> Parue le : 15.04.2015




Workshop on 4 July 2012 at Brussels



CELIS, Centre de Recherches sur les Littératures et la Sociopolitique, Clermont-Ferrand (France)

Auschwitz Foundation, Brussels (Belgium)


1. Jensen, Olaf (University of Leicester [UK]): Communicating Memories of WW II in Group-Discussions across Europe

(short presentation speaker)

Olaf Jensen received his PhD in Social Psychology in 2004 from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hanover, Germany. Since 2009 he is the Director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

  1. Synthesis


This paper presents the continuing effect of the “Third Reich” and the Holocaust on German historical and cultural memory. It will focus on the way German families speak about and recollect their life during the period of National Socialism and which images and ideas are passed from one generation to the next. At the end, an outlook on a comparative European study concerning this question is presented.


The heading of our conference is called: Sixty Years On: How The Holocaust Looks Now.  As far as I have observed the ongoing debates in Germany, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that unlike at the end of the war and in the two decades that followed, the majority of the Germans have some knowledge about National Socialism and they no longer deny that Nazi-Germany was responsible for the Second World War, the “Vernichtungskrieg” in the East and the Holocaust on the European Jews.[1] However, based on the research that follows, the bad news is that now, Germans know and consume a lot about the “Third Reich” and the Holocaust – so much so, that the second and third generation is convinced that their ancestors cannot have had anything to do with that awful period of time. The third generation, specially the grandchildren, polarizes their grandparents (always the ‘good guys’) from the “Nazis” (always “the others”). [2] Admitting the crimes of Nazi Germany seems to be directly linked to the need to be no longer part of the side of the perpetrators but of the victims. The more the third generation knows about National Socialism and the Holocaust, the more they take distance from it. In the last couple of years, this distancing has gone hand in hand, for example with the public debates about the movie “Schindlers List” by Steven Spielberg in 1994, the first exhibition about the German Army (“Wehrmacht”) and the war of annihilation (“Vernichtungskrieg”) in the East and the involvement in the Holocaust that was shown in 33 cities in Germany and Austria between 1995 and 2000,[3] or the book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” by Daniel J. Goldhagen in 1996. The debate about the exhibition on the warcrimes and the involvement in the Holocaust of the German “Wehrmacht” had huge consequences for dealing with the past in Germany. Starting on the day of surrender in 1945 the generals and soldiers of the “Wehrmacht” were able to maintain the myth that it was “just” the German army, fighting honorably for the “German fatherland” (“Deutsches Vaterland”), “abused” and “betrayed” by Hitler and the “Nazis” but not at all involved in warcrimes or the Holocaust. Thousands of former soldiers claimed that the only ones responsible were the SS (“Schutzstaffel”), the “elite”-troops of the Nazis and the “Einsatzgruppen”, the mobile killing comandos run by the “Security Police” (“Sicherheitspolizeit”) and the “Security Service” (“Sicherheitsdienst”, “SD”) .[4]

Throughout 5 years, an estimated 800.000 people visited the exhibition, and it confronted the German public and private sphere with the fact that many fathers or grandfathers who had served in the “Wehrmacht” might have been involved in the Holocaust. Historians, researchers and other interested people, because of for example the book by Christoper Browning about “ordinary men,” already knew this,[5] but the exhibition brought it to a much wider audience. At the end of the 1990’s we can observe a turning point in the public manifestation of dealing with Nationals Socialism, the Second World War and the Holocaust.  After Martin Walser, a very famous and former left wing novelist insisted in a public talk in 1998 on his right to “look away” from the Holocaust  (something to which I return below) there is another “battle of historians” (“Historikerstreit”) like the one in 1985/1986 about what kind of memory should be “kept” in Germany.[6]  The debates are subsequently reflected in books, TV- and journal series about the flight of the Germans from the East in 1945, the Allied bombing [7] and books from members of the second generation about the suffering of their parents.[8] This production amounts to another (public) struggle about the place of “the Germans” in contemporary history and the question of their “normality” in the dealing with the past and the Holocaust.  It also highlights the fact that the lay German was very much involved with and exposed to this very highly profiled debate and recognition of German responsibility viz. the Holocaust.

With respect to private discourse, the implications are especially problematic. As we will later see in reference to the empirical examples presented I argue that public debates and the knowledge from school and university about the “Third Reich” leads the younger generations to a process of “making sense” of (family-)history, which implies a reconstruction of history.

Germans as victims and the question of “normality”

Often the word “taboo-breaking” is used, as in, for example, the public debate in 1998 surrounding the reception of the German Book Award by Martin Walser, a very famous (and former left wing)[9] German novelist (mentioned above), born in 1927 and member of the so called “Flakhelfergeneration”.[10] In his talk, Walser articulated – among other things – that he was especially tired of listening to the debates or watching documentaries on TV that discussed the “shame” of Germans because it meant that he had to “suffer” as a result of Germans being permanently “accused” of the crimes, Nazi-Germany committed; he just wanted to “look away” from it. He referred to Auschwitz as a “moral stick” that instrumentalised public discourse about the Holocaust in Germany “for present aims” and he called the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin the “monumentalised shame” of Germany. At least he did not deny the Holocaust and he also claimed that no average educated person in Germany would deny it either. His talk caused a huge debate in Germany, especially with Ignatz Bubis, the president of the Central Consistory of Jews in Germany until 1999.[11]

From the perspective of this study the most interesting thing is that everything Walser said in this talk concerning the Holocaust was about him: his feelings, his lack of comfort and his suffering due to the topic. The importance of this lies in the fact that generally, it demonstrates the same attitude that we found in the qualitative study that will be presented later. It can be summarised as follows: talking about the Holocaust in Germany does not mean talking about the Holocaust’s victims – it usually means how the Germans themselves feel about dealing with the guilt and – at the same time – about how they themselves suffered during National Socialism and the Second World War.

What we gather from this is also that Walser’s lecture was fundamentally not “taboo-breaking.” Indeed, as Robert G. Moeller or Norbert Frei have shown, this kind of “silence” about the victimisation of German “Volksgenossen” has been repeatedly broken in the public sphere since 1944.[12] On the other hand, there is some evidence that for a long time now, this kind of discourse is going on in private. Despite being aware of this, public discourse has not officially addressed the “hidden agenda” of Germans in a serious or productive manner. The result is that every couple of years or even months somebody “breaks the silence” about Germans and their guilt by referring to their own suffering – it seems like the most discussed silence ever and the most broken of “taboos”!

Walsers type of “dilemma” becomes even clearer when we take earlier statements of his into consideration. Aleida Assmann has drawn attention to his “Talks about Germany” (Reden über Deutschland 1989). There he claims, that he cannot “teach his memory” with “later acquired knowledge”. The “knowledge about the murderous dictatorship is one thing; my memory is something different.”[13] According to Walser, the main problem is, that as soon as he wants to talk about his memories, he is forced to realise that he can’t mediate their “innocence”. As a consequence he has to talk about his memories the same way everybody else is talking about that past – like somebody who was the same kind of person in the past like he is today without any changes. The result is a “completely developed, x-rayed, cleansed, approbated, totally present-suitable past”, Walser writes. Aleida Assmann points out in her analysis that apart from the fact that the memory about the time of the Holocaust can never be “innocent,” Walsers problem lies foremost in the discrepancy between past experience and the normative system of the present. The bigger this discrepancy the stronger the pressure to fit the past into the norms of today’s society that has different and new standards, in order for them to be “socially accepted”.[14]

It might be that the tension between these two extremes is what keeps the discourse in Germany going. Public and/or official discourse is reaching the “new standards” of the normative system while unofficial and private discourse is still dominated by people who are very familiar with the normative system of the “Third Reich”.[15]  This also brings into question whether the Holocaust is necessarily a part of family-memory.[16]

I argue that contrary to Germany’s official discourse on the Holocaust, not only do German families still speak mainly about their own suffering and victimisation, but that in doing so they explicitly deny personal responsibility in social and political organisations of Nazi Germany. While public space is necessary for the articulation of these topics and individual suffering surely deserves empathy, the problem is that one exists only at the expense of the other. The debate on “the Germans as victims” demonstrates, that either the experience of, or the knowledge of National Socialism is ever really put into the historical perspective. Furthermore, there has never been a taboo on talking about one’s own suffering in Germany; what has existed are some differences between what is given voice in either the public or the private sphere.[17]

The qualitative research project on “Historical Consciousness”

The empirical material presented here was conducted in East- and West Germany between 1997 and 2000.[18] The interdisciplinary approach draws on theoretical and methodological concepts in social and cultural psychology, life history research and oral history. The sample of 40 three-generational families where found in different parts of Germany with the use of the  “snowball” system. The aim was to only have “average” German families whose Grandparents had lived “ordinary lives” at different ages in Nazi-Germany.  I and my colleagues were not interested, for example, in interviewing “famous” Nazi perpetrators who had already told their life ad nauseum– or who had even written books.

Thus the sample of interviewees the analysis is based on is as follows: 48 so-called ‘contemporary witnesses’ (31 female, 17 male), born between 1906 and 1933, 50 members of the “second generation” (25 female, 25 male), born between 1933 and 1967, and 44 members of the “third generation” (19 female, 25 male), born between 1954 and 1986. As can be observed, generations are not divided into strict cohorts but only divided by their standing inside the family. The sample is located in an above-average educational standard because 40% are ‘white collar’ 18% students, or in professional training, 11% workers, 10% freelancers, 9% public servants and 7% housewives (rest: missing values).[19]

What is unique to the research approach presented here is that the interviews were conducted separately with all three generations of each family—there were a total of 142 face-to-face interviews. The idea behind this approach was to get the family’s history on the “Third Reich” from all three generations in order to compare the different “versions” of the story. At the end, each family was brought together for a group discussion (‘family-session’) to talk about personal experiences as well as about the history of the “Third Reich” in general or other related topics. This session was introduced with a ten-minute video-tape based on thirteen movie-sequences made by amateurs or the NS-government; they covered a wide range of topics and at that time were not very well known.[20] The methodological guidelines for the interviews concerning the themes that should be touched upon were kept to a minimum in order to enable the interviewers – most of them members of the research team –to follow the flow of ordinary conversation to the greatest extent possible.[21]

The grandparents, (i.e. the contemporary witnesses of the Nazi-period) were asked to recount their lived experiences from the “Third Reich” and their children and grandchildren where questioned about what they knew about the lives of their ancestors in this historical period and what was narrated or discussed at home. In this manner, from the interviews material provided one could assess both what Germans remembered about National Socialism, the Second World War and the Holocaust, as well as their selection process in the material they chose to hand down from one generation to the next. What this brought to as well as how it differentiated from most of the traditional oral history research, was that this study was not concerned with the “truth value” of the historical dimension of the interviewees discourse. We were fundamentally not concerned with whether what the interviewees were telling us was empirically “true” or not. In order to establish the premise of the research project, i.e. that the “Third Reich” affects the generations who experienced it directly as well as the generations that followed, the aim was to identify the modes of transference between generations through the analysis of the 182 interview transcripts.  What became immediately obvious was that through cultural and communicative methods of transference, the younger generations became enmeshed in these pasts.

