Book Review: Antigone’s Ghosts: The Long Legacy of War and Genocide in Five Countries

Mark A. Wolfgram, Antigone’s Ghosts: The Long Legacy of War and Genocide in Five Countries. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2019.

This ambitious interdisciplinary study analyzes five modern-day European and Asian countries whose populaces continue to contend with histories marked by deep civil strife. Analyzing post-WWII Germany and Japan, Francoist Spain, the former Yugoslavia, and modern Turkey, Mark Wolfgram dissects popular discourse, political rhetoric, and the evolving grammar of cultural products to help answer the question of why legacies of civil violence are so hard to overcome.

Excavating Sophocles’ 441 BCE play, Antigone, Wolfgram’s proposed answer takes its cue from literature. Both the play and the case studies, he argues, point to a failure of empathy. Neither side acknowledges their opponent’s loss; instead, a given side will hold fast to its own narratives, denying both mourning and healing for all parties. Though the failure of empathy may ultimately be the product of (self-) censorship or (threats of) violence, Wolfgram suggests that the result is always a literal, metaphorical and multi-generational failure to bury the dead.

A political scientist, Wolfgram precedes his case studies with definitions of the five key “psychological and social-psychological processes” that he finds have impacted the formation of collective memory and narratives in the countries he will reference [7]. For instance, he borrows the concept of “socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting” (SS-RIF) from psychologists to describe how an identity group’s repeated discussion of an atrocity can simultaneously reinforce – and banish – certain details of the event in collective memory. To the five processes he adds eight political variables that shape the climate in which post-conflict collective memory and narratives evolve, ranging from political regime type (democratic or non-democratic) to prevailing kinship systems.

Ultimately, the social-psychological processes and political variables Wolfgram outlines in the Introduction become the central preoccupation of the book. Though he posited a compelling rationale for exploring the politico-literary parallels between modern wars and genocides, and Antigone,  the reader must decide on their own whether the connections between the play and the case studies have been sufficiently developed. Can we extrapolate the conditions and consequences of civil war in Antigone to other types of violence, namely international war or genocide? Indeed, civil war scholars Stathis Kalyvas and Laia Balcells Ventura have suggested that the distinctions between modes of conflicts are too great to be collapsed under one rubric, even if that rubric is the legacy of loss.[1] Perhaps because of this methodological leap Wolfgram’s most persuasive discussion of Antigone is to be found in his chapter on Spain’s civil war and its aftermath, midway through the volume.

Before his discussion of civil war in Spain, however, his case studies of Germany and Japan require him to focus on the failure of empathy in the context of international war. Deciphering the interplay of political contingency and the narrativization of violence in post-WWI East and West Germany, for instance, Wolfgram concludes that a combination of authoritarian rule, economic hardship, and continued oppression at the hands of Russians encouraged East Germans to adopt “ethnocentric narratives of death.” In other words, East German narratives of the war recognized only their own claims to victimization, and disavowed responsibility for perpetration. Meanwhile, for West Germans, the “near ideal conditions of relative prosperity and a stable democracy” formed the conditions under which civil society advocates could begin to demand engagement with the past [69]. With time, more Germans would acknowledge responsibility. Nevertheless, as Wolfgram is at pains to establish, post-reunification Germany’s public discourse remained at odds with private discourse. Despite appearing to accede to demands for accountability, families distanced themselves from the spectral figure of the perpetrator, externalizing blame for German war crimes to an exceptional, anonymous “Nazi” and essentially forgetting (or disappearing) the truth from record.

SS-RIF and the externalization of blame were also rife in post-WWII Japan, Wolfgram finds. In his second case study, he highlights aspects of Japan’s “non-Western” culture which complicate the country’s ability to heal from its trauma. Examples include: an aversion to criticizing the dead, engrained respect for authority, the paramount nature of loyalty to family, and the importance of honor. When combined with political factors – such as a legal system which values harmony over justice, or a civil narrative of state militarism – these cultural predilections encourage selective remembering and forgetting, even in the present day, and displace blame onto state actors long since gone.

In another chapter, Wolfgram also finds that genocide denial is intimately connected to political contingency. He notes that the Ottoman genocide of Armenians occurred precisely at the moment that a dominant political order collapsed (the Ottoman Empire) and a new nation-state was born (Turkey). Turkish administrators externalized blame by casting Armenians as threats to the emergent Turkish nation. They then laid the groundwork for SS-RIF by insisting that their annihilation was a military necessity, and established an ethnocentric narrative of death that focused on the cost of the Ottoman Empire’s death / Turkish state’s birth. Again, highlighting the supposed cultural difference of a “non-Western” nation, Wolfgram gestures to an honor-based Turkish patriarchalism as the culprit for a generational “learned blindness” for Turkey’s bloody origin story [180].

Notwithstanding his brief disclaimer in the Introduction, Wolfgram’s decision to frame the Japanese and Ottoman examples as “non-Western” case studies seems largely unproductive – if not distracting. While cultural norms do indeed provide insight, reifying them as a typology is often misleading. Moreover, relying on epistemologically-weighted concepts such as the Western/non-Western binary does little to enrich our understanding of what were ultimately global sites of conflict.

Elsewhere in his book he seems to understand this; analyzing yet another nexus of global religious and ethnic conflict – the former Yugoslavia – he offers a poignant warning against simplistic narratives. Tracing the recent conflict between Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Albanians to now nearly millennia-old ethno-nationalist conflicts, he cogently guides the reader through a labyrinthine history, revealing the violence of the 1990s to be the product of a palimpsest of memory. Once again, he establishes ethnocentric narratives of death as a powerful and multi-generational weapon.

Wolfgram’s discussion of Francoist Spain, as stated earlier, offers the most well-argued evidence for the role played by the five social-psychological tendencies and eight political variables in the consequential failure of empathy in the wake of political violence. Here, too, he methodically makes the case for 20th-century Spain as a modern-day Thebes. He carefully plumbs the cultural factors (such as Catholic fatalism), political realities (such as censorship and the existence of mass graves) and social-psychological dispositions which posed the greatest obstacles to a mutual acknowledgement of loss, and the possibility of healing. Ultimately, he demonstrates, the profundity of loss, incomplete processes of mourning, the atomization of memory, and an atmosphere of repression reproduced the very threats that proved the undoing of Creon and Antigone’s kingdom.

Antigone’s Ghosts is a useful resource for students and teachers interested in memories and legacies of conflict. Its multi-disciplinary and multi-sited interrogations render it particularly engaging for those interested in comparative methodology and pedagogy.

University of Michigan

[1] See Stathis Kalyvas’ The Logic of Violence in Civil War (2000) and Laia Balcells Ventura’s Rivalry and Revenge: The Politics of Violence During Civil War (2017).