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Echoes of the Holocaust
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The result of a research project conducted by Swedish scholars, this text examines interpretations and representations of the Holocaust in European societies, primarily focusing on the most recent decades. Using specific case studies, the articles in this anthology study how, when and why the collective memory of the Holocaust has been expressed and activated for cultural, economic, political and social reasons.
Published: Nordic Academic Press an imprint of Independent Publishers Group on
ISBN: 9789187121609
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This is a book about the role of history in European societies. It has two main intellectual and scholarly sources. One is many years’ theoretical and empirical, didactic co-operative work among several of the authors to try to understand history not only as scholarly interpretations of phenomena and processes of the past, but also as a dimension or an instrument for individuals and collectives to cope with their contemporary lives and problems. The other source is a partly overlapping scholarly co-operation on problems of contemporary European society such as boundary and ethno-territorial conflicts, carried out since the 1970s at the Department of History, Lund University, under the guidance of Professor Sven Tägil.

The present book is the first concerted result of the research project The Holocaust and the European Historical Culture, financed by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation. The project includes scholars from three Swedish universities: Lund, Stockholm and Uppsala. The aim of the project, initiated in 2001, is to study the interpretations and representations of the Holocaust made in various European societies and states since the Nazi genocide of European Jewry took place during the World War II years. However, the main focus is on the last quarter-century and even the last full decade, when the Holocaust has attained a prominent position in a Europe wrestling with identities, orientations and values. This temporal bias is certainly evident from the chapters of the book. There is also a certain geographical bias in the sense that countries in East and Central Europe dominate among the geographical areas of the studies. In the central chapters of the book, the problem how the Holocaust is interpreted and represented in Germany and Israel is addressed.

It is urgent to underline from the very start that the book should be regarded as work in progress. The authors have set themselves the task of formulating open-ended but scholarly fruitful questions, to elaborate a useful theoretical and conceptual framework and to identify dp n=8 folio=8 ?relevant empirical cases, rather than providing the readers with complete answers, ready-made theories and full empirical accounts. Despite the fact that the project is in an unfinished state, we have considered it worth while to publishing our findings, partly to facilitate a scholarly debate on historical culture that can reach outside the project fellowship, partly because we find our approaches to history in general, and to the Holocaust in particular, instructive for the scholarly communities within a broad range of disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences. Furthermore, we sincerely hope that the book, focusing on issues that are ranked high on the European and Western cultural, political and social agenda of the new millennium, will find many interested readers among the general public.

We would like to express our gratitude to our editors at Nordic Academic Press. We would also like to acknowledge the correction of the authors’ English made by John Holmes and Alan Crozier. Finally, we would like to thank The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation, to which we are much obliged for its generous economic support of the publication of this book.

Lund, February, 2003

Klas-Göran Karlsson & Ulf Zander


The Holocaust as a Problem of Historical Culture

Theoretical and Analytical Challenges

Our historical consciousness is always filled with a variety of voices in which the echo of the past is heard. Only in the multifariousness of such voices does it exist: this constitutes the nature of the tradition in which we want to share and have a part.

Hans-Georg Gadamer

The Holocaust is the same; it cannot change. But the world in which we live, whether we welcome or do not welcome the development that is before us, changes the meaning of the Holocaust as time passes before our eyes.

Raul Hilberg

History of Effect

Historians have traditionally dealt with history by means of explaining it. In fact, explanation has often been looked upon as history’s raison d’être in the rank of scholarly disciplines. However, when explaining history, historians have normally deemed causes more important than effects. While taking great pains in separating motives from structural causes, keeping igniting sparks apart from more profound causal factors and in general distinguishing the vital prime movers leading to historical change from conditions considered less important, the fate of the historical event after its occurrence has often been put at a disadvantage. The history of effects has been insufficiently elaborated upon among historians, who often have dp n=10 folio=10 ?confined themselves to discerning a victorious, factual line of development standing out in prospective chronological succession from the complex causal setting of historical change. More often than not, the fact that we, i.e., present-day individuals and society, constitute the provisional terminal point of this prospective line of historical development, is not given due attention.

