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Perpetrator memory and

memories about perpetrators

Memory Studies
3(2) 9194
The Author(s) 2010
Reprints and permission: http://www.
DOI: 10.1177/1750698009355672

Jonathan Dunnage
Swansea University, UK

Contemporary memory debates on representations of conflict and, in particular, crimes against

humanity have undoubtedly been informed by the fairly recent emergence of perpetrator voices. As
survivors of the Second World War reach the end of their lives, and as the event and related atrocities become increasingly distant in time, perpetrators are equally as aware as victims of a final
opportunity to be heard directly. Paradoxically, too, war crimes trials since the 1990s, whilst
intended to bring perpetrators to justice, have often provided them with a platform from which to
talk back to their victims, many of whom are no longer alive to defend themselves. Moreover,
when groups of people associated with past oppression chose to remain silent (or were silenced), it
is often the descendents of those implicated who publicly defend their cause today. Recent acts of
genocide, notably in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, the increasingly vocal demands for reparation from victims of genocide and massacres committed during the Second World War, and the
9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA have also played their part in defining the study of perpetrators
and their misdeeds, and in shaping public and political debates.
Academic scholars have lately sought to develop interpretative models for understanding and
defining different kinds of extreme violence, attempted to give meaning to specific acts of violence and questioned the ethical responsibilities involved in researching what is often a harrowing
subject matter (see, for example, Smelin et al., 2002). Whilst academic studies begin to stress the
complexities surrounding perpetrator-hood and the ability of most human beings to become perpetrators under particular circumstances (see Bloxham and Kushner, 2005: 1579), public reconstructions of the past according to victimperpetrator/goodevil absolutes often fail to take account
of the rather more blurred dynamics behind oppressive state rule and acts of atrocity.
The construction and diffusion of memories of perpetrators and their crimes feed directly into,
and are conditioned by, public debates relating to national/group identities, cultures and histories.
Re-visitations of the past are inevitably conditioned by the imperative of national or group cohesion in the present. In the current international context of truth commissions, and restitution and
compensation laws, in an age of commemorations and legislative deliberations relating to national
histories, the apparent willingness of states to admit and make amends for past crimes against
humanity has on occasion been contradicted by revisionist or normalizing stances. In Germany,
Corresponding author:
Jonathan Dunnage, Senior Lecturer, Department of History and Classics, School of Arts and Humanities, Swansea
University, Singleton Park, Swansea, SA2 8PP, Wales, UK.

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Memory Studies 3(2)

