Discourses of Mass Violence in Comparative Perspective

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Talk "Complicity at a Distance: Commemorating Problematic Involvement in Perpetration"

at the CoHLIT-21 Berlin Seminar on German Literature and the Holocaust

ZfL Berlin, 09-10 March 2022

by Juliane Prade-Weiss


complicity image no text

image: breakermaximus/iStock

In the 21st century, literatures from Central and Eastern Europe have been marked by a boom of (documentary) fiction portraying complicity with Nazi perpetration and Soviet or other terror. Since understanding the past serves requirements of the present, the boom prompts the question: Why the interest in past complicities now? My hypothesis is that the texts address convergences between involvements in past acts of mass violence and current forms of participation in wrongdoings of humanitarian, political, ecological, or other natures in neoliberalism. While these issues differ profoundly, they are related in structural and historical terms: Structurally, both present the challenge of forming a nuanced notion of participation, the idea and promise at the heart of democracy, digital media, and consumer capitalism that is highly valued yet poorly conceptualized. Historically, both issues are related since justifications of past involvements have established the terminology, narratives, and heuristics in which terror, repression, and acts of mass violence are subsequently discussed by inscribing them into cultural traditions, thus forming the frame for negotiating current problematic involvements.

The implication of the “now-time” (Benjamin, SW4:395) marking the portrayal of past complicities is ambivalent: Past complicities may be paralleled with current problematic involvements to find models for comprehending issues of the present in cultural memory and/or to understand the genealogy of forms of social interaction. This analytical approach is counteracted by hedonistic, or consoling, approaches, which evoke past complicities to appease the sense that all is not quite well, even after the demise of Nazi and Soviet terror, by drawing attention to how bad things have been, and grant distancing from historical and current involvements.

The talk analyses two prominent alleys of distancing that some texts reproduce, and others reflect: One is a spatio-temporal distancing of the commemorating point of view ‘in the West’ from the portrayed violence in ‘the East’. It is reproduced in Fritsch’s Herzklappen von Johnson & Johnson (2021), which portrays Eastern Europe as a hardly inhabited landscape of transgenerational trauma. The distancing is satirised in Topol’s Chladnou zemí (2009; The Devil’s Workshop, 2013), and reflected critically in the notion of a “traumatic enfilade” in Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (2019; In Memory of Memory, 2021). A second strategy of distancing is to cast the narrator, and readers, as morally and intellectually superior to complicit characters. This moral high ground of the observer is seminal to Menasse’s Dunkelblum (2021), while Jelinek’s Rechnitz (2008, trans. 2015), which negotiates the same historical massacre, questions the role of the audience in the portrayal of complicity with perpetration.