiting outcome, Unsettling Empathy offers much food for thought, and inspiration for application by its readership. It is to Krondorfer’s credit that he neither limits himself by academic disciplines, nor by restricting his important work to one single audience.


El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City