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Why Auschwitz has become the symbol of the century

The Holocaust is the icon of the new therapeutic history, argues Frank Furedi

Many people seem to want us to remember the modern era as the century of the Holocaust. The government has now endorsed the idea of an annual Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain. It seems that the further the Holocaust recedes into history, the bigger news it becomes - and the more removed we are from this terrible tragedy, the more we seem to talk about.

As one whose family was virtually wiped out in Nazi concentration camps, I have mixed feelings about the Holocaust being transformed into a contemporary morality play. I still remember how my father exploded with outrage when he heard a group of scornful Hungarian anti-Semites claim that 'after the war, more Jews came back than went to the camps'. Remembering was important to him, as it is to me. However, today, remembering the Holocaust has been transformed into an official ritual that allows every sanctimonious politician to put their superior moral virtues on public display.

Remembering the Holocaust as the defining moment of the twentieth century also involves a lot of forgetting. The century boasts a formidable record of human creativity. Millions struggled to overcome tyranny, improve their lives and change the world. Sometimes they failed and sometimes they made mistakes. But despite the Holocaust, humanity departs the old century with considerable achievements under its belt. Sadly, we seem to be attracted to the symbol of the Holocaust for the very bad reason that we have lost confidence in the humanist project.

Society today has a very different conception of human behaviour than it did at the beginning of the twentieth century. Important cultural and intellectual voices now suggest that people are not nearly as self-sufficient, capable or resilient as was once believed. Vulnerability is now likely to be seen as the defining feature of the human condition. The victim is no longer simply somebody to be pitied. Instead, victimhood is a prestigious status that many aspire to. The victim has become an object of cultural empathy, serving to affirm the belief that life is subject to forces beyond our control. The newly privileged status of the victim testifies to a shift of emphasis in society's morality. Rather than being judged on one's achievements, one is likely to be defined by what one has suffered.

The model of the individual as a rational actor is in danger of being displaced by a therapeutic framework which insists that human experience is best understood through the prism of emotion. Therapeutic terms like stress, self-esteem and emotional literacy have entered the language, continually highlighting the trauma of simply coping with everyday life. Emotion-based explanations are now used to make sense of problems that might once have been illuminated through socioeconomic or philosophical analysis. A major report on the crisis of the British education system focused on the emotional damage inflicted on poor children by problems in their families and communities, claiming that 'poverty does its worst damage with the emotions of those who live with it'. Academics applying for research grants are far more likely to gain funding for a project on 'unemployment and mental health' than for a proposed study on 'structural unemployment'. It seems that society is far more comfortable in dealing with poverty as a mental health problem than as a social issue. This approach is driven by a widely held assumption that adverse circumstances, even if relatively banal, cause stress, trauma and mental illness.

The shift in emphasis from the social to the therapeutic is particularly striking in deliberations around old social problems such as racism. Whereas in the past critics of racism emphasised the salience of economic inequality, discrimination and violence, today there is a tendency to adopt the therapeutic language of victimisation. A recent study conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation self-consciously sought to win sympathy for victims of racism by playing the therapeutic card, focusing on the 'anger, stress, depression, sleepless nights' they suffered. Here, the idiom of therapy provides a new vocabulary to express an old problem.

So what drives the culture of emotionalism and the consciousness of vulnerability? It appears that at a time of social fluidity and moral uncertainty, the question of belonging is acutely posed. Throughout the Western world, national identities have become problematic - see the tortuous debates about what it means to be British today, or about what constitute core American values. The rise of regional and ethnic movements suggests that traditional national identities no longer inspire people in the same way.

These disorienting developments have been reinforced by the fragmentation of communities, and the continual transformation of family and gender relations. The net result is to create a powerful sense of uncertainty about the individual's place in the contemporary world, forcing more and more people to ask the question, 'where do I belong?'. The trouble is that there are no longer any obvious answers to that question, at either the collective or individual level.

At a time of unprecedented individuation, the outlook of emotionalism allows people to make sense of their lives. The notion that we are all vulnerable helps provide a focus for shared experience. This community of suffering is the foundation for those rare instances of collective solidarity that can make an impact on people's lives today. Some of the biggest public mobilisations of the past decade have involved displays of mourning for individual victims like Princess Diana, or for those who lost their lives in bigger tragedies like the Dunblane massacre or the Oklahoma bombing.

