Historiography as a Written Form (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
Crimes against humanity and genocide may be seen as realities distinct from more normal human events, thus requiring a distinctive historiography. Cruelty carried to the point of genocide is abnormal in two ways: It violates moral norms that are central to many ethical and religious traditions, and the vast majority of people do not engage in such actions, or else feel guilt or discomfort if they do. Although continuity undoubtedly exists between normal, everyday human wrong-doing and genocide and crimes against humanity, these acts ought to occasion a special sense of revulsion, for by the deliberate intentions and actions of human beings, they lay waste to entire human worlds and leave ruin in their wake. The same can also be said of systematic and deliberate violations of human rights.
Large-scale atrocity raises peculiar difficulties for historians. First, it tends to wipe out those who know atrocity most intimately: the murdered many. Second, the historian's characteristically literal mode of representation (showing the past "as it actually was") risks representing the victims of atrocity not as human beings but as trodden upon objects. Third, historians face problems with regard to the assessment of atrocity. Characteristically, professional historians hold back from offering moral judgments concerning the events they describe. For example, it would generally be considered irrelevant and a sign of naiveté were a historian to make a negative moral judgment on that episode in the French Revolution whereby revolutionaries forced a group of two hundred alleged counterrevolutionaries, their hands tied behind their backs, onto boats, which they then sank in the Loire. To people concerned with discouraging atrocity in the present, such equanimity may seem misplaced, and yet the historian also has to treat readers as free persons capable of reaching moral judgments on their own.
These problems suggest that there are limits to what historians can do in confronting atrocity. In fact, confronting atrocity is not a task for historians alone, but also involves social scientists, jurists, philosophers, theologians, novelists, poets, and artists, as well as ordinary people. In their responses to atrocity, at least four different modes of approach may be found. One can think of these approaches as falling under the following headings: the investigation and reconstruction of what actually happened; the cultivation of memory and tradition; the creation of aesthetic forms; and ethical, philosophical, and religious reflection.
The historian's deepest emphasis is on investigation and reconstruction. (This is not the only task that historians engage in, but it is the most characteristic.) A classic example is Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews (1961/2003). The historian is joined in the effort of investigation and reconstruction by two close allies, the journalist and the jurist. Each has a distinctive role to play. Hard-working and courageous journalists can bring genocide to light while there is still hope of limiting it. Jurists arrive when the action is over, bringing an element of justice to the scene and assembling a historical record. There is also the peculiarly hybrid institution of the "truth commission," such as the Argentine Commission on the Disappeared, which was established in 1983 and issued its report in 1986, and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 1995 and reported its findings in 2002. Such commissions might be regarded as semi- or quasi-judicial. They lack the punishment powers of a court, but they investigate and report on abuses, as well as provide a forum for victims and their families to give their accounts of what happened, and some offer recommendations on the actions to be taken to prevent a recurrence. The South African TRC also offered amnesty in return for a sincere statement of confession accompanied by full disclosure of what had occurred.
The historian's task is more distanced than that of the journalist, jurist, or truth commissioner. More so than journalists, historians attempt to explore the wider historical context of atrocity. Unlike jurists, who have to make specific decisions regarding guilt or innocence, historians can be open-ended in approaching issues of moral and legal responsibility. Unlike jurists, historians do not have the power to punish. Finally, historians have more time to do their work than jurists, journalists, or truth commissioners, who are usually under pressure to arrive at their conclusions with some measure of speed.
However, confronting atrocity is not simply a matter of conducting an investigation and then writing up the results (or delivering a verdict). Legal and historical investigation may well establish the outlines of what happened, but it can hardly be expected to represent adequately, let alone repair, the hole that large-scale atrocity makes in the moral and human world. Confronting atrocity involves not just establishing what happened, but also coming to terms with what happened. Here is where memory and tradition, the creation of aesthetic forms, and ethical, theological, and religious reflection play their role. Indeed, the history of atrocity cannot be adequately written unless historians, too, take account of the breach that atrocity opens in the world.