As a matter of fact there are, analytically speaking, two kinds of history of effects. The other is retrospective, which means that it more or less explicitly starts from the subjective questions, problems and perceptions of the same present-day individual and society. It is a perspective that relates closely to what philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer called Wirkungsgeschichte, history of effect, with its hermeneutic insistence that aspects such as tradition, language and horizon must be included in the idea of history, and furthermore that history is lived prospectively but experienced retrospectively. In itself, the hermeneutic perspective is opposed to the objectivistic idea that the historian is capable of positioning himself or herself outside the historical process, not being one of its effects, which for a long time has been one of the main aspects of the historians’ professional identity. It is, however, the contention of the authors of this book that the two perspectives must be combined if the historian wants to explain and understand the double role played by history as on the one hand an inexorable line of development of which we are a part, on the other hand a man-made cultural construct.

With a somewhat pretentious wording, it can be argued that history scholarship over the last two decades has turned from the Er-klärung towards the Verstehen tradition. With the terminology just used, it means that history as a cultural construct has attracted an increased attention, sometimes with a certain disregard to the objectivistic approach. In discourse analysis, what is cause and what is effect is often regarded as questions uncalled for. Obviously, inspiration from Michel Foucault can easily inhibit historians from using any explanatory devices whatsoever:

The human being no longer has any history: or rather, since he speaks, works, and lives, he finds himself interwoven in his own being with histories that are neither subordinate to him nor homogeneous with him.¹

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One interpretation is that we are not able to provide the explanations or even generate the meanings in historical discourse, since we always and already find ourselves enclosed within a discourse. We will never grasp the idea of history, neither as professional historians nor as individuals, only the pale reflections left behind. Foucault’s dictum can however also be used for an opposite, hermeneutic purpose, i.e., to stress the historicity of the human being and his/her capacity to reflect upon the possibilities of getting admission to the past offered thereby. In such a case, a genealogical perspective does not necessarily mean that a culture is epistemologically closed in itself, but, quite the reverse, open to the interpretation and representation of an understanding posterity. As a matter of fact, since Foucault strongly underlines that the human predicament to a great extent is linguistic, cultural and social, his statement can also be used to stress the historicity of society. In such a cultural interpretation, the human interwovenness in history does not only mean that man is influenced by historical circumstances, but also that he influences his life and society by means of history; or rather of the past cultivated into meanings, memories, memorials, monuments, museums, myths and several other aspects of a historical culture. In this way, history has been transformed from a row of blind causes that have made us what we are, to a source of cultural or symbolic power that we can exert in order to further various interests and needs. In other words, man not only thinks about history, but also with history. No wonder that the fin de siècle scholarly society abounds in newly published books about a new kind of political history. Its primary focus is not on the history of politics, but on the politics of history or memory.

An important part of the human predicament is that man has a historical consciousness, thus more or less constantly and consciously interpreting, representing and using history for various aims and purposes. Historical consciousness is a mental process that connects contemporary human beings to what they apprehend as their past and their future, but also to various larger histories or imagined communities which are of longer duration than an individual life and therefore are considered existentially or ideologically precious. Informing the present and implanting hopes for and fears about the future, history as consciousness performs the same function as the dp n=12 folio=12 ?mirror of Snow White’s stepmother, telling you who you are in relation to other generations and to the world. Consequently, the operation of historical consciousness is intimately related to the development of different facets of identity.

To be sure, internal theoretical turns within the scholarly community have promoted these new professional ideas, but there is obviously also an external dimension of this change of fundamentals among historians. As an effect of several radical European developments, including the facts that economic and social uncertainties have made us all doubtful about modernist ideas of continuous growth and progression, that globalisation, Europeanisation, regionalisation and multiculturalism have called traditional, national and other identities into question, and that the disappearance of the Cold War has ended a period of seemingly eternal bipolarity and precarious stability, history has gained ground as a dimension offering existential orientation, moral encouragement and political-ideological guidance. For professional historians, it has become evident that the forms, contents and meanings of the past, the historical culture, are not fixed into ready-made scholarly constructions. The past can be represented to us from a multiplicity of perspectives and sources. The new competition has probably enhanced the historians’ awareness of history as a cultural phenomenon that can have an influence on man and society a long time after the end of the factual history in question.

