Book Review: Henry Rousso (2016), The Latest Catastrophe. History, the Present, the Contemporary

Magdalena Zolkos, Institute for Social Justice, Australian Catholic University
Henry Rousso (2016), The Latest Catastrophe. History, the Present, the Contemporary
Trans. Jane Marie Todd.

The study of ‘recent past’ within scholarly history has moved from the margins of the discipline to its center. Henry Rousso in The Latest Catastrophe convincingly argues that the emergence of scholarship on the recent past, which he dates to the period between 1950s and 1970s, has raised unprecedented methodological, ethical and political considerations for historians. This is because the shortening of the temporal distance between the historian and the scholarly subject has also meant the elimination of perspectival distance. The contemporary historian is not only acting from a position of the analyst of the past, but also that of a witness who is proximate to, and in a complex relationship with, the analyzed events. What does it mean for the historian to study events that she herself has lived through? Rousso suggests that adopting the time-frame of ‘contemporaneity’ has meant a radical reinvention of historiography in relation to its Greek origins, its driving forces, its paradigms and key assumptions. What is currently undergoing a profound change is the “regime of historicity,” by which Rousso understands the society’s relation to its collective past, and to the culturally-specific processes of historical meaning-making (p.7).

Rousso argues that the emergence of the study of the near past correlates with event-centric approach to history in European scholarship, which takes as its primary point of focus momentous eruptions of violence: wars, revolutions, conflicts, and genocides. Such “explosive event[s]” are further demonstrative of the workings of historical trauma, which in Rousso’s definition stands for a profound tension between the imperative to remember and the collective desire to forget (p.9). For this reason, he argues, “all contemporary history begins with ‘the latest catastrophe’,” in that, literally speaking, the designation of historic events as ‘catastrophic’ has the dual effect of establishing them as both an “upheaval” and an “end” (p.9). This affirms this epistemic model’s allegiance to a discontinuous and fragmented view of history, in contrast to the dominant modern tradition of historiography, which emphasizes the continuity, linearity and progress in/of history.

In his analysis of the work of a German historian Hermann Heimpel, Rousso notes the paradigmatic importance of the Holocaust for the consolidation of the contemporaneous historiographic model. In serving as a ‘model’ example of catastrophic history in European scholarship, the Holocaust undermined the subject-position of a historian as a dispassionate and distant analysis of the past, akin to an “astronomer or a cartographer” (p.30), and has included the heuristic categories of memory, testimony and affect within the field of historical epistemology. In result, Rousso argues, “our own regime of historicity [has become] defined in great part by the difficulty of getting over,” or, to use a psychoanalytic term, of working-through, “the memory of the recent major catastrophes, [and] hence of reestablishing a certain historical continuity of longer duration” (p.12). The expectations, ambitions and identities of scholarly history have changed; no longer (primarily) oriented at questions of legacy, knowledge-production or commemoration, history has become fixated on accomplishing the task or undertaking of moving beyond, and overcoming, the broad social and cultural effects of catastrophe(s). Post-Holocaust history as rupture and as uncertainty interpellates the historian into a position of hypervigilance in regard to the emergence of new forms of political extremism. It also marks a close, though potentially conflictual, relationship between history and law in the framework of post-war tribunals and commissions. The early historical analyses of National Socialism, the war and the Holocaust showed a distinctive “normative dimension” because, at that time, the “most urgent task was to describe the crimes committed before judging them” (p.93).

Another significant historical event for the emergence of contemporary history is the French Revolution, in so far as the act of periodization—or what Michael de Certeau has called historiography’s first gesture, “the gesture of dividing” that separates the present from the past (p.17)—was one of the revolutionaries’ deliberate political goals. The distinction between “a near past and a remote past, between the contemporary period and what preceded it [l’ancien régime], was a demarcation of the Revolution,” but also, “in gradually emancipating itself from the religious tradition, [history] became a […] practice oriented towards understanding otherness […], the settling of a debt toward the dead […]” (pp.21 & 22). By going through the notion of the present time in Greek and Roman antiquity, and that of the ‘eternal present’ in the medieval Europe, as well as the changes in the conceptions of time in the classical period, Rousso subsequently contextualizes the emergence of the concept of contemporaneity through the modern understanding of “a present time of the past” (p.30, emphasis in the original). The importance of the French Revolution for Rousso’s argument, however, is not limited to the deliberate political acts of demarcation of the new era, but also relates to the discourse of trauma—the revolution causes in France (and in Europe more broadly) a shock and a cultural upheaval. It is followed by a collective emotional reaction to an unthinkable and terrifying aversive event, characterized by a combination of paradoxical responses: their intense re-living, the subject’s hypervigilance, and the desire to forget or deny their occurrence, or to prevent their re-occurrence.

Next, Rousso turns attention to World War I and the cultural significance of the occurrences and events in Europe that followed it—the Bolshevik Revolution, Fascism and Nazism—and that “produced the sense that a new fracture in historical continuity had occurred” (p.62). Focusing on European (predominantly French) developments in 20th century historiography, such as the Annales School, Rousso analyzes in detail the role of cultural responses to World War I in the increased historiographic attention to contemporaneity, in the destabilizing of the modern assumptions about objectivity and in the emergence of a more dialogical relationship between the past and the present. What follows is Rousso’s fascinating discussion about the differential effects of World War I and World War II on the study of history in Europe, and the emergence of the study of the recent past as its distinctive sub-field. He summarizes that difference through the concept of a “desynchronized time”—in spite of its suddenness and violence, and its vast traumatic cultural resonances, World War I still produced a shared social experience. That shared experience of the war took as its point of reference veteran narratives of the battlefield and the front by both the soldiers of the Central Powers and of the Entente Powers. In contrast, World War II, which took as its point of reference the “common destiny” of the victims of Nazi “barbarism,” ultimately failed to produce such unified collective perceptions of the war (p.103). Importantly, this has meant that instead of the “idea of contemporaneity [derived from] ignoring [of the] differences of situation,” as in the case of World War I, the cultural experience of World War II has been based on a different kind of ignoring—of the “time that has elapsed” between the war and the post-war generations (p.105, emphasis in the original). Consequently, Rousso argues, what characterizes the current notion of historical contemporaneity is the sense that the “[g]enerations born several decades after the events are asked to consider the memory of that catastrophe as if it had happened yesterday,” and thus they “no longer represent the future of war generations, the hope for a better world for their children; rather, they are thrust headlong into the transmitted and sustained trauma of a catastrophe they did not live through” (p.105).

The one shortcoming of Rousso’s rich and thought-provoking analysis is its primary attention to the Western European (primarily French and German) historiographic developments in the making of its argument about the correlation between the history of the recent past and study of “explosive event[s]” (p.9). Conspicuously absent is a more explicit acknowledgement of the specific cultural location of his analysis, and a reflection on the implications of the necessary omissions and de-prioritization in the making of such argument. I mean here both the lack of consideration of colonial and post-colonial history for French historiography, and the exclusion of other, more marginal, perspectives in the analysis of the World War I and the Holocaust, such as the work of East European historiographers.

Magdalena Zolkos,
Institute for Social Justice, Australian Catholic University