Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Tripped up by memory

Two comments related to the issue of historical memory and personal responsibility.

Norm has some words about memory and the Holocaust, responding to an article by Susan Neiman in the New York Times.

Neiman is concerned that the attention given to doomed resistance to the Nazi regime (say, the Scholls or Stauffenberg) may be a problem in so far as it suggests standing up to oppression, while noble, is futile. It runs the risk, therefore, of encouraging passivity against signs of emergent tyranny in the generations that follow, particularly among today's youth.

Her counterexample is the demonstration by a group of non-Jewish wives of Jewish men in 1943 in Berlin's Rosenstrasse against their husband's deportation. The result was a success that, Neiman says, is 'not well known'.

Norm observes:

Neiman is obviously right that cases like the Rosenstrasse protest should not be forgotten. But the fact is that in the overall story of what happened they are relatively rare. The only picture that will provide 'the right sort of memory' is a full picture - recording such episodes of heroism, to be sure, but also giving them their proper weight; and this means focusing very much on what happened to the victims and on the many attempts at resistance that were defeated. It means that there must be different modes, different episodes and details, of remembrance.

It is worth recalling that there are some who object to stories of Holocaust rescue, such as that portrayed in the movie Schindler's List, because stories of rescue supposedly tell you the 'good news' coming out of the Holocaust, when there was none. The objection is wrong-headed, in my view. There wasn't much good news, but some there was; and it has to be told, while being given its proper - proportionate - place. But adequate memorialization is bound to give full weight to the experience of the victims, as to the failure of so much anti-Nazi resistance, otherwise it will falsify what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945.

He's right, and I think the emphasis on the 'different modes, different episodes and details, of remembrance' is an important one. The idea that there is only one way of remembering the war (and what preceded it) is one of the reasons why there are so many recurrent and frustrating debates about competing ways to remember it. There are better and worse ways, more and less complete, and, not to be forgotten, quite radically different experiences to be remembered.

I am leaving aside, of course, the various forms of 'revisionism' and 'denial' which are not in any way legitimate forms of remembrance but are rather attempts at distortion, whitewash and forgetting.

But that leaves quite enough room for discussion about how to remember.

(Incidentally, I find Nieman's characterisation of the Rosenstrasse demonstration as somehow 'not well known' or obscure to be exaggerated. It was the subject of a reasonably high-profile feature film in Germany in 2003.)

One of the memorials I have found most affecting is referred to in Neiman's article: the Stolpersteine ('stumbling blocks') by artist Gunter Demning.

These brass plaques are set into the street in front of buildings where Holocaust victims once lived, and they bear their names and brief information about their fates.

One of the reasons I like them is the obvious way they avoid the centralised monumentalism of other memorials (not necessarily only a bad thing, but also somehow incomplete) and help to insert remembrance subtly into everyday life.

Although more attention seems to go to the stones in big cities, our small town on the Rhine has several. Any time I walk into town, for instance, I have to pass this group of Stolpersteine:

And I am reminded every time that the Marcus family, who were in some sense neighbours (separated only by one lifetime), were sent off to Theresianstadt and Auschwitz to die.

Is this an encouraging memory? One that inspires resistance to tyranny? I don't know. But it strikes me that it's both an honest and effective way of demonstrating how the enormity of the Holocaust--and that of the broader events in which it occurred--was built upon countless individual stories.

No form of memory is perfect, and some have expressed qualms about the project. Charlotte Knoblauch, now president of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland thought it, as reported by the Telegraph, '"unbearable" that people would be "stepping all over" the names of murdered Jews.' A Boston Globe article also makes clear that they remain controversial.

But I find them very effective.

On a rather different note, but still on the topic of memory, Peter Ryley remembers Ruth and Eddie Frow, founders of the Working Class Movement Library. Along with being grateful for making me aware of this remarkable-sounding institution, I think his comments are worth reading:

Ruth and Eddie were unceasingly kind, patient and helpful, and were even willing to share a frugal lunch. And, as the Guardian obituary makes clear, they were members of the Communist Party. They were members through the Stalin years, through the invasion of Hungary, through the crushing of the Prague Spring; loyal members. At this point Oliver Kamm would be reaching for his worst epithets and calling them the moral equivalent of fascists. Yes, they were "fellow travellers" with Stalinism, yet these bookish people were a million miles away from the horror of the gulags and their hatred of oppression was palpable.

What this says to me is that, though totalitarian theory is an immensely useful tool for analysing types of regimes, ideologies and movements, it does not tell you much about the people who become involved unless you look at the aims and ideals that the movement purports to advance.

I can assure you that I would not have been comfortable in the company of fascists. Fascism celebrates violence, hatred and racism. Fascists also like to practice all three. Communists like Ruth and Eddie thought they were a part of a movement that would bring peace, justice and harmony; one that would end violence, hatred and racism. It is a big difference. They mistook the declaratory purpose for the reality and either blinded themselves to that reality or saw it as an aberration that could be reformed and the ideal restored. This didn't make them bad people. Others set out not only to apologise for Stalinism but to also falsify reality in full knowledge of their deceit and dishonesty. They are the villains of the piece.

The difference, I would agree, is an important one.


Ophelia said...

Oddly (and another datum against the obscurity of the incident), I was reading about the Rosenstrasse demonstration just this morning. It comes up on page 84 of Richard Evans's Lying About Hitler in the context of Hitler's uncertainty about what to do about 'half-Jews' and the use David Irving made of that uncertainty.

J. Carter Wood said...

It's funny that you mention Evans: I was just looking at his In Defence of History today.

I haven't yet read the one you mention.

Ophelia said...

Terrific book, In Defense of History. It's why I asked him (greatly daring) if he would be willing to contribute an article to Butterflies and Wheels when it was starting out - and, extraordinarily, he did. He adapted a recent speech for the purpose. I've always thought that was amazingly generous of him: B&W was nothing then, it was brand new, there was nothing there but a couple of articles by the editors and some news links, there was no reason to think it wouldn't fall flat as a pancake.

I learned in reading Lying About Hitler that In Defense of History was one of the two reasons he was asked to be an expert witness at the Irving trial. It makes sense, because part of his point is the dangers of epistemic relativism when it comes to for instance Holocaust denial. Well step right up then, tell us about the dangers.

It's a fascinating book, Lying About Hitler.