In this book, the concepts mentioned above–which will be further elaborated later in this introductory chapter–will be used to carry out an investigation of how several European societies and states have handled important aspects of their history since the end of World War II. The purpose is to write a cultural history of effects, i.e., to analyse what Gadamer described as situations in which societies and states in retrospect have become conscious of, interpreted, represented and made use of historical events as part of a tradition or a historical culture. One important knowledge offered by hermeneutics is that historical constructs are permanently in the making, offering building stones for variable national and other identities. Yet, history-cultural change is not spontaneous, because, in Gadamer’s words, the process of construal is itself already governed by an expectation of meaning that follows from the context dp n=13 folio=13 ?of what has gone before.² A study of historical culture must therefore have a considerable extension in time, at the same time as it has to be keenly open to a broad range of external, structural influences that obviously also can affect the continuity and change of historical culture.

Another important piece of knowledge that can be extracted from the hermeneutic current of ideas concerns the source materials, texts, for studying historical cultures. Another principal figure of modern hermeneutical thinking, Paul Ricœur, defines a text very broadly as any discourse fixed by writing.³ Traditionally, historians are considered the main interpretors of history and the main producers of the artefacts of historical culture. But if the scholarly task is to study how societies and states have confronted and are confronting their history, and if Ricœur is right in arguing that a textual discourse comprises a mimetic bond between the act of writing/reading and real action, scholarly historiography is hardly the only relevant source for the study of history’s role in society. In this book, rituals, school history textbooks, films, exhibits and other products of a popular culture or a public use of history will be considered at least as important for the development of historical culture as traditional scholarly monographs and theoretical-intellectual debates.

The Cultural Significance of the Holocaust

The focus of this study is not on the meanings and forms of any history. The aim is to assess the position of the Holocaust within the European historical culture, or alternatively, national historical cultures in Europe, during a protracted period of time from the first post-war years to the present. Among the questions necessary to pose are the following: how have various European states and societies reacted to the Nazi destruction of European Jewry from the first official international response, the Nuremberg trials of 1945–1946, to the frequent and multifaceted national and European reactions at the dawn of the new millennium? What kind of historical consciousness has developed over the past half-century with respect to the Holocaust? In what ways has the Holocaust been used–maybe even abused–to satisfy various needs and further various objectives in various dp n=14 folio=14 ?European countries, and in Europe in general? How, when, where and why have collective memories of the Holocaust been activated and turned into cultural, economic, political and social factors to be reckoned with among policy-making and other interest groups? And the opposite: under what circumstances have memories of genocide been collected, cultivated and preserved on the quiet, for the most part not leaving the private sphere?

This ambitious declaration of purpose brings in its train a need for theoretical and analytical elucidations and qualifications, which will be given in the remainder of this introductory chapter. In the study, the Holocaust will be treated as an abstract, cultural phenomenon or product, changing form, meaning, relevance and usefulness in time and space. But the Holocaust is simultaneously a real historical event, indeed an event in which between five and six million Jews were murdered in a genocidal process so violent and so cruel that there are few if any counterparts in modern history. Talking about the Holocaust, it has been argued that the magnitude of an event is dependent upon the magnitude of its cause,⁴ but it is also true that the magnitude of effects is dependent upon the magnitude of their event, which means that the seriousness of the problems of its cultural representation is also a reflection upon the ghastliness of the historical reality. A traditional scholarly Rankean endeavour to establish how things actually happened is surely one way of counteracting trivialisation, commercialisation and political manipulation of this history. During the last few decades, such scholarly works on the roots and the developments of the Holocaust have abounded. Another endeavour, not so frequently carried through in the scholarly community but a guiding principle behind this book, is a theoretically inspired, analytical study of how and on what conditions history has been constructed and used, thus decoding it as an instrument of culture as well as power.