Analytic method

The interviews were analyzed in a ‘two step’ technique that combined hermeneutic case studies and content analysis. Starting off during the process of finding and interviewing families, the research group did hermeneutic case studies with three contradicting families in order to generate theoretical categories for further investigations of the entire body of empirical data.[22] The case studies generated the following 9 units in which the following phenomena were identified: 1. Communication within the families, 2. Transmitted stories, 3. Dialogical patterns of transmission (structure-types), 4. The impact of the media, 5. Patterns of interpretation, 6. Semantic topoi, 7. Everyday theories of remembering, 8. Everyday theories of coping with the past, 9. Different pasts in East and West Germany. I will here mainly focus on (unit 1) the communication within the families and (unit 3) the dialogical patterns of transmission (structure-types).

Structure-types of communication

The following section will demonstrate that no matter how the conversation within the families works, the family-memory of the members is built on many stories or fragments of stories from and about the “Third Reich” that are handed down “en passant” in every day life communication.[23] The dialogical patterns of transmission (unit 3) demonstrate the main family convictions transmitted by sampled family. Both the inductive analysis of a pilot-study[24] conducted in 1997 and the 182 interviews of the sample considered here, yielded  5 broad types –“structure-types” of communication labelled “Distancing/Dissociation”, “Fascination”, “Heroisation”, “Justification” and  “Victimisation”.  These types illustrate the manner in which the main discourse about National Socialism, World War II and the Holocaust within the families is framed and what kind of evaluation is handed down from generation to generation.

The meanings of these types, already more or less indicated by their labels, are briefly defined as follows: “Distancing/Dissociation” refers to the results of the research, in that the contemporary witnesses are often taking a distant view on the “Third Reich” – joking about the risible leaders of the Nazis in their fantasy-uniforms, like Goering for example, and laughing together with the interviewer about it – as if they had not been a part of that period at all. In this way, they also gave the strong impression that they had nothing to do with National Socialism, war crimes or the Holocaust. In terms of the second and third generation, the manner in which they had picked up this view from their relatives is reflected in the stories they recounted in the interviews.  “Fascination” shows in this regard, that some people are still impressed by certain elements of the “Third Reich” – political “comforts” like the (assumed) abolition of unemployment or criminality, military facilities like the “Wehrmacht” or new tanks etc. The type called “Heroisation” is a bit more complicated because it tells stories about the heroic actions of the contemporary witnesses between 1933 and 1945. One more or less expects heroic war stories in this category but there are only a few of them. Most narratives are about how the contemporary witnesses opposed or resisted the Nazi-regime –either by not doing the “Hitlergruss”, or by not joining NS-organizations or by hiding Jews and others. The category also considers how they are absorbed by the younger generations.

The content of the category “Justification” demonstrates how excuses made up large parts of the dialogue about this time period in all the generations examined. On the one hand, mostly everybody in our sample admits that Nazi Germany was a dictatorship and that Germans comitted hate crimes and crimes against humanity in unmeasurable amounts. On the other hand there are always excuses, justifications and “good reasons” for what  their relatives have done or not done – they had to join the NSDAP otherwise they would have lost their job or would not have got one, or they had to shoot Russian soldiers who surrendered because there was no space for them on the German tanks; there was no way to help Jews, because firstly the relatives didn’t know about the Holocaust and secondly, if they would have known or even talked about it, they would have also ended up in a “KZ” and so on.

“Victimisation” does not refer, like the label might suggest at first glance, to Communists, Social Democrats, Jews, Sinti and Roma or other persecutees. Instead, it refers to how the communication of the three generations focuses on the German “Volksgenossen” as victims of the time leading up to 1933 (the Weimar Republik), the “Third Reich”, the Second World War and throughout the “hard times” (“schlechte Zeit”) after 1945. The narratives of the contemporary witnesses are dominated by story lines about how poor they were before 1933, how they were later forced to join the NS-organizations, the “Wehrmacht” or the SS and the war etc. with no possible chance to resist. Often they argue that they were in danger of getting into trouble. At the end of the war, they emphasize that their situation deteriorated, especially during the allied bombing and after 1945. This kind of positioning is also present in the interviews of the second and third generation who had listened to these stories at home at the supper table or at Christmas.

The following table shows how the frequencies of these 5 structure-types of the intergenerational communication within the 40 families interviewed in this sample are:


Structuretype Number of  Textseg-ments  Segments in  interviews of: contemp. witnesses Second generation Third generation Family-sessions
Victimisation 1130 (100 %) 404 (36 %) 248 (22 %) 114 (10 %) 364 (32 %)
Justification 605 (100 %) 188 (31 %) 96 (16 %) 56 (9 %) 265 (44 %)
Distance 484 (100 %) 211 (44 %) 58 (12 %) 30 (6 %) 185 (38 %)
Fascination 374 (100 %) 159 (42 %) 55 (15 %) 36 (10 %) 124 (33 %)
Heroisation 306 (100 %) 142 (46 %) 51 (17 %) 30 (10 %) 83 (27 %)
Text segments total 2899 (100 %) 1104 (38 %) 508 (18 %) 266 (9 %) 1021 (35 %)


The table demonstrates that 1130 text segments examined were coded as “Victimisation,” followed by “Justification” with 605 segments, “Distance/Dissociation” from National Socialism ranked third with 484 segments, “Fascination” with different parts of this period of time is found in 374 text segments and “Heroisation” ranked last with 306 segments. The table divides the segments between the sessions with different generations and those with the entire family, here labelled as family-sessions.[25] Examining the ‘generations’ columns and the ‘family-sessions’ columns yields that the “Victimisation” type was mostly found in the interviews within the first generation (404), but, for example, the type “Justification” is discussed mostly when the family members are together (265). “Distance” from the “Third Reich” is again most present in the interviews with the contemporary witnesses, as is “Heroisation” with the highest percentage of segments in their interviews.

“One to the left– to the Russians, and the other to the right–to the Americans”

The following is an example of the structure type « victimisation » and a clear example of what we called « changed frames, » which results in the grandchildren turning the experience of victimization by Jews into the experience of their grandparents. It is a process where the younger generation takes all the knowledge that they have acquired about the holocaust and transposes the victimization of the Jews into the stories that they hear from their grandparents.

Referring to Maurice Halbwachs and Erving Goffman a biographical narrative is always constructed within a society’s discourse about the past.[26] Public discourse about remembering and forgetting of the National Socialist past in Germany is especially loaded with strategies of dealing with the “guilt” and the burden of the past. One of the results of these public discourses is that the private narratives are (mostly subconsciously) constructed in a way that it emphasizes the family members’ suffering to such an extent that for the younger generations it might be impossible to understand that they could have been an active part of the national socialist society at all.

Granddaughter Stefanie Roth[27], born in 1966, seamstress with a university-entrance diploma recounts what she knows about her grandfather and his way into war captivity. After a couple of minutes in her face-to-face-interview she stated:

Stefanie Roth: “What he has also told in the past, uhm, when they were in Russia, that’s somehow really something that stuck in my mind, because I thought, that must/ really, that was a poker game. It was after all/ the Russians and the Americans, they separated the Prisoners Of War [POW] between each other and once that meant: One to the left to the Russians and the other to the right to the Americans. And he was lucky that he came to the Americans and thus home. All the others, who were separated to the Russians ended up in Siberia in a labour camp.” (F12E, 92-99)

We can’t really decide if this kind of technique of separating POW was executed by the Allies like Stefanie describes it. Historically, it is quite improbable. But in terms of our perspective on this material, it does not really matter whether this is true or not. What is important is the manner in which she repeats  her grandfather’s story and what kind of meaning and importance she gives to it. There are two main parts in this story Stefanie has taken over from her ancestor: First of all, there is no question for her that the Russian soldiers are the “bad guys” and the US soldiers are the “good guys”. “Siberia” does not need an explanation; it is unquestioned and undisputed. We have found these types of topoi in almost every interview and also in the group-discussions of the families from East Germany. We deduce that the Nazi propaganda with its prejudices and stereotypes against the people from Russia is still being handed down. For Stefanie, it seems to be clear that this is the worse thing that can happen to a prisoner – and that there is nothing comparable in an American war prison.

The second and main part consists of the way she describes the “luck” of her grandfather in this situation. The scene doesn’t really remind us of dealing with POW but of the “Selection” on the ramp of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death-camps run by the Germans, i.e. the arbitrary “Selection” on the ramp after the arrival in a cattle wagon, where it was decided who was sent off to slavery or to the gas chambers. The emphasis is on the arbitrariness of the manner in which the POW was separated in this “poker game”, as Stefanie calls it where only sheer fate decides between the two extremes of being sent to “Siberia” or being sent home. Unfortunately, we don’t have this story told by her grandfather in his face-to-face interview, but in Stefanie’s  next sentence it becomes clear that she has composed this narrative more or less by herself by the way she presented it in the interview – she has made “sense” of what she has heard on her own:

Stefanie Roth: “And the way he recounted it, it actually sounded relatively factual, and I thought: ‘My God it could have/ uh, it really was such a lottery’, you know, he could have not got the lucky ticket the, but just off to Siberia. that’s what, uh, what to me/ . stuck so very clearly.” (F12, 100-104)[28]

Stefanie is pointing out here that she was surprised at the lack of emotion in the way her grandfather was telling this story – and she started to think about the plot on her own. We can only hazard a guess that she added the metaphors “lottery” (“Glückspiel”), “lucky ticket” (“glückliches Los”) and using the “frame” from narratives about the “Selections” in the death-camps also on her own. But she obviously understood the story in that way due to the foundations provided by her cultural knowledge which prompts her to repeat the story in this particular way. The result is that she highlights that her grandfather really was in danger and that there was nothing he could do about it. He was a helpless victim caught between good and evil, between life and death.

The photographs

Another example of the handing down of victimisation, and the sense-making of history emerges in the narrative of the grandchild Bernd, born in 1972. Almost at the end of the family-session with his mother Hiltrud (born in 1943) and his grandmother Hilde (born in 1912) he is articulating his doubts about what his grandma (and the other people in Germany) could have known or could not have known about the Holocaust. Finally the interviewer asks him:

I.: “But you can’t really believe it when/ when the older people say: ‚We did not know anything!’?”

Bernd F.: “Yes, that’s hard to imagine, don’t you think? So I mean, if one really wasn’t somehow in the [NSDAP] party or something, then it might be possible # that one didn’t know anything.”

Here (#) his grandmother Hilde Brack steps in:

Hilde B.: “That/ that these killings there, also in Poland, that they/ we didn’t know this either. But that was/ there was a soldier and he was on holiday.  And it was an acquaintance of my husband. And he had/ he showed pictures, I was not allowed to see them. There the Jews had/ . he took a snapshot of that. The Jews had to dig their grave there.”

I.: “Ah, yes.”

Hilde B.: All full. And they were just put there. They shot them and in it .”

I.: “And to whom did he show them?”

Hilde B.: “My husband, he showed them [to him], but at that time he wasn’t a soldier yet.”

I.: “But then you already knew something!”

Hilde B.: “Yes, we knew that.”

I.: “yes.”