The community of feeling, where we can share in each other's pain, appears to provide a provisional solution to the question of belonging. The very normalcy of suffering allows everybody to share in each other's pain. That is why victim TV and confessional writing have become so pervasive in popular culture. As well as allowing people to feel together, emotionalism also endows those who have suffered with moral status and a sense of identity. Moreover, it is a form of identity that suits the individuated temper of our times.

The consciousness of suffering allows people facing adversity to make sense of their circumstances by dwelling on what has happened to them in the past. A key factor here is the cultural manipulation of memory. There has been a major controversy in relation to what one side characterises as repressed memory syndrome, and the other as false memory syndrome. From the standpoint of sociology, the most interesting aspect of this debate is the very fact that memory itself has become so politicised through the ascendancy of victim culture.

In one sense there is nothing new about the manipulation of memory. The rewriting of history has produced rich mythologies down the centuries. What is distinct about the contemporary politics of memory is that the stakes have been raised. The erosion of individual and collective identities has fostered an unusual interest in the past. Indeed, one of the principal features of victim consciousness today is the privileged status it assigns to the past, which is seen as exercising a decisive influence over the present. The way in which history is now rewritten through the language of emotionalism and therapy marks an important shift in the politics of memory.

During the past two centuries, history has been rewritten primarily to demonstrate the greatness of a particular people or culture. Heroic national myths were used, not simply as sentimental celebrations of the past, but to construct a positive vision of the future. Thus the myth of the American frontier promised a manifest destiny for US society, while British, French and German national myths provided optimistic hopes for the future. Today, the rewriting of history is driven by a very different impulse. The manipulation of collective memory makes no grand claims on the future. On the contrary, memory serves as a monument to a people's historic suffering. In a perceptive contribution on this subject, Ian Buruma has drawn attention to the tendency of many minorities 'to define themselves as historic victims'. This reorientation towards an obsession with past suffering provides a form of collective therapy.

The Holocaust has become the icon for the new therapeutic history. The singular brutality of the Final Solution ensures that those who suffered in the concentration camps are regarded with unmatched reverence. So it is not surprising that Jewish identity has recently been recast around the Holocaust. It is worth noting that many of the actual survivors of the death camps talked very little about their terrible experience. Their dignified self-containment stands in sharp contrast to their children and grandchildren, the so-called second- and third-generation survivors. In recent years, some promoters of second-generation survivor groups have even criticised their parents for bottling up their emotions and refusing to embrace a victim identity. In line with contemporary trends, Israeli identity has been recast around the Holocaust. Zionism, which traditionally promoted an optimistic, modernist vision of the pioneering new Jew, has in recent decades sought to forge a sense of community around an emotional connection with the Holocaust.

The appeal of the Holocaust as a formidable focus for identity formation has attracted the attention of competing groups of claimants. Gay activists insist that their suffering during the Holocaust should be recognised through the construction of monuments and memorials. Others representing gypsies and disabled people have also demanded that their experience of the Holocaust should be officially recognised. 'Sometimes it is as if everyone wants to compete with the Jewish tragedy', observes Buruma. Certainly the language associated with Holocaust discourse - particularly the image of the traumatised survivor - has been appropriated by many seeking to stake a claim to the status associated with emotional suffering. For instance, the nineteenth-century Irish potato famine has been reinterpreted as an abusive experience that continues to traumatise people to this day. The emotional power of the Holocaust has been coopted and transferred to other experiences such as the African-American holocaust, the Bosnian holocaust, the Rwandan holocaust or the Kosovo holocaust. In Germany, anti-abortion campaigners hold forth about a holocaust of fetuses, while animal rights activists denounce the holocaust of seals in Canada.

The demand that past wrongs - some of them centuries old - be put right has acquired momentum in recent years. Those who have accorded a privileged status to suffering find such demands difficult to resist. Saying sorry has allowed public figures both to embrace the victim and to share vicariously in the pain. Politicians have been quick to embrace the ritual of the apology. In Australia, the government organised a National Sorry Day in May 1998, exhorting its citizens to express their sorrow for the injustices inflicted on Aboriginal peoples. A month later, the German government apologised for the 1904 massacre of Africans in Namibia. British prime minister Tony Blair has apologised to the Irish for Britain's role in the suffering that people experienced during the potato famine. And the Vatican has apologised for, among other things, the havoc that the Crusades wreaked on the people of the Middle East.