But even as an abstraction, the Holocaust is an event that is extremely difficult to do justice to within our traditional conceptual and representational frames. It is, as the phrase has gone among scholars in the history-cultural field, an event at the limits.⁵ A plausible point of departure is therefore that historical culture hardly can be generalised from the perspective of Holocaust representations. History dp n=15 folio=15 ?as written in text books or other media abounds in wars and other kinds of mass violence, but the premeditated destruction of large parts of a European ethnic group stands out as detached from the general flow of national history, as a departure from the contents of normal historiography.

What speaks against this presupposition is a contradictory impression, which can and will be supported with empirical examples, that the Holocaust since the 1980s gradually has moved into the very centre of the European historical culture(s). It seems as if interpretations and debates of aspects and representations of the Nazi genocide of European Jewry have occupied a prominent place in a broadly defined cultural space all over Europe in the last decade. A basic explanation of this development is that it is the sheer incredibility of the event, a feeling that certainly has not weakened over the years, that has kept up or even strengthened the fascination of the topic. There are, however, competing or complementary, more historically based explanations.

Living History and Living History

An immediate motive force for the research project which is at the bottom of this book was an information project about the Holocaust, Living History, initiated in the summer of 1997 by the Swedish government to answer the double objective of bringing about a knowledge of the Nazi genocide and to counteract destructive tendencies of racism, intolerance and contempt for democracy in late 20th century society. The fact that the political initiative was very well received and has developed into a formidable success both in different national contexts and in the international community, clearly indicates that it fell on fertile cultural as well as political and social ground.

Put differently, it seems as if the Holocaust has attained an important role as a catalyst of a series of vital societal problems in Europe and the Western world at the turn of the century. A temporal core of this work lies in this very adjacent history. It is an urgent task for the scholars behind this book to elucidate the character of these problems, and how, within different themes and in a concentrated form, dp n=16 folio=16 ?they have taken shape in the Holocaust. What are the lessons of the Holocaust, to bring to the fore an expression frequently used by the organisers of Living History and other political and educational circles in Europe? The standard answers, to demonstrate what man is capable of doing to man, and that knowledge of genocide history will prevent future generations from perpetrating the same horrendous crimes again, a second Holocaust, are to all appearances no full answers. The question is whether history teaches lessons to posterity at all, except the basic fact that the Holocaust actually occurred in history. There is a lot to be said in favour of philosopher Berel Lang’s proposition that there is more to be learned from the post-Holocaust than from the Holocaust itself, even if he naturally is right in admitting that we would not find ourselves in the one if it had not been for the other.⁷ But Lang’s idea that it is the representations of the Holocaust that provide historical lessons, due to the fact that the diverse, pluralist history of Holocaust representations is connected to moral, but also, by extension, to social, political and ideological developments and discussions that reach the present day, is congenial to the idea of this book.

The Holocaust is one of the historical events that is most often used to foster coming generations to be anti-racists. The lessons of history, if any, are being discussed here in Auschwitz. (Photo: Tomas Sniegon)

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One lesson that thus can be extracted from post-Holocaust proceeds from one of the great scholarly and intellectual works of the last decades, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), the ideas of which have won great support both within and outside the scholarly community. Bauman, relying on Theodor Adorno’s analysis of the dialectic of enlightenment and violence accomplished at the time when the destruction of European Jewry was perpetrated, does not consider genocides as phenomena nor clearly defined by ethno-national or class dividing lines, neither as deviations or parentheses in social development. On the contrary, genocides are universal phenomena, integrated aspects or rather consequences of the development of modern society. In this genocidal process, there are no responsible actors, only mechanically working structures and functions. In Bauman’s analysis, the development of a hierarchical bureaucratic culture or lifestyle is a particularly evil consequence of modernity, especially when combined with a destructive ideology that can induce the bureaucracy to perpetrate genocide. At the bottom of this development lies a rational, scientific and bureaucratic endeavour to categorise, classify and make uniform, often in terms of ethnos, class or race, an activity that tends towards intolerance or repression against those who are categorised as the Others.

