The Peril of Perpetual Revenge

Roundup
tags: Holocaust, memorials, revenge



Lawrence Douglas is a professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought at Amherst College. His most recent book, The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, was published by Princeton University Press in January.

Related Link You Must Remember This (The New Republic)

In the heart of Berlin, where you might expect bronze statuary, you’ll find instead a bleak, undulating landscape of tombstone-like monoliths. This is Germany’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a particularly stark example of a form of contemporary collective memory that no longer celebrates a nation’s triumphs or achievements, but instead dwells on its crimes or suffering. The Berlin memorial gives material expression to what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a "moral duty" to inscribe history’s atrocities in rituals and artifacts of collective memory.

In his new book, In Praise of Forgetting, David Rieff questions this duty. The slim, meditative volume challenges the notion that remembrance devoted to keeping alive the legacy of "oppression, defeat, injustice, and grievance" is an ethical requirement or a political good. Title notwithstanding, the book delivers no paean to societal forgetfulness or collective amnesia; rather, it means more modestly to interrogate assumptions and shibboleths that have taken on the quality of accepted wisdom.

George Santayana famously insisted that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," a claim that implies that memory can serve as a prophylactic against the repetition of catastrophe. History suggests otherwise, Rieff writes. The energy devoted to keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust failed to prevent genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Not only does the cult of remembrance provide no safeguard against fresh disaster, he insists; it might be "actively dangerous."

Dwelling on the memory of injustice, he writes, may frustrate the aims of political transition in societies struggling to displace authoritarian rule with democratic governance. A fixation on the legacy of past crimes may create demands that former dictators be placed on trial or former officials purged from the public life of the reconstituted order, acts that might weaken or destabilize a fledgling democracy.

Rieff reminds us how the memory of injustice can turn toxic, fueling a politics of grudge and grievance. Having movingly reported on the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, he calls the Bosnian war a "slaughter fueled by collective memory … by the inability to forget." Foremost among the traumatic events that triggered and sustained the bloody conflict was the "memory" of the annihilation of the Serbian army in the Battle of Kosovo Polje, in 1389.

The sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland offers another instance of violence nourished by the politics of unresolved grievance. And to those familiar with Rieff’s writing, it will come as no surprise that Israel supplies the "paradigmatic example" of "how disastrously collective memory can deform a society." For it is Israel that ultimately delivers the most "florid illustration" of the misery that results when the memory of collective trauma "finds political and, above all, military expression." ...




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