Book Review: The Moral Witness: Trials and Testimony after Genocide

Carolyn J. Dean, The Moral Witness: Trials and Testimony after Genocide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019.  

“By the end of the twentieth century,” Carolyn Dean writes as her opening sentence, “the ‘witness to genocide’ had become a pervasive icon of suffering humanity” (1). Such witnessing has been imbued with the moral duty to give testimony to collective violence and to the victims of such violence. The witness figure, according to Dean, thus becomes a “moral witness” (1), and her book traces the emergence and development of the moral witness from the 1920s onward. Since the concept of witnessing has received abundant scholarly attention since the 1990s (for example in the works of Annette Wieviorka, Aleida Assman, Dominick LaCapra, Giorgo Agamben, Shoshana Felman, Michal Givone, Dora Apel, Eyal Weizman, Didier Fassin, and Robert Meister), this book is a timely meditation on and analysis of the cultural transformation of the witness figure.

Dean suggests a chronology of four stages of the witness figure in the “Western cultural landscape”:  “the avengers” (1921-1950), “the camp survivor” (1950-1961), “the Holocaust witness” (1961-1990), and finally, from the 1990s to the present, the “global victim and the counterwitness” (176-177). Although real people populate, with one exception, each stage of this chronology, they are employed to serve as illustrations for Dean’s systematization of the witness as “figure,” “icon,” and “symbol” (all three terms are used by the author; all three appear, for example, in one single sentence on page 6). Thus, the book’s genealogical tracing of the witness figure in the twentieth century becomes more of a conceptual than historical work. This approach allows Dean to move freely between genres: investigation of five courtroom trials and micro-analysis of a few court testimonies; review of select academic texts interpreting the Holocaust and (meta-) critical scholarship on the work of the International Criminal Court; the problematics of trauma discourse and an exploration of atrocity photographs. Therein lies the allure of this book but, as we shall see, also its weakness.   

Following the Introduction, The Moral Witness opens with two compelling chapters in which four trials are examined in contextually rich detail: the criminal trials of Tehlirian in Berlin and Schwarzbard in Paris in the 1920s, and two public libel trials of the late 1940s and early 1950s in France by Victor Kravchencko and David Rousset. Though neither of these trials, according to Dean, constituted a “landmark of human rights law” (9) or left a mark in “legal history” (11), they illustrate her thesis that they “laid the groundwork for abstracting from the experience of real victims of mass violence to create a symbolic witness” (13). Tehlirian had assassinated Talaat Pasha in 1921 in Berlin for his responsibility in the Armenian genocide; Schwarzbard shot and killed Symon Petilura in Paris in 1926 for commandeering the 1917 Ukrainian pogrom against Jews. Despite clear evidence of their culpability as assassins, Tehlirian and Schwarzbard were acquitted of murder because they had successfully established themselves as witnesses to unfathomable crimes against their Armenian and Jewish communities. In the case of the French libel cases, Kravchenko and Rousset sued a pro-Soviet French magazine over the existence of the Gulag camps. Kravchenko, a Soviet defector, and Rousset, a former prisoner of Nazi concentration camps, set out to prove Stalin’s crimes in a French court. They successfully used victims of the Soviet system as public witnesses to “confirm and condemn the existence” of Soviet camps (62).       

Chapter 3 turns to the widely covered trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Through insertion of testimonial trial excerpts, Dean traces the making of the figure of the Holocaust witness. The trial’s focus on the role of Jewish victims testifying to the Nazi mass murder (even when their testimony did not involve the defendant directly) turned Holocaust survivors into iconic witnesses of genocide. The chapter ends with short reviews of how Bruno Bettelheim, Robert Jay Lifton, and Terrence Des Pres interpreted the Holocaust; their different assessments, according to Dean, demonstrate the transformation from victim-witness to universalized survivor-witness, the latter of which is assigned the uplifting moral imperative to “bear witness” (130).

The final chapter fasts forward to the late 1990s with the inception and creation of the International Criminal Court. Here, the author moves to another register, that is, “out of the courtroom” (135) and into a more broadly conceived argument about a continuous displacement of victim-witnesses in favor of surrogate humanitarian and activist witnesses speaking on behalf of the real victims. Moving away from descriptively thick, context-specific examples, the chapter turns into a critical review of current literature on the subject of the ICC’s humanitarian turn toward pain alleviation and trauma discourse. It is a sudden content and stylistic shift to a more theoretical argument, in which it is suggested that a faceless and largely voiceless “global victim” as well as critical “counterwitnesses” have emerged in the latest genealogical phase.

In this final chapter, the intellectual force of Dean’s conception of a moral witness – so persuasively demonstrated in real court settings in the earlier chapters – is weakened. By the time she ends this chapter with a 16-page discussion of atrocity photographs (152-168), it is difficult to discern how it advances her overall thesis. Grounded in the relevant literature on Holocaust and atrocity photography, her discussion is interesting in itself, but it seems like a stretch to make it applicable to this book in a meaningful way.

The book’s brief Conclusion consists mostly of two chronological tables that purport to organize the genealogical development of the witness figure. The first consists of three phases, the other of four phases, though it remains unclear what exactly the difference between them is. Perhaps they were meant to bolster a trajectory of moral witnessing that has led to the current “global victim” and “counterwitness,” two terms that remain somewhat unspecified throughout the book. This reviewer searched in vain for a clear definition of and distinction between four recurring labels: global victim, humanitarian, activist, and counterwitness. These four categories are presented as interrelated and appear to be partially overlapping, but short of concrete examples in a public and legal context, they remain devoid of life.

The author mostly seems to agree with scholars who critique the role of humanitarian witnesses in the twenty first century because they speak in international courts and in the public on behalf of the real victims, often in emotionally overwrought terms. This is a fair and valid point, but it does not take into account other interpretive options. The humanitarian kind of witnessing could also, for example, be read as an act of translation – a kind of moral, heuristic, and cultural translation necessary to amplify the voices of victims and survivors in an increasingly globalized and indifferent public sphere.


Northern Arizona University