Hilde B.: “But what shall we do then, what should you do if you told something like that there?”

I.: “No idea.”

Hilde B.: “They also would have hung us immediately.” (F05G, 680-706)

This example has many layers and is very significant for our material. Here just a few impressions. First of all, there is a doubtful grandson who doesn’t really know what to think about the Germans and the mass killing committed by Germans. Secondly, there is the grandmother who insists that she and her husband couldn’t know anything about the Holocaust – and gives an example for her knowledge about it immediately after. She is explicitly saying: “These killings there (.) in Poland, (…) we didn’t know that either”, than she describes the situation with the soldier from the Eastern front, back home on holidays (“Fronturlaub”), who has taken photographs of shot Jews. Despite not being “allowed to see them” Hilde Brack describes in good detail what the pictures show, because, as she states later on, she had “peeked over” at them. Then, after the interviewer – who, by the way, is the only one in this situation who is visibly upset – points out how she “knew,” she resorts to the common justification-discourse: What should we have done, what would you have done? To talk about the photographs would have cost them their lives, she points out.

There would be a lot more to say about this interview section but for our question here what is not included it is much more interesting. Bernd, the grandson remains silent throughout the remainder of the interview after having provoked this story about the photographs. His mother, previously talkative, is quiet and only steps in a few minutes later when her mother talks again about how the family suffered during the war (“if you have eight children, that’s tough.”) – no question or comment about the story Hilde Brack just told.

Only in the face-to-face interview with Bernd is there a follow up on this narrative. It is then that Bernd explains that he doesn’t really want to ask his grandmother anymore questions because she’s now getting old and he fears that he could give her a hard time by making her recall all these old memories. The interviewer asks close to the very beginning of the interview if he had known this story about the pictures of the shooting in Poland before and Bernd answers:

Bernd F.: “No, I haven’t heard that one before.”

I.: “Hhm. Because that’s somehow something that stands out isn’t it, that somebody managed to catch something about the shootings and things like that with pictures.”

Bernd F.: “Hhm. Oh, well, no, I didn’t know that, because there/ I mean there/ .  but one can see also that these people didn’t take it easily, isn’t it, I mean, he also took a big risk himself when he took pictures of something like that and took them to Hanover.” (F05E, 58-66)

The interviewer is still impressed by what he has heard in the family-session. For him the photograph-story and the knowledge of Hilde Brack about the killing in Poland is something “that stands out”. But for Bernd something else is important. He somewhat admits that this is something special but what comes to his mind immediately is that the people who knew something about the killings “didn’t take it easily” and the individual who took the pictures and took them home had taken a “risk” in doing so.[29] Neither the fact that his grandmother – who against all her first claims, knew quite a lot about the Holocaust – is foremost on his mind nor the killed Jews from the pictures. It is all ignored as if it were not mentioned at all. Instead the “victimisation” of the Germans is again the centre of his attention. His questioning of the Germans’ knowledge of the Holocaust that evoked the entire story in the family-session, is totally forgotten and not brought up again.

What we have here in these two examples is the need of members of the third generation to make sense of what they have heard from their family members in the context of National Socialism, the Second World War and the Holocaust by simplistically clearing the inconsistency between their knowledge, their doubts and so on and the storiess they listened to: Even if there are presumptions and doubts about the relative’s role in and their knowledge of the “Third Reich”, many members of the younger generations are finally not able to realise or to admit that their family members had much more to do with National Socialism and the Holocaust. Grandma and grandpa were no “Nazis”. The “Nazis” always were somebody or somewhere else.

The study contains a couple of other examples which get so re-framed as they are passed down from generation to generation that anti-Semites turn into resistance fighters and Gestapo officers become brave people who protected Jews. In our forty family interviews there are two examples of contemporary witnesses recounting murders they committed, and mentioning shootings (“Let’s go and watch! Some people are being shot”), which are not mentioned in the face-to-face-interviews with their grandchildren.[30]

Comparative perspectives

We are presently conducting research that examines family narratives in six other countries (Serbia, Croatia, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland) within the context of a comparative research project. The idea is to figure out what kind of (family) memories and stories there are in these countries, how these stories are being told and what kind of “master narrative” these countries have compared to Germany. Of particular interest is the tradition of images and opinions as well as the question how this relates to the more cognitive historical knowledge that is taught in schools.

In addition to the three-generational family interviews we are also conducting group discussions with four different age groups (1975 and younger, 1974 to 1955 and 1957 to 1935) and from non-family contexts to have a closer look if there is a difference between the discourse between family members and people from groups like sports-clubs or university seminars. Unfortunately the data collection is not finished yet, so I can give just some brief impressions about this project, in particular about the group-discussions in the Netherlands.[31]


“No details, no. (..) No names, nothing at all, thus, no.”

Here is an example from a group discussion conducted in May 2004 with seven female students from the Netherlands, born between 1975 and 1981. It demonstrates that the phenomenon of  “making sense” of a family story also works in other countries and contexts. Close to the end of the session after talking a lot about stories told at home, the interviewer asks:


I.: “Have some of you heard something about/ parents or grandparents having told something about Jews, persecution of Jews, or..”

Some: “No.”

Alies W.: “No, only about submergers [Untertaucher] or something.”

Marlies W. “Yes, submergers, that’s right.”

I.: “Jewish submergers?”

Sofie B.: “Yes. Yes, also resistance/ uh people.”

Marlies W.: “Yes, at grandma’s home, she was at that time, well I think 15 or so, she still lived at her parents’ house. And, uhm, they had a farm and in my opinion they had a Jewish family or something, sub/ if I ever heard of that, but . . . and that they also/ were taken from there, or they stayed there for a couple of years, I think, but more, uh …”

I.: “No/no/”

Marlies W.: “No details, no.”

I.: “No details.”

Marlies W.: “No.”

I.: “No names.”

Marlies W.: “No names, nothing at all, so, no.” (GD NL 1, 1078-1094)[32]


The statement of Marlies W. here is very interesting and we have found similar stories also in the German material.[33] Stories about “submergers” – people or refugees who tried to hide – are very common in the Dutch context and here two participants are mentioning, that they are aware of it even though they had previously denied that they had heard anything about Jews or the “persecution of Jews.” After the interviewer asks if the submergers were Jewish, Sofie answers in the affirmative and adds that there were also people from the resistance before Marlies recounts what she knows about her grandmother. The story is quite vague: Marlies claims that at her grandmother’s home the farm house of Marlies’ great-grandparents, a Jewish family was in hiding, but then she is not sure about that anymore (“in my opinion”, “a Jewish family or so”). She begins to say “submergers” again (“sub/”) but interrupts herself, pointing out that she had heard of a Jewish family being hidden on the farm before once again becoming unsure: she thinks this hidden family was taken away by somebody or that they stayed there for a couple of years. The final staccato dialogue with the interviewer demonstrates that she does not actually know anything specific about this narrated story – apart from the fact that there was a “submerged” family at her grandmothers home, the certainty with that she came up first in this conversation.

Similar conclusions to the other examples presented before can be drawn. People are “doing history”; they are actively creating “meaning” in listening to stories and by re-telling them in every day life conversations.[34] Similar to the children’s game “broken telephone” the younger generations have to reconstruct the knowledge they have from school or university about National Socialism, the Second World War and the Holocaust with the life story of their relatives at home.[35] Despite being suspicious or having doubts as in the example with Bernd and the photographs, in the very end there is the psychological need to turn the family members (even a friend of the family) into the “good guys”.



The cause of these findings is paradoxical precisely because the grandchildren have been informed and learned about the past in school etc. Especially for the Germans the very knowledge that National Socialism was a criminal system generates the urge to position one’s own grandmother and grandfather within that system of horror as people who either had nothing to do with it all or, better still, as people who never tired of doing what they could to alleviate suffering. That is also true of those youngsters who are particularly well informed.

From a social psychological point of view, knowledge of history here clashes with the obligations of loyalty that families instil in their members, and the image of one’s grandfather or grandmother, whom one usually knows as a lovable, caring and harmless individual, is projected onto the grandparent’s entire life—they must always have been the way we know them now. This goes also beyond revisionist attempts or right wing concerns. Instead, the younger generations are filling the gap in the stories they have heard in a “positive” way: they are obviously not comfortable with the history and most of them definitely do not want to have Nazi grandparents. They are just using the ambiguity in the narrated stories or fragments to clarify the story line and the “moral plot” in a specific way. As we have seen in the examples presented here and in many others of the analysed material, many members of the second and third generation in Germany – even if they are doubtful and suspicious – are following the narrated footsteps of the contemporary witnesses. They accept and absorb the idea that their ancestors were suffering under economic circumstances, a dictatorship and the war (Victimisation), that what they had done almost had serious reasons – to join the NSDAP or to kill somebody (Justification)–but mostly that they were not involved in anything at all because they were living in the “countryside” or were part of an “inner” resistance (Distance/Dissociation) and so on.

Whereas the justification or denial of the first generation is to be expected, what is most alarming is the inability of public discourse to fully counteract that denial in the later generations and the inability to integrate official knowledge. We still have to analyse how this looks in other countries in the comparative research project, but as far as we can see right now there are similar types of communication and probably also gaps between public and private discourse. This should have consequences for educational concepts in school, university, exhibitions and memorials.

Furthermore, what stands out in these narratives of the German families is the stark contrast between the image of the “Third Reich” and the Holocaust that is transmitted in families and that which is taught in schools. Family memories mainly revolve around how their own family had to suffer from the war, the bombs, imprisonment, terror and being spied on. In families, these themes are passed on, not as historical knowledge, but as personal truth.

One of the results is that the destruction of the European Jews and others is not necessarily a part of family-memory and of the conversation at the homes of non-Jewish families because Jews were simply not a part of the families of the dominant non-Jewish majority in Germany. That is why in German families especially, the main discourse revolves around their own suffering–that is what family members have experienced, at least at the end of the war and that is what they are transmitting to the next generations.


  1. Discussion

– Collective Memory Work linked to Individual Memory Work

The individual Memory is nowadays highly linked to family Memory; the posterity would like to know what happened to their family member(s). The question around the past can cause the curiosity when the family member died before he ever talked about his past (and with this the history of his family). The family would like to know what happened with him or her. Perhaps the Collective Memory can answer their questions they have about it.


  1. Key words

Dealing with the past



  1. Bibliography

Arendt, Hannah (1950). Besuch in Deutschland;

Assmann, Aleida (2001). ‘Wie wahr sind Erinnerungen?’ In: Harald Welzer (Hg.), Das soziale Gedächtnis, Hamburg, p.116.

Bartlett, Frederic (1995). Remembering. A Study in Experimental And Social Psychology, Cambridge.

Browning, Christopher R. (1993) Ordinary men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland, New York.

Bruner, Jerome (1990). Acts of Meaning, Cambridge.

Frei, Norbert (1996). Vergangenheitspolitik. Die Anfänge der Bundesrepublik und die NS-Vergangenheit, München.

Frei, Norbert (2005). 1945 und wir, München,

Goffman, Erving (1974). Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience, New York.

Halbwachs, Maurice (1976). Les cadres sociaux de la mémoireThe Social Framework of Memory (European Sociology Series) New York.

Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung (Hrsg.)(1996). Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-1944. Ausstellungskatalog. Hamburg.

Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung (Hrsg.)(2002). Verbrechen der Wehrmacht. Dimensionen des Vernichtungskrieges 1941-1944. Ausstellungskatalog. Hamburg.

Heer, Hannes & Klaus Naumann (1995). Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-1944. Hamburg;

Jensen, Olaf & Harald Welzer (2003). ‘Ein Wort gibt das andere, oder: Selbstreflexivität als Methode.’ Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research (On-line Journal), 4, 2, 58 paragraphs.

Jensen, Olaf (2004). Geschichte machen. Strukturmerkmale des intergenerationellen Sprechens über die NS-Vergangenheit in deutschen Familien, Tübingen;

Keppler, Angela (1994). Tischgespräche. Über Formen kommunikativer Vergemeinschaftung am Beispiel der Konversation in Familien. Frankfurt a. M..

Klee, Ernst, Willi Dreßen & Volker Rieß (1988). « Schöne Zeiten ». Judenmord aus der Sicht der Täter und Gaffer. Frankfurt am Main.

Knopp, Guido, ‘Die große Flucht’, ZDF 2002;

Moeller, Robert G. (2001). War Stories. The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, Berkley, LA, London;

Moller, Sabine (2003). Vielfache Vergangenheit. Öffentliche Erinnerungskulturen und Familienerinnerungen an die NS-Zeit in Ostdeutschland, Tübingen.

Padover, Saul (1946), Experiment in Germany, New York;

Spiegel Special, ‘Die Flucht der Deutschen’, 2002 (2);

Strauss, Anselm L. & Juliet Corbin (1990). Basics of Qualitative Research. Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques. London.

Walser, Martin, ‘Erfahrungen beim Verfassen einer Sonntagsrede’ (11 October 1998), in: Schirrmacher, Frank (Hrsg.), Die Walser-Bubis-Debatte. Eine Dokumentation, Frankfurt am Main 1999, p. 7-17.

Welzer, Harald (2004). ‘Schön unscharf. Über die Konjunktur der Familien- und Generationenromane’. Mittelweg 36, 13, 53-64.

Welzer, Harald, Sabine Moller, Karoline Tschuggnall (2002). „Opa war kein Nazi“. Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis, Frankfurt a.M.;

Welzer, Harals, Montau, Robert, Pass, Christine (1997). Was wir für böse Menschen sind!“ Tübingen.

2.                  Jurgenson, Luba (Paris IV): Traduction et circulation des concepts

Luba Jurgenson is researcher on the writing of the Holocaust and the Gulag in Central and Eastern Europe.


  1. Synthesis

Le cadre méthodologique


  1. Les paramètres de l’émergence d’un concept et son évolution dans la langue et la culture source
  2. Les conditions qui président au passage des concepts d’une langue à l’autre (ou empêchent ce passage)
  3. Les difficultés de traduction des concepts
  4. Les implications épistémologiques d’une réflexion sur la circulation des concepts


  1. Les paramètres de l’émergence d’un concept et son évolution dans la langue et la culture source : la dimension image et la dimension archive d’un concept


– L’image: capture d’un savoir ou d’une expérience

Certaines données du témoignage et de la mémoire ont ainsi donné lieu à des images-concepts : « zone grise » et « mémoire-prothèse » de Primo Levi, la « peau de la mémoire » de Charlotte Delbo, l’Archipel du Goulag d’Alexandre Soljenitsyne, le « témoin de témoin ». Des images-concepts comme « silence » ou « trace », se sont imposées dans le champ mémoriel provenant d’autres champs de réflexion. La notion de « voisin » promue par Jan Gross, qui a permis de réfléchir sur les massacres et génocides perpétrés contre des personnes du voisinage.


  1. La manière dont l’émergence d’un concept ouvre un espace de pensée

Par exemple, la métaphore géographique contenue dans « archipel du Goulag » a permis une prise de conscience de l’ampleur du phénomène et de sa spécificité.


  1. La vie des concepts et leur transformation en clichés de pensée

L’usage d’un concept supposant un consensus intellectuel et la reconnaissance immédiate de la réalité désignée par la communauté scientifique peut conduire à une pétrification de sens ou, à l’inverse, à une extension d’usage qui vide le concept de son sens. Il en est ainsi des termes comme « génocide » ou bien « zone grise » qui finissent par désigner tout flottement de jugement ou de représentation. L’utilisation de l’acronyme Goulag pour toutes les manifestations des violences staliniennes tend à effacer la différence entre les espaces de détention. La notion de « témoin de témoin », qui a émergé notamment à travers la réflexion sur le vers de Celan « Nul ne témoigne pour le témoin » (voir Le dernier à parler de Maurice Blanchot, Fata morgana 1984) est utilisée pour désigner les façons de perpétuer la mémoire des violences dans les œuvres de fiction (Jan Karski de Yannick Haenel). Elle a évolué en « témoin par procuration » qui permet à tout acteur de la mémoire (y compris au reporter venu enquêter sur le terrain) de s’instituer en témoin.


– L’archive: les héritages représentationnels

Exemple : l’usage du terme « répressions » (en russe « repressii ») pour désigner l’ensemble des violences de l’époque stalinienne prête à confusion. Ce mot désigne généralement une violence politique qui s’exerce à l’encontre d’un mouvement de révolte ou d’opposition, ce qui ne rend absolument pas compte de la nature des violences politiques en URSS. Ce terme apparaît pour la première fois pour désigner les violences perpétrées par l’Etat stalinien dans le rapport secret prononcé par Nikita Khrouchtchev à huis clos lors du XXe Congrès du PCUS qui initie la déstalinisation. Il sera utilisé dans les procédures de réhabilitation des personnes qui ont fait l’objet de répressions pour des raisons politiques, leur condamnation prononcée par des organes extra-judiciaires tels que l’Oguépéou, le NKVD, le MGB étant annulée comme illégale, souvent à titre posthume. Ce terme a été repris dans les lois sur la réhabilitation de 1989 et de 1991. Il est largement utilisé par les historiens, russes et occidentaux, pour désigner l’événement de la terreur stalinienne : exemple d’un consensus sur un concept instrumenté à la fois dans la mémoire officielle et la contre-mémoire. L’utilisation de ce terme, désormais institutionnalisée par différentes disciplines, renvoie donc aux différentes étapes historiques de l’élaboration de la mémoire du Goulag et aux compromis mémoriels qui permettent un semblant de consensus (l’utilisation d’un même terme par les victimes et les acteurs de la terreur). Ce terme porte ainsi la trace de la continuité entre le système juridique stalinien, celui de l’URSS post-stalinienne et celui de la Russie.

Un contre-exemple : le terme de « dépaysanisation » qui fait concurrence à l’officiel « dékoulakisation », la violence des années 1930 s’étant exercée à l’encontre de l’ensemble de la classe paysanne et non seulement des paysans aisés (koulaks).


  1. Le concept comme véhicule de représentations de l’événement dans la culture source et d’autres espaces culturels

Plus généralement, l’utilisation en russe (et dans les travaux portant sur le Goulag) de certains termes forgés par les représentants de l’Etat incite à une réflexion sur les représentations des violences de masse. La circulation de ces concepts montre non seulement que la mémoire du Goulag n’a pas bénéficié d’une réflexion pluridisciplinaire approfondie, dans la mesure où elle n’a pas été prise en charge par des communautés testimoniales, mais par des témoins isolés. Elle montre également que la frontière entre les différentes mémoires n’a pas été pensée et qu’une éthique mémorielle portant à l’élaboration de nouveaux concepts différents de ceux utilisés par les institutions responsables de la terreur fait défaut pour le moment.  Elle reflète ainsi la possibilité de tolérer l’existence dans la terminologie afférant au Goulag d’un « second degré » qui porte la trace des réticences, au XXe siècle, à condamner les crimes du communisme dans l’espace occidental et notamment français.


  1. La dimension éthique et idéologique de la conceptualisation

Penser l’émergence et l’évolution de certains concepts suppose une réflexion sur l’éthique de la représentation des violences qui préside à leur réception et leur diffusion. Il en est ainsi, par exemple, du vocabulaire « apophatique » – silence, vide, blanc, indicible, irreprésentable – qui participe de la construction d’une certaine éthique de la mémoire de la Shoah – en cours de mutation aujourd’hui.

L’utilisation de termes religieux comme « martyr » pour parler des victimes de la terreur stalinienne, ou de « repentir » pour désigner l’attitude individuelle et collective la plus appropriée à l’égard du passé soviétique, dénote, dans le contexte russe, une volonté des acteurs de la mémoire officiels d’archiver les violences d’Etat en les transformant en une page de l’histoire spirituelle de la Russie, ce qui suppose une alliance du peuple, de l’Etat et de l’Eglise comme vecteur de pérennité de l’être russe.


  1. Les conditions qui président au passage des concepts d’une langue à l’autre (ou empêchent ce passage)


– Conditions politiques

Exemples : l’ouverture des frontières à l’Est de l’Europe, ou bien, l’intégration de certains pays dans l’Union européenne (et donc, la nécessité pour ces pays de s’ouvrir aux politiques mémorielles européennes). On peut noter également l’importance des enjeux électoraux dans l’évolution des politiques mémorielles, par exemple, la réhabilitation des dirigeants de l’UPA en Ukraine ou encore, la lutte pour la reconnaissance de l’Holodomor comme génocide, un des principaux atouts électoraux de Iouchtchenko.


– Pratiques juridiques de gestion mémorielle et leurs instrumentalisations

Exemple : l’adoption, dans un certain nombre de pays de lois mémorielles inspirées de la loi Gayssot, criminalisant la négation des crimes du communisme (Pologne 1998, Lituanie et Hongrie 2010) et la création d’institutions chargées de la gestion de la mémoire nationale. Projets de loi non aboutis sur l’Holodomor en Ukraine et le contrôle de la mémoire de la Seconde guerre mondiale en Russie.


– Circulation de textes (témoignages), de schémas conceptuels, de modèles mémoriels

Exemple : le rôle des études sur la Shoah dans l’espace occidental pour l’élaboration de modèles mémoriels appliqués ensuite à d’autres événements. L’émergence de canons comme celui de témoignage oral. La pratique du témoignage remanié dans les pays socialistes et l’URSS (Le Livre noir de Grossman et Ehrenbourg, L’Enfer de Treblinka de Grossman) et sa transgression dans les témoignages circulant dans des espaces non officiels.


  1. Les difficultés de traduction des concepts


– difficultés liées au partage des champs disciplinaires (conséquence indirecte de la coupure radicale entre l’Europe occidentale et le bloc de l’Est durant l’époque du communisme)

Exemples : la difficulté à traduire du français vers le russe la notion de « trace », tenant au fait que le contexte mémoriel russe demeure très éloigné de toute perspective archéologique. Circonscrite dans le champ nouveau (apparu il y a une vingtaine d’année) des études littéraires ou anthropologiques qui se sont développées dans le sillon de la réception tardive de la déconstruction, la pensée archéologique reste coupée de celle de l’histoire, si bien que la notion de trace apparaît comme « derridienne ». Par ailleurs, on observera en Russie, l’adoption de certains concepts destinés à combler un vide terminologique, ou qui font concurrence à des termes existant dans la langue russe mais délaissés par les disciplines « importées » telles que sociologie ou les culture studies. Ainsi, le terme « translation » utilisé dans ces deux disciplines pour « transmission ». Indirectement, de tels emprunts a priori non justifiés et souvent critiqués dénotent en l’occurrence un besoin de renouveler la terminologie là où celle existante apparaît comme « suspecte ».


