Reasons of State Or Reasons of Memory

First published in The Ecumenist, 1997.


Edward T. Linenthal, Preserving Memory:  The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. New York:  Penguin USA, 1995. $27.95, U.S.A; $36.99, Canada.


Throughout this spring, there have been several solemn commemorations marking the 50 years since the liberation of the Nazi death camps.  In January, contention marked the Polish government’s ceremonies of the Soviet liberation of the most notorious camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Jewish groups contended that Lech Walesa’s government down-played the essential Jewish dimension of the massive suffering and death at Auschwitz.  Serving as President Bill Clinton’s representative, Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tried to impress upon public consciousness the distinction he had long defended that “not all the victims were Jews but all the Jews were victims.” A separate service was held at Auschwitz-Birkenau for Jewish survivors; there Wiesel urged that all present pray to God not to “have mercy for those who created this place.”

Survivors like Wiesel have long feared both an ever-encroaching Holocaust revisionism as well as their own approaching mortality:  Testifiers such as themselves will not be around much longer to dismiss first-hand the obscenities of the neo-Nazi nay-sayers.  From the survivors’ point of view, then, direct attacks on the Holocaust’s historicity only increases the urgency of recent efforts to institutionalize the memory of the Holocaust.  While the remains of the concentration camps themselves have often been pilgrimage sites for international tourists, Jewish communities all over the world — as well as governments in Germany and Poland — have erected monuments and memorials to the victims.  

After years of struggle and debate, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum finally opened in April, 1993 in Washington D.C.  Though it focuses on one of the darkest chapters in human history, the museum and memorial have been well attended since its opening, with over 5 million people (a majority of them non-Jews) visiting in two years.  In Preserving Memory, Edward T. Linenthal, a professor of religious studies at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, narrates the fascinating story of the creation of the  memorial to the victims of the European Holocaust.  Based on extensive interviews with the many key players involved in creating the Museum, he examines the tense and creative interplay between the memory of the European genocide and the dictates of American pluralism, the sensibilities of Jews and those of other ethnic groups, as well as Jewish and Christian advocates of remembrance and U.S. politicians committed to realpolitik.

The Politics of Remembering

Linenthal  begins his study with an overview of the place of Holocaust memory in recent American culture.  He notes, for example, that the emergence of the Holocaust as a formidable public issue in the U.S. coincided with the 1967 Six Day War (9).  He then goes on to explore the politics of representation and the issue of “ownership of the memory” of the Holocaust.  Jimmy Carter began things by appointing the President’s Commission of the Holocaust in 1978, the mission of which was to present recommendations on the how the Holocaust should be remembered in and by the United States.  Linenthal acknowledges that the initiation of the Commission has often been seen as a shrewd manifestation of Washington politics:  By making this initiative, Carter could placate a Jewish constituency made testy by his Mideast policy.

A first political question was the appointment of the chairperson of the Commission.  Elie Wiesel was the person regarded as the best representative; Linenthal quotes former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg that “in addition to [Wiesel’s] identification with the Holocaust, he also would be a ‘non-political’ appointment and virtually free of attack from most sources” (21). At its infancy, this quest to remember was marked by  controversy and disputation. Also, an early debate revolved around who was to serve on the Commission’s Board.  Jewish survivors had an obviously esteemed place but, as news of the project got out, representatives of other ethnic minorities pressed for  the inclusion of their story of suffering.

The President’s Commission delivered a report with their proposals to Carter in 1979.  In an Executive Order that proffered a definition of the Holocaust, Carter referred to 11 million victims, which was a scandal of sorts among some survivors.  Wiesel  was extremely wary of this indiscriminate blending of Jewish and non-Jewish victims.  Linenthal describes how Wiesel and colleague Monroe Freedman wanted to amend the Executive Order in the following way:  “They proposed an alteration of language that would separate Jewish and non-Jewish victims grammatically, by the use of two dashes.  The crucial part of the definition to be used in any executive order or council literature would thus read, ‘six million Jews — and the millions of other Nazi victims in World War II.’  This would, in their view, maintain a link between Jewish and non-Jewish victims but not equate them” (50).  Once the President’s Commission made its proposals — for a memorial, educational center, monument, and national days of remembrance — a United States Holocaust Memorial Council was charged with carrying through the work of designing and building the  memorial.  Noted Christian scholars such as Robert McAfee Brown, Harry James Cargas, and Franklin Littell participated on this council.