for example, the recent highlighting of victimhood during and after the Second World War resulting from civilian bombings, the plight of ordinary soldiers and mass expulsions from the East, has
helped to neutralize Nazi atrocities and German responsibilities for them. Thus, perpetrator
nations or groups in dealing with their past have often emphasized common suffering (through
conflict), thereby erasing distinctions between themselves and their victims, to the advantage of the
nation/group and to the detriment of the latter.1
Perpetrator memories should be considered in relation to the postmodern age, in which the traditional hegemony of the historian is challenged and he/she is forced to share the task of manufacturing the past with the judge, the witness, the media and the legislator (Nora, 2002). The
employment today of myriad forms of memory in order to transmit the past, including fictional narratives, film, the media, museums, associations and, of course, the internet, gives rise to a number
of issues of contention. The fusion of fiction and history in literary works and films, for example,
raises ethical questions related to responsibility and authenticity when it comes to reproducing
traumatic events, often for entertainment and with marketability in mind. In his 2004 article on
Bernhard Schlinks novel, Der Vorleser (Hollywoodized as The Reader in 2008), Joseph Metz
underlines the question of how, at a time in which the existence and accessibility of truth have been
called into question or redefined as functions of textual mediation itself, a text can approach the one
event [the Holocaust] whose demands on truth are the most compelling (Metz, 2004: 314). Now
that information is more widely available than ever before, the media and popular forms of culture
often stand accused of lending support to trivializations and revisionist reconstructions of past
oppressions that easily manipulate a public desiring straightforward definitions and formulas.
The recent emergence of group memories (previously forgotten, or silenced by dominant
national narratives), whilst premised on the rights of individuals and minority groups, has raised
concerns about distortions of historical fact. In the context of competition between conflicting
memories/groups and increasingly sophisticated channels for diffusion, memory becomes a claim
for recognition and instrumentalizes facts as a tool for the construction of identities (Bickerton,
2006). This carries the risk that the otherwise positive principle of emancipation and liberation on
which it [memory] is based backfires and becomes a form of closure, a grounds for exclusion and
an instrument of war (Nora, 2002).
The articles making up this special issue analyse the transmission of memories relating to perpetrators in the context of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the Algerian War of
Independence, the left-wing German terrorist movement, and the East German secret police.2 They
examine diverse forms of memory transmission, including fiction, biography, photography, film,
television, the press, objects, associations and memory campaigns. In doing this, they illustrate the
tensions between different kinds of memory (for example, victim versus perpetrator memory, and
minority versus official memory), and draw attention to how national contexts (those of France,
Germany and Italy) influence constructions of memories related to acts of oppression and brutality
and to those held responsible for them. The articles engage with contemporary public debate and
controversy surrounding memory and the emergence of perpetrator voices.
The issue begins by examining the media construction of Italian Holocaust memory. The popular myth of italiani brava gente (Italians are good people) and the dominant post-1945 narrative
of the Resistance have both helped to minimize public awareness of Italys fascist past and culpability as a perpetrator nation. The last 20 years have seen the development of memory wars
over Italys fascist and anti-fascist legacies. Indirectly backed by revisionist histories of
Mussolinis regime, what has often been perceived as an anti-fascist hegemony over the reconstruction of Italys past has been challenged, leading to attempts to reappraise fascism and to
apportion perpetrator status to the communist arm of the Resistance. As Emiliano Perra argues here

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in relation to the 2002 RAI television miniseries Giorgio Perlasca, the selective manner in which
Italy remembers the Holocaust not only reinforces the myth of the good Italian, but has allowed
a re-legitimization of fascism in some quarters. Moreover, reception of the story of the fascist
and rescuer of Jews, Perlasca illustrates the key role of the press and television in influencing
how events are remembered by citizens, the majority of whom have no direct experience of
those events.
Articles by Jennifer Cazenave and Claire Eldridge address, respectively, aspects of memory
relating to the Nazi occupation of France (194044) and the Algerian War of Independence
(195662). Since the 1970s, following challenges to De Gaulles myth of a mass French Resistance
against the Nazis, the Holocaust, Vichy and collaborationism have been the subjects of heated
debate and academic study in France (marked, for example, by controversy surrounding President
Mitterrands collaboration with Vichy, and the trials of Klaus Barbie, Paul Touvier and Vichy
official Maurice Papon). These have tied into public discourses concerning French national identity against the background of cultural diversification in which ethnic and minority groups have
challenged traditional notions of Frenchness (Wolf, 2004: 124). Jonathan Littells fabrication
of a fictitious collaborator-perpetrator in his novel, Les Bienveillantes (2006) might be considered
the latest Holocaust affair or, at least, the latest significant representation of the Holocaust in
France. Underlining Littells sub-textual exploration of the scope (and limits) of Holocaust memory, Cazenaves article counters dissention surrounding the novel by analysing its representation
of the human body as forever tainted by the Holocaust atrocities.
Since the 1990s, France has entered an era of memorialism characterized by commemorative
events and new museums (Nora, 2002). These have largely focused on its colonial past, particularly in regard to the Algerian War of Independence. Memories of this war without a name have
been centred on the breaking of previous taboos concerning torture and rape committed by the
French military, as the state began to commemorate publicly the conflict and more generally
Frances legacy of empire (Hargreaves, 2005: 23). In the context of what Nora refers to as a shift
in France from history to memory, enabling minority peoples, groups or individuals to claim
recognition, rehabilitation and justice, and form their present-day identity (Nora, 2002), Eldridges
article analyses the relationship between the pieds-noirs, former settlers in French Algeria, and the
harkis, Algerians who fought for the French during the War of Independence, focusing on piednoir exploitation of harki memory in order to change their group status from that of perpetrator to
Drawing on the significant attention paid to terror by the German media and cultural industry,
and in the context of the 30th anniversary of the 1977 German Autumn, two articles in the issue
analyse memory of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) terrorist phenomenon. Clare Bielbys article
considers how the period of terrorism is remembered and symbolized in museum exhibits and the
press. Underlining the tendency of societies to distance themselves from perpetrators by de-politicizing them and reconstructing them as other, the article focuses on the construction of female
gender paradigms around unnaturally violent and phallic female RAF terrorists. Julian Preeces
article analyses biographies of RAF leaders, their victims and hunters as reflections of German
societys continued need to come to terms with its terrorist past.
If the Holocaust was employed by RAF terrorists to justify their actions, Bielby and Preece
draw attention to how memories of German terrorism are shaped by discussions surrounding the
extent of the terrorists ideological and personal connections with National Socialism.3 In the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the German Nazi legacy informed debates on the German
Democratic Republic (GDR), too. Moreover, the reconstruction of the GDR as an oppressive
nation strongly paralleling Nazi totalitarianism appeared to allow the German Federal Republic to

