A remarkable case reveals the dangers of conducting historical research about events in living memory
by Daniel Sokol
When I sat on the Ministry of Defence’s Research Ethics Committee, some research projects were potentially dangerous. The risks of testing a new piece of military diving equipment, for example, are obvious. If it malfunctions, the volunteer could drown or suffer brain damage. The risks of historical research can be more subtle but they are nonetheless real, as shown by a recent case involving the University of Warwick.
Dr Anna Hájková, an associate professor of modern continental European history, researches the queer history of the Holocaust. She claimed that a Jewish prisoner may have engaged in a lesbian sexual relationship with a Nazi guard in Hamburg in 1944.
After the war, the prisoner worked as an actress and emigrated from Germany to Australia. Although she died 10 years ago, her daughter successfully took legal action against Dr Hájková in a German court last year for violating her mother’s dignity. The court prohibited the historian from using the prisoner’s name or photograph and claiming that she had a sexual relationship with the SS guard.
After starting legal proceedings in Germany, the daughter approached me for help. She wanted to complain against the University of Warwick on the grounds that Dr Hájková had breached her ethical duties as a researcher.
A few months ago, a University Panel, consisting of three Professors, returned its verdict: the historian committed research misconduct. This is rare for an academic historian.
The Panel found that Dr Hájková failed to obtain ethics approval before conducting research that involved the complainant’s mother. The Panel added that there was not enough evidence to support the historian’s claim that the mother had a physical relationship with the Nazi guard. This last finding gave particular comfort to the daughter, who has always maintained that her mother was never in a sexual relationship with the guard. They had spoken about what happened in the camps before her mother’s death. Later, one of her mother’s fellow inmates in the concentration camp, who slept in the bunk opposite hers and witnessed the encounters, wrote to the daughter to confirm there was no sexual relationship.
An earlier report by the Panel also concluded that Dr Hájková had breached a promise made to the daughter that she would not identify her mother by name in future publications. When the historian broke her word, the daughter felt betrayed. Dr Hájková told the Panel that she “simply forgot” about the agreement.
The daughter feels that Dr Hájková’s conduct fell below the standard expected of a competent researcher and now seeks compensation from the University for her psychiatric injury. She is depressed, cannot sleep and no longer enjoys the things she used to enjoy. She wants to use any compensation money to make a donation to a Holocaust Centre in her mother’s name.
It is tempting to believe that historical research about the dead cannot harm the living but this case shows otherwise. That is why universities have research ethics committees to review the ethics of proposed research. While many academics view these committees as tedious hurdles to pass, they maintain ethical standards and protect volunteers, the university, the wider public, and the researcher from harm.
Ethical scrutiny is all the more important in research of the sort conducted by Dr Hájková, which may affect descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors. There are scientific studies suggesting that children of Holocaust survivors are more vulnerable to stress.
As the doctor Sir William Osler wrote over a hundred years ago: ‘Our fellow creatures cannot be dealt with as man deals in corn and coal’. This should apply to historians as well as physicians. In their zeal to conduct research, pursue their passion, and publish their work, researchers should never lose track of the human side of their endeavour and the very real harm that their actions may cause.
This post may be cited as:
Sokol, D. (13 March 2021) Why university research ethics committees are vital. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/why-university-research-ethics-committees-are-vital/