One of the most demanding tasks  was reconciling Jewish survivors’ awesome sense of the undertaking — their solemn duty to remember their murdered families and people — with the dictates of American pluralism and politics.  Elie Wiesel’s own sense of the Holocaust was that it is a sacred mystery impossible to understand but which must be remembered, nonetheless.  Many Jews and their allies on the Council wanted to keep the project pure from the profane, tasteless bickering of Washington politics.  For example, survivors were easily and frequently offended by the attempts of Eastern European ethnic spokespersons to claim an equal billing in any prospective Museum, and so resisted honoring the dead of countries that aided and abetted the Nazis in their persecution of Jews.  The survivors were also chagrined by politicians who had to maneuver and respond to the claims — and threats — of these other ethnic constituencies. Throughout, the Council was busy “Americanizing” the Holocaust, in the expression of Michael Berenbaum:  linking the European catastrophe not only with the American monumental landscape on the National Mall but with American ideals and audiences (44).  The Holocaust Memorial would serve, then, as a warning of what could happen if the democratic values cherished by Americans are subverted. Linenthal frequently notes that people on the original Commission and subsequent Council saw one of the functions of the memorial to be a goad to “civic enlightenment” and individual responsibility indispensable to the health of the country, by signaling the dangers of being a bystander.

From the original mandate to the Museum’s opening, the Commission and Council had to wrestle with other  vexing and  volatile issues.  The Council continued to face persistent challenges to the definition of the Holocaust and the centrality of the Jewish experience. For example, Linenthal raises the crucial issue of the fate of Gypsies (or Romani people), stating that the Gypsies “asked the council to extend the boundaries of memory beyond representation in a story shaped by others and to recognize their ‘right’ to appropriate location at the center, alongside Jews, for both, according to the Gypsy argument — one shared by many historians — were primary and unique victims of the Holocaust” (240).  In addition, the Council culled through a variety of architectural designs to select the one that could create the space that could take the tourist and visitor out of Washington, D.C. into another, utterly disturbing world.  Robert McAfee Brown summed up this challenge:  “How are we going to get people to come back and back and back [to the Museum]?  Because the one thing that could be destructive would be that it would be labeled as a horror museum; people would stay away from that” (116).  In addition, the externals of the building had to meet all the criteria  of those agencies given the charge to maintain harmony and decorum among all the buildings on the National Mall.  The council also had to decide how to focus on the closure of the permanent exhibit on the history of the Final Solution: Would the visitor be left aghast at the human capacity for evil, or would she be inspired by a sense of redemption manifested by the birth of the State of Israel?  Throughout, Linenthal expertly illumines the variety of struggles over the boundaries of memory: Who is included, who is excluded,  whose suffering is affirmed, challenged, defended, and honored?

Memory Mobilized

In an compelling concluding chapter on the lessons of mobilizing memory, Linenthal emphasizes that there has been a plurality of ways in which the memory of the Holocaust is invoked.  There is no simple, univocal meaning to be wrenched from the genocide of Europe’s Jews: The “lessons of the Holocaust” reveal varying interpretations and diverse applications.  First, Linenthal explains how Holocaust memory can be burdensome for policymakers when the urgent equation is made between remembrance of the Holocaust with, say, an imperative for state intervention in Bosnia.  Indeed, at the opening ceremonies of the Museum, Elie Wiesel issued a moral appeal to President Clinton to do something to stop the killing of Bosnian innocents.  Furthermore, this lesson from the Holocaust against being a bystander may conflict with other historical lessons, as in a commitment not to risk American lives in a quagmire à la Vietnam.

Second, the dynamic of mobilizing Holocaust memory can be treacherous when it induces in U.S. citizens an amnesiac sense of our own violent and oppressive history.  A frequently made criticism about this project to remember the Holocaust was why wasn’t there an official effort made to remember the genocide of the native Americans or the slavery and suffering of blacks.  Third, Linenthal correctly points out that Holocaust memory can be mobilized by those not simply concerned with people being victimized today or citizens renouncing indifference, but by aspiring perpetrators — state agents who see an inspiring or viable precedent engineered by the Nazis (for example, Salvadoran and Guatemalan military and political figures in the 1980s openly esteemed Hitler and Nazi methods).  Fourth, Linenthal illustrates that Holocaust memory can be mobilized in hopeful ways today when small-town citizens quite consciously remember the Holocaust to side immediately with Jews who are viciously impugned and attacked by right-wing hate groups in Montana.

Preserving Memory is a riveting narrative and analysis of this institutionalization of remembering the Holocaust.  Throughout, Linenthal explicates the political, social, religious, aesthetic, and psychological context that gave rise to such a federal museum.  From a study of this work, one sees that the act of remembering is never neutral, and that whatever lessons derived from a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, they must be embodied in organized action and even resistance to the crimes of state.  This book is an excellent starting point for religious scholars and activists to understand more lucidly the state’s power to colonize such potentially disruptive memory and memory’s power to inspire citizens to challenge unjust government policy. I will offer one example of this tension between memory and the state.

