Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance, by Debarati Sanyal

National histories can shape recollections of atrocities, discovers Robert Eaglestone

August 6, 2015
Review: Memory and Complicity, by Debarati Sanyal

Research on how we understand, remember and represent the Holocaust and other genocides and atrocities has undergone a fascinating turn in recent years. Of course, it is widely accepted that the memory of the Holocaust is shaped by different national histories: France and Poland, for example, have different versions of the Holocaust, shaped by their wartime, the Cold War and contemporary histories. But recent work by critics such as Max Silverman, Bryan Cheyette, Colin Davis and Paul Gilroy, often reflecting on testimonies and accounts written from the end of the Second World War to, say, roughly the early 1970s, have analysed how the memory of the Holocaust is inextricably interwoven with memories of other atrocities and struggles.

These sometimes occluded struggles are often transnational or colonial and can offer more disquieting, complex pictures of the past than, say, that of the heroic Allies liberating Nazi camps: indeed, they often reveal pasts in which those same Allies are involved in illegitimate violence and war crimes. Moreover, it can sometimes seem as if there is competition for what can be remembered, as if different national or ethnic memories and identities must battle for a limited amount of public head space. In contrast, Michael Rothberg, in a study that has focused this critical movement most clearly, suggests a model of “multidirectional memory”, which explores precisely how these communal memories interact: he argues that “far from blocking other historical memories from view in a competitive struggle for recognition, the emergence of Holocaust memory on a global scale has contributed to the articulation of other histories”.

Debarati Sanyal’s Memory and Complicity emerges from these debates. Focused on francophone culture, it is concerned with how the memory of the Holocaust enables other memories of oppression and violence to appear, with the ensuing possibilities, complexities and dangers. Her argument is clearest in her discussion of Alain Resnais’ amazing short documentary Night and Fog from 1955, “the landmark film on the Nazi Genocide in post-war Europe” (which, rightly, cannot be seen via YouTube because the horrors “violate YouTube’s terms and conditions”). Sanyal quotes Resnais’ observation that the film’s “whole point…was Algeria”: it was about the extermination of the European Jews, but also, allegorically, about the vicious French colonial war in Algeria. It strikes a balance between its historical specificity and its wider application, and exactly this sort of balance is one of the themes of this book.

Sanyal also covers other issues that are now well established subjects of enquiry in the field: the tension between the way these traumatic texts both encourage our identification and refuse it, for example. To an extent, Memory and Complicity reveals its origins in a series of articles: the focus of the chapters seems oddly chosen; various ideas, such as “multidirectional memory” are explained repeatedly; her fascinating attempt to deal with the problems of identification appears clearly only in the book’s final pages, where she introduces the idea of “proximity” as a way of “being close” to these memories without illicitly taking them over. And while of course no one can read everything, the range of reading might occasionally be wider. That said, this book marks a constructive intervention in the understanding of francophone Holocaust memory and beyond.

Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought, Royal Holloway, University of London.


Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance
By Debarati Sanyal
Fordham University Press, 352pp, £69.00 and £23.99
ISBN 9780823265473 and 65480
Published 2 March 2015

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