We have probably seen the end of the German trials of Nazi perpetrators. In the most recent one in 2022, Irmgard Furchner, 97, a secretary to the camp commander at Stutthof, was found guilty and given a suspended sentence. In 2015 Oskar Gröning, 95, a desk officer at Auschwitz, was sentenced to two years in prison, but he died during the appeals process.
How do we narrate the Shoah when the living consciousness of the Holocaust is gone? The natural human instinct for justice has been felled by time. What is left is the demand for accountability, transparency, memory.
Jews, of course, have a special focus on memory. One of the greatest Jewish historians of our age, Yosef Yerushalmi, wrote “that only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative.” We are sternly commanded in Deuteronomy, “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt.”
There are two functions of memory. One is to ensure that the horrors are not forgotten—that the truth will out. In the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum and a group using the code name Oyneg Shabbes collected documentation of the Nazi atrocities the ghetto underwent knowing he and his community were doomed. The documentation, buried underground in metal boxes and milk cans, was his group’s answer to the question “Who will write our history?”
These issues are not limited to the Jewish community. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has focused international attention on the issue of war crime trials. Ukraine has already held such trials against Russian soldiers for war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere. The International Criminal Court also intends to open war crimes cases against Russians, and the establishment of a separate international court is being discussed.
Supposedly, knowledge of such acts aids future deterrence. As George Santayana iconically stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” On this view, memory is a prophylactic that can avert future horrors, as in the mantra “Never again.” But there is scant empirical evidence for that assertion. As David Rieff has written, “After Sarajevo, after Srebrenica, we now know what ‘Never again!’ means. Never again simply means never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.”
A cult of memory can make reconciliation near impossible.
“Never again” may be treated as a warning—we must remember so that Jews (read: Israel) will be strong enough not to allow themselves to be destroyed when, in the Haggadah’s words, “in every generation they rise up to slaughter us.” Collective memory can reinforce communal solidarity. But it is also a social construct—in the words of French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, “a reconstruction of the past in light of the present.” The annual trip that takes Israeli high school youth to Poland is focused on the death camps and what would happen if Jews again should become weak. Some would argue that the trip serves not only to memorialize the Shoah but to reinforce the Israeli right’s skepticism of rapprochement with
However, collective memory can also increase collective trauma. A cult of memory can make reconciliation near impossible. The Jewish quarter of Hebron has transformed itself into a museum to the massacre of Jews by Arabs in 1929. The birthday of every child murdered is commemorated, as is the place where every Jewish inhabitant was slaughtered. In 1992, journalists covering the siege of Srebrenica recounted that when they asked Serbs why they were fighting, they simply answered “1453”—the year the Ottomans conquered Christian Constantinople. When I was in Kosovo after the 1995 Dayton accords, I asked some Serbs the same question. Their answer was “1389”—the date of a famous battle where the Serbs had faced off with the Ottomans.
All this suggests a certain argument for forgetting. Collective amnesia may allow not just a society but its citizens to rebuild their lives. Rieff suggests that the price of remembering “at least in certain social and historical conjunctures” might be too high. It is no accident that there was so little discussion of the Holocaust even in Israel in the early years of the Jewish state.
In fact, relatively few “survivor memoirs” were published until the late 20th century. Some years ago the Rwandan ambassador to the United States, speaking of the murder of one million, told me that Rwandans had no choice but to forget because they have to live cheek by jowl.
For years, the Jewish community insisted on the uniqueness of the Shoah and denied the very notion of comparative Holocaust studies. But unique or not, the multigenerational experience of remembering atrocities and rebuilding identities and communities has generated not only valuable scholarship and reflection but legal and civic experience in dealing with the aftermath. That experience will be more than relevant in the years to come as the Ukrainians in the war’s aftermath work their way through the trauma of war crimes, accountability and memory.
Marshall Breger is a professor of law at Catholic University.