In his acceptance of the Commission’s Report, President Carter offered the following rationale for the importance of  Holocaust remembrance to the United States:  “…we must share the responsibility for not being willing to acknowledge forty years ago that this horrible event was occurring.  Finally, because we are humane people, concerned with the human rights of all peoples, we feel compelled to study the systematic destruction of the Jews so that we may seek to learn how to prevent such enormities from occurring in the future.” At that very time, the Carter “human rights” Administration had a major opportunity “to prevent  such enormities.”  In 1978, his Democratic Administration continued to support  its staunch  ally Indonesia, which was then waging a near genocidal assault on the people of East Timor, half an island and a former Portuguese colony invaded and annexed by Indonesia in 1975-76.  Human rights and church groups have long held that around 200,000 people have died from killings and  starvation since the December 1975 invasion, roughly a third  of the pre-invasion population.  On the U.S. contribution to the destruction of the East Timorese, scholar John G. Taylor comments that “[w]hether they were F1-11 jets, A-4 bombers or Bronco OV-10 from the United States, or Hawk ground-attack planes from Britain, they all met particular military needs at specific moments in the [Indonesian] campaign.  The encirclement and annihilation operation required saturation bombing, hence the A-4 and the Hawk, both supplied in 1978.”  The U.S helped water-down U.N. resolutions opposing Indonesia’s illegalities.  Also, the Western media almost totally ignored the tragic testimony of Timorese refugees who fled to Australia or Portugal.  Unconscionably, then, the West was “silent:” The media and uninformed citizens stood by, and the U.S. government aided and abetted the killers.  The persecution of the East Timorese proceeded smoothly while politicians intoned with grave seriousness the necessity to remember the genocide of European Jews.

The predominance of “reasons of state” over “reasons of memory”  is remarkably clear in this case.  The U.S. government’s official embrace of Holocaust memory was irrelevant to its pursuit of Cold War interests, one result of which has been the sacrifice of the East Timorese people.  Linenthal gives other examples of this pattern  in which the sacred memory of the Holocaust is neutralized by U.S. strategic considerations, concluding that “[c]learly, Holocaust memory was to be taken seriously when it was convenient to do so, and ignored when other priorities intruded” (263).  A related issue in this conflict between memory and power mentioned but not developed at any length by Linenthal is how Holocaust memory in the United States has been mobilized to blunt criticism of the Jewish state, to the grave detriment of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation since 1967.  Israeli politicians have their U.S. intellectual and political counterparts who deploy Holocaust rhetoric to demonize their Palestinian enemies as Hitler’s successors and assure steadfast support for Israeli policies.

Many who worked to give birth to the Memorial Museum have asserted that it should galvanize Americans to responsible citizenship.  It is especially here that  the U.S. churches have a critical role to play in repudiating the kind of indifference or complicity that largely characterized European Christendom, precisely by continuing to monitor and resist U.S. foreign policy driven in defense of multinational profits. Recently, Robert McNamara’s retrospective admission of  U.S. “wrong-doing” in Vietnam has provoked a tremendous debate about U.S. policy in Indochina.   But, as James Young has noted in reference to Holocaust memorials in Germany, the Germans are rare in that they  have been forced over the decades by triumphant, external powers to remember and repent their crimes against the Jews and humanity; there is no such external pressure on the U.S. to remember and repent its crimes against the Vietnamese people.  The responsibility of the churches, then, is to keep up the vigilance and the pressure, as they did against U.S. policy in  Central America during the 1980s, and so to make a prophetic engagement with our victims.  An issue rarely confronted by those engaged in official Holocaust memory is the extent to which the United States government is not merely a “guilty bystander” (as with Bosnia) but  an active perpetrator or complicit ally.

Richard Falk has been one of the most eloquent international legal scholars who has retrieved and applied to contemporary issues the post-war Nuremberg Obligation of citizens to oppose their government when it is engaged in heinous crimes. On this question  of who remembers, and when, how, and why — which is so central to the engaging story narrated by Edward Linenthal — Falk made this perceptive comment several years ago:  “It is certainly a sign of ethical sensitivity or more astutely of political cynicism (the legacy of Bitburg) for American  leaders to visit the carnal [sic] houses of the Holocaust, as George Bush did a few years back, perceptively writing in the Visitors’ Book at Birkenau:  ‘In remembrance lies redemption.’  But truly, to remember the atrocities of others is not redemptive at all.  To visit the diseased survivors of Hiroshima might be redemptive for George Bush, if this occasion of the first atomic attack on a human settlement were then and there acknowledged without qualification as a crime against humanity.”

President Clinton once rightly observed that the Holocaust  should be  “‘ever a sharp thorn in every national memory'” (266). The same ought to be said — but presumably will not be by President Clinton this August — of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the long-standing U.S. support for oppression and repression in Central America. Nevertheless, religious communities should mobilize the memory of the Holocaust precisely to contest U.S. policies, and not solely to denounce Nazi crimes, horrific and unforgettable as they are. Linking the memory of the suffering of the Holocaust victims with the past and present suffering of Japanese, Vietnamese, Timorese, Salvadorans, and Palestinians is the task of an inclusive memory that goes beyond the self-serving rhetoric  of  state power to self-critical solidarity with our victims.

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