Book Review: Abusi di Memoria: Negare, Banalizzare, Sacralizzare la Shoah

Abusi di Memoria: Negare, Banalizzare, Sacralizzare la Shoah, Milano: Bruno Mondadori, 2012
Valentina Pisanty
Reviewed by Daniele Salerno, TraMe Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Cultural Memory and Traumas University of Bologna, Italy

If we could pin point the exact year in which negationism came into the public domain, it would be 1978, the year of both the “Faurrison case” in France and the release of the miniseries Holocaust in the US. According to Valentina Pisanty’s semiotic work Abusi di memoria. Negare, banalizzare, sacralizzare la Shoah, this is neither surprising nor a coincidence: negationism is part of a sort of “narrative competition” for the memory of the Shoah in which the negationists’ very existence, visibility, and access to the mass media depend on the visibility and importance of other competitors (in this case, those who use the memory of the Holocaust for commercial or entertainment purposes). So Holocaust, which marked the entry of memories of the Shoah into global popular culture through its adaptation of entertainment and fictional models, allowed negationists access to the most important and influential newspapers in the world, bringing reaction from politicians and scholars. This suddenly turned negationism from a marginal and almost negligible movement into an academic and political interlocutor.

What Valentina Pisanty describes is a “system” that can be ordered along a continuum that stretches from the sacralisation of the Holocaust memory to its banalisation. Under the ideal category of “sacralisation,” the author gathers all those positions that affirm the “uniqueness” and “unrepresentability” of the event, implying its transcendental character: the memory of the Holocaust becomes, in Todorov’s terminology, a “literal memory” that should not be compared with any other historical experience. Under the category of “banalisation,” the author categorises those positions that reshape narratives of the Shoah for commercial reasons – sometimes even splitting into a grosser trivialisation – or to use them ideologically as a means of comparing different historical events.

Methodologically the author constantly highlights the need to see the memory of the Shoah as a system in which the different actors inter-define mutually, in a sort of paradoxical “supportive controversy”: this represents perhaps the most effective and original contribution to the comprehension of the dynamics related to the memory of the Holocaust, coming from a productive use of a semiotic perspective. Pisanty, in this sense, imagines the public memory of the Holocaust as a chessboard – a foundational metaphor for semiotic studies – on which 2 the position of every piece is understandable only if considered in relation to the position of the other pieces and in which the movement of one of them reshapes the entire game.

After having described the framework and hypothesis in the introduction, the author devotes the following three chapters of the book to each of the three identified abuses, describing their rhetorical devices and their textual and communicative dynamics.

According to Pisanty, negationists use two main strategies to deny the reality of the Holocaust: the dismantling of testimonies, focused in particular on minor details and comprehensible mistakes of the witnesses’ individual memories, and a “technical negationism,” based on pseudo-scientific reports made by experts. Reactions and condemnations of the negationist thesis had the paradoxical effect of “upgrading” negationism to an academic level. This is the case for the manifestos signed at the beginning of the debate by important historians against the denial of the Shoah (for example the one in Le Monde on February 21st 1979, signed by Philippe Ariès, Fernand Braudel, François Furet, Jacques Le Goff and thirty other historians) and the several laws of memory in force in many countries in the world that consider negationism a criminal offence.

In the first case, by directly criticising negationists, historians implicitly accepted them as equal interlocutors, certifying the success of the negationists’ mimetic strategy: disguising their ideas within academic discursive and institutional forms in order to give them apparent scientific validity. In the second case the laws of memory gave negationists the opportunity to represent themselves as victims of censorship and, with the help of important scholars such as Noam Chomsky, they became symbols of the freedom of expression. As Pisanty points out, in so doing negationists succeeded in reserving for themselves an important role in a cultural system that “in rejecting them, accepts them.” Different yet equally dangerous is the contribution that a certain type of revisionism, although not denying the reality of the Shoah, gave to negationism. This is the case of Ernst Nolte’s work: by placing Communism and Nazism on the same level, the Shoah becomes simply a reasonable defensive reaction on the part of the German people to the Bolshevik threat to which Jews, despite defining themselves as “People of God,” were assimilated. This type of revisionism is a form of incorrect comparison between two historical events: the differences between gulags and lagers, class struggle and genocide, Primo Levi and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Communism and Nazism blur, somehow justifying the Shoah as a reaction and 3 an emulation of genocidal methods already used in the past and in other geographical and historical contexts (and in particular in Asia).

According to Pisanty, Nolte’s abuse of memory belongs to the second ideal type: banalisation.

Under this category, the author analyses some inappropriate comparisons between the Shoah and other events and, as in the case of Holocaust, the use of textual models belonging to fiction and entertainment for narrating the memory of the Shoah.