– difficultés liées à la différence des systèmes juridiques

Exemples : la difficulté à traduire du russe en français le terme « arestovanny » qui désigne une personne arrêtée, notamment par des organes extra-judiciaires et qui ne peut donc être rendu véritablement ni par « prévenu », ni par « inculpé », encore moins par « détenu », ce qu’il deviendra une fois condamné. Le terme de « spetspereselenets », « colon spécial », qui recouvre une catégorie de déportés chargés en effet de mettre en valeur les « régions inhospitalières » nécessite une réflexion sur la complexité et la porosité des statuts dans un contexte où la violence est instrumentée à des fins d’aménagement de territoire.


  1. Les implications épistémologiques d’une réflexion sur la circulation des concepts


– une réflexion critique sur les contextes d’émergence, de réception et d’usage des concepts


Les termes utilisés dans un contexte culturel donné portent l’empreinte de leur élaboration et de l’histoire des disciplines qui ont contribué à leur émergence. Ils sont directement associés à la représentation des événements dans la culture d’accueil et aux polémiques qui ont présidé à leur mise en mémoire. On pourrait illustrer ce paramètre sur l’exemple de la concurrence entre les termes Holocauste/Shoah en France et dans les pays anglo-saxons (Holocauste/Catastrophe dans les pays slaves), Shoah/génocide etc., ou encore, sur l’évolution des notions telles que « silence », « vide », « blanc », « indicible » etc., dans les cultures où les représentations des violences et le témoignage ont été pensés notamment à la lumière des théories du langage et la difficulté à traduire ces notions vers les langues où le témoignage et la mémoire sont essentiellement l’objet des historiens. L’historique de l’apparition des concepts implique également une réflexion sur les acteurs de la mémoire, personnes et institutions, qui ont contribué à l’émergence ou à la diffusion de tel ou tel terme.


– les modalités et les limites d’un classement : transparence et opacité des concepts

La création d’un outil de réflexion commune sur les termes restituant l’histoire de leur émergence et de leur circulation, permettra de circonscrire les zones d’opacité qui résistent à la traduction et à la communication entre champs disciplinaires et mémoriels, ainsi qu’entre les aires culturelles concernées par les événements répertoriés et, partant, de penser le rapport entre ces zones d’opacité terminologiques, conceptuelles, représentationnelles et les points aveugles des savoirs sur les violences.


  1. Discussion

– The absence of traces in Russia concerning the First World War

With the absence of traces, like monuments and remembrance places, it’s like Russia has no linked connection with the First World war. Understanding this problematic requires a historian knowledge concerning the contemporary history of Russia (during the Great war, Russia got through a national revolution – the Russian Revolution in 1917 – and changed from an empire to a soviet Union). The First World War remembered the imperialistic era, so it had to be forgotten. This negation of the past delivered one major problem: negation doesn’t deliver traces about what happened in the past.

– Traces are made by writers

Writers are the main actors concerning (re)discovering the past. This subjective way of making history and – with it – presents (literary representation) concerning traces that differs from the remembrance of human history.


  1. Bibliography

Maurice Blanchot, Le Dernier à Parler, Saint Clément de Rivière, Fata Morgana 1984

Paul Celan «Gloire de cendres» in Paul Celan, Choix de poèmes réunis par l’auteur, traduction et présentation de Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, Poésie/Gallimard n° 326, Gallimard, 1998, p. 262 et 263.

Charlotte Delbo Aucun de nous ne reviendra, Paris, Editions de Minuit,

Jan Gross Les Voisins, Un Massacre de Juifs en Pologne, 10 juillet 1941, Paris, Fayard, 2002./

Vassili Grossman, Ilya Ehrenbourg, Le Livre noir, Actes Sud, 1995.

Vassili Grossman, L’enfer de Treblinka, in Années de guerre, Autrement 1993, p. 244-292.

Yannick Haenel Jan Karski, Paris, Gallimard, 2009.

Nikita Khrouchtchev, Le rapport secret du XXe congrès, Paris, Seuil, Points Histoire, 1976.

Primo Levi, Si c’est un homme, Paris, Julliard, 1987.

Les Naufragés et les rescapés, Paris, Gallimard, Arcades, 1989.

Alexandre Soljenitsyne L’Archipel du Goulag, Paris, Le Seuil, 1974-1976

Jean-Charles Szurek & Annette Wieviorka, Juifs et Polonais 1939-2008, Albin Michel 2009.


Site Internet:


3.                  Korb, Alexander (University of Leicester (UK)): Non-German Perpetrators During the Holocaust – The Case of the Croatian Ustasha.


Alexander Korb is lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Leicester, and acting director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.


  1. Synthesis

The Italian fascist journalist Curzio Malaparte, correspondent for the corriere della serra, reported in one of his best-selling books to have visited the Croatian head of the state, Ante Pavelić, in July 1941. Together with the Italian ambassador Casertano, he writes, quote, “we spent a long time discussing simply and cordially the gravity of the situation. While Pavelić spoke, I gazed at a wicker basket on his desk. The lid was raised and the basket seemed to be filled with mussels, or shelled oysters. Casertano looked at me and winked, « Would you like a nice oyster stew? » « Are they Dalmatian oysters? » I asked the Poglavnik.

Ante Pavelić removed the lid from the basket and revealed the mussels, that slimy and jelly-like mass, and he said smiling, with that tired good-natured smile of his, « It is a present from my loyal Ustashe. Forty pounds of human eyes. »

This account of Pavelic, chief of the fascist Ustasha movement, fills both human eyes on his desk or not –I personally do not believe it- is not the question. The point is that there is a longstanding tradition to present the Ustashe –and many other non-German perpetrators- as monsters.

By the way, there is a tendency somewhat worrying taking into consideration that the last perpetrators of the Holocaust, who were recently identified and sued, are actually non-Germans, most of which are from Eastern Europe. John Demjanjuk ist the most famous example.

Milovoj Asner from Croatia and Klaas Carel Faber from the Netherlands are other examples. Just yesterday, the British newspaper “The Sun” tracked down another war criminal, 97 year old Ladislaus Tschisik Tschatary from Hungary. It is troublesome that in a popular perception the Holocaust in a way “de-germanises”. Whilst it bears the chance for recognition for the European dimension of participation in the Holocaust, another tendency is more worrying. Again, local perpetrators are being depicted as monsters. The Sun’s yesterday headline was:

This demonstrates more than anything else that the reasons for and the regional context of why non-German perpetrators participated in the Holocaust do not yet find the popular recognition they deserve. Why should we study the motives of monsters, evident as they seem to be?

There is another popular narrative according to which non-German perpetrators were German puppets. The power of this narrative is not so astonishing, as it was used for the whitewashing of national responsibilities throughout Europe – East and West.

In post-war Europe, there was the strong tendency to blame the Germans for everything, and at the same time to portray collaborators as merciless villains. It is not a coincidence that the most ridiculous and least powerful European collaborator, Norwegian prime minister Vidkun Quisling, had to serve as a patron for all collaborators, who were referred to as “Quislings” in many languages.

But still, mainstream Holocaust scholarship today has the tendency to neglect non-German motives and agency. It is astonishing, though, that these fine books included Hitler into their titles, too, despite the dictators limited interest in Balkan affairs.

Hitler on the cover might be might be due to do with the logics of the British book market than. Yet, the analysis of actual power relations between Nazis and non-German perpetrators is rather the exception than the rule.


Of course, we know that the narrative of “puppets” is hiding most of the truth. Be it the Ian Gross debate, be it Christopher Dieckmann’s new book on Lithuania, be it studies on South Eastern.

The agendas of non-German perpetrators need to be taken seriously, because it demonstrates that they participated in the Holocaust for a myriad of reasons. It is complicated to identify core motives: Greed seems to be equally important as antisemitism, quarrels between neighbours as important as ethnic hatreds. All these motives were usually intertwined.

In the case of Croatia, it was the ethinicised agony of the Yugoslav Kingdom, a state, that did not function properly and that did not earn the trust of its citizens. The difficulty here was that the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s prevented that the Yugoslav republics came to term with their past. Archival evidence was destroyed, archives inaccessible, and nationalism was thriving. History was one of the most contested grounds during and after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Serbian nationalists overstated the number of victims, claimed that the Nazis and Ustaša committed a “Holocaust of the Serbs”, and labelled the Jasenovac camp as “Auschwitz of the Balkans”. Croatian nationalists in contrast minimized the numbers and claimed that the Ustasha state had nothing to do with the Holocaust. The concentration camp Jasenovac became the emblematic battlefield and a principle of faith for nationalist from both sides.

I decided to study the history of the Holocaust in Croatia when I was working as a volunteer for a peace initiative a number of years ago. I found it easy to learn the language, and I was fascinated by the country’s landscape with fishing villages next to high peaks, by culture, by its mix of Habsburg and Balkan elements, and its past full of myths and its incapacity to deal with it. Soon I realized that beauty and tragedy often go hand in hand, with former execution sites on Mediterranean islands, with campsites in Baroque castles, and sometimes with jolly and generous people being fervent nationalists. But I should restrain from been taken away by my fascination as viewing the Balkans as exotic has a longstanding tradition amongst Western scholars.  I promised myself to try to demystify the wartime history, and to understand the logics of Ustasha mass violence.  What has started as a history of the Holocaust in Croatia soon became a study of a civil war, which took place in the Shadow of World War Two. I had realized that the Holocaust was inextricably intertwined with that war I have not known much about before.

In my talk today I am addressing the issue of non_German perpetrators during the Holocaust by looking at the Croatian Ustasha movement and their state.

First, I will discuss the historical space, demonstrating that the imperial legacies of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires complicated the Holocaust in Croatia, and other spatial aspects that shaped the Croatian space of violence during the war.

Second, I will demonstrate how I studied U mass violence by looking at ethnic cleansing, by which I will demonstrate how the Holocaust was intertwined with the civil war in Croatia.

But let me first briefly introduce the Ustaša and their Independent State of Croatia. The separatist and radically nationalistic Ustaša movement and its leader Ante Pavelić were driven by the idea to create a greater Croatian nation state.

More terrorist than other movements, brutalised due to two factors. Their plan to destroy YU was based on the use of vilence, and the reactions of the YU secret police were equally violent. Terror attacks and assassination were the order of the day. The Assassination of the Yugoslav king in Marseille in 1934 was one of the most spectacular of political terrorism in interwar Europe. The Ustashe spent most of the 1930 in Italian exile, which is another brutalising factor, because the activists spent years in the agony of internment camps with very poor living condition, where they were subject to close supervision by their supervising officers. In these camps, they harvested hatreds against Yugoslavia and the Serbs, who –for them- embodied the subjugation of the Croatian people. Similar to the Baltic States and the Western Ukraine two years later, the German invasion 1941 was celebrated as a liberation, and accompanied by atrocities against the former masters. In April 1941, an independent Croatian state was declared. The Ustasha aimed at making it Croatian not by name only, by its demographics, too. However, only 50 percent of Croatia’s six million inhabitants were Catholic Croats. The population also consisted of two million or 30 per cent Serbs, 800,000 Muslims, 40,000 Jews and 30,000 Gypsies.

