Jews, Tutsis and the Paradoxes of Genocide Memory

No nos une el amor, sino el espanto.
(We are not united by love, but by horror)

Jorge Luis Borges
(Argentinean poet)

Since Auschwitz it has indeed been possible to speak of a
German-Jewish symbiosis-but of a negative one. For both
Germans and for Jews the result of mass extermination has
become the basis of how they see themselves, a kind of
opposed reciprocity they have in common, willy-nilly.

Dan Diner
(Historian)

The above-cited quotes reveal a tragic irony. The Holocaust has bound forever “Germans” and “Jews” to the past. It has also opened an insurmountable gap that conditions the mutual relationship, as well as the passing on of group identity – of victims and of perpetrators stuck in a permanent position of culpability – to the next generations. Moreover, it perpetuates in time a binary division constructed by the Nazi ideologues: Germans vs. Jews.

Dan Diner’s “negative symbiosis” – this communality of opposites – is not only an appalling legacy of the Holocaust, it represents a fundamental dilemma in post-genocide contexts.

This month of April we commemorate Yom Ha Shoah and also the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Between April and July 1994, approximately 800,000 people defined as Tutsi were brutally slaughtered by members of the Hutu majority. Today’s Rwandan Tutsi-led Government condemns and even outlaws the use of the vicious ethnic markers of Hutus and Tutsis. “We are all Rwandans” is the watchword. At the same time it insists on naming the events, in ceremonies, memorials and museums, the “Genocide against the Tutsi”.

We often hear that memory helps societies that have suffered large-scale political violence come to terms with and overcome their past. But is remembrance of genocide always a unifying and healing force? By remembering the genocide, Rwandans may well be trapped in the paradox of perpetuating the divisions that they are trying to overcome.

Genocide memory is thus entangled in a problematic logic of questionable group identities and boundaries. According to the UN convention of 1948, genocides are “acts committed withintent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” (my emphasis). In other words, without defining a specific group that is targeted for destruction the crimes would not qualify as genocide. Rafael Lemkin coined the term with the objective to set international standards to prevent and punish these type of mass atrocities. But its public remembrance can be a mixed blessing.

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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