De Welwillenden of het daderperspectief als kritisch instrument. Een analyse door Luc Rasson

Perpetror's perspective in Holocaust representation

Luc Rasson, hoogleraar Franse literatuur aan de Universiteit Antwerpen, gaf op 11 januari 2016 aan de artistieke ploeg van De welwillenden een toelichting bij het daderperspectief in het gelijknamige boek van Jonathan Littell. 

Both the fact that Aue is an executioner and the fact that he is a fictitious character have led to controversy. Representation of the Holocaust is a complex and sensitive discussion that touches the core of post-war Western culture. Writing and speaking about the Holocaust is an ethical question. For many people, so much horror and so much inhumanity exceeds the bounds of language. Moreover, the real witnesses can no longer testify because they did not survive the gas chambers. The only suitable reaction to so much suffering is to remain silent. The German philosopher Adorno famously penned a dictum to that effect in 1949: ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ This is one of the most important sentences written about the Holocaust in modern (art) philosophy, and its impact is incalculable. Adorno later modified his dictum somewhat, but never completely repudiated it. That naturally does not take away the fact that countless books, paintings, films, and so forth have been made about the Holocaust since 1945. The Holocaust has become a theme in modern art, but its unspeakableness still hangs like a shadow over every artistic representation. 

During the first decades after World War II, there was great moral pressure to use historical genres exclusively to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive: memoirs, diaries, the testimony of witnesses and documentaries. Primo Levi made a big impression with his literary assimilation of his confinement in Auschwitz, If This Is a Man (1947), particularly because of his detached manner of writing. The accepted frame for the memory of the Holocaust was ‘never again’, and historical documents were used to situate the Holocaust in the past. This was important, for after all, the people in Europe had to build a new future for themselves.


By the 1980s, the post-war reconstruction had become a fact: the survivors of the Holocaust and World War II had carried on with their lives and Europe was economically prosperous again. The necessity of unequivocally and exclusively placing the Holocaust in the past seemed to be over. Documentaries and memoirs still constituted the biggest share of representations of the Holocaust, but artists were searching for different ways of dealing with the subject in literature and in other forms of art.


A first important moment in this regard was a rising awareness of the phenomenon of traumatically reliving the Holocaust. This phenomenon not only occurred amongst the first generation of victims, but also amongst the second generation. With a traumatic memory, the past is no longer off in the distance like in a normal memory, but experienced directly as if it is happening now. This reliving of the past breaks the familiar, linear time order of past, present and future. The traumatic reliving of a memory imposes itself as a visual experience that cannot be understood or contained within a larger narrative, as is the case with a normal memory. For his nine-hour-long documentary Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann interviewed numerous victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust. He took the survivors back to the historic locations and encouraged each of them to relive their deepest confrontation with the machinery of death of the concentration camps. During that reliving, the survivors came up against the unspeakable nature of their Holocaust experience. Like an archivist, Lanzmann set these interviews side-by-side without attempting to tell the story or history of the Holocaust. This is also why Lanzmann later criticized Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993), because he felt that it represented the Holocaust according to the conventions of realistic fiction.


Another important moment in the ‘alternative’ representation of the Holocaust was the problematizing of historical genres that for decades had been the preferred method of remembering the Holocaust. The French artist Christian Boltanski, for instance, made works of art in the form of archives, monuments, inventories or photo albums. The use of these genres did not keep the Holocaust at a safe, historical distance, however; on the contrary, it was evoked and experienced precisely because the Nazis were experts at using these aids to memory. In other words, Boltanski’s works are a critical reflection on the naïve use of such genres to remember the Holocaust.


A third important moment was the shift from the perspective of the victim to that of the perpetrator. Until the 1990s, paying attention to the perpetrators of the Holocaust was almost taboo. Then the perspective began to shift, perhaps because of a broader social interest in, and curiosity about, the psychology of mass murderers, serial killers and psychopaths. This interest was expressed in countless documentaries, commentaries and Hollywood films. In connection with the Holocaust, however, the perspective of the perpetrator immediately raised a whole series of ethical questions. What value does the executioner’s story have? Does he or she have the right to speak out? When Dutch authors Armando and Sleutelaar published their book of interviews with Dutch SS members in 1967 (!), which let them speak without providing further commentary, it provoked a tremendous amount of indignation. The Kindly Ones can be placed in this school. Another characteristic of this third moment is the use of ‘non-serious’ genres to talk about the Holocaust: the graphic novel Maus (1980-1991) by Art Spiegelman and the concentration camp Lego box by Zbigniew Libera from 1996 are two impressive examples of this. 


It is clear that these works take a different approach to teaching about the Holocaust than the traditional approach does. The traditional method of education is linear, cumulative, progressive and in principle leads to mastery of the studied object. But one might question whether it is possible to acquire mastery of the Holocaust through traditional knowledge. Perhaps artists like Spiegelman, Littell and Libera are examples of a radical new pedagogy in which emotional identification (also with the perpetrator) takes the place of factual knowledge.



From: Erst van Alphen, Schaduw en spel. Herbeleving, historisering en verbeelding van de Holocaust (Shadow and Play: Reliving, Historicizing and Representing the Holocaust), Nai Publishers, Amsterdam, 2004 

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