In Bauman’s paradigmatic analysis, the Holocaust is depicted as a depersonalised and bureaucratised mass murder, but also as a course of events that leaves nobody in the modern world outside. In the scholarly community, Bauman’s interpretation has been severely criticised from an analytic and empirical scholarly perspective, but the important lesson in the history-cultural context is that Bauman has made an important contribution to the successful, broad dissemination of an idea of an intimate connection between modernity and Auschwitz, and between late 20th century Europe and the Holocaust. Through Bauman, the Holocaust has challenged inherited assumptions of modernity and progress. It seems likely that the dissemination of Bauman’s work and ideas went some way in intensifying Holocaust discourse in general. In some European countries, dp n=18 folio=18 ?among them Sweden, they also have set debates going about other measures taken by the strong, civilised state, including forced sterilisations, to promote homogeneity and uniformity among its citizens. No doubt, these debates have became particularly aggressive by their implicit relation to the Holocaust.

Following the British historian J.H. Plumb’s observation, [i]t is not accidental that great social crises, when secular authority or ancient beliefs are torn in conflict, bring forth a huge spate of historical writing and, indeed, historical controversy,⁹ another cultural lesson of the post-Holocaust is that the representations of the genocide have been influenced by the great transformations that took place in Europe in the years around 1990. The end of the Cold War, the unification of Germany, the fall of East European Communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union functioned as a watershed concerning our general conception of the world. For decades, conceptual distinctions of greatest significance for our identity building and mental universe, such as the ones between friend and enemy and between good and evil, had comfortably converged with the ideological border between east and west, situating ourselves unambiguously and securely on the positive side. In this respect, the question whether the lookout tower was placed in Moscow or in Western Europe was probably not significant. The least polarised outlook could probably be found in the area that in the Cold War period was the site of several Communist satellite states, and from the late 80s was called Central Europe.

No doubt, the dramatic international changes also influenced our perceptions of the Holocaust. During the Cold War, the absolute evil existed in the contemporary world, situated beyond the iron curtain. After the ending of the Cold War, there was a need to celebrate the new European unity by attributing the moral zero point to the past. In this context, the Holocaust became a useful concept to tie the absolute evil of history together with a good, united Europe of the future. With the Swedish prime minister’s words in one of his speeches at The Stockholm International Forum of the Holocaust in January 2000: Auschwitz–a testimony to the evil of man in our times, in our modern, civilised Europe.¹⁰ Thus, the Holocaust was thought to be an important aspect in the development of a historical consciousness which could promote a further, deepened integration in dp n=19 folio=19 ?Europe, based on a community of historical values. Consequently, claims have been put forward that countries that apply for membership in the European Union should come to terms with the participation of their populations in the genocidal process, before they can qualify for a position in an integrated Europe. Certainly, this strategy became ever so important for leading European politicians since right-wing political groups in some European countries gained political support as a result of or despite their banalising utterances on the Holocaust, or even outright denial of its occurrence.

Ever since Alain Resnais’ classic documentary Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), the railroad gate into Auschwitz-Birkenau has been a recurrent symbol of the Holocaust. (Photo: Tomas Sniegon)

Paradoxically, one could probably also argue from the diametrically dp n=20 folio=20 ?opposite perspective that the recent interest in the Holocaust is not primarily an expression of integration, but rather of an equally strong tendency towards disintegration in Europe. In this cultural perspective, the destruction of European Jewry is the most extreme expression of a process of ethnification that has been another conspicuous feature in the post-Cold War world and European social development. In a controversial article, historian Charles Maier has warned of the politics of victimisation and the surfeit of history which has turned away interest from the traditional cosmopolitan discourse of history to the ethno-national discourse of memory in which the Holocaust is an important element.¹¹ In present-day Europe, scholars have disclosed not only a Holocaust fascination, but also a general renaissance of Jewish culture, which in its turn can be subsumed under the more general heading ethnic assertiveness. But it is rather a virtually Jewish culture, since it is often recreated without the participation of Jews in countries such as Germany and Poland where the Jewry was strongly decimated in the Holocaust process. And for Ruth Ellen Gruber, one of those who has recently investigated this phenomenon, it is not primarily an internal Jewish rediscovery of roots, even though this aspect is also present, but precisely a project of a European historical consciousness:

