PhD defense Lotte Bergen: Etty Hillesum did not passively undergo her fate in World War II either

Etty Hillesum. Foto: via Wikimedia Commons

On 16 December, Lotte Bergen will defend her PhD thesis titled  ‘Agency als antwoord van Etty Hillesum op het nazisme’.

Etty Hillesum

For a long time, the idea that Jews in World War II had passively faced their fate dominated historiography. Their behaviour was described as fatalistic, self-destructive and corrupt, and the Jewish Councils set up by order of the Nazis in occupied territories were particularly criticised. 

Initially, Etty Hillesum was also used as an example of this idea. Hillesum gained prominence in 1981 with the publication of an anthology from her diary, 38 years after she was murdered in Auschwitz. Her choice to reject going into hiding and voluntarily go to transit camp Westerbork played a crucial role in judging her person. She received recognition and admiration, but there was also criticism. 


Since then, the perception of Jewish victimhood has been largely corrected and nuanced. Various researchers have shown that the victims of Nazism were far from passively facing their fate, but rather were active actors with agency. So was Hillesum, writes Bergen in her thesis.

By agency, Bergen means (re)taking and maintaining control over one’s own life, or ownership of life. She explains that different aspects of agency are evident in Hillesum’s texts. 

Using the concept of agency, Bergen explains how Hillesum deliberately chose not to go into hiding but to go to Westerbork instead. Hillesum decided not only that she wanted to share her fate as a ‘Massenschicksal’, but also how she would give it form and meaning.

Start date and time
End date and time
Utrecht University Hall, Domplein 29 & online (via this link)
PhD candidate
Lotte Bergen
Agency as Etty Hillesum's response to Nazism
PhD supervisor(s)
Prof. dr. A. van Dixhoorn
Prof. dr. A.A. Clement MA