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Memory Studies 3(2)

distance itself from Germanys dictatorial legacy as a whole (Cooke, 2005: 3446). In the final
article of the issue, Owen Evans addresses von Donnersmarcks portrayal of the Stasi secret police
in his 2006 film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Taking as his starting point criticisms regarding the historical authenticity of von Donnersmarcks reconstruction of GDR society
and his redemption of the main perpetrator character, Evans argues that the directors employment
of melodrama creates an authenticity of affect, which vividly portrays the inhumanity of the Stasi
state, whilst challenging Manichean narratives of the GDR in favour of a more nuanced and realistic picture of human existence under totalitarian regimes.
1 These issues are discussed in Semler (2005) and Peitsch (1999: xivxvii).
2 The articles have been developed from papers delivered at the international conference Constructions of
Conflict: Transmitting Memories of the Past in European Historiography, Literature and Media, hosted
by the Modern European Ideologies, Conflict and Memory (MEICAM) Research Group at Swansea
University in September 2007 (
3 For an analysis of what he considers to be the fallacious role of the Holocaust in explanations and
representations of German terrorism, see van der Knaaps essay (2008).

Bickerton, Christopher (2006) Frances History Wars, Le Monde diplomatique, February. Available at:
Bloxham, Donald and Tony Kushner (2005) The Holocaust: Critical Historical Approaches. Manchester:
Manchester University Press.
Cooke, Paul (2005) Representing East Germany since Unification: From Colonization to Nostalgia. Oxford:
Hargreaves, Alec G. (2005) Introduction, in Alec G. Hargreaves (ed.) Memory, Empire and Postcolonialism:
Legacies of French Colonialism, pp. 18. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Metz, Joseph (2004) Truth Is a Woman: Post-Holocaust Narrative, Postmodernism and the Gender of
Fascism in Bernhard Schlinks Der Vorleser, The German Quarterly, 77(3): 30023.
Nora, Pierre (2002) Reasons for the Current Upsurge in Memory, Eurozine, 19 April. Available at http://
Peitsch, Helmut (1999) Introduction: Studying European Literary Memories, in Helmut Peitsch, Charles
Burdett and Claire Gorrara (eds) European Memories of the Second World War, pp. xiiixxxi. New York
and Oxford: Berghahn.
Smelin, Jacques (ed.) (2002) International Social Science Journal (special issue) 54 (174).
Semler, Christian (2005) Is the Tide of German Memory Turning?, Eurozine, 23 June. Available at: http://
van der Knaap, Ewout (2008) The New Executioners Arrival: German Left-Wing Terrorism and the Memory
of the Holocaust, in Gerrit-Jan Berendse and Ingo Cornils (eds) Baader-Meinhof Returns: History and
Cultural Memory of German Left-Wing Terrorism, pp. 28599. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Wolf, Joan B. (2004) Harnessing the Holocaust: The Politics of Memory in France. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press.

Author Biography
Jonathan Dunnage, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in History at Swansea University. He is currently
preparing a monograph on the careers of personnel of the Italian Interior Ministry police during the
fascist dictatorship.

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