This type of comparison results in a normalisation of the Shoah and in a symbolical elevation of the compared events. Surprisingly, as Pisanty points out, this strategy was first adopted by the Israeli governments within the Arab-Israeli conflict: comparisons between Arafat and Hitler or the use of the expression “new Holocaust” to describe the possibility of an attack from Muslim-majority countries on Israel have been frequent, in particular by Likud.

In these cases the Shoah memory is deprived of its peculiar aspects, becoming a sort of “empty structure,” (p. 88) that can be filled with different and jarring contents: the role of the Nazis can be taken by Israeli, Palestinians, Turks, Kurds, Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, the ultimate intention of the different narrators being to put the other in the role of the Evil and themselves in the role of the Jew/Victim. In this sense the Shoah is used to legitimise different “victim” narratives and for establishing a sort of hierarchy of suffering.

While banalisation is particularly used in the political domain, the use of fictional templates for incorporating Shoah narratives into storylines is typical of the commercial and entertainment domains.

Nuit et brouillard (Resnais 1955), Kapò (Pontecorvo 1959), Portiere di notte (Cavani 1974), Schindler’s list (Spielberg 1993), La vita è bella (Benigni 1997), and obviously Holocaust (1978) are some of the examples analysed by Pisanty (on this topic Pisanty’s work can be a complement to Emiliano Perra’s recent and important work Conflicts of memory. The Reception of Holocaust Films and TV Programmes in Italy, From 1945 to the Present). The debates raised by these movies highlight “the hypersimplification, the spectacularisation and the exploitation of history for commercial use” (p. 66).

4 The main arguments made by sacralisers against this type of banalisation of the Shoah memory can be summarised in two statements: the Shoah cannot be represented, and the Shoah must not be represented. The first objection is in some way technical – what Nazis did to their victims is beyond imagination and no type of representation, in particular fictional, can be realistic and can therefore confuse the audience. The second objection is a moral one: only whoever was there has the right to talk about the Shoah. It is in this shift from “‘you cannot’ to ‘you must not’ that the sacraliser mechanism slips in” (p. 75). Pisanty defines sacralisation as “an ideological device, it does not matter if conscious and deliberate, whose aim is to sever an event – in this case the Shoah – from its specific historical context by simplifying its representation and preserving it from unwanted intrusions with a system of prohibitions [… in some cases] in order to gain a monopoly over the choice of the interpretations and uses to which the memory of this event can give cause” (p. 90).

Within the different sacraliser manifestations, Pisanty analyses in particular the use of the model of theodicy, with the tendency to put the Shoah in a teleological perspective: the extermination of the European Jews, as a punishment, is part of a divine project for the return of the Jews to Palestine, as a reward. The interpretation of the Shoah in these terms very strongly connects the murder of six million Jews to the foundation of Israel: the memory of the Shoah becomes foundational for the Zionist narrative. But from this interpretation comes a series of aberrant consequences: in particular the Nazis would have been the simple means for the realisation of the divine will and the victims would have been martyrs who expressly looked for death in order to redeem the Jewish People.

The book closes analysing this phenomenon, the fusion between the Zionist narrative and the Shoah, which is typical of a part of the Israeli society and politics. In particular the author reconstructs the debate between historians such as Yakira, who affirms the indivisible relation between Zionism, the foundation of the state of Israel and the Shoah, and the post-zionist movement and the so-called “new Israeli historians” who wish to disentangle the Shoah narratives from the foundational narratives of Israel. Pisanty argues that the interpretation of the Shoah as the most important stage in the return of the Jews to the promised land reduces the past and the present to the eternal struggle between Nazi Evil and the Jewish People.

Pisanty’s book has the merit of making clear those aspects that seem confusing by providing the reader with important tools and a perspective – coming from a semiotic methodology – to 5 better understand the debates surrounding the Shoah and the relationship between these debates and the difficult situation in the Middle East.

The author offers suggestions to help combat tendencies that may be part of our own mental habits. How can we combat negationism? In this case the author invites us to follow Vidal Naquet’s thought: do not argue with negationists, but argue about them and avoid turning historical truth into a legal truth. How can we combat and avoid the banaliser tendency? Try putting yourself in the place of the perpetrators, by saying or remembering that ‘I am the racist,’ ‘we were the racists,’ and, in case of the Italian reader, ‘we were the fascists,’ and perpetrators. How can we avoid the sacraliser tendency? Following Todorov’s thought, we should try to build “exemplary memories,” by bringing out the similarities of different historical events that may help build understanding about humanity at large, while always preserving the peculiarities of every personal story and of every historical account.

From these suggestions readers may be able to construct their own criteria for understanding and defining abuses of memory related to the Shoah and other historical events and even to think of narrative strategies for combating dangerous drifts such as negationism. And, maybe more importantly, to analyse their (our) own mental habits regarding the Shoah narratives, becoming aware of their (our) own unconscious or underestimated abuses of memory, which may be small but never innocent.

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