Existentially considered, memory, and the testimony that memory generates, stand closest to the actual event of atrocity. When mass slaughter is intended, the survival of one eyewitness comes like a voice from another world, linking a horrible past experience to the present. The historian's word can never match the impact of a witness like Rivka Yoselewska, the sole survivor of a Nazi killing pit near Pinsk in Russia. Because victims' voices tend to be silenced in crimes against humanity and genocide, those voices tend to acquire a value of their own. Transcribed interviews, audiotapes, and videotapes are ways of preserving the testimonies of survivors. In relation to the Holocaust, the collection of such testimonies began in 1944 in Poland, under the auspices of the Central Jewish Historical Commission, and from the 1950s onward it continued on a larger scale at Yad Vashem and elsewhere. As evidence, these testimonies need to be regarded with caution, for eyewitness testimonies are often unreliable. However, the real aim of the continuing collection of testimonies is usually not to provide more evidence. Rather, it is to commemorate what happened and, in so doing, to reaffirm a communal (ethnic or religious) bond. Tradition and commemoration are not history, but to many people they offer a comfort and sense of meaning that history cannot.
Nonetheless, there are limits to the meaning that testimony offers. This is not only because most eyewitnesses of atrocity were themselves shot, gassed, or hacked to death, but also because the immediacy of the experience and the enormity of what happened may exceed what testimony can convey. In short, a special problem exists: speaking about the unspeakable. Here aesthetic formsoetry, novels, painting, sculpture, architecture, film, and even comic books (e.g., Art Spiegelman's Maus [1986, 1991])ffer another way of confronting atrocity. Works like Anatoly Kuznetsov's Babi Yar (1970) and D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel (1981) tell stories that no historian could adequately verify, or imagine fantastic happenings in an attempt to speak the unspeakable. There is also a large genre of Holocaust memoirs, some of which take on, as with Primo Levi's The Periodic Table (1984), an aesthetic distance that makes them all the more powerful as meditations on genocide and humankind. Often the contemplation of mass atrocity leads to an art that is abstract, elliptical, fragmentary, or phantasmagorical, all in the interests of evoking an absence. Thus, one is moved by the only partly reconstructed Neue Synagogue in Berlin, its sanctuary left as a mere broken framework, and by the empty, interminably shunting trains of Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah (1985).
Mass atrocity also raises a philosophical/theological/religious question that can and perhaps must be acknowledged by historianss in the very title of Arno J. Mayer's Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The "Final Solution" in History (1988)ut can hardly be answered by them. The "why?" question evoked here has to do not with issues of causation (which historians are certainly capable of addressing), but with issues of ultimate meaning. The question might best be posed as: On what grounds and to what ultimate end did this evil occur? It is primarily political theorists, philosophers, and theologians who pose this question, whereas social scientists leave it aside (since "evil" is not a category that social science recognizes). Much of the work of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, for example, can be seen as addressing such a question, as is also true of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison (1951), and it is arguably an impulse underlying the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida as well. Closer to historians is Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which actually gives two different answers to the "Why did it happen?" question. One answer is of a type that historians routinely offer: It happened because of anti-Semitism and imperialism. The other answer is ultimate and excluded from "normal" historical and social science discourse: It arose out of radical evil (or out of banal evil, to evoke Arendt's later book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil ).
It is also important to note that the ultimate question is not confined to works of philosophy of theology, but can be asked by ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. When in Tony Kushner's Angels in America (produced as a play in 1993 and as a film in 2003) one such ordinary person asks where God was when the horrors of the twentieth century occurred, precisely this question is being posed. Since Angels in America is about ordinary people getting on with their lives under difficult circumstances, this suggests that, contrary to the hypothesis of the present article, mass atrocity and ordinary life are not so far apart after all.
The historian's primary obligation is to serve as a skilled and disinterested investigator, attentive to the limits imposed on historical assertion by the limits of evidence, able to discern wishful thinking and outright lies among subsequent interpreters, and also attentive to the complexities of human motivation. But one must also note that to offer a reconstruction of past atrocity is to engage in an act that is partly aesthetic in character; that the historian's understanding of the event would be defective without some awareness of how atrocity might fit within wider ethical and human frameworks; and that the historian also needs to take account of the presencer absencef past atrocity within present-day memory and tradition. It is to be regretted that many of the atrocities of the twentieth century were long passed over in silencehether because the surviving communities lacked resources and a voice (as often happened under colonialism), or because the events (as under Soviet communism) were for a long time successfully rationalized as necessary steps on the road to a better future, or because people were simply not interested in knowing.
SEE ALSO Explanation; Political Theory; Sociology of Perpetrators; Sociology of Victims
Courtois, S., et al., eds. (1999). The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, trans. J. Murphy and M. Kramer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Douglas, L. (2001). The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Friedlander, S., ed. (1992). Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "Final Solution." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Glover, J. (1999). Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. London: Jonathan Cape.
Hilberg, R. (2003). The Destruction of the European Jews, 3rd edition. 3 volumes. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Osiel, M. (1997). Mass Atrocity, Collective Memory, and the Law. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Press.