By Mary Rizzo
At the time of its adoption, I hailed the European establishment of 27 January as the official Holocaust Remembrance Day (Day of Memory) as a positive event. I thought it significant that the date chosen coincided with the liberation of Auschwitz by the army of the Soviet Union. It seemed like an opportunity to eliminate the historically false pretext that it was the United States who were those responsible for the liberation of the camps.
In that period, I was doing a great amount of volunteer work for ANED, the Italian Association for Ex-Deportees in Nazi Camps, particularly focussed on the deportation of the political opposition to Fascism. ANED had always dedicated energy to education and to organised commemorations of this little known page in Italian history. ANED enthusiastically embraced the Italian adoption of the Day of Memory.
But, there’s a problem with memory and with the recounting of it – and that is, it’s subsequent spectacularisation. This should be, but rarely is, cause for reflection. The “representation” of something suffices for its existence as a reality. This representation then becomes information, substituting itself in fact, for critical analysis and the narrative assumes the position of the reality. Historical accuracy becomes a secondary consideration.
An example: Roberto Begnini’s “La Vita è Bella” was cause for discussion amongst those who were the actual subject of this film, the Italians deported into Nazi camps. A vibrant discussion evolved regarding the film, and it was in the journal “Il Triangolo Rosso” (The Red Triangle, which was the distinguishing mark that political prisoners in Nazi camps wore). This debate, no longer online in its English translation, is still accessible in Italian here. One of the interventions asked, “Why did Begnini show the Americans as the liberators? We know it was the Soviets”. Good question. If one is to address the film as a work of art alone, with all of the poetic license and liberties that are allowed, one must not at any rate, ignore that what is represented is a historical falsehood, if only for this detail, which sets the seal on the entire experience, since it occupies the final ten minutes. Especially important is this fact since the falsehood will take the place of the authentic event in the minds of the observers. It will become the narrative. The author made an artistic-ethical-political choice in electing the Americans as the heroes of the film, when the true liberators were the soldiers of the Red Army. Yet, after the Second World War, in the eyes of the West, the Soviet Union was equated with oppression, being the “Evil Empire” in counterposition to the United States, which also assumed the role as a sort of protector of Europe from the Red Menace.
It was important, evidently, to grant intellectual credence to this patently false construct that the Soviet Union had little to no connection to the physical liberation of the camps and the defeat of the Third Reich in general. In this product of mass production intended for an international audience, well beyond the “art houses” that he was shown in prior to this film, Begnini plays into all of this as if he were on the payroll of a Hollywood producer who was just (as usual) promoting the American message. Well, Begnini DID win an Oscar and was nominated in categories that never before had been opened to foreign language films, so he and his producers were well aware that this film had to be appetising to Hollywood, but especially to the American public, which was ready for a tragicomic representation of the concentration camps, but not for the depiction of the Soviets as the saviours.
But, this film is only one aspect of how celebration or commemoration of a past event is open to “liberal interpretation”, while maintaining the hegemonic line of the superpower. It’s a “work of art”, after all. Everyone is meant to add their own sentiments to it in order for it to register. Everyone is meant to be moved by it. No, everyone is EXPECTED to.
On the occasion of a recent DVD issue of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”, an Italian radio commentator, Luca Sofri, was astounded, shocked and disturbed that there were STILL some people who hadn’t seen or maybe didn’t even care to, this film. He seems to imply that it is some sort of obligatory passage in knowing about the Holocaust, or even in being part of a European country. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a totalistic approach to a work of art, elevating the consumption of it to a moral imperative. Not for Dante or Homer’s Odyssey, which surely have left a deeper mark in Western culture and whose repercussions will continue to be felt for tens of generations to come, but for a Spielberg movie.
It could be that there is an empathy switch which is activated by these works of art on the Holocaust. It has become the social barometre measuring if one is a decent person or not. And, naturally, one must be psychologically disturbed, or at the very least, insensitive, if the knowledge of the atrocities in Europe’s recent history don’t cause empathy, grief and compassion for the victims, as well as rage against those who wrought such violence against them. There is a social obligation to manifest these sentiments. It seems that even knee-jerk empathy will do.