The memory of Jews and Jewish heritage is emotionally charged, whether because of official postwar taboos, government policy, lingering antisemitism, a sincere sense of loss, or guilty conscience. The remembered presence of Jews and Jewish space can become a symbol of the past, but it can also become an idealized symbol of contemporary aspirations: to multiculturalism, to identity, to authencity, to a pan-European ideal.¹²

In a more general perspective, the events of 1989–1991 also meant that the traditional post-war binary ideological perspective was replaced by predominant perspectives of morality and conscience politics. No doubt, the latter was better adapted to a Holocaust discourse. In an earlier post-war period, social-liberal democracy understood core values such as solidarity and justice mainly in a horizontal way, i.e., in relation to underprivileged classes at home and underdeveloped countries in the third world. Late 20th century liberal democracy dp n=21 folio=21 ?seems to gravitate vertically, towards solidarity with and moral accountability to the victims of past injuries. Even in this context, there are reasons to remember the fact that this official and open politico-cultural development goes hand-in-hand with an expansion of the more or less murky field of commercial, ideological and pornographic uses of Nazi symbols and narratives in various European and Western subcultures. It should, however, also be added that it is difficult to draw an absolute moral dividing line between what is inside and outside Holocaust historical culture.

Another, less subtle aspect of the Holocaust engagement of the 1990s was the sad fact that genocides still took place not only in distant, African or Asian parts of the world, but also in modern, civilised Europe. Interpreting the tragic events in the former Yugoslavia, the Holocaust for many people played a fundamental role as an archetype of genocides. One factor behind the centrality of the Holocaust may be the important role it played in the elaboration of the UN Genocide Convention.¹³ A more profound explanation must await a more elaborated history-cultural study, but in this context we, i.e., both scholars and the general European public, are obviously getting close to a more traditional position that the Holocaust, adequately analysed and narrated, can be able to provide valuable cognitive lessons. As has been mentioned, there are however good reasons to question whether historical phenomena such as the Holocaust can be used instrumentally to help us explain and understand later genocidal atrocities.

Holocaust Controversies

It goes without saying that the main cultural effects of a horrendous event such as the Holocaust have not been ones of unanimity and unity as in the case of Living History, but rather of controversies and disputes. It is true that contention tends to accompany most debates about history of effect since, in the words of historian John R. Gillis, modern memory was born [...] from an intense awareness of the conflicting representations of the past and the effort of each group to make its version the basis of national identity,¹⁴ but the Holocaust is almost predestined to create interpretive conflicts.

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At this stage, it may be sufficient to mention just a few out of many instances during the last two decades. Some of them can be labelled political, at least in the sense that they emanated from political actions. In 1985, the American president Ronald Reagan visited Germany to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II and accepted an invitation from his host, the German chancellor Helmut Kohl, to visit a military cemetery in Bitburg. Controversy erupted when is was made public that the graves included forty-nine members of the Waffen-SS, an organisation that played an essential role in the Holocaust. The following year, neighbouring Austria was the arena of another conflict with international implications. The diplomat Kurt Waldheim, whose career included a decade as Secretary General of the United Nations but also service in the German army during World War II, was in the latter capacity accused of complicity in the deportation of Greek Jews to death camps. When he simultaneously was elected president of Austria, an international controversy ensued not only from the question whether Waldheim could be considered an appropriate Austrian head of state. The debate embraced Austria as the country of Anschluss, of Hitler’s, Eichmann’s and Franz Stangl’s birthplaces and of a history of deepseated antisemitism.

Other instances of conflict depart from scholarly products. One is the German Historikerstreit, the historians’ conflict that broke out in the mid-80s round the main issue whether Nazi crimes were unique, a legacy of an evil German Sonderweg, or whether they were comparable to other catastrophic atrocities, such as Stalin’s terror. Part of this German history-cultural problem complex is also the discourse of the post-war divided Germany and the divided memory of the Holocaust in the Cold War era. Another example comes from the American historian Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners from 1996, in which the Holocaust was explained in terms of demonologic or eliminatory antisemitism that permeated the entire German society. A third controversy is the Lipstadt-Irving libel trial, which started in the first days of the new millennium at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. It proceeded from the American