It is not only national minorities and ethnic groups who demand a public memorial to commemorate past suffering. AIDS activists have sought monuments to those who have suffered from the disease. A British advocacy group, Roadpeace, wants a national memorial for those killed on the roads, whom it describes as the 'unnamed' casualties of a century-long war, 'who have died on the roads since the advent of motor traffic'. Victim advocates have devoted a lot of creativity to inventing memorials. The wearing of a ribbon has become a potent symbol of remembrance, appropriated by countless groups seeking recognition for their cause. Candlelit vigils, shrines and roadside memorials are the artefacts of victim culture.

The politicisation of memory has encouraged individuals to re-examine their own lives. Some have literally invented a personal narrative of victimisation. Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments, a harrowing account of a Jewish childhood destroyed by the Holocaust, was recently exposed as a fake. Wilkomirski was actually a Swiss man, Bruno Grosjean, who had invented his Jewishness and his Holocaust experience (see Mark Pendergrast, 'Holocaust hoax?', LM, March 1999). There have been cases of individuals who have falsely claimed to be AIDS sufferers in order to claim the status of a victim. The American social scientist Carol Tavris has raised some interesting questions about why so many women find their way into sexual survivor groups. She believes that the 'sexual-abuse-victim story crystallizes many of society's anxieties' and therefore 'draws like a magnet those who feel vulnerable and victimised, and who wish to share in society's sympathy'. Clearly the appeal of the victim story goes beyond those claiming to have suffered sexual abuse. A cry for recognition and the desire to belong often finds its focus in victim identity today.

The significance which society now ascribes to emotionalism represents its disappointment with the promise of modernity. It indicts the failure of humanity to control its destiny, and assumes that powerlessness is the natural state of the individual. This trend is manifested through a cultural mistrust of power, control, masculinity and heroism. It is the antihero, the victim and the survivor who serve as the representative icons of our time. Society has become suspicious of experimentation and is less interested in promoting innovation than in immunising itself from failure. Human behaviour is now commonly represented as the outcome of forces which lie beyond the individual's control. One fatalistic legacy of the cult of vulnerability is a growing tendency to interpret people's behaviour as the inevitable outcome of an earlier experience of victimisation, most commonly childhood abuse. It is now routine for defendants in court to blame their actions on past abuses.

The cult of vulnerability removes the stigma of failure from those who have suffered misfortune. Yet in the process, the human impulse to empathise has been transformed into a voyeuristic impulse to claim a stake in other people's pain. Popular culture has risen to the occasion and provides the public with a steady diet of emotionalism. Empathy has turned into a coercive dogma which demands that we behave according to an ethos, one which we might characterise as 'emotional correctness'. Forms of behaviour which do not conform to the emotionalist worldview can be denounced and even punished.

Probably the most destructive legacy of the cult of vulnerability is its impact on human relations. It has helped foster a climate of mistrust within which family relationships, loving relationships and routine relations at work or in school can all be seen as potentially victimising. Demands to protect people from one another on the grounds that they might be bullies, abusers or stalkers have encouraged the modern state to reorganise itself around the ideology of emotionalism. And at a time when people appear to distrust each other more than officialdom, state institutions have steadily expanded their activity into the private sphere. The growth of litigation in Britain and the USA suggests that differences which were in the past resolved informally are now far more likely to be mediated through the law. The conviction that people are unlikely to be able to cope on their own has encouraged the therapeutic intervention of professionals and of the state.

The elevation of powerlessness into a virtue threatens to alter the relationship between the individual and society. Formal intervention into private life continually limits the scope for the exercise of individual autonomy. Worse still, a society that celebrates powerlessness and insists that people need help and emotional support becomes complicit in lowering the expectations of its citizens. A culture that posits mere survival as a laudable end in itself is guilty of wasting people's creative potential.

To end, let us return to the Holocaust. Probably the single decisive event that sensitised me to look more deeply into the cult of vulnerability was a conversation that I had with my 82-year old Jewish-Hungarian mother. After watching a TV programme about second-generation Holocaust victims, she appeared puzzled by the terminology used. She said that she did not realise that she was a victim. Although she is still haunted by her harrowing experience, she did not see or define herself in terms of victimhood. But what really upset her was the intimation that she must be peculiar because, unlike the people in the programme, her entire life had not been defined by the tragedy of the 1940s. 'Maybe there is something wrong with me', she said. Many professional therapists would probably agree and offer the diagnosis of a sick woman in denial. I prefer to see a human being who has demonstrated an admirable capacity to deal with adversity.

To discuss the ideas and issues raised in this article, go to: http://www.informinc.co.uk/interaction$forum/holocaust

Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000

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