Monday, July 30, 2007

Postmodern Meta-Narratives at Auschwitz-Birkenau (or "History is Messy")

“History” – Margaret Thatcher once famously oversimplified – “is an account of what happened in the past.”

Though I am neither an historian nor a prime minister, I would beg to differ: when it comes to history, there is what happened… and then there is what happened.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau highlights this divide all too clearly. What happened there? On one level, this is not the source of very much debate (Holocaust denial does not find much traction at former death camps): more than one million people were murdered. Full stop. End of story. On another level, however, the “story” - or at least the telling of the story - is still being contested. At issue is not whether the Holocaust actually happened, but rather who gets to write the history of it, who owns its legacy.

Thus, as Auschwitz-Birkenau marks its 60th anniversary as a museum this year, it finds itself at the centre of international debate. In recent months, the museum has made headlines over its dispute with Russia over how many victims of the Holocaust ‘belonged’ to the Soviet Union as well as its official name change from "Auschwitz Concentration Camp" to the slightly less catchy "Auschwitz Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945).”

Awkward as it seems to over-intellectualize the world's most horrific location, it seems the study of the Holocaust has entered the realm of postmodernism. As a society, we cannot agree on a definitive 'account of what happened' because we are presented with competing narratives. Our understanding of the story depends on who's telling it. At present-day Auschwitz, much of the museum is devoted to state-sponsored national pavilions. With the different 'victim' countries given the opportunity to place the camp into their own context, this gets confusing.

To wit, I present you with pieces of text from two separate pavilions I visited last week. The first appeared at the entrance to the Austrian block. It reads:

The Austrian Memorial in the former death camp in Auschwitz was officially opened in March 1978, 40 years after Austria’s Anschluss to the National Socialist German Reich. Its depiction of the years 1938 to 1945 reflects a viewpoint which today is considered too one-sided, and which shows Austria to be simply the “first victim” of the violent expansionist policy of the Nazi regime of terror, whilst not acknowledging the involvement of many Austrians in National Socialist crimes, in particular the Holocaust.

Such a view of history no longer reflects the way present-day Austria understands its past: the recognition of a shared moral responsibility for the involvement of many Austrians in the crimes of National Socialism has led to a much more balanced view of historical events. Such an attitude is also evident in the increased efforts of the Republic of Austria over the last ten years to re-examine the darker episodes in its history.

In tandem of this changed view of its National Socialist past a new approach to commemorating bygone events has emerged in Austria, the central focus of which is to remember the victims of the Nazi regime, especially the victims of the Holocaust and other victims of Nazism.

This changed perspective of how the country views the years of National Socialism will now find similar expression in a new design concept for the Austrian Memorial, which is now being developed.

Bold move, Austria! They may as well have posted a sign saying: “Warning: please do not believe the Austrian propaganda you are about to see.” Austria, it seems, at least recognizes that historical narratives are not monolithic – they are open to debate and discussion. Moreover, it is willing to admit that it may have been too one-sided the past.

In contrast, consider this bit of text from the Polish pavilion:

Except for a few depraved individuals, no official political or social elements nor the Polish people let themselves be drawn into collaboration with the Nazi occupier.

Really? NO Polish people? In fairness, this too is from a visibly outdated exhibit. This is a communist-era hard line that is not shared by most of the Poles I have met today. Still, it is a bit troubling. Half of the visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau today are Poles – many of them (disturbingly) are young schoolchildren – who invariably will visit this pavilion. Like schoolchildren anywhere in the world, they will learn a version of history that is informed – perhaps even biased – by their national perspective. But in this case, it is troubling to see a site like Auschwitz – a site which raises so many complicated questions – being used as a forum for offering simple answers.

Attempts like this to categorize the good and the bad into distinct compartments surely don’t work in understanding history today. History is just too messy – and that, to me, is why it is interesting. Victims, perpetrators and bystanders cannot be objectively assigned or rationally quantified. This is okay. After all, isn’t modernist black-and-white thinking what leads to the extreme positions like those that created Auschwitz in the first place?

We should be comfortable with going to a site like Auschwitz-Birkenau – or any museum – and not getting all of the answers handed to us. I’ve visited Auschwitz nine times so far, and this is why am able to keep going back.

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