Pursuing their goal of ethnic cleansing, the Ustasha started to expel tens of thousand Serbs to Serbia, and built an infrastructure of camps that served this purpose. Expulsions proved impossible in remote regions on the one hand, and they caused uprisings on the other. Both factors led to a radicalisation of violence, and ultimately led into a civil war not even the Germans were able to stop or to restrain.

By the summer of 1941, the Ustasha had established a violent regime which had gotten largely out of control. Semi-independent militias committed massacres in Serb villages.

They were at war with Serbian Chetnik forces, and both were trying to ethnically cleanse the regions they controlled. Bosnian Muslims formed their own militias, German and Italian armies stood in the background, and Tito’s partisans arose as the only option beyond the ethnic dived. But this does not mean they were not involved in mass violence.

The Germans even organised a unit which comprised of Russian anti-Communist refugees who called themselves the Cossacks.


Transnational matrix of violent actors.

Chetniks responded with counter violence directed against Muslims; hundreds of thousands refugees crowded the cities; Ustashe tried to depopulate the partisan warzones, with the effect that the Ustasha campsites got overcrowded; brutalized perpetrators saw it as a solution of their problems to kill their starving  and ill prisoners; food shortage and competition for the crops fuelled the violence committed by all war parties. It was in this situation when the Ustashe started to deport Jews into their camp system.

Croatian nationalism in its extreme variant has a number of peculiarities. The multiethnicity of the country also brings us to the question of what kind of space wartime Croatia was, and how spatial and imperial legacies shaped the violence in this country. Donald Bloxham has recently suggested that we should study the Holocaust in a broader sense and that we should bear in mind the long term process of ethnic homogenization in Eastern and Southern Europe, as well as the imperial pre-history of violence in the spaces in which the Holocaust took place – be it Romanov, Habsburg or Ottoman legacies.

Croatia is situated where two of these empires overlapped; also, it lays on the boundary of the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox and the Muslim Worlds.


  • All this shaped the Ustasha ideology: Anti-byzantine worldview – similar to merging Nazi stereotypes against Jews and Bolsheviks. Antemurale, Drina, defending the border
  • Anti-Serb and antisemitic stereotypes were intertwined. Jews were perceived as agents of Serbian/Yugoslav rule. The basic difference between the persecution of Serbs on one side and Jews and Roma on the other is that a definition of ‘Serb’ was never put into law. Two rationales of anti-Serbian policies always competed: violent persecution on the one hand and forced assimilation on the other. They were intertwined, and their relation kept on changing, as long as the Ustaša was in power. In 1942, however, the persecution of the Serbs deradiralized due to the increasing German pressure.
  • It is disputed whether the Ustasha was a fascist movement, and to what extent it was driven by their Catholicism. In my book I argue that the Ustasha was largely a secular movement, for whom religion was important as a marker of ethnic identity. Therefore I rebut claims that they were a clerofascist organization. Even though there was a high number of active Catholics in the ranks of the U, the influence of the church on the Ustasha, and vice versa, was limited.
  • NDH was the only fascist dictatorship in one of the minor states. The category is useful when it comes to the analysis of the Ustasha’s ideology, when it comes to the modernism of part of their program, and when it comes to studying the lives of a number of Ustasha leader. But where we are studying Ustasha violence, fascism becomes fuzzy, because the Ustasha massacres are not so much an expression of their fascist ideology, but rather of an ethnicised civil war and of an matrix radicalised by violence and counter-violence. It is therefore questionable to what extent the atrocities committed by the counterparts of the Ustasha, Chetniks and Tito’s partisans, differed both in numbers and in scope.
  • Slide muslims
  • The Ustasha’s secular character can be exemplified by a last point, the attempts by the Ustasha to glamour the Bosnian Muslims, who were declared as ethnic Croats. Muslim villages and towns were situated in the worst warzones, and therefore the Muslim population had on of the highest death rates. It is rather this trap that explains Muslim actions during the war, and not, as some scholars are claiming, a deeply rooted Muslim antisemitism, and their affinity to Himmler’s dreams of Muslim SS-divisions. Once the Muslim-Handzar-SS division was established, more than 2,000 Muslim recruits deserted to Tito’s partisans. Once they realized that the plans of the SS do not serve Muslim particularism.
  • Finally, Croatia was divided by a contemporary imperial rift, as the country was occupied by Italian and German armies, and Both the Italians and the Germans ambitiously tried to build their empires on the Balkans. They cooperated in the beginning, but very soon they started to compete and to clash. This factor also added to Ustaša agency. “They are like cat and dog”, Pavelić stated about the rivalry of his fascist tutors. The Ustaša was able take advantage of this discord. But the Ustasha’s adversaries benefited, too. The partisans could retreat behind the demarcation line if necessary, and the Chetniks benefitted from the massive amount of arms both Germany and Italy shipped into Croatia. Serb and Croatian militias fought a proxy war with an empire behind their back each. That added massively to the agency of these militias as neither Germans nor Italians could afford to get rid of their local partner. Especially the German troops hat a very limited presence on the ground. Abandoning their unloved Ustasha allies would have involved a German intervention in the Civil War with an uncertain outcome – an intervention the Wehrmacht could hardly afford in times when their fortunes of war shifted. The traditional narrative is that the Ustasha lost power due to the Italian policies and  due to the massive Serb and Communist resistance in the country.  In contrast, I argue that it was only the imperial divide and the violent civil war that allowed the Ustasha militias to commit large scale genocide, and to maintain their warlord state.
  • The spatial structures I just discussed raise the question whether Southeastern Europe was a structural space of violence of own, a particular Gewaltraum, to speak with Joerg Baberowski, and why, according to Snyder, the Bloddlands are to be found somewhere else in Eastern Europe, but not on the Balkans. I am happy to take this up during the discussion.


That much for spatial structures: Let me now briefly explain how I studied Ustasha mass violence in my book. I differentiated between various forms of mass violence, looking first at expulsions and ethnic cleansing, (2) violence within the boundaries of camps and (3) massacres on the countryside. Today, I would like to focus on the aspect of ethnic cleansing in order to demonstrate how this project was interwoven with the persecution of the Jews.

In June 1941, Germany and Croatia agreed on a large scale exchange of poulations through which Croatia was to become a homogeneous nation state. Ustasha politicians referred to Lausanne in order demonstrate the scale, but also to appeal to ideas of modernitiy and orderly populatin transfers. Hitler stongly encouraged the Ustasha in their endeavour as he believed that ethic homogeneity brings about stability.

The Croatian state started implementing deporting Serbs and settling Slovenes in July 1941, thousands of Slovenes arrived in transit camps, while thousands of Serbs were arrested during a nation-wide police raid. The Slovenes were settled on the farms of the Serbs, while the Serbs were deported to Serbia via the transit-camps.

Even though the Germans soon withdrew their support as it was obvious that the expulsions caused a civil war, the Ustaša were unstoppable in their urge to build their nation by force. The rhetoric and practise of nation building facilitated the ways into the Holocaust as into mass murder of Roma as well. The expulsion of Serbs has radicalized the persecution of smaller minorities. Whilst Serbs could be expulsed into the neighbourig counrtries, no such option existed for Jews and Roma. The Ustasha leadership briefly considered so called “territorial sollutions” for Jews and Gypsies, and asked the Germans to resettle them to eastern Europe. That was, by the way, before the Wannsee conference, and the Germans rejected the offer. The next logical step for the Ustasha police  was the deportation of Jews and Gypsies into their camp system, where they soon fell victims of murderous attacks of their brutalized guards.

When Germany finally asked for the deportation of the Jews from Croatia, no one objected. The idea of ethnic cleansing be deportation – regardless what the goal was, was too widely accepted.

The Ustashe and the Germans soon started arguing who exactly should be deported, and what would happen with the assets of the deportees. But the deportation of Jews from Croatia was a German-Croatian Joint venture. However, I think it is important to differentiate between German and local motives for the persecution of Jews.

From the Croatian point of view, the expulsion of Jews was part of strategy the ethnically cleanse their Croatian homeland. Mass murder was part of the picture, but not necessarily the ultimate goal. In that perspective, it did not matter what happened to the Jews once they were deported to Eastern Europe. The persecution of Jews was fuelled by a number of secondary factors, and therefore took lethal forms more often than not. Yet, escape strategies for Jews remained open. Therefore, and ethnopolitcal persecution differs from the German model of and biopolitcal extermination.

Let me end on a note what we can learn from cases such as Croatia for future Holocaust studies. In certain regions of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, Soviet, German and Italian occupations triggered local conflicts between nationalistic militias. German and Italian ideologists indeed favoured homogenized nation states.

Where civil wars such as in Yugoslavia and Volhynia combined political and national conflicts, they mostly exceeded other theatres of civil war such as in Greece or in Italy in terms of brutality. Bands and militias such Croatian Ustasha, Serbian Chetniks and Ukrainian OUN-forces not only fought their political opponents, but saw the upheaval of the Second World War also as a chance to ethnically cleanse the territories under their control, and to create nationally homogenized spaces as part of the greater nation states they dreamed of.

The violent against the national “other” mostly also triggered violence against other groups. The Ustasha massacred Serbs, and used the same camps for the persecution of Jews and Gypsies. The Bulgarian occupiers of Thrace expelled (and massacred) Greeks, and deported the Thracian Jews shortly later. Similar dynamics of nationalizing policies apply for Romania and, to a certain extent Hungary.

Such a perspective demonstrates that the Holocaust in large parts of Eastern Europe was part of a framework of societal conflicts, and it muddies the often too clear cut picture of perpetrators on the one hand and victims on the other. It also sheds light on long term continuities, deriving from imperial and post-imperial heritages of the continent.

Where fascist attacks destroyed states with a multiethnic population, and put nationalistic militias in charge (such as in Croatia, Bosnia, Latvia, Lithuania and in parts of the Ukraine), or, where they granted permission to states such as Romania and Croatia to homogenize their population by force, an escalation of violence was the consequence. For two reasons, WWII was especially violent in those regions, in which a multiethnic heritage had prevailed. Firstly, the Nazi or fascist strategies of homogenizing, encompassed mass violence as such – ethnic Flurbereinigung , as Hitler has envisioned (and called) it. Secondly, nationalizing dynamics led to an escalation of violence, for which the Nazis had opened the door.


  1. Discussion

– The overshadowing problem

A present major problem concerning the memory of atrocities during the Second World War in the Balkan is laid in the overshadowing fact by the incidents during the 1990’s. This results in a sort of local ignorance.