Yet, we have been conditioned by the culture we live in to view the Holocaust as “THE” tragedy. It is the monumental event to which all else must measure up against, yet it never can be permitted to being put on the scale of values. It is beyond that. No other event is given the same weight a priori and a film on say, the Armenian genocide isn’t even meant to be taken into consideration, it is a “marginal event”. Further, we are meant to focus on only the Holocaust with regularity, on a particular cyclical calendar of commemorations. It has to remain in the eternal present. It has to remain the tragedy par excellence.
Guy Debord wrote in “The Society of the Spectacle”, “The construction of a present in which fads and fashion itself, from clothing to singers, has immobilised itself, a present that aims to forget its past and no longer gives the impression of belief in a future. It is obtained thanks to an incessant circular passage of information, which continually returns to a very short list of trivial information, which is always the same, announced with passion as if it was important news: while the news items that really ARE important, on that which is effectively changing, are presented only rarely and for brief instants. These items always regard the condemnation that this world seems to have pronounced against its very existence, the stops on its programmed self-destruction”.
“The original intention of the dominion of the spectacle is to make historical knowledge in general disappear…. The most important thing is the most hidden.”
While the Holocaust itself is surely not “trivial information”, it is treated as such in its commemoration. It is a cultural, mediatic and civic event. In other words, the mass media, the civil society, the schools, the communities and the very social conscience itself is focussed not on reflection of the Holocaust message, and its relevance to today’s world, but on the canonic representation of the Holocaust. Back to Debord, “It is common perception that something which is good is represented, and something is good because it is represented”. It is circular, self-referential and cyclical, and does not allow deviation from its goal: to remain master of the discourse and thus remain within the dominion of thought, overshadowing current events, things that are not (yet) adequately represented, because they are still beyond the power of control of the hegemonic élite.
As Gilad Atzmon writes in his essay Zionism and other Marginal Thoughts, focus on the accepted Holocaust narrative was also an instrument to cast the gaze away from the millions of innocent victims of the atomic devastation the United States wreaked on Japan, the Allied bombing of Dresden, the US invasion of Viet Nam, the Palestinian Nakba, right up to our days when the “Coalition Forces” have created catastrophic humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The hundreds of thousands of innocent lives lost to the US military machine never gain focus in the collective consciences of the Western countries. We’re not supposed to look there. Indiscriminate bombing, embargoes that cause the death of millions of children and collective punishment are not part of the present that must be represented. They are the news items that tell us that some are devastating the world at the expense of others, and the planet itself, but, that news stays hidden, since it is much more important.
It would take a long time to list the news that’s been hidden. But, Americans and Europeans cyclically rebuild an acceptable human conscience every year, as established by a calendar. The significance of this commemoration is of course left to its most narrow interpretation. Not even Political prisoners, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other victims get their space in the Holocaust commemoration. That is because there shouldn’t be any excessive sympathy for those opposing the dominant political regime in their country. That very prospect is dangerous. Nor are the Gypsies deemed worthy of our sympathy, they are a group that is a real mystery, and will remain so. The moral message of “Never Again” still only applies to Jews in the current reading of the Holocaust. It is vital to maintain this as the message, and not some universal “never again” applied to all deported, ethnically cleansed, oppressed and occupied peoples. It could be a dangerous anti-war and anti-Zionist message that is best left avoided at all costs.
I am not endorsing that Europeans forget their past, or that they do not commemorate their victims or celebrate their liberation. I know that this is all part of civic education. Events need to have some meaning and history should definitely be an important part in a collective awareness of a nation or of humanity itself. I do, however, question the motivations and I condemn the result of minimising the evils perpetrated against non-Europeans, and the complicity that Europe has in creating a narrative that glorifies the US, and does not permit space for a constructive analysis of the crimes perpetrated by the West against innocent people.