Presentation Title

The Holocaust, Germany and Coming to Terms with the Past

Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Abstract

In itself the Holocaust was an event of such enormity that it defies normal comprehension. Whatever methods one might typically employ in order to grasp the world, they all wither when weighed against the naked brutality of the murder of so many millions. As the survivor and memoirist Elie Wiesel wrote, "traditional ideas and acquired values, philosophical systems and social theories -- all must be revised in the shadow of Birkenau." Besides the human toll which it exacted, the Holocaust "did enormous harm to ethics by showing how ethical teachings could be overridden, rendered dysfunctional, or even subverted to serve the interests of genocide." Any attempt at coming to terms with its horror must therefore involve the reconstitution of those same ideas, values, philosophical systems and social theories which normally serve as the anchors by which we orient our understanding of the world, but which were left broken in the wake of genocide.

However, as societies change, these same assumptions which underlay the way we perceive the world are apt to change as well. Coming to terms with our past therefore depends upon far more than a practical understanding of the forces which conspired to produce it. It requires that we consider how those forces might interact with our own societies now or in the future. That which stands as a satisfactory conclusion for a particular person or group at a particular time could prove entirely inadequate for others. In her reflections on the intractability of memory, the survivor Ruth Klüger likened our mental spaces to dusty museums, wherein the furniture and exhibits that constitute our understanding of the world must be periodically rearranged so as to maintain perspective when new information or attitudes are introduced.

This presentation will explore the interaction between history and memory and how the two together continue to influence our world through the example of Germany’s own attempts at grappling with an odious national legacy.

Start Date

6-5-2017 5:00 PM

End Date

6-5-2017 5:15 PM

Location

Miller Hall

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May 6th, 5:00 PM May 6th, 5:15 PM

The Holocaust, Germany and Coming to Terms with the Past

Miller Hall

In itself the Holocaust was an event of such enormity that it defies normal comprehension. Whatever methods one might typically employ in order to grasp the world, they all wither when weighed against the naked brutality of the murder of so many millions. As the survivor and memoirist Elie Wiesel wrote, "traditional ideas and acquired values, philosophical systems and social theories -- all must be revised in the shadow of Birkenau." Besides the human toll which it exacted, the Holocaust "did enormous harm to ethics by showing how ethical teachings could be overridden, rendered dysfunctional, or even subverted to serve the interests of genocide." Any attempt at coming to terms with its horror must therefore involve the reconstitution of those same ideas, values, philosophical systems and social theories which normally serve as the anchors by which we orient our understanding of the world, but which were left broken in the wake of genocide.

However, as societies change, these same assumptions which underlay the way we perceive the world are apt to change as well. Coming to terms with our past therefore depends upon far more than a practical understanding of the forces which conspired to produce it. It requires that we consider how those forces might interact with our own societies now or in the future. That which stands as a satisfactory conclusion for a particular person or group at a particular time could prove entirely inadequate for others. In her reflections on the intractability of memory, the survivor Ruth Klüger likened our mental spaces to dusty museums, wherein the furniture and exhibits that constitute our understanding of the world must be periodically rearranged so as to maintain perspective when new information or attitudes are introduced.

This presentation will explore the interaction between history and memory and how the two together continue to influence our world through the example of Germany’s own attempts at grappling with an odious national legacy.