  1. Key Words


Ethnic Riot


Genocide Studies


Guerre civile

Humanitarian Intervention


Mass Crime

Mass Killing

Mass Violence

Nettoyage Ethnique



  1. Bibliography

Donald Bloxham: The Final Solution. A Genocide. (Oxford: OUP, 2009)

Alexander Korb: Im Schatten des Weltkriegs. Massengewalt gegen Serben, Juden und Roma (Hamburg: HE, 2013)

Alexander Korb: Understanding Ustasha Violence, in: Journal of Genocide Research 1, 2011, p1-18.

Dan Stone: Histories of the Holocaust (Oxford: OUP, 2009).

4.                  Kuon, Peter (Salzburg University):

Peter Kuon est professeur de Philologie romane, Directeur de l’Institut d’Études romanes, Directeur du Programme de recherches Arts et Sciences et du Groupe de recherches KZ-memoria scripta à l’Université de Salzbourg.


  1. Synthesis

La notion clef de témoignage est, le plus souvent discutée dans une perspective générique. Cette approche méconnaît le statut d’une textualité qui est moins caractérisée par son unité générique que par son hybridité transgénérique. L’analyse péritextuelle d’une centaine de témoignages ordinaires, rédigés par des auteurs sans expérience d’écriture (et généralement peu étudiés par les littéraires et les philosophes), m’a conduit à considérer le témoignage comme une pratique d’écriture essentiellement hybride, caractérisée par le conflit des fonctions sémiotiques du texte : référentielle, expressive, appellative et représentationnelle. Le survivant, dans son désir de témoigner, veut tout à la fois : la réalité du camp sans l’obstacle de la langue, la vérité factuelle sans les trous de mémoire, la vérité subjective sans la mise à nu du sujet, la commémoration des morts sans l’oubli du présent, l’écoute du public sans l’effort de transmission, la lisibilité du texte sans l’art d’écrire. Il en résulte des textes trop pleins qui risquent de manquer leur but communicatif.

Le pathos du témoignage vient du fait que le témoin est mandaté de révéler aux lecteurs profanes un savoir qu’il partage avec les morts et les survivants et qui, sans sa prise de parole, resterait secret. Ce savoir, loin de se résumer aux faits et aux événements d’un monde radicalement autre, renferme l’expérience concentrationnaire, le « savoir-déporté », pour le dire avec Anne-Lise Stern. Du coup, la référence du témoignage se déplace de la représentation de la réalité extérieure du camp à la représentation d’une réalité intérieure. Or, la vérité de cette expérience, toute collective qu’elle est, ne saurait être trouvée qu’au fond du je.

Point de fuite du témoignage, le je déporté se dérobe à l’emprise de l’auteur. C’est que celui-ci, de peur de ressusciter le mort-vivant qu’il était, évite le mode autobiographique et privilégie une écriture référentielle et/ou appellative. L’approche référentielle décrit l’anéantissement des détenus par le travail et la faim, détaille les violences perpétrées par les kapos et les SS, affirme la vérité du discours et apporte des preuves, en joignant des photos, des plans, des documents. Combien cette perspective en plongée est forcée, ressort d’une lecture qui examine les coutures du texte pour y découvrir les traces d’une subjectivité réprimée. La trace la plus voyante est la première personne, toujours prête à surgir à la surface du texte, troublant la description objectivante du camp par l’introduction, au pluriel, d’un nous qui dote l’auteur du droit d’exhorter ses lecteurs au nom des morts, ou par l’intrusion, au singulier, d’une subjectivité qui contredit les protestations de vérité factuelle de l’auteur.

Le je, réprimé et irrépressible, est la pierre de touche du témoignage. Sa présence ou son absence met en conflit les trois fonctions externes du texte – référentielle, expressive et appellative – et empêche la quatrième, interne, d’opérer une représentation homogène de l’image que l’auteur veut transmettre à ses lecteurs. Qu’il s’agisse d’un mémoire documentaire ou d’une étude historiographique, d’une autobiographie ou d’une épopée, la qualité d’un texte se mesure toujours à l’aune de sa cohérence. On pourrait objecter que ce critère ne convient pas à un type de texte qui fait de l’absence de rhétorique une preuve d’authenticité. En même temps, les auteurs sont conscients de la nécessité de toucher le lecteur par une écriture qui lui rende accessible l’expérience du camp. Du moment qu’ils optent pour telle ou telle stratégie d’écriture, ils se soumettent de nouveau, bon gré mal gré, au critère de la cohérence. En tant que qualité inhérente au texte, la cohérence textuelle, rhétorique, littéraire, voire esthétique est, cependant, indépendante des qualités externes du témoignage : véracité, vérité et exemplarité. Autrement dit, une représentation cohérente de l’expérience concentrationnaire est susceptible d’emporter le public, même si elle n’est ni véridique, ni vraie, ni exemplaire. Il en résulte que l’écriture réfléchie qui maîtrise l’« artifice littéraire », comme dirait Jorge Semprun, n’est pas non plus, en soi, une solution au dilemme du témoignage, parce qu’elle court le risque de sacrifier l’ethos à l’esthétique.

Si le témoignage, comme nous venons de le souligner, est traversé d’intentions conflictuelles, ne faudrait-il pas prendre son hybridité évidente comme point de départ de l’étude et transformer la faiblesse du texte en un point fort de l’analyse ? Ma recherche s’appuie, en dernière instance, sur deux hypothèses, la première postulant l’essence hybride du témoignage concentrationnaire comme un état de fait et la seconde tenant cette même textualité hétérogène pour une manifestation de la difficulté de dire ce qui paraît indicible : l’expérience concentrationnaire. C’est dans les frictions d’une écriture souvent inégale et parfois trop lisse qu’une lecture attentive peut déceler la vérité du dit et du non-dit.


  1. Discussion

– Texts risk to fall into oblivion

Oblivion is also applicable on the domain of literary documents. There are many texts, which traditionally considered don’t belong to the literary field, that threat to be lost. Hybridity of texts can be found in pictures or poetry which are shown before the actual text.


  1. Key Words

Le témoignage : genre littéraire

Le témoignage : pratique d’écriture

Le témoignage ordinaire

L’hybridité du témoignage

La difficulté de dire

Le dicible

Le savoir-déporté


  1. Bibliography

Willi Huntemann, « Zwischen Dokument und Fiktion. Zur Erzählpoetik von Holocaust-Texten », Arcadia, no 36, 2001, p. 21-45.

Philippe Lejeune, Signes de vie. Le pacte autobiographique 2, Paris, Seuil, 2005.

Fransiska Louwagie, Le témoignage francophone sur les camps de concentration nazis (1945-2004). Une étude générique et discursive, Louvain, Université Catholique de Louvain, 2007.

Michael Pollak, L’expérience concentrationnaire. Essai sur le maintien de l’identité sociale, Paris, Métaillié, 2000.

Jorge Semprun, L’écriture ou la vie, Paris, NRF Gallimard, 1994.

Anne-Lise Stern, Le savoir déporté. Camps, histoire, psychanalyse, Paris, Seuil, 2004.

5.                  Louwagie, Fransiska (University of Leicester [UK]): Pragmatique du témoignage

Dr. Fransiska Louwagie is lecturer in French Studies in the School of Modern Languages at the University of Leicester since September 2011 and specialized in post-Holocaust testimonial literature and fiction.


  1. Synthesis

L’une des questions qui oriente ma recherche et que je voulais présenter ici est celle de savoir si le témoignage possède des caractéristiques pragmatiques qui lui sont propres, c’est-à-dire si c’est un genre discursif qui engendre un contrat de lecture et, partant, un horizon d’attente particuliers. Pour analyser cette dimension pragmatique du témoignage, je vais me pencher brièvement sur la question de ses fonctions  discursives, en touchant d’abord quelques mots des dimensions factuelles et identitaires du témoignage, pour en venir ensuite à la dimension interprétative ou qualificative.

De toute évidence, la dimension factuelle ou référentielle est généralement considérée comme faisant partie intégrante des fonctions du témoignage. Surtout dans le sillage immédiat des événements, les témoins affirment la nécessité (éthique aussi) d’informer le monde d’une expérience jugée radicalement autre ou même inimaginable. Comme le montrent de fait ses ancrages juridiques, la transmission ou encore l’établissement des faits et des événements constitue de fait l’un des rôles premiers du témoignage. Dans un usage documentaire de la parole testimoniale, c’est dès lors cette fonction qui se trouve privilégiée. D’autre part, et je ne fais que le rappeler, la dimension personnelle du témoignage entraîne aussi un certain nombre de mises en garde vis-à-vis de sa portée référentielle, d’un point de vue juridique aussi bien que historiographique, dans la mesure où la vision du témoin « oculaire » est forcément, on le sait, individuelle et limitée (d’autant plus si le témoin est une victime dépourvue d’une vision d’ensemble) et sa déposition relève de toute évidence d’une reconstruction mémorielle et narrative. Or, à la lumière de ces tensions, j’aimerais m’attarder maintenant sur quelques transformations et extensions du rôle du témoin et du témoignage. Sans que la première fonction factuelle et historique ne s’efface forcément, on constate en effet certains déplacements au sein de du positionnement pragmatique. Ainsi, en analysant les témoignages au procès Eichmann, Annette Wievorka observe déjà que les témoignages tendent à dépasser le contexte de l’inculpation de l’accusé pour se concentrer aussi sur la personne de la victime. Ce constat l’amène d’ailleurs à dénoncer l’évolution vers un rapport non-critique au témoin, un rapport qui se fonderait davantage sur l’empathie avec la victime que sur la transmission d’une réelle connaissance du passé, y compris dans le contexte scolaire, où l’on semble attacher une valeur prophétique à la parole du témoin. De son côté, le sociologue Michael Pollak avance que la dimension factuelle du témoignage s’efface graduellement en faveur d’un travail de reconstruction identitaire de la part des témoins (Pollak – Heinich, 1986 : 4), ce qui répondrait donc à un besoin psychologique de la part des survivants. Je ne m’attarderai pas d’avantage, pour l’instant, sur ces tendances « individualisantes », si je peux dire, au niveau de la réception et de la production du témoignage (qui n’empêchent d’ailleurs pas le maintien d’une ouverture éthique sur les autres victimes ou disparus). Je voudrais plutôt souligner qu’avec l’éloignement de l’expérience dans le temps et, parallèlement, la prise en charge de cette dimension factuelle par les discours historiographiques sur la Shoah, le rapport du témoignage à l’histoire et à la mémoire semble se redéfinir de façon plus fondamentale et, peut-être durable. De fait, dès le début dans certains cas mais aussi de manière progressive, il semble que le témoignage s’est aussi doté, sur le plan mémoriel et éthique, d’une fonction « interprétative », qui implique notamment , comme l’indique Jacques Rancière, un processus de « qualification » de l’expérience (Rancière, 2009). Cette fonction du témoignage consiste en d’autres mots à orienter la perception (éthique) et la mémoire collectives de l’expérience. Sur ce point, il convient d’ailleurs de rappeler la définition du pacte référentiel proposée par Philippe Lejeune, qui situe la valeur référentielle de l’écriture autobiographique  non seulement sur le plan de l’exactitude informationnelle, mais aussi sur celui de la fidélité ou de la « signification » des événements (Lejeune, 1975 : 36). Or, dans le contexte collectif du témoignage historique, cette démarche de fidélité s’inscrit d’emblée dans une démarche éthique et mémorielle et par le biais de cette fonction qualificative, le discours testimonial acquiert aussi une pertinence qui dépasse l’événementiel, expliquant sa présence durable dans une société où le souvenir de la Shoah est devenu un « paradigme mémoriel central » (Jeannelle, 2004 : 113). Si cette fonction risque à son tour de doter le discours de la victime d’une dimension prophétique, je pense d’autre part qu’elle exhorte en même temps à une approche contextualisée du témoignage, qui empêche donc une telle absolutisation de la parole testimoniale, notamment dans la mesure où la qualification de l’expérience par le témoin entre aussi en rapport (ou parfois en conflit) avec les représentations collectives du passé, c’est-à-dire avec les paradigmes mémoriaux et les grands récits.

