The eleven essays that comprise this edited volume explore the political, ethical and aesthetic challenges of commemorating contentious histories of violence that generated contradictory and even competing collective memories by analyzing such diverse representations as monuments, museums, trials, and literature. Despite efforts to generate connections between the generally insightful, thoroughly researched, and well-written essays by outlining the arguments in the introduction and grouping them into thematic sections, the volume reads more like a journal than a book, as is particularly common for essay collections based on conferences.
In the first section, “Competing Memories”, the essays explore the impact of politics on modes of commemoration. It opens with Francine Hirsch’s articulate analysis of the impact Cold War ideology had on remembering the Nuremberg Trials in Western discourse. She challenges the dominant narrative by both highlighting the Soviet Union’s significant role and arguing that while both the Western Allies and the Soviet Union sought to use the trials as a platform for bolstering their political agendas, the former ultimately prevailed, thereby excluding the Soviet contribution from the Western master narrative. Hirsch therefore contends that the historiography of the Nuremberg Trials requires a revised narrative that more adequately accounts for the Soviet role.
In the second contribution, Karl Schlögel compellingly traces the complex developments of Russian collective memory. He explores official Soviet commemorative discourse and practice and the caesura marked by the end of communism. Schlögel furthermore argues that, given the repeated waves of violence, the German model of coming to terms with the past cannot be employed for Russian collective memory. He proposes that the complexities of Russian history are best collectively remembered in the various layers of memorial practices enacted in the commemorative space of the former Lenin Mausoleum on Moscow’s Red Square.
Next, Bill Niven explores the interaction between memories of violence inflicted both by Germans and on Germans in the Third Reich and the Second World War, which are generally considered mutually exclusive. He demonstrates that while the memory of flight and expulsion of ethnic Germans at the end of the war was a reaction to and a rejection of the dominance of Holocaust memory, the discourse and practice employed in order to break the taboo of entering these experiences of violence from the right-wing fringes into the official narrative was modeled on Holocaust commemoration. However, his analysis of how the commemoration of flight and expulsion impacted the post-millennial German memory of the Holocaust remains marginal to his argument.
Expanding the discussion on competing memory paradigms, Rob van der Laarse questions Western hegemony regarding sites of Holocaust commemoration, many of which are located in Eastern Europe, where currently competing memories are at play. He argues that European collective memory needs to be revised in light of the Eastern expansion of the European Union (EU). While the Auschwitz paradigm has served to unite Western Europe in a common historical narrative, it was significantly informed by the Cold War ideology of totalitarianism, which defined Western capitalist democracy as the antithesis to both Nazism and Communism. Moreover, Holocaust memory cannot provide a shared European narrative after many post-communist states joined the EU because their national memories do not include the genocide of European Jewry as a distinct historical event. And as the Auschwitz paradigm is furthermore based a peaceful post-war history, it cannot account for the complex histories of violence in Eastern Europe after 1945.
The second section, “Staging Memory”, addresses the ways in which societies continually re-shape their collective memories in light of changing national narratives. Geneviève Zubrzycki’s well-written essay explores the remaking of Polish collective memory since 1989 when the national myths of Polish victimhood and martyrdom in the Second World War were challenged by different discourses about the past. She analyzes the layered narratives of the museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the competing modes of commemoration of the Jedwabne memorial and counter-memorial, as well as Rafał Betlejewski’s memorial projects to explore the complex interactions between Polish and Jewish victimhood as well as Polish collaboration.
Next, Ofelia Ferrán explores the collective memory of the Spanish Civil War by analyzing Francesc Torres’s exhibit and catalogue of photographs capturing both the exhumation of a mass grave of male Republican resistance fighters and the ceremonial reburial of their remains two years later. In her engaging analysis, Ferrán argues that Torres’s photographs force the viewer to actively engage with the victims of Franco’s regime and thus indicate the current private and political willingness to engage the contentious past.
Robyn Autry’s revealing analysis of post-Apartheid South African memorial space explores the diversity of public engagement with a new collective identity that challenges the dominant mode of representing the past. In her discussion of the Freedom Park Project and the grass-roots revision of the District Six Museum in Cape Town, she highlights the significance of activist involvement in creating commemorative spaces and thus generating new national narratives about past violence. Autry stresses the contradictions in the diverse memories generated at and through both sites, which reflect the conflicts between the commemorative discourses that inform the post-Apartheid present and their respective functions in establishing a new South African community.
Laurie Beth Clark’s articulate discussion explores the ethical and epistemological challenges posed when museums and commemoration sites dedicated to genocide and other violent histories employ authentic objects, such as weapons, shoes, hair, and bones, as material evidence of a crime or as stand-ins for victims. Moreover, she discusses the curatorial use of artifacts, such as religious objects at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, or toys, games, and barber tools at the District Six Museum in Cape Town to invoke nostalgia about a lost way of life. Clark concludes her chapter by questioning whether the exhibition of human remains, such as cadavers and bones, at memorial sites contributes to an understanding of genocide and violence.
The third section, “Re-membering Memory”, illuminates dilemmas that arise when traumatic pasts are re-constructed in the processes of commemoration and education. In her analysis of Christa Wolf’s last semi-autobiographical text, “City of Angels or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud”, Anke Pinkert explores Wolf’s notion that the protagonist’s process of reflecting on her life, which leads to self-renewal and hope for the future, could function as metaphor for solving the conflicts between the former East and West Germany. Influenced by an understanding of Freudian psychoanalysis in which individual memory can provide a model for collective remembering, Wolf hopes that not only individuals but societies can mend themselves through critical self-exploration. Pinkert argues that through this representation of individual and/as communal self-healing, Wolf seeks a new approach to ethical political renewal, this means that turning inward could create external change and a new space in which East and West Germans can find reconciliation and equality through the reciprocal sharing of their respective pasts.
Richard J. Golsan argues in his careful analysis that France’s collective memory of the Vichy regime had been inadequately represented in the national narrative, which predominantly commemorated the French resistance to Nazi occupation. While Golsan considers the inclusion of French collaboration and the Holocaust in national memory necessary and laudatory, he argues that it constitutes an officially imposed memory that has, moreover, distorted the historical understanding of other aspects of France’s violent past, including its colonial occupation of Algeria, because of untenable comparisons to the Holocaust. For example, at the trial of Maurice Papon, his role in the violent suppression of Algerian protestors in 1961 was inadequately compared to the crimes he committed during the Vichy regime.
In his thoughtful contribution, Marc Silberman uses his own pedagogical experiences at North American universities to address teaching the theoretical, methodological, and ethical complexities of memory studies and particularly the representation and commemoration of genocides and other forms of extreme violence. He discusses the diverse intersections of historiography and memory studies, the dilemmas of invoking such modernist notions as truth, evidence and authenticity, the risk of relativization and trivialization in teaching and memorializing genocide and other histories of violence, and the need to convey to students a sense of responsibility to recognize today’s atrocities.
As the essays in this volume explore memorial sites, museums, literary texts, and trials as contested sites of meaning making with regard to commemorating violent pasts, they significantly contribute to the study of predominantly European collective memories and commemorative practices. However, it reflects the tendency in memory studies to solely analyze the artifacts themselves while neglecting the analysis of their reception. As cultural artifacts only embody the potential to function as collective memory markers that needs to be actualized in the reception process, memory studies needs to explore precisely this reception process as a contested site for meaning construction about the past.