History: To Remember and to Forget (Pt. 4)
As in America and Israel, dominant European frameworks of holocaust memorialization serve to reinforce national cultural tropes at the expense of interrogating messier features of historical truths
This is part 4 of my attempt to clean up an old term paper on history vs. political memory as it pertains to Holocaust history and memorialization. This segment focuses on European Holocaust memorialization. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 here. Part 3 here. Part 5 will return to Peter Novick and attempt to grapple with some ramifications of his hypothesis.
The European approach to the Holocaust memorialization of the Holocaust bears the strongest examples of present concerns manifesting in “mythic archetypes.”
This should be unsurprising. Europe is the site of the events memorialized; thus, the largest number of museums and memorials dedicated to the Holocaust are concentrated in Europe. But this also makes the weight of memory all the more crucial for those who live there today.
For the Germans, trends in memorialization take on a tone of universalization ad absurdum.
Broder notes, “Guilty silence has been replaced with a guilty uproar, an extravagant cultural outburst predicated on the consciousness of an incomparable achievement.” Germans, it would seem, have taken so great an interest in the generalized recognition of their role in the perpetuation of the Holocaust as to lay a greater claim to historical ownership of the atrocity than ethical responsibility to its lessons and consequences. The question of which lessons and which consequences might be interrogated for deeper consideration, moreover, is wrapped within this the question of ‘What [are Germans] to commemorate, exactly?’
This question is intimately tied to present concerns regarding matters such as atrocity reparations or the overturning of legal decisions made under the Nazi regime to serve its machine of human destruction.
For Germans, “mythic archetypes” center primarily around identification with the event and how to observe it in a manner commensurate with the moral incommensurability of the atrocity.
In France, according to Joan Wolf, memorialization of the Holocaust ramped up during the Six-Day war.
Tying together French interest in the affairs of the Near East, Wolf suggests, “The Six-Day War marked the first widespread Jewish presentation of the Holocaust in French national discourse, Jews’ first sustained public discussion of the Nazi genocide outside of the Jewish community. What many Jews perceived to be an imminent threat to Israeli and Jewish survival, possibly a second genocide, translated into a discourse that was equally about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Holocaust.” This memorial phenomenon was also tied to what Wolf describes as the search by many French Jews for “their place in the Western world.” This search yielded a narrative of the Holocaust as “a shock to taken-for-granted structures of meaning in place since France first granted Jews citizenship during the French Revolution; a rupture in Jews’ unquestioned faith in the idea and security of inclusion in the national community; and a resulting bewilderment before the task of trying to make sense of the event, to comprehend the Holocaust with the conceptual tools that French Jews had employed for over 150 years.” Never mind the Dreyfus affair and the many smaller historical splits from this narrative.
Here, French national complicity in the event and in establishing the political atmosphere leading up to it are obscured by cultural assimilationist attitudes toward French Jewry.
Much as in America, dominant European frameworks of holocaust memorialization serve primarily to reinforce local, national cultural tropes at the expense of interrogating messier features of historical truth.
Tom Segev, The Seventh Million, (New York: Henry Holt, 1991), 174–175, 113–114
Henryk Broder, “We invented the Holocaust!” Transition, №89 (2001), 79, 83
Joan Wolf, “Anne Frank is dead, long live Anne Frank”: The Six-Day War and the Holocaust in French Public Discourse” History and Memory (1999), 106
Originally published at https://davidnwaeze.substack.com on July 20, 2022.