On Good and Bad Memory

Can memory be a bad thing? Readers must have stumbled over a recent headline that said, “Plan to open a new Holocaust Museum in Budapest faces criticism – from Jews.”Isn’t creating such a museum, as any other project that raises awareness and educates on the Holocaust, always something praiseworthy?

Holocaust memory seems to be at a problematic crossroad. While it is remembered across borders, the story and the messages it entails vary. The Budapest case is a good example of how a memorial project can be motivated more by contemporary politics than by a genuine desire to convey historical truths. The Hungarian Jewish community, among others, fears that – in a context of growing nationalism – the museum will downplay the role of Hungarian collaborators and stress instead the Hungarian rescuers. Moreover, it is likely that the planned museum will put the Nazi genocide of Jews on the same plane as postwar communist persecution. In Eastern Europe, equating the Nazi genocide to Stalin’s crimes is part of a generalized politics of victimization.

Yet, there are also memory politics involved where some groups emphasize the Holocausts’ uniqueness. In Italy and Spain (former Nazi Germany’s allies and sympathizers), highlighting the singularity of the Holocaust results very often in self-exculpation regarding the (Fascist and Francoist) crimes. The very uniqueness of the Holocaust, as invoked by conservative politicians at Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies, allows them to draw a radical distinction between Nazism and Fascism (both in its Italian, a la Mussolini, and its Spanish, a la Franco, forms). It allows for memorializing without probing into one’s own past.

The Holocaust, a symbol of absolute evil and supreme infamy, is also all too easily projected as a metaphor onto totally different phenomena. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, has become a catch-all for analogies and equivalences with the Holocaust. Contemporary antisemites now claim that the main victims of the most radical case of genocide (Jews) have turned into the most recent and significant perpetrators. As European scholars have pointed out some of these arguments have now found their way into the Holocaust Memorial Day event itself.

A growing preoccupation in a memory culture gone global is that the Holocaust will be open to all sorts of distortions, abuses and instrumentalization.

But is there a correct memory of the Holocaust? The Holocaust has become the paradigmatic Never Again and the slogan can serve as a monument, a ceremony, a museum, a pledge. In all cases, it transcends time and place and constitutes a moral imperative, an ethics of avoidance. But its true meaning is disturbingly vague. What are the lessons of the Holocaust contained in its remembrance? The EuropeanNever again (“Never again fascism!”) differs fundamentally from Jews’, European or not, “Never again victims!”. The former may urge towards non-violent action and disarmement while the latter may advocate to be on guard, armed or even strike preemptively.

The German-Jewish philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno provided a valuable insight that can lead us out of the quagmire of proper memory. He wrote that Hitler had imposed a new categorical imperative upon mankind. And this imperative was not remembrance per se, but to arrange thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself. In other words, he suggested that we inquire into the forces that gave rise to the evil. Thus, when we commemorate or educate about the Holocaust and other genocides, we may have to take a step back in our identification with heroes or victims and, above all, shorten the distance we put between the perpetrators and ourselves.

Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology. 

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