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Commemorating the Holocaust

By Cathy Bergin | Posted 2nd May 2014, 13:20
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Commemorating the Holocaust
The Dilemmas of Remembrance in France and Italy
Rebecca Clifford
Oxford University Press  291pp  £65

This clear-headed study of Holocaust commemoration in France and Italy provides a welcome reflection on the very categories of memory and trauma that have dominated the study of  Holocaust representation. Rebecca Clifford’s insistence on examining the ‘political, cultural and social’ motivations for particular forms of remembrance in France and Italy enables a richly layered work that interrogates the function of commemoration in national myth making. By firmly placing the Cold-War ‘forgetting’ of the Holocaust outside of narratives of trauma and within the realm of postwar political imperatives, the book creates an important space for examining the function of commemoration in the context of the contemporary moment. Holocaust commemoration events in France and Italy are explored as a way of questioning the legitimising function of Resistance narratives during the Cold War and their breaking apart in the 1990s. Moreover, those narratives of resistance and occupation that worked to sever any connection between French and Italian wartime activities and postwar national identity are placed within a framework which reads them not alongside but dialectically related to Holocaust memorialisation. The ambition and execution of such a project is not only laudable but also largely successful in this book.

One theme predominates in this study, that of ‘silence’. Yet Clifford subtly distinguishes between the different types of silence that attend Holocaust memorialisation in the early postwar period. In France the silence imposed upon Jewish victims, whose specific experiences were effectively erased in the rival Gaullist and Communist narratives of wartime Resistance, is not of the same nature as the silence which is often attributed to the traumatised victims of Nazism. As Clifford points out, many survivors wanted to speak of their experience, thus the silence is located in the reluctance to listen. Then there is the silence of the state in relation to the crimes of the Vichy regime and the ‘high level of French autonomy in the creation and implementation of the anti-Jewish policies of the occupation era’. In Italy the brava gente (good people) myth cast Fascism as essentially un-Italian. Clifford points to the almost total silence of the Italian state in relation to all deportees who returned to Italy after 1945. In the cause of forging a narrative of wartime resistance, the existence of ‘victims’ was resolutely unhelpful. Again rival national and Communist narratives of resistance, in which the unwitting Italian population rose up against both Nazis and Fascists, effectively silenced camp survivors, and cast Italians as the rescuers of Jews during the war.

While the book draws attention to how official narratives were contested, particularly in the 1960s, it is the post-Cold War 1990s that Clifford names as the key moment in which the dominance of Resistance memory begins to unravel. The 50th anniversary of the war opened up spaces to contest the dominant narratives within a changing post-Communist Europe. The creation of Holocaust Memorial Day in France in 1993 is presented as the culmination of a variety of concerns about France’s place within contemporary Europe, not least in the light of the rise of the far right and the battle for French identity. Italy’s complex negotiations with its Fascist past also impacted on its particular form of Holocaust commemoration, as did contemporary political anxieties. In both cases Clifford’s stress is on the civil groups that allows for a complex rendering of the politics of commemoration and of the role of Holocaust memorialisation in the forging of a collective identity for the nation. As Clifford states: ‘We would do well to consider, as we examine the origins and institution of these official commemorations, the extent to which they were and are really about the Holocaust at all.’ The book is an extremely well rendered narrative of the deeply complex relationship between past and present in remembering Europe’s genocide. 

Cathy Bergin is a senior lecturer in humanities at the University of Brighton and teaches Holocaust Memory on the Cultural History, Memory and Identity MA.


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