Du point de vue des études « littéraires », l’attention pour le fonctionnement pragmatique du témoignage, en général, et pour le processus de qualification, en particulier, permet notamment d’étudier ce qu’on a appelé la « justesse esthétique » du témoignage, c’est-à-dire les articulations entre ses dimensions éthiques et esthétiques, en évitant la coupure entre témoignages littéraires et non-littéraires, les deux catégories étant considérées comme des narrations construites. Ainsi, face à d’éventuels parti pris idéologiques de certains auteurs et/ou des paradigmes mémoriels collectifs, se pose la question de l’échelle d’appréhension de l’expérience dans le témoignage et de son rapport aux choix esthétiques effectués, avec par exemple les représentations dites « symboliques » reflétant une qualification universalisante de l’expérience, ou, dans le cadre de la désabsolutisation actuelle de cette mémoire, l’attention qui est portée précisément à cette dimension construite du témoignage, qui peut notamment impliquer une écriture auto- ou métaréflexive. Comme le montre d’ailleurs ce dernier cas de figure, le processus de qualification testimoniale implique aussi une interrogation générale sur les modalités éthiques et les difficultés de la représentation, une dimension qui s’impose, dans certains cas, comme une « fonction » essentielle de l’acte testimonial.

Je voudrais, en guise de conclusion, indiquer que l’approche pragmatique du témoignage permet, je pense, dans une certaine mesure, de croiser les perspectives disciplinaires, dans la mesure où elle permet d’articuler les différentes fonctions et types de lectures avec lesquels le témoignage se trouve associé. Ses fonctions sont bien entendu étroitement liées entre elles, voire indissociables, et les glissements sont souvent subtiles. Le but de cette approche pragmatique consiste dès lors davantage à promouvoir notre compréhension du fonctionnement discursif des textes à travers le temps, qu’à une vision dissociée des différentes fonctions.


  1. Discussion

– The rivalry between witnesses

The eventually literary rivalry between witnesses can provoke a confrontation on the education level. Testimonies that are embroiled together on literary field, a pernicious clash can arise and lead to a pedagogical confrontation.


  1. Bibliography

Anny Dayan Rosenman, Les Alphabets de la Shoah. Survivre, Témoigner, Écrire, Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2004.

François-Charles Gaudard, Modesta Suárez (éds), Formes discursives du témoignage, Toulouse, Éditions universitaires du Sud, 2004.

Gérard Genette, Fiction et Diction, Paris, Seuil, 1991.

François Hartog, « Le témoin et l’historien », xixe Congrès International des Sciences Historiques, 2000,

Jean-Louis Jeannelle, « Pour une histoire du genre testimonial », Littérature, n° 135, 2004, p. 98-100.

Luba Jurgenson – Alexandre Prstojevic (éds), Des témoins aux héritiers. Une histoire de l’écriture de la Shoah, Paris, Éditions PETRA, 2012.

Philippe Mesnard, Témoignage en résistance, Paris, Stock, 2007.

Catherine Milkovitch-Rioux (dir.), Écrire la guerre, Clermont-Ferrand, Presses universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2000.

Jacques Rancière, « Témoignage et écriture », in Antoine Compagnon, Séminaire 2009 : Témoigner (Littérature française moderne et contemporaine : Histoire, critique, théorie, Collège de France),

Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory. Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2009.

Annelise Schulte Nordholt (dir.), Témoignages de l’après-Auschwitz dans la literature juive-française d’aujourd’hui. Enfants de survivants et survivants-enfants, Amsterdam – New York, Rodopi, 2008.

  1. Clifton Spargo & Robert M. Ehrenreich (éds), After Representation? The Holocaust, Literature, and Culture, Library of Congress/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, 2010.

Susan Rubin Suleiman, Crises of Memory and the Second World War, Cambridge (MA) – London, Harvard University Press, 2006.

Charlotte Wardi et Pérel Wilgowicz (dir.), Vivre et Écrire la mémoire de la Shoah. Littérature et Psychanalyse, Paris, Alliance israélite universelle, 2002.

of Wisconsin Press, 2011, p. 48-66.

[1] See Saul Padover (1946), Experiment in Germany, New York; Hannah Arendt (1950). Besuch in Deutschland; Robert G. Moeller (2001). War Stories. The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, Berkley, LA, London; Norbert Frei (1996). Vergangenheitspolitik. Die Anfänge der Bundesrepublik und die NS-Vergangenheit, München.

[2] Harald Welzer, Sabine Moller, Karoline Tschuggnall (2002). „Opa war kein Nazi“. Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis, Frankfurt a.M.; Olaf Jensen (2004). Geschichte machen. Strukturmerkmale des intergenerationellen Sprechens über die NS-Vergangenheit in deutschen Familien, Tübingen; Sabine Moller (2003). Vielfache Vergangenheit. Öffentliche Erinnerungskulturen und Familienerinnerungen an die NS-Zeit in Ostdeutschland, Tübingen.

[3] Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung (Hrsg.)(1996). Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-1944. Ausstellungskatalog. Hamburg.

[4] Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung (Hrsg.)(2002). Verbrechen der Wehrmacht. Dimensionen des Vernichtungskrieges 1941-1944. Ausstellungskatalog. Hamburg.

[5] Browning, Christopher R. (1993) Ordinary men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland, New York.

[6] Norbert Frei (2005). 1945 und wir, München,  p. 38f.

[7] Spiegel Special, ‘Die Flucht der Deutschen’, 2002 (2); Guido Knopp, ‘Die große Flucht’, ZDF 2002;

[8] As an overview see: Harald Welzer (2004). ‘Schön unscharf. Über die Konjunktur der Familien- und Generationenromane’. Mittelweg 36, 13, 53-64.

[9] Walser was a member of the „Gruppe 47“, with Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll.

[10] Martin Walser, ‘Erfahrungen beim Verfassen einer Sonntagsrede’ (11 October 1998), in: Schirrmacher, Frank (Hrsg.), Die Walser-Bubis-Debatte. Eine Dokumentation, Frankfurt am Main 1999, p. 7-17.

[11] Frank Schirrmacher (Hrsg.): Die Walser-Bubis-Debatte. Eine Dokumentation, Frankfurt am Main 1999

[12] Robert G. Moeller, War Stories; Norbert Frei, Vergangenheitspolitik; Norbert Frei (2005). 1945 und wir. Das Dritte Reich im Bewußtsein der Deutschen, München: C.H. Beck.

[13] Walser quoted in A. Assmann (2001). ‘Wie wahr sind Erinnerungen?’ In: Harald Welzer (Hg.), Das soziale Gedächtnis, Hamburg, p.116.

[14] A. Assmann (2001), p. 116.

[15] Like the CDU-politician and member of the German „Bundestag“ Friedrich Merz, who referred in a public talk in the city of Brilon (Saarland) positively to his grandfather as his political archetype. A newspaper found out that his grandfather was a very early NSDAP- and SA-member and a mayor in Brilon from 1917 to 1937 (taz, 22.01.2004). In the first responses to the critique he said for example: “As far as I know from my family, my grandfather was an impressive character and a successful mayor”, and “My grandfather was not a National Socialist!” (Berliner Zeitung, 20.01.2004). Later he admitted that he would not support some of the statements his grandfather gave in talks when he was a mayor (taz, 22.02.04).

[16] Welzer et al. (2002), „Opa war kein Nazi“, p.205ff.

[17] R.G. Moeller, War Stories.

[18] Welzer et al. (2002).

[19] Like all qualitative empirical research, the sample is not representative of Germany. It only serves to give some impressions and ideas about how Germans experienced that time and how they communicate their past  privately. After the qualitative research we did a representative survey based on our findings (Emnid 2002) that has mainly proved our qualitative results.

[20] From NS-propaganda-sequences about camps of the “Bund Deutscher Mädel”, tank-attack on of the Soviet Union or amateur-shots of bombed Warzaw, Germans deporting Jews in the Netherlands, a wedding of an SS-soldier or children playing at home with a doll house that has a portrait of Adolf Hitler inside it (Jensen 2004, p. 408).

[21] Olaf Jensen & Harald Welzer (2003). ‘Ein Wort gibt das andere, oder: Selbstreflexivität als Methode.’ Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research (On-line Journal), 4, 2, 58 paragraphs.

[22] See Anselm L. Strauss & Juliet Corbin (1990). Basics of Qualitative Research. Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques. London.

[23] Angela Keppler (1994). Tischgespräche. Über Formen kommunikativer Vergemeinschaftung am Beispiel der Konversation in Familien. Frankfurt a. M..

[24] Welzer et al. (1997). Was wir für böse Menschen sind!“ Tübingen.

[25] This serves only as a rough orientation because the numbers of interviewees in the three generations are not equal (48, 50, 44).

[26] Maurice Halbwachs (1976). Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire;  Erving Goffman (1974). Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience, New York.

[27] Here and in what follows, interviewees’ names are pseudonyms.

[28] The protocol of the interviews tries to show the important parts of the verbal and non-verbal communication: free standing dots marking a pause from one second (.) to three seconds ( . . . ), if the pause is longer than it is displayed in squared brackets [7 sec.]. Other remarks or hints are also written in squared brackets [laughter] and if it lasts longer, the end is marked with a [+]. If the speaker is interrupted or interrups himself or herself it is marked by a slash (/), and if a speaker is stepping in while somebody else is speaking it is marked with a double-cross (#).

[29] Thousands of pictures like these where taken by German soldiers and were even sent home by regular mail (Hannes Heer & Klaus Naumann (1995). Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-1944. Hamburg; Ernst Klee, Willi Dreßen & Volker Rieß (1988). « Schöne Zeiten ». Judenmord aus der Sicht der Täter und Gaffer. Frankfurt am Main.)

[30] Welzer et al. (2002), p. 44ff., 56ff.; Jensen (2004), p. 152ff.

[31] See also the paper of my collegue Isabella Matauschek.

[32] The transcript is translated from Dutch into German and then into English, so we cannot really draw too much on details about linguistic features.

[33] Welzer et al. (2002), p. 61ff.;  Jensen (2004), p. 310ff.

[34] Jerome Bruner (1990). Acts of Meaning, Cambridge.

[35] Frederic Bartlett (1995). Remembering. A Study in Experimental And Social Psychology, Cambridge.

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